It’s been 20 years since my father died. Over the past few months, I’ve been writing down stories: what I know about his life and what I remember most vividly, the good and the bad.
A newspaper published a profile of him just after World War II, but that was a flattering human interest story about a returning vet. I thought he deserved a fuller eulogy.
Why devote so many paragraphs to someone who never accomplished great things? That’s an easy question to answer: because every life is fascinating if you look closely. And because the stories are all I have left of him.
About his childhood, I know very little.
He grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when only poor people lived there. His father gave music lessons, among other jobs, but didn’t always earn enough to feed his family.
My grandfather had a German shepherd for a while. Did it bite Dad? I don’t know, but he was terrified of dogs for the rest of his life.
He spent a lot of time with his neighbors, the Abneys, a black family. They took him to see Amateur Night at the Apollo once, in Harlem.
His father beat both him and my grandmother. My father vowed that he would never lay a hand on his wife or his children, and he kept that promise. But his anger came out in other ways. When my parents fought, he snarled at her viciously. It hurts to think about it.
He scored well on an Army intelligence test, and an officer asked if he’d like to be a paratrooper. Dad hesitated, and said, “I don’t think I’d like to jump out of an airplane.” The officer angrily stamped his form, INFANTRY.
He never spoke about his time fighting in Italy. We all understood, without being told, that he didn’t want to talk about the war. I never asked the big question — Did you ever kill anyone? — because I feared it would upset and possibly enrage him. All we know is that he got shot in the hills near Florence and won a Purple Heart. Minutes before it happened, he said to a friend, “This would be a terrible place to get hit. They’d take days to find you.” He was right, or close: they didn’t find him for more than 24 hours. To prevent infection, he took the sulfa pills in his first aid kit — but he took so many that he peed blood.
(A clue to his attitude: in one of the photos of his platoon, half of the men are pointing their rifles at imaginary enemies, playing soldier. My father is in the back row, off to the side, unarmed, not smiling. Gazing elsewhere, he seems to wish he were far away.)
Before and after World War II and through most of the 1960s, he worked at a shop called Muller’s Religious Articles, around the corner from the Woolworth Building in downtown Manhattan. Part of his job was making rosaries. How does a Jewish man end up making rosaries? When he was a teenager, his father sold merchandise from Muller’s door to door in Italian neighborhoods — one of the many ways he earned a few dollars during the Depression — and he asked the store’s owner to hire his son.
The nuns who came into the store were fond of my father. He was a handsome young man, and I’ve always imagined him charming them. When he was wounded in the war, those nuns arranged to have a novena said for him.
In 1946, a reporter from the World-Telegram came to Muller’s to interview him. I have a photocopy of the article framed in my office: Ex-GI Who Once Lost Count of Life In War Now Strings Rosaries: Handsome Vet Back At Old Job, but Hollywood Calls. The reporter wrote: “At one time during the first day Joe held his breath a half-minute while prowling German riflemen stole his watch and ring.”
That scene lived in my imagination throughout my childhood. I saw my father playing dead while enemy soldiers picked at his things. If he’d breathed, they would have killed him. (I wondered, though, if the Germans realized he was alive and figured he would either bleed to death or be sent home: no need to waste more bullets.)
I told friends the story, but it didn’t seem impressive enough, so I embellished. Once the enemy soldiers walked away, I said, he shot them and took back his watch and ring.
(When I was a kid, one way to gain status was to have a war hero for a father. I doubt that boys talk about such things now.)
After the war, Dad got a full-time job at the main post office in downtown Brooklyn, a stately old building that’s still there. He worked the night shift but kept his old job at Muller’s part-time, three days a week.
His job was boxing mail. My mother and sisters helped him study the postal codes for upstate New York, which he needed to know by heart. These were two-digit codes, the precursor of zip codes.
The work was tedious but secure, with good benefits. He was smart enough to do more and once took a course in TV and radio repair, but childhood poverty had made him crave security above all else. Leaving his civil service job would have meant taking a risk. He couldn’t make the leap.
We lived in a garden apartment in eastern Queens. The living room window faced a playing field known as The Oval. (You can see it on a map if you zoom in on the intersection of 260th Street and 74th Avenue.) The Oval is the reason my parents chose that apartment. Touring the new development, my father imagined playing baseball with his son one day on that green field.
I loved him so much — partly because my time with him was so limited, and partly because he was my dad. On weekend mornings, I would wake him up and he would bend his knee so I could slide down his thigh to his belly. Those were some of the happiest moments of my life.
On his days off from Muller’s, before I was old enough for kindergarten, I didn’t want him to leave for the post office. I blocked the front door once, refusing to let him out. “Come on, Mike,” he said, laughing. I understood that he couldn’t stay home — but I sort of meant it.
