Last Saturday night I watched an incredible movie on TV and had a chance to relive a wonderful childhood memory — the 1973 Triple Crown won by Secretariat. It conjured up so many feelings and memories from that time. During that famous summer, I was just a teenager. My cerebral skills were developing while my emotions about many important parts of life were evolving.
My relationship with my father was a mixed one. He yelled. I listened. He spoke, I kept my mouth shut. When he was finished, I remained quiet. If I spoke up in a persistant manner, I occasionally got smacked. You could say I was afraid to express myself freely. I lived in a house where discipline was the norm while counter-arguing a point was a privilege.
It was a rare occasion where everyone in our house smiled together. Perhaps it was because my parents were so busy and stressed dealing with three other children and sometimes two foster kids. I couldn't imagine handling such responsiblities. Maybe I shouldn't have been so sensitive. Maybe I should have ignored a desire to fulfill my dream — a wonderful relationship with my old man.
I've detailed some of the sorrowful memories of the past in my novels, Everybody's Daughter and Necessary Heartbreak: A Novel of Faith and Forgiveness. While the writing process was therapeutic for me and I found myself on a new path of absolution, the healing process takes time to progress. I'm the first to admit I've failed many times to release the anger and bitterness inside my heart and soul because of our less than satisfactory relationship. And I've concluded my faith was tested and directed in a mistaken fashion. But I'm human. I've made hundreds of mistakes.
But I've found my way and lifted myself out of many days of depression, fits of resentment, and a sometimes careless route. And it's odd perhaps that viewing a movie and taking a walk back in time can propel someone to find peace within one's heart. Usually a trip back to the "glory days" wears away my happiness.
However, the movie, Secretariat, was, for me, a wonderful trip to the past. It follows the incredible story of an owner, surrounded by many naysayers, who shows determination and faith in her horse. Branded as being just a "housewife," Penny Tweedy surged forward and carried her father's dream into the winner's circle on a hot June afternoon in 1973 at Belmont Park in New York.
One can certainly relate to Penny. She had the task of raising four children, yet forged ahead to pursue a vision which many thought was impossible. Perhaps all of us can learn from this story since we're often faced with obstacles and challenges that people around us say we can never overcome.
As I watched, smiled, and cheered on Penny and the victories won by the magical horse, Secretariat, I remembered the day my father and I watched the Belmont Stakes on the big black and white television box in our living room. We were filled with excitement, and we each had a beer — he had a Miller, I had the root kind. A bowl of pretzels and peanuts sat on our worn, wooden table. My father relaxed in his recliner, his feet pinned to the floor in anticipation.
He would tell me a little bit about each horse as they were being introduced on the TV. I listened, not in terror, but with excitement and love. I would nod my head and when he was done, I was allowed to ask questions. And he would reply, giving me more information. It was nirvana.
Our eyes stay glued to the scratchy screen as the race began. Secretariat and Sham busted out to a torrid pace, challenging each other’s will. “Wow,” my father shouted. Then as Chick Anderson said that fabled day, “Secretariat is moving like an incredible machine…” The lead by Big Red jettisoned to over 20 lengths, lifting my father out of his chair. We both stood, in awe. As I watched this magnificent moment as Secretariat flew away from the field, I thought of the many times I had contemplated running away, unable to cope with the emotional strife I faced in that house. But seeing my father smile gave me a feeling of comfort, normalcy of what true family life was. Maybe there was an actual finish line for both of us.
We smiled. We smiled a lot that day in June of 1973. And it was all because of a horse named Secretariat.
I wish we had more days like that in our Richmond Hill home. But, for now, I'll settle for the memory. Yes, I'm living in the ancient times (this is what my kids call it!). However, it's all I've got for now. And it's okay because I've made sure what happened many years ago in Queens wouldn't happen in my home on Long Island.
I hope many of you can make many more memories like the one I had when Secretariat obliterated the field, winning by 31 lengths, and propelling my father out of his cushy chair. He turned to me with a big grin. "What an incredible day, Mike."
It certainly was.
I love you, Dad. Always.
Michael John Sullivan is an author living on Long Island. His latest novel, Everybody's Daughter, was published last month by Fiction Studio Books. His first novel, Necessary Heartbreak, was published by Simon and Schuster in 2010. He can also be reached at michaeljohnsullivan.com.