I promise not to meditate on every single holiday we come across. I’m sure my readers are busy feting fathers today and may not have time to read or comment! But … after church today–in which we celebrated fathers past, present, and future; biological and spiritual–our minister Cara said to me, “You had a pretty special father yourself, didn’t you?” And I had to agree that I did.
My father Abe came from a family that didn’t speak English at home when he was small; he, his parents, and his brother and sister came to the United States from Poland when he was 22 months old.
Abe grew up feeling like an outsider in American culture. He wasn’t a bitter outsider, however; he was a curious outsider. That curiosity garnered him many friends and nurtured his greatest professional strength: his ability to make often unexpected connections between disparate people and ideas.
His family was matriarchal, headed first by his maternal grandmother and upon her death by his mother. So he grew up expecting women to be smart and to run things, an expectation that made him a joy to deal with both at home and in the workplace.
He was fun and funny and gentle and told whimsical stories that delighted adults and children alike. I wish I could say I have figured out how to emulate his charm. It combined humor (which I have) and an ability to talk off the cuff (which heaven knows I have) with something I simply can’t definite or identify or replicate.
Thinking about him also leads me to recall other father figures in my life. There are fewer of these than there were mother figures to conjure up on Mother’s Day; like my father, I grew up in a matriarchy. I was lucky enough to have several wonderful men in my life when I was young, however.
I love to spend time with my mother’s brother Bruce, who just celebrated his 91st birthday with great fanfare. Uncle Bruce loves to play the patriarch, a tendency that occasionally gave me inappropriate giggles when I was younger. Nevertheless, he is a patriarch with an enormous heart. When my mother and I met him for lunch almost exactly a year ago I noticed that she couldn’t help smiling when she looked at him. I know exactly how she felt.
Today I also remember my friend Buddy, who made New York City even more exciting and who honored me by treating me like a second daughter both in the city and in the country. Buddy embodied so much joy and spirit that if my family was stuck entertaining one of my father’s more staid colleagues we’d invite him and his wife Bobbie over as well. With Buddy sitting at the table and at the piano, a boring dinner party was transformed into a festive night to remember.
I think about my neighbor Harrison, who never had any children of his own but who sheltered, informed, and praised all his nieces and nephews (including honorary nieces and nephews like my brother and me). Harry was the only person I have ever known who could whumsle (simultaneous whistling and humming—in harmony!). It was an honor to hear him launch into a chorus of “Happy Birthday” or “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow” on special occasions.
And I smile whenever I think of my Uncle Jack, another honorary uncle. He and my mother decided when they were in their 20s that they must have been siblings separated at a very young age since they were both loud and funny and smart (and both WASPs, unlike their spouses).
Most of all, I think about my grandfathers. My paternal grandfather was a sweet but mysterious figure who unlike my father felt overwhelmed by the matriarchy in which they lived; I can only recall him speaking more than a word or two at Passover, when he read from the Haggadah. Despite his silence we knew he loved us deeply.
My mother’s father was a much louder presence in my life. He was quite elderly by the time I came along and had little patience for small children. He often made the tiny Tinky furious by silencing her with a glance or a few choice words. Nevertheless, he was a warm man at heart.
One day at my grandmother’s house in Vermont the impatience and the warmth intersected.
Some imagined infraction on the part of my brother David, my cousin Tommy, and me launched our grandfather into a tirade. We youngsters retreated from the house into the yard, smoldering with resentment.
We decided that the time had come to assassinate the old man. The boys formulated a plan by which I was to distract Grandpa and lure him to an open area in which they could shoot him with their bow-and-arrow set.
(In retrospect I think I should probably have nixed this plan since as the distracter I was probably in danger from the bows and arrows as well, but my peril wasn’t obvious to me then. In retrospect I also realize that it’s pretty difficult to kill someone with rubber-tipped arrows. But I was only five at the time.)
Before we could put our plan into place, our grandfather called us into the house, gave us big hugs, and reinstated himself in our good graces. We decided to let him live. His rages (and ours) were happily short lived.
This week I once again rejoiced that we spared him. By chance I came across the letter he wrote my mother, his eldest child, on her 21st birthday in 1939. Here is a bit of the advice he shared with his “Punkins”:
Sir Isaac Newton was a dreamer. If he hadn’t been the falling apple wouldn’t have inspired him to think. The trick is to dream and be practical too. The great lawyers, doctors, musicians, teachers, philosophers, for the most part have been great because of their ability to translate their dreams to practical application.
I hope that like my mother I can take these words to heart and combine a romantic spirit with a core of common sense. I’m grateful for the wisdom of my grandfather, my father, and all the nurturing men in my life.
If you have a chance, please remember someone special in the comments below. Happy Father’s Day!
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