I nicknamed my dad Bubba when I was old enough to talk.
Bubba, a.k.a. Jess DeStefano, was handsome, strong and honorable. He was a police lieutenant who was well known in Shaler for over 37 years. He worked many long hours, even taking on side jobs for extra money, because he had seven kids and my mom was determined to send us all to Catholic school.
I was in second grade at St. Bonaventure School back in the 1960s. We were taught by the Divine Providence nuns, who wore traditional habits and, yes, were legally allowed to whack you with a ruler back in the day. I was a fearful young girl and very insecure.
The sister who taught us was French, and her name in French sounded a lot like “sour onions” — which fit well with her stern demeanor — so the students called her that behind her back. She was strict and demanded assignments on time, or else you were sure to be pointed out to other students for public ridicule.
I was constantly forgetting things as a 7-year-old. The night before something was due, I would call on my mom at 9 p.m., anxiously telling her I had just remembered it. She would scold me and tell me to go to bed. But in the morning, magically, whatever art or science project was due was finished at her hands and waiting for me.
I would proudly show up at school taking full credit for it after her hard, late night of work. It was something to add at confession after admitting to hitting my sister.
But this tale is not about my wonderful mom. It’s about Bubba.
It was Halloween, and once again I had forgotten that I needed an appropriate mask (nothing too scary allowed) and candy to take to school for a class party. When I told her about this the night before, Mom was tired, and she had had enough of my forgetfulness.
I awoke the next morning to find no magic waiting for me. I left for school, knowing that I was in for it. Then I walked into the classroom and saw that everyone had brought a large bag of candy -- and a mask, to boot!
Sister saw that I had nothing and immediately announced to the class that no one was to give me any candy, and I was to sit in the corner for the duration of the party. I tried so hard to hold back tears, and I asked to go to the ladies room. Instead, I went to the office and called my mom, who said she was sorry but she didn’t have a car and couldn’t leave my siblings anyway since Dad was on duty. She said I would have to suck it up. I went back to class dejected.
I made my way back to my designated corner, avoiding my classmates’ glances, and all of a sudden there was a knock on the classroom door. When Sour Onions went to open it, there stood my Bubba, in full uniform, badge and silver hair gleaming. At 6-foot-2, he was a commanding presence, and my classmates all looked in awe at this policeman who filled the doorway.
"Excuse me, Sister,“ Bubba said in his official police voice. ”It seems my daughter forgot something this morning.“
Sister looked sheepish as she pointed to where I sat. Bubba handed me a bag full of Tootsie Rolls and a red-eyed, vicious-looking wolf mask that was probably inappropriate for a Catholic school function. It didn’t matter. My dad was not the creative one — he was simply trying to help his kid out by following my mom’s instructions to pick up candy and a mask at the local Fodi’s market.
I hugged him tightly. As he always did, when he left he said ”Bless ya“ instead of goodbye. Bubba would never attend church, but he would always ask that God bless us until we saw each other again. To this day, we carry on the tradition.
My classmates oohed and ahhed at the spectacle of this impressive policeman making his way out. Sister relented and allowed me to join the party, though no doubt grimacing as I donned my scary wolf mask. That mask couldn’t disguise the pride I felt that day, not just for my mom but for Bubba, my unlikely hero.
The PG Portfolio welcomes “Local Dispatch” submissions and other reader essays, particularly tributes in June to fathers. Send your writing to email@example.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.
Julie Sadowski of Shaler, a former Shaler Area School district administrative assistant, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.