He used to call us from work every night at 5:30. One day he told me he’d bought something for me at Job Lot, the discount store around the corner from Muller’s. He said it was a Magic Slate.
I thought he’d said, Magic Sleigh, and couldn’t wait. What would it look like? Was it really possible that it could fly?
The next morning, he showed me the Magic Slate. It was a piece of cardboard, about six inches by nine, with an acetate cover sheet that you drew on with a stylus, making dark gray lines on a pale gray background. When you lifted the acetate, the drawing magically disappeared.
I didn’t even try to hide my disappointment. Poor Dad.
One night at work, he heard a car alarm outside. There must have been dozens of cars parked nearby, if not hundreds, but he went out to check and found that the alarm was coming from our car. A bus had hit it. (He always feared the worst. I learned from him to imagine the worst thing that could happen in any situation, and to be ready for it. When I express those thoughts out loud, my wife says, “Okay, Joe.” She considers it pointless pessimism, and maybe that’s a fair assessment. But look: out of all those cars, his was the one howling in the night. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s useful to anticipate potential problems — not to fear them, but to be ready, for example, to catch the glass figurine the visiting toddler is eyeing mischievously.)
The blackout of 1965 began during one of his calls from the post office. The light flickered, and I let out a little noise of surprise. He asked, “What?” and I told him about the light. He said the same thing had happened on his end. A minute later, the lights went out all over the city.
Sometimes, fooling around, he would freeze in theatrical astonishment and say, “Good Gugga Mugga!” (The words rhyme approximately with sugar.) That’s a happy memory because so much of the time he seemed angry or irritated — though never at me.
He used to drive to Canarsie on Sundays to pick up his parents from their housing project — a 40-minute trip each way — and then we went out for Chinese food at Wayne Wong, a restaurant close to our apartment. The waiters wore white jackets. My father always ordered Pepper Steak. (He called it “Peppered Steak.”) He let me have some of his meat every time. I wouldn’t touch the slimy green peppers.
It puzzles me that he was such a loyal son, after the abuse he’d endured in childhood. He never mentioned his father beating him; I only heard about it as an adult, from my sister and my uncle. But he’s not the only person I know who stayed closely bonded to an abusive father.
My mother’s sister had a house on Long Island with an above-ground pool in the backyard, and her siblings would visit each summer with their families. The cousins would swim all afternoon, and then we’d eat dinner at their redwood picnic table: hamburgers, corn on the cob, and apple juice. My father always cut my corn off the cob for me. Forty years later, I did the same for my own children: a small service made sweeter by the knowledge that I was doing what he had done.
Freedomland was the biggest amusement park on the East Coast, a patriotic variant of Disneyland in the northeast corner of the Bronx. I was almost six when it opened and nine when it closed. My father took me there once. All I remember of that day is meeting Sonny Fox, the host of Wonderama, a TV show that filled four hours every Sunday morning with cartoons and games.
Sonny Fox was tall and handsome, with slick dark hair parted on the side. My father spotted him in the distance and led me to him. “Mike, say hello to Sonny Fox,” he said.
Rigid with awe and terror, I couldn’t speak. They didn’t pry a single syllable out of me. My father apologized; Sonny Fox was understanding. (I doubt they had any idea how much they had in common. They were both Jews from Brooklyn who had fought in World War II; my father had been shot, and Sonny Fox had been a P.O.W. What a conversation they could have had!)
When I was eight, my parents bought me a Hercules AMF three-speed English racer at Korvette’s, a discount department store. It was full size, with 26-inch wheels, which meant that I couldn’t reach the pedals — but they weren’t going to buy me a bike I’d outgrow in a couple of years. It cost $25 and had to be assembled at home. While my father followed the instructions, building the bike on our living room carpet, I watched a movie called She Demons, which terrified me. It had voodoo and zombies, and at one point, an evil villain, possibly a witch doctor, was about to stick a long needle in an innocent victim’s eye. I said to my father, “This is boring, let’s change the channel.” Amused, he said, “You’re not scared, are you?” I said, “No, it’s just boring.” I rushed to change the channel before the needle went into the eye.
His vision of playing ball at the Oval became our reality. He had the common fantasy of training his son to play in the major leagues, and I loved the idea. Every Saturday morning, we would cross the street and practice. He pitched to me and I hit. (Who retrieved those balls? The two of us were alone, so I’m not sure how that worked.) Then he would hit to me — fly balls, line drives, grounders — and I would race around catching them, happy as a puppy. I became a good fielder and loved to dive for line drives. But I was afraid of fast grounders, which always seemed to hit a pebble at the last instant and come flying at my face.
