When I picture my father, I’m not sure which man is standing in front of me.
Is it the dad who taught me how to ride a bike and play baseball, and who stepped up to be Scoutmaster when our troop needed one?
Or is it the man dressed in a suit, tie, and topcoat (and for a number of years a classy fedora) getting ready to board the Long Island Railroad? He took the train five days a week to Manhattan, where he ran his own advertising firm his entire career. There he earned a solid middle-class income that allowed his family to live in suburbia and sent his two children to private colleges. He also managed to afford both a small vacation home in Upstate New York and later lead a comfortable retired life.
Or is it the aged man, sinking into blindness from glaucoma and dementia—a man I would visit every two or three weeks for the last few years of his life while watching his slow but inevitable mental and physical decline?
When I think of him now, it is the contrasts among these memories that stand out most. Certain episodes are so clear in my memory that it’s as if we were still in the same room together.
When I was 12 or 13 Dad arranged to use one of his business connections to buy me my first electric guitar. I remember well the day he would be picking it up for me.
The Gibson ES-125 of my dreams had a thin hollow body, a red sunburst finish, and two pickups. When he came through the door at 7 PM, as he did most nights, I couldn’t wait to open the case. There it was, in all its glory and plush velvet smell. Yet, to my horror, the instrument that he had brought home was not the guitar of my dreams! Anything but. My teenage heart sank, and I was close to tears.
“Dad! My guitar is supposed to have two pickups!” I gasped. “This guitar only has one!”
My father, as always, was unflustered. “That’s okay. I’ll exchange it for the one you wanted as soon as I can.”
“But…I really wanted it now!” I still remember how crestfallen I was.
I’ll also never forget what he said to me.
“Bobby, the world will not come to an end if you don’t get your guitar in the next day or two.”
How did he know that?
This was the man who flew in a B24 Liberator as part of a crew of ten. They completed 44 bombing missions in the South Pacific and came home alive and intact. Dad never told war stories, and it was only as an adult that I was able to piece together what might be called his philosophy of life.
As a boy, I would sit with my sister Eve in the backseat of whatever Buick my father was currently driving as we came home from another Saturday at my grandmother’s house in Brooklyn. My grandmother would babysit us for the day, and I’d watch westerns on the black and white TV while sitting on a hassock that was mounted on a dining room chair while holding some rope in my hands—a creditable mock-up of a horse and reins. My parents obviously did a good job of conning me—I never realized that this was their opportunity to have a day together without the kids.
I recall one particular Saturday night in winter after a day at Grandma’s. It was snowing hard, and we were caught in a traffic jam on the Southern State Parkway. As traffic inched along, I became vaguely aware of a conversation my parents were having as to how to handle this predicament, and I sat up to look. When we came to an overpass, my father pulled the car off of the Southern State and drove slowly and steadily up a snow-covered hill toward the road that crossed the parkway. I had no idea what was going on, but I knew this was neither normal nor the time to ask questions. As we got closer to the top of the hill, I realized that my father was forging a new path through the snow and grass—he was, literally, driving outside the box. Dad held the steering wheel with a firm two-handed grip, and even I knew that if our tires started spinning in the snow, all was lost. What was even more remarkable as I looked out the rear window was the trail of other drivers following Dad’s lead.
Slowly but surely, we made it to the top of the hill and he maneuvered on some city streets until he got to Jerusalem Avenue, the “retro/old school” route to Wantagh, where we lived. A saying I grew up with was apropos: No Guts, No Glory.
As a young boy, I was aware that my dad dabbled in playing the guitar. He could also pick out a tune on the piano, and often sang with a pure tenor voice while my mother played her favorite Broadway songs. He even tried out once for a temple production of Guys and Dolls. (He was only interested in playing the lead, Sky Masterson. When he didn’t get that role, he declined any other parts, and wound up designing promotional posters and artwork for the show.)
Another thing my father was particularly good at was whistling—don’t laugh. He was really good. I remember this particularly because, for some reason, my mother hated it when he whistled.
One night after supper my dad and I were watching TV when one of my favorite shows came on: Tombstone Territory. The theme song for this show, ironically, featured some guy whistling the melody. As we were waiting for the opening credits to roll and the show to start, Mom yelled loudly from the kitchen, “Michael! Stop whistling!” He and I looked at each other and started to laugh uncontrollably. Without even knowing it, my mother had probably paid my father one of the greatest compliments ever.
When I was 17 my father did me the honor of buying me a used red sports car. The small Alfa Romeo convertible looked sleek and classy, but it was really a piece of junk. (When it comes to Italian cars of that period, many of you know what the name “Fiat” stands for.)
It was always in the shop, and if it needed a new muffler, you had to order it from Milano. At no small expense.
I’ll never forget one day when my father and I were standing in our neighborhood service station (coincidentally owned by a pair of Italian-American brothers. I think one brother was named Tony. Maybe both brothers were named Tony). The car was up on the rack and Tony was gazing at it with an uncertain and pensive look on his face. My father had obviously reached the limit of Alfa Romeo patience.
“If you can’t fix this f-ing car, just tell me and I’ll get rid of it!” It was the first time I’d ever heard my father curse.
If I discovered that Alfa Romeo under a tarp in some garage today, it might be worth a small fortune; but it would still be a piece of junk. And now, almost 60 years later, I’m not even sure it was worth the $5 my father got for it when he unloaded it.
