Monday, August 6, 2012

For He Could Feel The Mountains Grow

“…and should some why completely weep
my father's fingers brought her sleep:
vainly no smallest voice might cry
for he could feel the mountains grow.”

                Next week is That Anniversary-the anniversary of what I still call Black Saturday. It is hard to believe that almost twenty-five years have passed since that awful day. When it happened, I could not see past the next moment. And yet, in a blink, the years have passed, and I have gone on living. Not merely existing, either, which was what I feared most. I feared that life’s magic and music were forever gone. I feared that nothing good would ever happen again, or that if it did, I wouldn’t care. But here I am, with a husband and kids, a career I love, and a passion for life that has increased rather than disappeared.I know why, too. It is because my father himself taught me by example how to live well and to die with dignity. He taught me that the life of one ordinary person can matter a whole lot. He taught me that you do the very best you can with what you are given and that it is possible to be content in all circumstances.

                He was by no means perfect. He had his flaws like any human being. He got mad sometimes and on one infamous occasion threw a coffee cup at one of my sisters. As a parent of teenagers, I can forgive him that and sympathize. Quite honestly, I am amazed that, with three teenage girls in the house at the same time, my parents didn’t kill or even harm anybody. I have two teenage daughters and a nineteen-year-old son. There are days when I worry that they won’t live much longer. I hope my father forgives me for the horror that I put him and my mom through. I have heard theology that states that everyone in Heaven is an adult, which would mean there are no teenagers. But if there are, it would be so like God to put Daddy in charge of the youth group up there.

                Or maybe He made Dad the teacher of the first and second grade Sunday school class. He and Mom and I taught that age group for several years, and there were kids in the class who thought Daddy was the smartest man in the world. I always believed that myself. If he didn’t know the answer to a question, he would do his best to find it out, even in the days before Google. I sometimes ponder what he would have thought of Google-indeed, of much of our modern technology. He died in 1987, way before social media and such. I think he would have been fascinated and entertained, but would still have preferred face-to-face conversations. He never even really liked talking on the phone. He kept telephone conversations short and to the point, but would talk to people for hours in person.

                He talked to my friends a lot. They would sometimes show up in the middle of the night, knocking on our door. Kids from troubled homes always seemed to seek out our house as a place of refuge. I never really appreciated, at the time, how blessed I was to have two parents who loved each other and stayed married to each other. Even in the 80s, this was becoming less and less the norm. My friends liked to hang out at my house and I was conceited enough to think it was because they enjoyed my company, but it was really because of my parents. They were not of the “cool” sort who would buy the keg of beer for the party, but rather they were the kind who would look straight into your soul and see that you needed a good dose of the truth. Then they would give it to you, no sugar added. But they weren’t mean about it; there was always compassion and love that motivated them. After my dad’s passing, one of my friends said, “Your dad was the best. He didn’t lie.”

                He didn’t lie, but he sure could bluff in a game of cards or checkers or Scrabble. Just when you thought you were winning-BAM! Out came the Q on a triple word score and you were dead. That’s how I learned to lose gracefully. He didn’t believe in letting us win once we reached a certain age-like five or so. He might not play cutthroat and skunk us as badly as he could have, but if he had let us win we would never have learned how to play half so well as we did. If you could beat Dad at a board game, you had accomplished something. To pout and sulk over losing was very bad form. The question was, had you done your best? If so, then there was never any reason to be ashamed.

                This philosophy carried over to everything in life, like schoolwork and sports and music competitions. Be as good as you can be, and if you aren’t satisfied, keep going. You can always improve. I once got a rating of Excellent in a piano competition. I hated practicing piano but since I had to do it and had to be in the competitions, I wanted to make the best possible score. I didn’t like the Excellent; I had wanted the Superior. One particular piece-I remember the title to this day, “The Old Merry-Go Round”- was at a higher difficulty level than the others and it kept me from getting a Superior. I told my dad I wanted to drop that piece for the next competition and substitute something easier. “Okay,” he said. “Let an inanimate object like a piano defeat you. Fine with me.”  I bristled at this and stalked into the living room and started pounding the heck out of that piece. I played it so often I was constantly hearing it in my head and could practically play it in my sleep. I loathed it with a perfect loathing. I also got a Superior at the next competition. Then I learned “The Marines’ Hymn” and would race to the piano to play it when I heard Dad coming in the door from work every day. He loved that, being proud of his stint in the Marines.

