What I learned from my father
August 23, 2020
Posted in Personal
You know how when you are watching a horror film you want to scream don’t go in there as the protagonist is about to open a door because you know some new horror is behind it? That’s how I am feeling about the news today. I don’t want to see whatever horror the Trump administration has tweeted, committed or had revealed. So I thought I’d just write about a childhood memory I was thinking about recently. My father was a working man who we only got to spend time with infrequently on weekdays. Oh he lived with us, but it was over an hour commute to his job. As a building superintendent he had to be the first one in most mornings and he had to take both a bus and subway to get there. So he had to leave earlier than we got up. In fact he would get up extra early to have a quiet hour to0 himself before he had to leave. Once I became a parent I understood why that brief time to yourself was so cherished. He would work all day and return home in the evening after my sister and I had eaten dinner at 6 pm every day (my mother was a stickler for routine.) Each night my mother would make a plate for him when we ate and then reheat his dinner when he finally returned by putting it on a boiling widemouthed pot with the cover on top of the plate. This was long before the days of microwaves and such. For some reason an image of the pot just popped into my mind recently. It was battered, had scorch marks, and we never knew what its original color had been. Sometimes my mother would eat with him, sometimes he ate alone. He usually returned while we were finishing homework, watching television or on late nights preparing for bed. I remember one winter night when a blizzard had shut down all bus traffic, he actually walked from the subway station home, a distance of a few miles. This was before cell phones and such so we had no idea of what was going on. We just waited anxiously as it got later and later. When he finally arrived a relieved wife simply heated up his dinner on that old pot as usual as he explained what had happened and what he had done.
During the last few years of his life he had a couple of heart attacks and had to leave his job. I remember keenly one Saturday morning when I had to drive him into work so he could clear out his locker. He was proud of me because I took the same route he would have to get into midtown Manhattan. To him this meant that the torch had been passed and he had raised me right. On our way back we stopped somewhere and I got him a coffee to drink in the car. I placed it right next to him. After a few minutes he asked me if I had gotten it while it was sitting right next to him. I suddenly realized at that point he couldn’t see out of his left eye. It was one of the saddest days of my life when I realized that this man who had been so strong throughout his life had been reduced by time and illness. I think he eventually regained his sight in that eye, but we never talked about it. I went on with my life eventually got married and I chose him to be my best man. I went away to graduate school in California. I called home every Sunday to talk to my parents. One day when I called home my mother answered, we talked for a while, then I asked to speak to my father. There was a long pause and then my father appeared on the phone. We exchanged pleasantries for a couple of minutes and then he put my mother back on. She paused for a minute and then whispered to me that that was one of the bravest things she had ever seen. Apparently my father wasn’t doing well at that time and had to make a supreme effort to get to the phone, but wanted to speak to his son.
His 58th birthday was in 1975. It fell on a Friday. I thought about calling him for his birthday, but decided that I would wait and talk to him in my usual Sunday phone call. That never happened. On that Saturday I received a phone call from my cousin that he had died from what was at least his fifth heart attack that I knew about. It taught me a lesson that I carry with me to this day. You never know when you will speak to someone for the last time, so never put off speaking to them. My father taught me lessons of steadfastness, responsibility, courage and quiet love that have served me well over my own life. So I remember that pot heating up his dinner. It encapsulated it all.