Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Remembering my Father

When I think about my father I see a montage of small moments, yet the sum of them does not add up to the place he has in my heart. Many are scenes in which he says nothing but conveys volumes in his eyes and facial expressions. He provided the leavening to calm my mother’s noisy unease with the world and gave me a model for making my way. Not to say that I have ever achieved his level of equanimity but of all the voices, interjected, his measured words are the most resonant.

He was Spencer Tracy in a household of Ethel Merman and a sullen James Dean. My brother, who died in a car accident 50 years ago, would probably have a dissenting view. He felt that he went out into the world ill-equipped. The prescription my father offered was therapeutic for me but insufficient for my brother.

My father was the presence who dialed down the amplitude. He allowed me to feel that life would be malleable; that I too could shape it to some extent and if I couldn’t I might, at least, find a sanctuary of my choosing. He radiated an inviolable self; an imperturbable core.

I watched him settle agitated patients from his raised place between globes of colored water in the pharmacy. He gave them the gift of his ear. When he spoke, they listened and when he didn’t they heard that too. Medicine worked because he assured them it would.

One deep inhalation and he is here with that old drugstore smell, now extinct. There was an air about him, as if the mingled vapors from crude drugs, soda fountain syrups and perfumes had been triturated by the overhead fan into a heady vapor which clung to him and sustained me.

Where this natural sense of conciliation with life came from is a mystery. His beginnings were humble in the Dickensian sense. Born to an impoverished peddler he was sent to live with his equally poor aunt and uncle when his mother died in childbirth 2 years later giving birth to a girl who lived just 3 months. My grandfather became an alcoholic who went on to re-marry and father four more children all of whom were sent to an orphanage. My father had a half-brother also named Sam. Sam, meet your brother, Sam. Did his father forget he had already given that name to his first-born? We’ll never know.

How does a man raised with uncertainty and destitution, who sold newspapers on the corner, who misheard the teacher when she said, Pay Attention, thinking she said to Pay a pencil (and he had none)….how does he grow into manhood feeling safe and secure himself? A triumph of nature over nurture or is this an instance where love trumps circumstances however reduced?

If my mother and father were both survivors of a sort they complemented each other. She was shrill and often inappropriate, in daily combat with merchants, he, behind enemy lines planned his strategy. His instinct was to bring out the trust in others and assume the best intentions. It didn’t always work. His pharmacy made it through the Depression but had to close its door during the war years. Was there a war within him when his customers who were our neighbors refused to pay their delinquent accounts?

It never seemed so to me but he did have at least a single release from sainthood….thank God. He liked to go to the race track. I barely remember a night at Roosevelt Raceway where he would put two bucks on the favorite usually to show. In later years my parents moved to Las Vegas and he played Keno; a small gesture going up against the gods.

The one area he would not negotiate was in politics, so identified was he with the plight of the down-trodden. When he answered a knock at the door from the FBI he stood steadfast and close-mouthed as they asked for names. They knew of his membership in the Party and the meetings in our apartment. He refused them and that silence resounds with me still.

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