Note: Father’s Day is this Sunday, so I am posting memories of my father from my childhood. He has been gone three decades, but the memories never go away.
My little legs were running as fast as they could to keep up with my father. Tall and long-legged, he seemed totally unaware of my scampering beside him, like a puppy trying to keep up with her master. I could barely breathe. I didn’t even have enough energy to call out, “Daddy, slow down!”
I spent so little time with my father as a child that I welcomed any opportunity to be with him, even if it meant walking four miles to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, The Jewish New Year. Daddy worked seven days a week, 362 days each year, taking off only on the three high holy days of the New Year. He did not even take off work on Passover, just joined us at the Seder for the evening. I think he invented the word workaholic!
I also spent years figuring out why my father worked so hard. A large part was that my mother did not know how to budget. For example, when I was a Camp Fire Girl I had to work within a budget I set up as part of getting an award bead. Every week my mother gave me extra money even though I whined and complained I would never be able to budget if she kept doing that. No matter. My mother was a softie and would have given all the food from her table, should a hungry stranger appear at the door. My father could not keep up with her spending habits, as generous as they were.
Another reason my father worked so many hours was that talking to his cronies at the garage while fixing their cars was his way of socializing. He was not an unfriendly person; on the contrary, he was very congenial. But he seemed uncomfortable in a suit and tie or in a formal situation. Instead, he liked to sit in front of the garage and pass the time of day with friends and customers, which were often the same. My mother brought him lunch and dinner, since we lived close by. Visiting him at his place of work was a highlight of my day, because I see him for a few minutes.
Thirdly, my father was very conscientious. Having brought five children into the world, he felt totally responsible for their physical and financial wellbeing. While we all worked at part-time jobs and the four of us who attended college received loans and scholarships, there was always the feeling that we could count on our parents to help us through whatever financial problems we might face at college and beyond. I remember my father poring over financial forms every few months, stating that he was putting four of his five children through school and needed to space out his payments.
Space them out indeed! There were only 7 ½ years between the oldest and the youngest. My older sister Phyllis married at 18 and did not go to college. But her wedding costs my father $5,000 plus, and in 1953 that was a small fortune, especially for an automobile mechanic. My older brother Paul started M.I.T. in 1954 and went for eight years, receiving his PhD. (My brother had both scholarships and loans; my parents paid off the loans until 1970.) I started Douglass College in 1955 and went four years on a full tuition scholarship. My younger brother started Harvard the year I graduated and continued for eight years, becoming an opthalmologist. Luckily for him, his wife had a wealthy father, who helped them out financially. Still, my father put Harry through school on his own and with the help of scholarships. Finally, my baby sister Rosie started Temple University the year after my younger brother Harry started Harvard. She went for four years plus took some graduate courses. By the time the last sibling had finished college, most of us were married and my father began to work only six days each week.
My own strong work ethic derives, in large measure, from watching my father get up early every day of the week, normally without much enthusiasm because he was always exhausted, though rarely sick. I never saw anyone work as hard as he did. Sometimes he fell asleep in his truck, too tired to come inside. When he developed liver cancer in his seventies, even that did not stop him from working. Two weeks after his hospital stay he was painting my sister’s house. What I learned from this experience is that hard work is important, but not important enough to kill yourself for, or to neglect your family.
In college, Dad managed to come to Douglass for Dad’s Day. I was so proud to have him there, his handsome face always smiling. But I distinctly remember that when I visited my father in the hospital after his first cancer operation, I spent two entire days alone with him. In 36 years I had never had that much time to myself with him.
Was all that work worth it? I doubt it. I think I would have rather had less education and more of my father. I still miss him very much, despite the fact he has been dead since 1982. (See poem below.)
So how does one measure love of a parent? By how hard a parent works, by how much time is spent with the children, by how well we are disciplined? I still haven’t figured this all out. I just know that there is an empty space in my heart that never seems to be filled, because I never felt I really had a father, just a shadow of a man I adored and wanted to please.
One of my wishes is that every parent realizes that the time spent with family is as important as the money earned for family. The yin/yang of life is about work and play, not work or play, or vice versa. How long will the Protestant ethic usurp the lifeblood of men and women who think that what they are because of their life’s work is more important than who they are as a human being? My father was a wonderful human being, always doing instead of being, full of love and compassion that was rarely seen. How much he missed by not spending more time with those who loved him and how much those who loved him missed the full scope of his humanness.
As a parent, I have learned one thing from not having a dad around. I make an effort to see my three children, now on the west coast, whenever I can, visiting them as part of my vacations and calling them regularly. Why not make your next Father’s Day a tribute to your Dad and to family?
A tribute to My Dad on the 30th anniversary of his death, July 1982
Daddy, you’re gone now 30 years;
Still I feel the sting of tears.
I’m almost the age you were when you died.
On that day, Oh, how we cried!
We hardly knew about your dreams–
Maybe you had none, or so it seems.
Fixing cars day in and day out;
You wanted more, I have no doubt.
Too late we learn our parents’ hearts;
Too late to understand the sum of their parts.
Oh Daddy dear, I miss you still.
I feel the tears as they start to spill
Upon my cheeks I wish you could touch.
Gone too long, I still miss you so much.
P.S. Today is also Flag Day, a time to remember we are all Americans!