Writer Holly Millea on how an old baseball photo convinced her father to embrace technology.
For years my father, Roger Millea, a retired urologist, has refused to use a computer. So for his 83rd birthday, I flew to Rapid City, South Dakota, presented him with an iPad, and tutored him against his will in the ways of email and the internet; encouraging him to connect to the modern world and more specifically to me in New York City. In the two years since I’ve yet to receive an email from him.
Eager to agitate him into action, I scanned some photos, attached them to a file, hit “send” and called Dad to talk him through the process of opening them up and downloading them to iPhoto. But first, he had to find that “Mad Pad.” I could hear him over the speakerphone, excavating his room, searching for the thing, which he found in a bottom dresser drawer buried under old tube socks along with a hearing aid he never wears.
Up and running, he clicked through the photos, the years, the memories of being born and raised in Emmetsburg, Iowa, the middle of thirteen children. I knew that his father Bill worked for the Post Office and his mother Mary worked at home, raising their children, but I didn’t know she also loved reading literature — she was a founding member of the Fortnightly Book Club — and writing poetry. “What a great lady she was,” my dad says. “She was the glue that held everything together. And the most outstanding person I’ve ever known.”
Seeing this picture of himself with his big brother Bill in their Emmetsburg baseball uniforms, he remembered how they started playing ball in the 4th grade and never stopped, even after graduating. “Bill was the catcher and I was the 1st baseman,” Dad says. “Emmetsburg had two schools, public and Catholic. We went to the Catholic high school and played three sports: football, basketball and baseball in the spring and it was wonderful because there were a lot of little towns around there within twenty miles. And we always played our games on a school day, so we didn’t have to go to school. We’d take off on a beautiful spring morning and go to one of those little towns and play 9 innings of baseball. It was beautiful. And come summer, Bill was always the engine that got up the teams. For Bill the game was everything.”
For my father it was a way to socialize. “We were warming up for a game one day and Jean Turk and another girl came along,” Dad recalls. “I was standing on 1st base, visiting with them when I heard my brother Bill call out, ‘Are you awake, Sonny?’ as the baseball, which he had thrown, hit me just above the right eye. ‘Pay attention to the game!’ he added for good measure. He was a real character.”
Dad was about fifteen in this photo, Bill a year older. “We were Irish twins, born 15 months apart — we slept in the same bed, of course,” Dad recalls. “That was during the Depression you know. There wasn’t a lot for kids to do then except work and make up games. We depended on one another for entertainment. From the time we were hatched, we were competing with each other. When Bill became an altar boy, I did, too. When he did this or that, I had to do this or that.”
Boys being boys, “We’d spend hours wrestling and abusing one another,” Dad says, fondly. “Bill was always tormenting and teasing me. He had a nickname for everybody, and a string of them for me: Beggar, Louse, Sonny… I only had one nickname for him and that was Bowels. There was only one time I ever got the best of him, and I felt a hell of a lot worse about it than he did. One night my father, mother and Bill and I were playing Chinese checkers, we were 11 or 12 years old. Dad asked, ‘Whose move is it?’ And I said, ‘I think it’s Bowels’ movement.’ It floored Bill and he started to cry. That’s as bad as I’ve felt about anything in my life.” (When I recount this story to my Uncle Mike, their younger brother, he laughs: “Do you know what Bill’s nickname for me was? Stinks!”)
When Dad and Uncle Bill were in high school they spent their summers working on the railroad. “We were working ten hour days,” Dad says. “I’ll never forget one Sunday night we went up to Okoboji amusement park to a dance and we got home and it was quite late, midnight or 12:30. We had to be at work at 7:30 in the morning. So I jumped into bed. Bill was kneeling there saying his prayers. And the next morning I jump out of bed and Bill is still kneeling there, fast asleep. Bill was a very devout Catholic. That was one of the things about him that permeated everything we did. He was extremely compulsive about right and wrong—and he was right. That’s the way it was.” My father sighs heavily. “God, there are so many memories. That was a long time ago. Those were happy days.”
Uncle Bill, who had a long and successful career in the home office at Mutual of Omaha, played softball “in the late afternoons and on weekends until he was at least fifty and probably older than that,” says Dad, who, without the urging of his older brother, retired his glove.
Weeks after reminiscing with my father on the phone, a miracle happened, or rather two. I found out about them when I went on Facebook and checked in on the Millea Family page and read the following post from my cousin Tim Millea, Uncle Bill’s son:
I came here to pass along a note written to my sister Maureen and us by Uncle Roger. As some of you know, our Dad has been suffering from dementia — what the cause is is anyone’s guess — and while he doesn’t remember us too well lately, we still get lots of smiles and laughs from him and he is a joy to be around. That said, recently we had a brief incident where Dad didn’t wake up for a few days that had us all pretty worried. Of course, next thing we knew he was awake, smiling and eating ice cream again, though he is certainly weakening over time. Long story short, that incident prompted an email from Uncle Roger — written in that inimitable Uncle Rog style — that I think is worth sharing ‘as is:’ ’nuff said. Love to all the Millea clan.
On Aug 6, 2012, at 7:12 PM, Roger Millea wrote:
I am saddened by the illness of your father.
Hew tried to raise me to be a useful and prductive citizen.
We played in dozens of baseball games together.
We fought many battles together.
We slept tog,ether for years.
He had nicknames for every one he knew and could be an abrasive asshole but he was all that he was always there when help was needed.
Bill Millea is the prototype of the moral man. I lpove him and know that he has a hig Place in heaven awaiting him. He is indeed one natures noblemen.
You May have noticed that I. Don’t type worth a shit but this the only event Important enough for me to attempt to express myself via computer.
Love to all you, Uncle Roger.*
*Editor’s note: endearingly sic throughout. ♦
This article originally appeared in the June / July 2013 issue of Irish America.