It's been a very long time since Father's Day registered on my radar. After my parents died, and after a few years of allowing consumer and cultural pressure to make me feel miserable, both that and Mother's Day ceased to matter at all. I learned to note them benevolently like someone else's religious holiday, and then go about life as usual. But this afternoon I was reading some beautiful and bittersweet essays in the Times, and couldn't help but remember.
He was a small, wiry man with big muscles in his arms like Popeye from years of lifting boxes of fruit--my father was a produce manager at various mom-and-pop groceries and supermarket chains, where he stayed until invariably getting fired because of some dispute with the boss. He was a complicated man of opposites: small and strong, with a basso profundo voice that shook the floor and which he used to great effect when yelling at my mother and I, but turned into a whisper when feeding the birds or playing with babies in the park. Animals and children flocked to him at every occasion, and my father could make both squeal with delight. He always had a pocketful of peanuts for the squirrels, and hard candies for the rest of us.
He had a fierce temper, which I inherited and then learned to control when I found myself in my early 20s taking care of two seriously ill parents; I needed all the energy I could muster and realized that being nice was easier than the alternative, and you ended up with more friends, as well. My father didn't need this lesson, because had a kind of dangerous charm that drew people around him no matter what. He prayed a lot; I remember him standing morning, noon, and night in the corner of the bedroom, wrapped in a tallit. Only recently did I understand that I inherited this tendency from him. But I wonder what God said back, or if my father listened, because he often observed in letter but not spirit. At times he was not a very nice person, but I had no doubt that he loved me more than life itself--the best gift a parent can give.
His hobbies, to my recollection, were watching Westerns on TV, praying, eating borscht, sauerkraut, and various other greasy foods, learning Kabbalah and (in his 80s) how to play the accordion, sending money to and corresponding with a Chinese orphan (I helped him write the letters), learning Chinese, playing gin rummy and poker, singing Yiddish songs out of key, and arguing. He had little use for popular culture, and seemed to be stuck in the wrong era. He belonged in the 1800s, the world of his grandfather, where roles were prescribed and he could have davened all the time and ruled the roost, as men did. He encouraged my independence and growth, but never my mother's. Only now, as an adult, can I imagine how difficult it must have been for him to straddle the line between now and then.
I didn't visit often enough during the years he was in a nursing home. I hated the place, the smells, the echoes against white walls, vacant-eyed people parked in wheelchairs in the hallways. But I also knew, deep down, that I had no reason to feel guilty for not showing up every weekend. I was still angry back then, and thought his illness was deserved. Anyway, we had little to talk about; my young adult life was incomprehensible to him, and he could no longer concentrate on gin rummy. And whenever I left, I felt like I was killing him just a bit--tearing away the part of me that was in his heart. No matter my resentment, I hated to put him through this ordeal.
Later on, after sorrow and understanding replaced indignation, I wished I had visited more often. But I also believe he spent most of those years living in other memories, the same ones I chose as well--of me at three years old running between the legs of old men in the front row of the synagogue, and then being lifted onto my father's shoulders to get the best view of the Ark as it was opened; of scooping me up for a kiss whenever he walked into the house after a long day of work; of taking me to the local jeweler on my 16th birthday to buy a gold and pearl necklace spelling out my Hebrew name, Ahuva (beloved). I wish I had more memories of long conversations about life, or apologies, but am grateful for these snapshots. I can still hear him tell me how proud he was, no matter what small accomplishment I recounted. I miss that very much. He had doubts about his place in the world, but never about me. I don't understand why he lived his life the way he did, but that life made me who I am--and I don't want to be anyone else.