Man of Seasons
JOHN RYLKO WAS MANY THINGS TO MANY people. He was the embodiment of charm, athleticism, and talent. So great my father’s achievements, versatile his talents, and enduring his courage, that his light filled the room. People heard about his Olympic medals and the citations for bravery in World War II. They knew the stories of the Polish soldier who escaped the Nazis and saved those who suffered with him. And they idolized his work as a master sculptor. In churches throughout Europe, Canada, and America, his name adorns massive angels and saints chiseled from chunks of wood and stone. To the outside world, he was irresistible.
My father was a Gemini, born under the sign of the twins, good and kind and mean and moody, religious and self-righteous. He had two careers, a skier in the winter and a sculptor in the summer. He cheated on my mother. He was hard as hammers on us, but he also exhibited fragile, almost delicate qualities, a duality that always kept us guessing. People loved him. At five-foot-seven, he seemed so rooted to the ground that the very earth seemed to hold him up higher than the rest of us. When he spoke, his audience leaned into him, bathing in the golden haze of his stories, as if hobnobbing with a hero could redeem their gray and unchallenged lives, as if some part of his charm might rub off on them like lint on a black wool suit.
Clearly, he gathered adoration from friends and acquaintances, but as his family, we never really knew him, not then anyway, not when we lived under the same roof, recycling his war stories.
My father was a hero. We experienced his nostalgia and memories daily even though we were insulated by thousands of miles and more than a dozen years from World War II. By the time John F. Kennedy ran for president, we owned our first television set and Chubby Checkers had invented a new dance called the Twist. For Rick and me, the accounts of Dachau and starvation and torture were from another world. In our world, we threw snowballs, built tree houses, and traipsed through the woods in our Daniel Boone hats. Still, the war became a solid part of our lives, a habit-forming companion at dinner or bedtime, slipping into casual conversation.
“How’d you get that scar on your chin, Daddy?” referring to the three-inch scar underscoring his lower lip.
Dad rested his arms on the table. His shirtsleeves always rolled to the elbows, exposed lean forearms massing into his Popeye the Sailor muscles. “Gestapo. With a rifle, they knocked out my teeth. Bashed me in the face.” He touched the scar. “I lost three teeth in front. Spit them out of my mouth. Drink your milk.” Folding his hands in front of his face, blocking the scar, he stared at his food. His hands were wide and solid, suited to the squarely rooted body of a five-foot-seven inch athlete, but he had the long perfect fingers of a priest, except they were strong and not delicate.
I reached for my milk. “How come you have teeth now, Daddy?”
“The Polish army made me new false teeth. The Germans, they were butchers.”
Rick and I hardly noticed our food, transfixed by the superhero at the head of the table, until my mother intervened. Without looking up from her plate she said, “John, not now, not at the table.”
“Eat.” My father brandished his fork at us. “And be glad that you have food and drink.”
We processed one more unfinished story without a beginning or an end, filling in the blanks with our own imaginations.
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