Friday, June 19, 2015

Remembering My Dad on Father’s Day

  Sunday will be my 21st fatherless Father’s Day. It’s no longer as melancholy as it was the first few years after he died in 1994. As time passes, one prevails over the death of a parent, yet the memory lingers in the heart and in the mind — to the point of nostalgia.                               
  I fondly recall when he took my brother and me to watch our favorite team play at the legendary Yankee Stadium in The Bronx. The first was a night game. I remember anxiously walking out from under the stands and seeing the lush green field, the giant scoreboard and the players warming up in pre-game activities. Up until then, I’d only watched the Yankees in black and white on television. But here they were in living color!
My kid brother, Mark, and I were so awed it wasn’t until the ride home that when we finally thanked him. But I don’t think he needed to hear our words. The utter excitement on our faces and our voices were obvious.
I’ll never forget him huffing and puffing — due to a persistent three-pack-a-day smoking habit that undoubtedly shortened his life — as he ran alongside during my initial attempts on a two-wheeled bicycle. I fell and sustained more than a few scrapes and bruises, but he soothed the pain, first with his words and then as he administered first-aid when we got home.
My father was part of what has been labeled “The Greatest Generation,” raised during the Depression and maturing during World War II. He steadfastly maintained Old World values and customs assimilated from his parents, who came to the U.S. from Russia in the early 19th century.
As society and culture evolved, my father reluctantly accepted change or surrendered established habits. Nonetheless, I have benefited by the positive aspects he passed on that have made me a better person.
Like my mother, my father instilled in me a love for music and movies. His favorites were Al Jolson and Mario Lanza and I came to appreciate them in a small way. He enjoyed movies, especially those with James Cagney, John Garfield and Humphrey Bogart, which encouraged me to explore and relish many “classic” films.
The majority of my father’s peers considered it improper for men to display their sensitive side in public — or even in private. One of the enduring credos of his, and preceding generations, was “real men don’t cry” — regardless of the situation.
However, I saw my father cry a few times. The first was when his mother died. My grandmother was in her mid-eighties, but had been ill for almost as long as I remember. My father was devoted to her, despite her cantankerous manner, which she displayed, until the end.
He shed tears again the day I went into the Army. He showed no emotion when I received my draft notice months earlier, but the day he dropped me off at the induction center in lower Manhattan, he sobbed.
From the time we got into his yellow Checker taxicab in Sheepshead Bay until we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, we barely said a word to one another. My father could be talkative when discussing the Yankees or old movies, but not when it came to his feelings.
He did try to reassure me that this was probably the best thing, uttering the clichéd maxim, “It’ll make a man of you,” a cultural epithet given to many young men entering the service. In retrospect, it seems unusual advice for someone possibly facing death in combat.
As we came off the century-old span, he reached over and firmly touched my hand. I looked at him and saw tears well up in his eyes.
We pulled up to One Whitehall Street and I exited the taxi. He came around to the passenger side and embraced me like never before. He looked at me with tears on his cheek. All he said was, “Be careful,” yet it was much more than straightforward parental concern.
With a slight lump in my throat I turned and walked into the induction center. He drove off to start his workday in the frenzy of Manhattan traffic.
I’ll never know the joy, excitement and sorrow of being a father. But I like to think I would have been as devoted and compassionate as the man who raised me.
Thanks, Dad, for the baseball games and the bats and gloves.
Thanks for the bike riding lessons and the new bicycles.
And thanks, Dad, for those exceptional tears. They reinforced your feelings for me at a time I needed it most.
For the man he was and for everything he gave me, I’m ever grateful.