                Dad didn’t talk much about his childhood and from what little I knew, it wasn’t that wonderful. He grew up in the Bronx, his dad died when he was very young and his mother wasn’t very responsible so he was raised mostly by his grandmother. Yet he got into Brooklyn Technical High School and graduated with honors. He stole a poetry book from the school library. It was An Anthology of English and American Verse. As a Christmas gift several years ago, my husband had it rebound for me because the covers were coming off. It is one of my greatest and most treasured material possessions. My dad loved poetry and so do I. He also loved God, his family, animals (except cats, he claimed),good food, flowers, and hard work. He enjoyed gardening and cooking, reading, watching baseball and football, and spending time with us as much as possible. He would take time off work to come to our plays and recitals and ball games. Having not had a father for most of his life, he assumed that fathers did pretty much what mothers did, and thus he was very involved in our lives from infancy on. When he was home, he was home. He wasn’t one to go play a few rounds of golf or go out drinking with the guys from the office. That just wasn’t his style. When he died, we notified his work, the extended family, and our church. That was it. He had no separate life-yet the memorial service was standing room only. That’s because one man’s life touched so many others.

                He could have chosen many different roads. He loved the water, the sea. Maybe he could have been the captain of a ship. He could have stayed in the Marines and seen much of the world. Or he could have chosen, at a young age, to do the wrong thing and end up in prison or dead before he was twenty. After all, he was a boy from the Bronx, poor and surrounded by undesirable people. So at the age of nine he started selling vegetables on the street corner and daily got beaten up, only to return the next day. He was called names and made fun of because he didn’t have a father. He could have turned the hurt into bitterness and hatred, but instead he joined the Boy Scouts and was led to Christ at the age of fourteen by his Scout leader, who now has a star in his crown. He chose the more excellent way. Thus God led him to meet and marry my mother, who is rather an amazing person herself. Whatever dreams he may have had paled by comparison. His wife and kids became the only dream he needed. We were the reason why he worked long hours and put up with all of the junk that goes along with the corporate world.  Yet in spite of his work schedule, he once sat up all night with a sick hamster. He helped us with our homework no matter how much he had to do. He cooked us magnificent dinners on weekends, helped deliver litters of kittens and puppies, tended his beloved roses, and watched with pride as we sang in the church choir or marched in the school band. He could be a thunderstorm, but also a playful breeze. He was Dad.

                I have two adopted siblings. Sometimes rude and insensitive people would ask, “Which ones are adopted?”  Dad would call us over, line us up, look us over for a minute, then dismiss us with, “Nope; can’t remember!”  That might be his greatest legacy to me. I grew up understanding that family is defined by ties of love and not blood, and, though I did not know then that I would not be able to have children. I did know that whatever happened, I would adopt. I had the idea that adoption is just part of how you build your family. I don’t think it would hurt if everybody felt that way. In fact, if everybody did, there would be no children left in foster care. What a wonder that would be! And when people say to me, “I wish I had known your dad,” I can only say, “Yeah. I wish everybody had known him.” 

                On Saturday I will watch the meteor showers and remember that on the night of August 15th, 1987, a very great man departed this earth. Heaven sent down a perfect shooting star that we saw from our window that night. It was a goodbye, and an assurance that everything would be all right. Everything has been all right. There have been trials and hard times, and we have suffered and struggled. But there has also been laughter and delight and love and beauty. The man who lived well died well, and, while he left no monetary inheritance, he left something so much better, something intangible that is more real than the trivial things money can buy. So thanks, Dad. The world is a much better place because you were in it. You had great success.

“his sorrow was as true as bread:
no liar looked him in the head;
if every friend became his foe
he'd laugh and build a world with snow.”

1 comment:

  1. I did know your dad & was truly blessed from that friendship! Thanks for sharing this memory with those who read your blog.