My father was born into an Italian-American family in Greenwich Village in New York City, and his father died when he was quite young. He and his brother had taken odd jobs to help their mother pay the bills, and my dad ended up dropping out of school in the sixth grade. Already as a teenager, he had been attracted by the get rich quick allure of gambling, even if the winnings were just a few pennies in a game of poker.
I never asked my father why he enjoyed betting at the racetrack so much, but when I was in college and accompanied him one afternoon, I figured out the answer. As I saw people dashing over to the window at the last minute to put money down on a sure bet, I realized that gambling held an exciting promise that shot light through the dark drudgery of ordinary life.
The air crackled with anticipation before each race, and as the horses exploded around the track with the crowd cheering, you could feel your heart doing a tap dance in your chest.
The gambler’s fate hung in the air during those moments. If his horse came in and the odds were just right, he might imagine himself leaving the track that day as a rich person. On the flip side, of course, if Lady Luck frowned on him, he might go home with empty pockets.
It was not until I was fully grown that I realized gambling was addictive, because people like my father evidently found it impossible to stop. There was never a sense of closure to gambling. If you went to the track and lost all the money in your pocket, you wanted to make up your losses by placing more bets. If you hit a winning streak, you yearned to double or triple your winnings.
Gambling took its toll on our family. My mother had one simple dream, which she expressed countless times during my childhood: I always wanted to stay home with you girls. But when finances pushed her back into the work world, she had to leave my sister and me with babysitters.
Years later, she told me about standing at the bus stop outside our apartment and hearing us crying, and how she would cringe when people in the crowd made disparaging comments about mothers who neglected their babies.
Some of the babysitters were nice enough, but others, like the ominously named Mrs. Snapper, were short-tempered and mean. When we were very young, my sister and I didn’t understand anything about paying bills or making ends meet. All we knew was that our beloved mom abandoned us to a veritable stranger each morning, and we hated that.
When I was in elementary school, it seemed nearly all my friends had stay-at-home moms who reminded me of the mother on my favorite television show, Father Knows Best. I longed to arrive home after school to discover Mom in her apron and the scent of pot roast permeating the house.
But my mom always seemed tiredwhich was no wonder, since after a day of teaching she had to make dinner, clean up the kitchen, supervise baths and bedtime and pack lunches for the next day.
As a teenager, I concluded that my mother couldn’t have her dream of staying home because my dad didn’t make enough money. While she had a college degree and earned a decent salary as a teacher, my dad always worked at a variety of jobs, which ranged from cab driving to hairdressing to sales.
When I was in my 20’s, I finally put two and two together and discovered that my dad’s paycheck probably would have covered the bills, had he come straight home from work instead of swinging by the track.
Still, I didn’t blame him, because I took my cue from my mom, who rarely complained.
My dad was good looking and charming in the way Italian men can be, and she was a lovely, dark-eyed beauty who adored him. She seemed to accept his gambling in stride, as other women accepted their husbands’ habits of drinking or smoking.
I never talked to my dad about gambling, but I’d like to believe that he longed to walk away from the racetrack with such a gigantic pot of money that my mom could have quit her job and stayed home. Unfortunately, that never happened; my mother worked as a teacher for over 30 years.
My best friend today is a stay-at-home mom, and when I see her spending long stretches of time with her children, reading them stories and playing games, I feel a little tug at my heart.
I will always remember my mom’s dream of staying home with her girls, as I will always remember my dad’s dream of making it big at the racetrack.
It’s really too bad that neither dream came true.