As I got older, he hit those grounders harder and lost patience with my fearful ducking. “What are you, ball shy?” he’d say. I grew angrier and angrier. After our practices, I would walk home ten yards in front of him, too furious to be anywhere near him.
Finally, I decided to risk getting smashed in the face, just to show him. That’s how I learned to field grounders. When I told my college roommate the story, I called it the Fear and Rage Method of Baseball Instruction.
He took charge of setting up our pup tent. The canvas was taut as a Marine’s bedsheet. It poured that night, and the tent kept the rain out; we were the only ones who didn’t get soaked. I started to touch the inside of the canvas at one point, and he stopped me. If you touch it, he explained, the rain will come through at that spot.
My father turned out to be right about many things over the years. On that camping trip, the new recruits had to go through a hazing ritual. He took me aside before it began and said, “No matter what they tell you, it’s just pretend.” I told him I understood and went out with the other boys. They led us through the woods, blindfolded, and tried to scare us with various stupid ordeals, like ordering us to bend down so they could pee on our heads. Even if my father hadn’t forewarned me, I would have known that the stream was coming from a water pistol. (My eyes are wet right now, remembering how zealously he tried to protect me from harm, or even from unnecessary fear.)
But he didn’t give my sisters the same kind of attention and affection he gave me. He and my mother were young parents — 20 and 19 when my oldest sister was born — and he worked at two jobs after the war. From my sisters’ point of view, his failings were close to criminal. I look back on my childhood with nostalgia, for the most part, because I basked in the love of both parents and both sisters. But they received less of that nourishing light.
Throughout my childhood, my parents fought. Apparently, he’d been having affairs with other women. (That accounts for some of the harshness of my sisters’ judgment.) They separated when I was 13 and then divorced. My father came into my room one night and lay down next to me to tell me he was leaving. I threw my arm across his belly and said, “I love you.”
He moved out of our apartment, into a small room in the attic of an old woman who lived nearby. I visited him there only once. It hurt to know that he had to live in this bleak space under bare rafters.
Every Saturday morning, he picked me up and took me to do fun things. We went to the airport to watch planes take off and land; to the first McDonald’s in our area; to a series of Shell stations to collect commemorative coins of the presidents. It was a little strange to spend Saturdays with him this way — for my father to pick me up like a visitor and take me out for the day — but I enjoyed our time together. I wonder how it was for him, though: did he worry that I wouldn’t want to be with him if he didn’t indulge my every whim?
Despite the pain of separation, life was easier after he moved out. The constant tension disappeared.
The summer after ninth grade, he took me on a trip to New England. I planned our destinations: the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Green Mountains of Vermont, the Adirondacks, and Ausable Chasm.
We drove straight to northern New Hampshire. As we approached Franconia Notch, I asked, “Are those clouds?” No, he said, those gray shapes up ahead were mountains. I hadn’t expected them to be so tall — not on this side of the country.
We drove up Mount Washington, but clouds covered the summit that day. As we climbed, the mist grew so thick, we couldn’t see five feet in front of us. I’m amazed that my cautious father was willing to keep going. I really wanted to reach the top, but it seemed possible that we would drive over the unfenced edge, so I agreed that it would be smart to turn around. (The descent was hairy, too: the strain on the brakes worried him even more than the lack of visibility.)
That trip was one of the best I ever took — just me and my dad, in those beautiful mountains.
After two years apart, he persuaded my mother to take him back. When they told me, I worried that everything would return to the way it had been before, but it didn’t. They were close to fifty by then, and although they still disagreed often, they never fought the way they had in the old days.
Instead, the fighting was all Him vs. Me, in the front seat of the car, as he taught me to drive. Those lessons were so tense and infuriating that I’ve blotted them out completely — except for one moment. My father barked at me for passing a Stop sign, a dangerous mistake, and I yelled back, “Did you ever do anything wrong?” He said quietly, “Yes.” I snarled, “So did I.”
During my sophomore year in college, I had a few painful, impossible crushes. With no prospects for an actual girlfriend, I hit on a radical solution: I would join the Navy.
It seemed to make sense at the time. I’d skipped a grade and thought my age might be part of the reason why the girls I liked wanted to stay just friends. Three years in the Navy would take care of that. I’d see the world, and the government would pay for college when I came back.
My father had a fit when I mentioned my plan. “I know what the military is like, and it’s not for you.” He unleashed the full force of his will against me. I’m not sure what he was thinking. That I might get injured or killed? That I’d find the regimented life intolerable? That I’d get raped? A, B, and C?
