My dad had a superficial gruffness that helped create the impression he was a man’s man. Ironically, it took much of my life to learn that, despite the enormous amount of time my father spent with men running his father’s card games, the war, tending bar, and working as a government accountant, it was much easier for him to talk to women. Learned that through his and Sue’s relationship. Throughout the years their friendship tightened much more rapidly than his and mine, and it was through their connection that he and I gingerly approached each other.
But despite the circling, I finally began to see how tolerant a person he actually was. He never batted an eye when we told him Sue was pregnant with Jake. He knew we weren’t married, but didn’t even ask if we were going to. He just rolled with it. Much the same way he’d rolled with my wedding, for which I never gave him much credit. And much the same way he rolled with my less-than-ambitious earning power—something that was important to him, but that he never laid on me other than an occasional tease.
I also learned it was impossible for him to live alone.
As much as both Sue and I have come to believe that Lenore was his true love, it wasn’t long after her death before he became involved with another woman from New Jersey and they eventually moved fulltime to Florida.
At this stage of our lives (I was about 40, him about 70), both of us were reluctant to jeopardize the delicate link we had made. And Sue made certain we not only maintained but fostered it. She would announce that it was time to go to Florida. She was the one who came up with the idea of making a license plate that read Sammy K., echoing a band leader he liked. She was the person I could watch tease my dad and make him laugh. She brought out and introduced me to aspects of his personality that made visiting more than a chore or duty.
In fact, it was Sue who, once he mentioned an interest in computers, suggested I take him shopping for one, set it up, and teach him how to use it. The first two were an easy do. The third, well, that turned out to be a blessing and a personal trip to hell.
He enjoyed the machine that let him follow his stocks, but never really got the hang of operator error. He was ham-fisted and impatient; if something didn’t happen instantaneously he’d keep banging the keys—lots of them. Not a useful way to work a computer, and out of character since he was usually pretty damn methodical.
Of course his computer ‘tech’ was me, which meant call after call with complaints about the machine while I tried to visualize what was going on and give him suggestions. Every time we visited I spent a day untangling the mess he’d made. But it was also a bridge. We were finally
talking on a regular basis.
Our visits and the computer crap slowly healed the old hurts we had inflicted upon each other. It wasn’t that they disappeared, more that new space opened between us. Space where something
other than the past, the conflicts, or the pain resided.
I was writing at the beginning of those years and, though he used to complain that my main character was too unkempt and drugged for big sales or a potential tv series (he was probably right), my father now knew me well enough to understand I was gonna write what I wanted to write. Years later, after Sue transformed a magazine writing career into writing books for kids, he kept asking why she didn’t just write “another Harry Potter.” I honestly believe he thought if a person could write, they could write anything. WRONG! This crack and his chuckle went on for years until Sue couldn’t take it anymore. She stopped it cold, when she countered with her own question: “Tell me Sam, how come you don’t stop buying those loser stocks and just get
But he was also quietly proud of our work. Kept our books in the living room where anyone who came into the condo would see them, including us.
Even more space opened between us. Hell, when Matthew was in college, he and a coed group of friends crashed at his place. The old man really enjoyed the visit. He never stopped telling the story of a mass of sleeping bodies on the floor and how Josh (Matt’s best man at his upcoming wedding) would wake up early and cook breakfast for everyone. My father still liked action and throughout his 70s traveled to Las Vegas (I met him there once), and to Atlantic City (met him there too), and went on cruises—as long as there were ‘comps’ and crap tables, his favorite gambling game. He’d started playing dice on the streets when he was a kid and the bug never left.
By the time he was 75, we were pretty comfortable with each other. To celebrate that birthday the whole family went on a short cruise where he and Matt hung in the ship’s casino, Sue and I chilled, and Jake fell in love (for the trip) with a girl he met at the karaoke bar.
Essentially, what had been at best an arms-length relationship had morphed into a strangely familial one. Strange because neither of us were yet willing to talk about the past, which hung on like a background shadow.
Those discussions began when he was about 85. He had slowed down considerably. I no longer had to have Sue at my side when I visited. And when he needed a hip replacement, I basically moved down there for a month or two, though Sue was also there a great deal of the time.
That’s when some real talk began to occur. He and I used to stay up after everyone was asleep, tv on in the background (tv background seems to be a necessity for men talk. Lets you move your eyes around when things get tough), and slowly, over time, our conversations became more
personal. He talked about his troubles with my mother and sister, and his pain about Lenore’s deterioration and death.
My end of the conversation included talking about the impossibility of living with my mother and sister, that night at the bar with the rebbetzin, his long, long absences. And, finally my embarrassment and dismay at how I treated him when Lenore was sick.
His hip mended. Even though he used a walker, he went back to his shopping, cooking, cleaning, and poker playing. But my visits, with and without Sue, became more frequent. As did her visits without me.
When I was there, those late night conversations continued. I learned more about the decisions he had made and why he had made them. He learned more about my life, my work, my anger towards him, the pleasure of our reconciliation. Sometimes the talks were easy, sometimes damn difficult. But they created a bond that remained for the rest of his life. A bond that will be with me the rest of mine.
This isn’t to say that all the conversations and my many years in therapy erased what had come before. Deep inside me there’s still part of that kid who sat at the bar. Things didn’t just vanish; nothing ever does. I’m still a product of my childhood, however altered.
But it’s almost funny. For so much of my life I never would have imagined that when my dad died, I would lose a friend.
Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?