Sunday, June 16, 2013

In praise of fathers

I am reminded of my father at different moments in my life; I can be reading a good book or watching a movie, and suddenly I’ll think of him and want to talk to him about the book or the movie I know he would have liked. I remember our long walks on hot summer evenings when I was a teenager, just him and me, ambling slowly along Broadway in Tarrytown, down as far as the Sunnyside estate and then back. We always had something to talk about. Or I’ll remember him toward the end of his life, when illness had weakened him and he had become a fragile man. Those are the ‘memories that bless and burn’, as my mother used to say. I am reminded of him and of all of the elderly fathers in his generation who are still alive, today on Father’s Day. Some of them (like my friend Jean’s father whom I look forward to seeing each year on my annual trip to NY) are sick and struggling to get well; I send my best wishes for a good recovery from across the ocean. They are always in my thoughts and prayers, but especially today. They are a part of a generation that is fast fading away; many of them served valiantly in WWII and that experience shaped the rest of their lives. They might have married and had families, but they also shared camaraderie with their fellow soldiers, the depth of which none of us will ever really understand. Most of them were sparse with details concerning their wartime experiences. My father was no exception; we knew he was stationed in England and that he helped load bombs onto planes (the reason for his chronic back problems), but that was the extent of it. There are some photos to that effect. What he mostly imparted to us was his feelings about England--how much he loved the country and the British people. That’s what he talked about, and that’s what stayed with him many years after the war. He kept in touch with an older married couple he met there, and they would write him long letters telling him about what was going on in their little neck of England. Sometimes they sent pictures of their son and his friends. I remember the letters he received; they were always on blue airmail paper (still available at Amazon, of course: I remember that paper, having written a number of airmail letters, and I can remember the excitement I felt about receiving an airmail letter in the post.

The thing that strikes me about my father now, when I think of him, was how willing he was to share his life with us. He was not a selfish man when it came to his feelings and thoughts. That is what I remember about him today, on Father’s Day, how his willingness to share his feelings and thoughts helped to create a family life that I remember to this day. Because the latter is not possible if its participants shut down, close themselves off, make themselves remote to those around them. It is not possible to be fully private and to be an active family member. I think my father found a good balance; he was a reserved man in many ways, but he was also a social one who looked forward to gathering the family at the dinner table in the evenings when we were growing up, to good conversation, and to holidays when his brother and sister would come to visit. Ours was not a perfect family; there were the requisite family dramas and squabbles as in most families. My parents didn’t always tackle them as well as they should have. But that’s not what I remember all these years later. What I remember is my father coming home from work and us children rushing to greet him at the door. Or his taking us to the Westchester County stamp fairs so that we could get interested in stamp collecting (his hobby that eventually spurred the rest of us to start our own collections). Or his taking us to the Sunday afternoon classical music concerts at the Washington Irving junior high school—classical music was another love of his. Or his willingness to discuss nearly any book you might want to discuss with him; if he hadn’t read it, he would read it so as to form an opinion about it. He left this world far too early, but what he shared with his family remains with me forever. Happy Father's Day to him and to all the fathers I know who take the chance and are willing to share their thoughts, feelings, and pastimes with their families.   

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