My father died twenty years ago today. Hard to believe it’s been so long.
I’ve been missing him. Though I probably think of both my parents at some point every day, Dad is always in my mind especially strongly as winter settles in. Every year at Thanksgiving I sit down to our big school feast and remember 1989. Was that the year I was seated next to the television celebrity? I can’t remember. What I do recall is making the usual conversation — “And how was your child’s fall term?” on one side, and ministering to my two-year-old son on the other — while in my heart a drumbeat pounded, “Dad, Dad, Dad.”
A month earlier my parents had been on a business trip when Dad suddenly fainted. He was 73 and had just passed his annual physical with flying colors. But now there were new questions. A CT scan revealed cancer. Dad went in for more tests. We’d hear after the holiday. I spent the day praying.
Black Friday indeed. The cancer was everywhere, and inoperable. He was dead in nine weeks, passing away in his sleep January 14, 1990.
A friend said to me recently that I’d had “perfect parents.” Even Dad would have smiled at that. But to me as a child, it was no surprise at all that with his ’60s horn rims and dark hair, Dad looked just like a fictional hero, Clark Kent or Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. He was tall, smart, a committed Christian, honest and trustworthy, soft-spoken, slow to anger, and invariably polite. I recall him raising his voice only twice in my life. (Once was a Sunday morning when my little sister and I crawled on our stomachs into my parents’ bedroom and shut off the alarm clock, in hopes Dad would oversleep, we’d miss church, and we could spend the morning watching Davey and Goliath on T.V. instead. Dad woke up punctually anyway and was gravely disappointed in us.)
Self-discipline was intrinsic to Dad. My future husband was struck silent during an introductory dinner in my parents’ home when he heard my father, at dessert time, extoll Rondolet ice creams, tiny treats about one inch square. “The perfect size. I could never eat more than one.”
However the same ingrained control meant Dad could be perplexed by sloppy children or by unruly emotions. As a teenager, full of psychological theories garnered from books, I once asked him if he’d ever been angry that his father had died when he was only nine years old.
“Angry?” he repeated in bewilderment.
When the late sixties rolled in and first my older brother and sister, and later all the rest of us, were swept up in the wave, Dad was unprepared. Formal good manners were no longer the most useful items in the parental tool kit. I would hear Mom trying to break down family interactions for him so he could see where his good intentions had gone awry. In later years he’d often ask me to do this too. “What happened?” he would ask in honest surprise, as someone stormed furiously out of a room. On the home front in those years he occasionally reminded me of Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, ever hopeful and trusting, and ever disappointed. The effect was heightened because a mild “Good grief” or “oh, nuts” were the harshest words in Dad’s vocabulary.
But in all other respects Dad was a pillar of my youth. He was an idealist; in his job as head of a major philanthropic organization he was often working on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised. A prominent black leader in New York asked me years later whatever had brought my father — a white man born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1916 — to become active in support of Civil Rights. “His religion,” I immediately replied. The man was astonished. “His religion?”
Christianity for Dad had nothing to do with sin or retribution and everything to do with the Sermon on the Mount and Love Thy Neighbor. His faith was not something he wore on his sleeve, but his earnest effort to live up to it underpinned everything he did. There was a tiny mirror mounted inside a cabinet door in our family kitchen; underneath the glass Dad had fixed a tiny reminder: LET LOVE SHOW IN YOUR VOICE.
At work and at home, Dad relished problem-solving, and he taught his children to do it too. It wasn’t that he was good at everything; it was that he believed that with enough concentration and hard work a person could figure most things out. (When the Reader’s Digest brought out the book How to Do Just About Anything, he bought us all copies.)
Above all, to me, Dad was always, always cheerfully ready to help — whether it was rewiring a lamp or rewriting a grant proposal. Or simply: “Can I pour you some of this good orange juice?” In my mind’s eye I’m struggling off a train with a baby and heavy bags and there is Dad striding along the station platform, smiling broadly and reaching to take my burdens. He’d also have met the last two trains, just in case.
On the last day of his life, Dad was thin and weak but insisted on reading the Times in bed. The U.S.S.R. was cracking apart. Dad put down the paper and said softly, “Poor Mr. Gorbachev.” That was my father in a nutshell. Forever interested, empathetic and courteous — “Mr. Gorbachev” — even to an idealogical foe, even as he was dying.
Recently I was rereading a book of prayers Dad wrote and published when he was not much older than I am now. I will close by quoting from one, For Parents Long Dead.
My Lord of all ages, be with my parents who passed from this life many years ago. Now that I am at the crest of this generation, I find myself thinking back to the time when they were at the crest of their generation. I was a small child then, and certainly I thought as I child. I find it hard to reconstruct what their life was like when my father was the age I am now. The only thing I’m really sure of is that I grew up in an atmosphere of love.
Lord, help me and my wife to so live that our children will have the same assurance, and that when they reach this age — whether we are here, or there with you —they will recall not just the joy of a birthday or a Christmas, but a continuous atmosphere of love.
His prayer was answered. I have lacked confidence about many, many things in my life —but never that I was loved by my father and mother.
I love you, Dad. I was so lucky to know you.