For me, the Navy was a possible solution, not a firm intention. I resisted Dad’s heavy artillery, but not for long. There was never really much of a chance that I would put out to sea.
I was playing left field in an intramural softball game and the batter hit a long ball, far past me and close to the foul line. I took off sprinting. It was hopeless, but I ran as fast as I could, keeping sight of the ball… and then it seemed I might actually be able to reach it, so I ran even faster. As the ball fell from the sky, I leaped, and stretched, and caught the ball, just barely. There it was, sticking out of the webbing. I hurled it toward home plate to nab the runner who was trying to tag up. The crowd went wild.
Years later, I realized why this was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life. My father had dreamed of my growing up to play Major League ball and had spent countless hours practicing with me. At that moment, I had fulfilled a small version of his dream.
My mother died during my junior year of college. He didn’t tell me on the phone, he only said that I had to come home immediately because she was sick. When I arrived, many hours later, he rushed to the door and said, “She’s gone.” He sobbed in my arms — the only time I ever saw him cry.
A year later, he met someone new, married her, and moved into her home. She was a sweet person but finding him in this strange new place was disorienting. I wanted him to be happy — I didn’t want him to be alone — but every moment I spent with them, I felt like I’d walked through the wrong door by mistake.
After grad school, I moved to Manhattan. My father helped. Once we’d deposited my belongings in the apartment, he came with me to Long’s Bedding on 72nd Street, where I chose a mattress and box spring. He insisted on paying, which surprised and touched me: I thought of myself as a full-fledged adult, but he still wanted to take care of me.
That second marriage didn’t last. When he left, he told me he was looking forward to trying things he’d never had time to do, like taking guitar lessons. Within a few months, though, he was engaged to someone new.
He moved to Florida soon after he married Miriam. I visited them every winter. Those visits were uncomfortable for me because my father loved his new home and I loathed it: the heat, the flatness, the retiree lifestyle. I was in my late twenties, unmarried, not earning much money, not succeeding in my career, and there I was, in the backseat of his car, being driven around like a kid again, to jai alai, shopping malls (a new phenomenon at the time), and early bird specials — none of which I wanted any part of.
He had many memorable habits, some endearing, some less so. Whenever we sat at a long table, in a restaurant or at Thanksgiving, he would mutter things under his breath about someone at the far end. The guy would be smiling, and Dad would mutter to me, “Look at that shmuck.”
In his 70s, his brain seemed to deteriorate in subtle ways. When I talked to him on the phone on Saturdays, he seemed less sharp than in the old days. I attributed this to a lack of mental exercise: all he ever seemed to do was sit around and watch TV. But in hindsight, I think it must have been a side-effect of the many medications he took, for high blood pressure and other chronic conditions.
His decline worried me. I searched for advice on keeping elderly brains fit, but this was before the Internet was fully functional, and I never found what I wanted.
Before I could devise a plan, he had a minor stroke. He recovered, but a few weeks later he had a second stroke, which paralyzed him on one side and put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
I went down to help out. When we were alone, he told me, “I don’t think I can make it.” A hospital social worker had asked him if he’d cried. He said the answer was “Yes.” The social worker told him, “Everyone does.”
I started a file called Dad Eulogy. My plan was to put notes in the file as I thought of stories I wanted to include when the time came. But I never put a single slip of paper in that folder. It was one of the few times in my life when avoidance of the unbearable overpowered my discipline.
He died six years after his two strokes. Miriam called to tell me. I reserved a flight to Florida and composed the eulogy that night, in one sitting.
Often, I’ll say to myself, what was my father doing when he was the age I am now? The answer at this moment is: he was retired, living in Florida with his third wife, and meeting my new girlfriend for the first time. He made a lasting impression on Jennifer — my wife for the past 32 years — by reaching across a restaurant table with his fork and spearing one of her scallops without asking. I think he already saw her, unconsciously, as part of the family — unless it was just his id overpowering his superego.
These stories don’t add up to a clear portrait, I know. They form something like a cubist painting, a jumble of details seen from different angles. My father was all of these things: a loving, protective father to me; an inattentive parent to my sisters; an unfaithful husband who couldn’t live without his wife; a charming man in public and an angry man in private, who hated many people for reasons I never understood.
Overshadowing everything else, for me, is his constant protective care. My ferocious childhood love for him gave way to anger and unforgiving judgment in adolescence, but it returned once I had a life of my own. Every time I saw him at the airport gate in Florida, waiting for me, watching for my face, a rush of pure, uncomplicated love would fill my chest. He may have frustrated me in some ways, even then—I wished he would do more with his retirement than watch TV — but when I look back now at our lives together, my appreciation for him is so powerful that it aches.•