Thursday, July 30, 2009

Remembering My Father

My father has been on my mind a lot lately, especially now that we’re between the tenth anniversary of his death according to the secular calendar (he died on July 28, 1999) and his tenth yahrtzeit, which falls next Tuesday.

His death came at an impossible time in my life, among other things on the very day the movers were supposed to come to move us from Vancouver to southern California where I had taken a new pulpit. So the summer that year was incredibly packed as it already was—with new jobs for Joan and me, with new schools for the kids, with the sale of a house in one country and the purchase of a different house in another, with disposing of our cars and acquiring new ones, with dealing with the various issues surrounding Joan’s immigration to the States (the children were American citizens all along, even though they hadn’t ever lived here) and with a thousand other details connected with my move into a new stage of life in a new place in a new state in a new country. In other words, it was already a summer filled to overflowing with almost every major stressor life has to offer, almost all of which were present in my personal space in the form of little pieces of paper I was trying not to lose while between homes and shuls and offices: mortgages and contracts and passports and checkbooks and Canadian tax forms and American tax forms and car leases and insurance forms and the thousands of documents connected with emigration and immigration, including an extra ten thousand connected with bringing the dog permanently into the States. And then, unexpectedly and precisely in the middle of it all, my father died.

I somehow fit that into my schedule too. I bought a ticket for New York that same evening. (Joan was at Ramah in California and made her own travel plans.) In the meantime, I tried to organize my life around my new reality. I spent the day gathering up even more pieces of paper to try not to lose track of while I was away. I went to the airport, then wrote the eulogy on the plane, then slept for a couple of hours. When we landed, I went directly from the airport to my father’s bank on Queens Boulevard, where I somehow managed to extract the price of my father’s funeral from an unfriendly teller who could not possibly have been less sympathetic or interested in my story. I then went directly to the funeral home, handed over the cash, put my suit on in the men’s room, reviewed the eulogy and waited for Perry Rank, the rabbi of the Midway Jewish Center and my friend even then of twenty-five years, to arrive and be my rabbi. Soon enough, he appeared, followed by Joan (also directly from the airport), then the rest of my minuscule family and a respectable number of my father’s friends. The service followed, then the burial. I sat shiva in my father’s apartment, sensing strongly that I would never re-enter the space of my own childhood again once I left. As, indeed, I never have.

So, you see, it was all about me. Or at least in the beginning it was. I was the one having the horrific summer. I was the one whose life got put on hold just when things were the most complicated and the most busy. I was the one who had to write his own father’s eulogy out longhand on a pad of yellow paper while flying east to attend his funeral on maybe two hours’ sleep. And I was the one who couldn’t really calm down long enough honestly or openly to grieve in the way I have counseled an uncountable number of other people indispensably to do. It wasn’t my finest moment. But as the years have passed, things have changed. What was once all about me has become decidedly less so, and concomitantly more about my father. When I think back to the summer of 1999, I no longer focus instantly on how busy I was or how pre-occupied or how put upon. Instead, I think about my father, about his life and his legacy, about what it meant and means to me not just generally to have a father but specifically to have had the one I actually did have.

My father—his name was Joseph—was born in Brownsville in February, 1916, and he remained a kind of a Brooklyn guy his whole life. It was a long time ago. World War I was in full force. The Battle of Verdun, which eventually took over 650,000 lives, had just begun. Jackie Gleason and Dinah Shore were born the same week as my Dad. Woodrow Wilson was president. John Purroy Mitchel was mayor of New York. This not being his eulogy, I don’t want to tell the story of his life at length or in detail. But I do want to write on this tenth anniversary of his death about his legacy.

From my father I learned how to be a father. My mother died early on in my life, before I married or had a career or my own family. I learned a lot about parenting from her too, of course—I was in my twenties when she died—but it was primarily from my Dad that I learned how to be a parent, how to give children unstinting support and endless encouragement, how to find that elusive boundary between being tolerant and willing to allow a child to exist on his or her own terms and being complicit in that same child’s poor behavior, how to channel the best qualities of one’s own parents into the lives of one’s children without making that legacy more of a burden than a blessing.

It was also from my dad that I learned the benefit of being endlessly curious about everything, about feeling reasonable about being a lifelong student of everything. Even into his old age, my father was always reading, always listening, always making new friends. When he became less able to get around easily, he simply trained his gaze elsewhere and tried his best to bring the world into his space instead.

I also learned how to be a husband from my father. I suppose most children idealize their parents’ marriages, but I truly do think my parents had a perfect union. In their twenty-eight years of marriage—which seemed like a lot of years when I was younger, now less so—I never heard my father raise his voice to my mother, certainly never heard him ridicule her or speak to her with anything but respect. Even when they disagreed, they did so without raising their voices...and certainly without moving the discussion from the narrow confines of the issue at hand into the larger realm of each other’s personal worth or right to an autonomous opinion. That they loved each other went without saying. But that they were able to translate that love from mere sentiment into the stuff of respectful day-to-day discourse—that is the part that I once took for granted but which now seems to be a truly exceptional detail of their relationship.

And from my father I also learned how to be a friend. My father always had a large coterie of friends surrounding him. Some he knew from Brownsville and never lost touch with and others he met at work. (My father was originally a lumber and millwork salesman, then ended up teaching English at John Adams High School in Ozone Park for many, many years after that.) Still others he came across in different places and recognized as kindred spirits. I tried to organize them into categories as I looked out at them at his funeral—some he knew from the coffee shop on Queens Boulevard he had breakfast in for decades, but others were pool buddies (that’s billiards, not swimming) or newspaper chums. (My father wrote a monthly column for the North Adams Transcript in North Adams, Massachusetts, for years and years.) And still others were people most of us barely notice as we pass them by—in the chapel when I delivered my eulogy were, among others, the salesmen from several shops on Austin Street that my father frequented, the guy who delivered bottled water to my dad’s apartment, a waitress from the aforementioned coffee shop, the mechanic who worked on my father’s car from time to time, and the secretary that worked for the agent who handled my father's car insurance. That was my father’s special gift—the ability not merely to notice people, but to see them as human beings, to want to learn about them and from them, to find friends in people most of us walk by and hardly even notice as we pay them for some service rendered or for some sandwich ordered and eaten.

As the years have passed, I find myself missing my father more and more. Indeed, the more I think carefully about things, the clearer it becomes to me that I am made in his image in more ways than I would have thought possible when I was younger. Whether I am the father he was, or the husband, or the friend—that I won’t attempt to say. But whatever success I have had in those arenas, I owe to the example he set for me. As many of you know, I have almost no family other than Joan and the children—no parents or siblings, no aunts or uncles, fewer than half a dozen cousins I have any contact with at all. But although the ghosts of both my parents are real, if slightly elusive, presences in my life, it’s my father’s voice I hear the most often whispering a word into my ear to guide me forward in a way I might otherwise not be clearheaded enough to see for myself as the right path to take.

We always say that we hope that the dead become posthumous sources of blessing in the lives of those they leave behind, but I suppose we all mean different things by that thought. For me, though, as I prepare for my father’s tenth yahrtzeit, it is the simplest interpretation that is the most compelling: the memory of my parents truly is a blessing in my life and, truly, I have come to feel a thousand times over more blessed for having been raised by my mother and father than I feel cursed for having lost them both.

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