I don’t have a lot of pictures of my mother and father together. Dad was almost always behind the camera, and seldom inclined to smile if that situation changed. I’m trying to find some happier pictures, because birthdays should be happy.
My father would have been 90 today, had he lived to see 2014. A member of The Greatest Generation, he had the classic stoicism of the Marine that he was, and hid his marshmallow center from most of the world. He had a very soft spot for my mom, and spots almost as soft for my sister, my brother, and me. It nearly killed him when my sister died, and it may have, only more slowly than we realized.
Dad taught us about life and honor and living largely, often over the dinner table. He owned a car dealership, and would sometimes step in to close a deal with the smile he never showed the camera. He didn’t fit anyone’s stereotype about men who sell cars, except occasionally with the wardrobe, and besides, it was the 70s. The man’s word was his bond.
I can still hear his voice in my head, often saying, “Take some pride,” whenever I’m tempted to cut a corner or do a just-good-enough job. “You didn’t have time to do it right, but you have time to do it over?” would surely follow what he considered a “half-assed job.”
I was “his doctor, the daughter” because he supported my ambitions and made opportunities into reality for me. He didn’t think I should aspire to marry the doctor, but to be the doctor, and when I wanted to go to college half a continent away, he paid the tuition without flinching. When I had the opportunity to play in Carnegie Hall with a national youth orchestra, he was there, since we both knew it would be the only chance he’d have to see me on that stage. I thought at the time it was because of my playing. What we didn’t know was that three years later, he’d be gone.
Dad died young, and abruptly. He’d had a heart attack months before then, and insisted on driving himself to the hospital. He quit smoking and had lost some weight, but somewhere in there, he’d lost his spirit. He stopped greeting the world each morning with, “It’s another beautiful day.” He stopped by my dorm room to say goodbye while the paramedics were still jumping up and down on his chest.
Naches, or the idea of acting to bring honor to the family, was a strong part of his philosophy, and I’d like to think he’d be proud of me. My career hasn’t worked out along my youthful plans, but close, and with other additions we never talked about as much. He’d hoped I’d marry a Jewish man, which didn’t happen, but one long marriage and two sons later, perhaps he wouldn’t be too disappointed, and might have refrained from pulverizing the shaygetz who dared marry me. My writing career would have come as a surprise to him, as it did to me, but he would pick me up from the library on his way home of a Saturday afternoon without having to inquire where I’d be.
I’ve had more years without Dad than I had with him, but the lessons ran deep, even when I was at my most foolish stages. And I miss him down to my bones.