After I went to college, things started to change. Dad would ask me what I was studying. If we were reading the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (considered the “Great American novel” by many), he would tell me that he’d once read Tom Sawyer (not the Great American novel). He’d fought in WW2 but knew little about the causes or results of that conflict. When we’d be driving together listening to the jazz station, he might ask what we were listening to.
“That’s the Dave Brubeck Quartet. They’re playing Tangerine.”
It was at moments like this that I realized that I was becoming an adult in my own mold, and shared less and less with my father.
I also know that some of the suggestions he made when I was going through critical junctures in my life were just not good. This was certainly the case when I was applying to graduate school, going through a divorce, and dealing with professional issues as an optometrist. But this was probably to be expected—he was from a different time, a different generation.
That said, my father was a successful businessman, a talented fine artist, and a man of many talents. He was one of a legion of suburban husbands who finished a basement rec room by himself. He bought a table power saw that he fit into a workbench he built himself, transported the ubiquitous wall panels on the top of his car, carefully nailed them to the studs he’d fabricated, and even installed the soundproof ceiling tiles that were de rigueur in 1960.
He could fix almost anything, and whatever skills I have as a homeowner, I certainly learned from him.
In the late 1970s I remember making a phone call to my mother asking what Dad might like as a Father’s Day gift. She actually came up with a good suggestion. “He’s been thinking about changing the shower head in our bathroom.”
My parents were still living in New York at the time. But I was in Northern California, which was in the midst of a serious drought. So without thinking much about it I made it a point to buy the top-of-the-line, water-saving Teledyne shower head for him. I had no doubt he’d be able to install it himself.
He called me on Father’s Day to thank me for the gift.
“Any trouble installing it?”
“Just a little.”
“How so?” I asked.
“When I put it in and turned on the faucet, hardly any water was coming out it. So I removed it and took it apart. Sure enough, there was this little ball that was preventing water from coming out at full force. After I removed the ball, it worked just fine.” I laughed and sighed at the same time. After all, they were not having a drought in New York.
By the time Dad was in his late 80s, things were taking a turn for the worse. In spite of having both a son and son-in-law who were optometrists, Dad refused to go for routine eye exams, preferring instead to buy over-the-counter reading glasses. Thus his undiagnosed glaucoma began to rob him of his peripheral vision, slowly and painlessly as it often does, without anyone knowing it. In his 90s, while my mother was still alive, they both began to suffer from what was later diagnosed as Alzheimer’s, and I could tell they were in the final chapters of their lives.
Dad’s decision-making became more and more faulty. Whenever asked what he would like to do in a particular situation, his response was classic: “Let me think about it.” When trying to deal with any kind of technology, be it the television, his early Apple computer, or a battery-operated watch, he’d often say, “I need to read the brochure.”
(“I need to read the brochure” is a standing joke in my house to this day.)
After my mother’s death, my sister and I moved my father from a two-bedroom to a one-bedroom apartment in the senior facility where they’d been living. Eve and I had to go through all of my mother’s stuff, where we found several pieces of jewelry hidden inside shoes that were decades old and still in their original shoeboxes. We also found a fair amount of cash stashed away in a bottom drawer.
Going through my father’s bathroom, I discovered 21 toothbrushes, still in their unopened packages.
“Dad, do you know you have 21 brand-new toothbrushes in the bathroom drawer?”
“No kidding! Do you need one?”
There were other surprises. When I visited I’d often take Dad out to lunch at Carl’s Jr., one of his favorite restaurants. At the time he was legally blind and suffering from dementia. One time, when I went to pay the cashier for our $7 lunch, I put $22 down on the counter. The cashier was confused and clearly out of her league; she had no idea what I was trying to do. To her credit, she did know how to use the cash register.
When I got back to our table, I was curious and asked, “Dad, if our lunch was $7 and I gave the woman $22, how much change should I get back?”
Without hesitating, he answered, “Fifteen dollars.” Then he added, “That lunch was seven dollars?” I said something about inflation and left it at that.
There is an accounting principle called First In Last Out that also applies, I believe, to dementia. I have a feeling that when Dad was eight years old he understood that 22 minus 7 equals 15, and at 93, he could still do the math. And that still makes me smile.
One of the things that gave my father joy was going to the bank and depositing whatever small check he might have received in the mail. The last time we did this I played the little game I often did.
“Dad, we’re going into the bank now, and you’re going to say to me, ‘Why is it so dark in here? Why don’t they turn on a light?’”
“I am?” he asked.
When we walked into the bank lobby, that’s exactly what he said. I was holding his hand as we walked toward the tellers, and behind the bullet-proof glass was a woman of a certain age (probably 62) with dyed blonde hair and a Persian name on the small sign in front of her.
We were seven or eight feet away from her when my father said loudly, “If I knew I was going to have such a pretty bank teller, I would have brought more money to deposit.”
The woman and I both laughed, and he made his deposit. The flirtatious banter between them continued. Unfortunately for both of them, they never met again. In this life, anyway.
One of the final conversations my father and I had is unforgettable. We were sitting together in his apartment when out of nowhere he said to me, “I used to have a wife, but she died.”
“I know, Dad. I knew your wife.”
“You did? How did you know her?” He seemed legitimately amazed.
“It’s not important.”
He went on, “But we didn’t have any children.”
I was sure my sister would be interested to hear this.
And for those of you wondering, I’d previously asked my father to spit in a little test tube and sent it to 23andMe. He was indeed our father.