My Father’s House

By Regina Bartkoff

This is an early old painting of mine from the late 1990s. A tribute to my parents’ house. Liz and Fred. This house was a source of great pride for them, especially my father, who grew up tough on these New York City streets with his mother and two sisters during the Depression. His father had deserted the family when my father was about nine, leaving them to fend for themselves.

My dad started running with street gangs as a teenager. He was very bright so he skipped two grades, but then he got into so much trouble he was left back twice, so he graduated right on time.

My dad was a great raconteur and when I was a teenager, he told me this story:

“I was running with these tough guys, I was about the same age as you today, and one day on the streets one of them said, ‘Hey, Freddie, isn’t that your old man?’”

My dad looked up and saw an outright stinking derelict bum go stumbling by.  It was his father. He sneered, “What are you nuts?” and turned his back. A few years later, his father was dying of alcoholism in a New York City hospital, calling for Freddie. My dad looked at me, and at his strong, weathered hands. “I didn’t know, and I got there too late. I would have gone. How do you like that?” he said shaking his head. “That’s the way it goes.” My dad was a tough guy and was covering a lot of emotion, but I could feel his deep pain still, after all those years. 

Both my parents died when I was in my 30s. When the house was finally sold, a family moved in; husband, wife and three daughters, just like my family, three girls and my mother and father. 

Years ago, while visiting my little sister, who still lived in the neighborhood, I decided to visit the family who was living in my old house. I walked up the front walk and rang their bell. I had a card with me with another painting on it of the house, titled 155-47 100 Street. The lady of the house opened the door, “Yes?” Looking at me curiously. I told her who I was, showing her the card. “Oh yes! We know your sister, come in!” I walked through the old familiar rooms from the living room to the dining room to the kitchen, which was always my mom’s domain. Two of the daughters were there, both sweet and welcoming. 

The lady of the house proceeded to tell me this story:

“You know, your father, Freddie, visited us for a while ‘til he finally left.” I felt a chill. (My Dad had been dead, of course, for years before that.) “Excuse me?” I said faintly.  “Oh, we loved Freddie! Your Dad’s workshop was in the basement, yes?” “Yes,” I said. My Dad was always working down there; carpentry, fixing things, etc.

“Well, when we first moved in tools were constantly being moved around down there, all the time, and I started talking to Freddie. I told him we loved his house and we were taking good care of it.”

She then told me her husband had died a few years back. He was a Vietnam vet and they always had an American flag hanging outside the house. It was actually the first thing I noticed when I visited them. My dad was in the Army during WWII and he was very patriotic. He also always had the flag out front. I told the lady that and she said, “Oh, I know he loved that. My husband used to talk to him all the time, too.” She then said, “After about a year Freddie left us. I think he knew the house was in good hands and it was okay to go.”

I have strange sleep patterns and waking dreams and nightmares all the time, and ‘til this day, often in a dream I know I have to go back to the house to see my parents. It’s always terrifying, but I know I have to go. Charlie sometimes has to wake me when I’m screaming in my sleep. I was the black sheep of the family, often giving my parents a lot of trouble. Hardly a day goes by today that I don’t think of them. Liz and Fred.

My Father’s House is a title from a haunting Bruce Springsteen song that I can relate to, so I gave this piece that title too. Here is link to his beautiful lyrics: