longer version of this essay appeared in PARENTS MAGAZINE (June 1988). My father would now be 104.
It was nice-really nice-talking to you on your birthday and hearing how you feel turning 77. (Really, Dad, I don’t believe it. You sure don’t look or act it.) I sat there beaming as you expressed your gratitude for having: excellent health, almost no gray hair, a lovely Florida condo, a bridge partner who finally stopped trumping your ace, a new set of golf clubs, and enough money and teeth to regularly enjoy “Early Bird” dinners. And I was particularly touched when you said that the best of all your blessings was us-your family.
You taught me that the getting is in the giving. I started thinking about what you have given me and, my gosh, there’s a lot. The most obvious similarities are the physical features: the flat feet, propensity to cold sores, short stature, and rounded backside. (Do you know Mom still admires yours? She said so just last summer when you were walking ahead of us in shorts. I hope I get that kind of feedback from the opposite sex when I’m your age. I hope I get it tomorrow.)
I would like to mark this Father’s Day by sharing my feelings about the more pervasive aspects of your legacy: your character traits. I’ll begin with your frugality. Your motto “Don’t spend on anything that is not essential” was so deeply ingrained in me by the time I was seven, I stopped ordering dessert in restaurants when it wasn’t included in the dinner price. Do you remember what I called Mom and Susan when they went shopping on Saturdays? Waste-moneyers. No matter that they were buying something one of them needed; they were spending your money. Even now, every time I leap out of a chair to turn off the lights in another room, it’s because I hear you asking, “Who’s reading in the kitchen?”
I am grateful that you taught me to value my money and that it doesn’t spoil in the bank. And more grateful that you let me know that although it may bring some security, it is NOT what makes us rich. Family, kindness, humor, and books are all higher on the list. In my warmest memories of our home, you were either sitting in a corner of the sofa, with just one light on, of course, or lying in bed with your nose in a book. You would be reading something new or rereading Twain, Voltaire, Thurber, Thomas Hardy, Dorothy Parker, or S. J. Perelman and when I’d come in to kiss you good-night, you’d read passages aloud and your eyes would sparkle, as if to say that these gifted writers–and quite often the humorists–spoke the truth.
Remember the poem on the wall of Laube’s Cafeteria right behind where they dished out the potatoes? It was the cafeteria motto and it went like this:
We may live without friends,
We may live without books,
But civilized men
Cannot live without cooks.
I thought they had it wrong up there; that books and cooks should be interchanged, because if books were, as you taught me, our most trusted companions, then it sure would be a whole lot harder to live without them than without home fries.
You instilled in me an appreciation of the spoken as well as the printed word with your wit and your stories. Not so much with your army stories, Dad (in fact, I don’t mind telling you that it became a real drag listening to those same two, again and again, year after year), but with your funny stories about ordinary experiences. I loved how you’d go to the supermarket for one-half hour and come back with two bags of groceries and a story. Did you really used to lose your list and ask other shoppers if you could borrow theirs? No matter. That, along with your other stories, charmed us. Tickled us all.
This brings me to what I consider my most valuable asset. People often remarked that I was clearly my “father’s daughter” because my sense of humor was like yours whether I ribbed Uncle Hal for his excessive bragging, Cousin Sonia for her pretentiousness—she really did say ‘yes’ in two syllables so it was ‘ye-es’, or when I tilted my head whenever Aunt Sylvia showed up with one of her lopsided Jell-o molds. As I got older, I realized that having a sense of humor goes beyond poking fun or coming up with clever one-liners. It involves seeing the world with its ridiculousness and absurdities. To paraphrase Charlie Chaplin, life is a tragedy from the close shots; it’s a comedy from the long shots. You see life from the long shots, Dad. You helped me do the same. It’s been my major source of strength in dealing with Everything.
I suppose our similar natures made it easy for you to spend so much time with me. I felt that you genuinely enjoyed my company whether we were painting by numbers, playing cards, doing errands, or playing beauty parlor. It was neat how you’d let me be the beautician and pretend to style your short balding brush-cut into one of my two favorite hairdos, a bouffant or parfait. Seeing that I was a spirited companion in your eyes has made me feel I have something to offer and has helped me develop close, lasting friendships.
At times, I wished our interaction was as affectionate as it was verbal and creative, and that you’d treated me more like a princess than a pal. I was jealous of how cuddly Ellen’s father was with her. I could see, however, that it was hard for you to be demonstrative, not just with me but with everybody; and I eventually understood I wasn’t being shortchanged of your love.
Finally, I want to remind you of a piece of wisdom you imparted quite inadvertently, often in discussions relating to Uncle Seymour. The first time I recall hearing it was decades ago when you decided to sell your share of the family business to’ start from scratch on your own. Mom wondered if it bothered you that Uncle Seymour was rapidly becoming wealthy while you were barely eking out a living.
“No,” you said emphatically, “I have to take myself with me.” I remember sitting in the back-seat of the car that day, mulling over your answer and feeling simultaneously anxious and pleased. I sensed Mom’s uneasiness over your future and her desire for financial security; I was jealous of the things Uncle Seymour provided for his kids. Yet deep down inside, I admired your independence and your courage to do what you wanted with your life.
The importance of taking ourselves with us has been your most important motto, having different meanings depending on the situation. When Mom told you she thought Uncle Seymour was so lucky to be going to The Orient, you said, “The only problem is that Seymour’s taking himself with him.” I got your message loud and clear. No matter where Seymour is, at home or in Hong Kong, he is restless and discontented, while you can have fun in the supermarket aisles or eating “Early Bird” dinners.
So what it comes to, Dad, is this: I don’t think you’re as perfect as I did when I was six. I do feel, however, you are a wonderful human being. Even though you insist on moving your money from bank to bank the minute the interest rates change, you’ve lived your life by some pretty terrific values, which I am proud to inherit. I may be a little frugal and I’m definitely a little short, but I can take myself with me wherever 1 go and I love you very dearly for giving me so much.
p.s. The golf balls are on their way. Try to stay out of the sand traps.
(my father is on the left when he was a little girl, with his big sister, my Aunt Yetta)