Saturday, June 20, 2020

Further Father

My father had a Dickensian beginning. His mother died when he was two and his father couldn’t cope. My grandfather was destitute and an alcoholic. If this were a novel there may have been great expectations awaiting but this was real life with no inheritance on the next page.

So it was that my Dad was sent to live with equally impoverished, but sober, Aunt Rose and Uncle Peretz whose profession was a peddler selling shoe laces and socks. I don’t imagine there was very much food on the table. Day-old bread would have been a luxury. I can imagine them eating a soup made from the top of carrots which were thrown away. I can almost hear my father saying, Please, Sir, I want some more. The Dickens, you say.

Wait, I lied. There was a rich Uncle Henry. But where was he? Maybe he hadn’t become rich for another three decades and even then I remember being invited to Rose and Peretz for lunch one day when I was about ten years old. I was served pot cheese and sour cream. As I recall I did not plead for some more.

When my father went to kindergarten the teacher warned the class to pay attention. In his state of anxiety he heard it as, Pay a pencil. Alas, like Simple Simon he hadn’t any. I don’t know how far he went in elementary school but I know he never went to high school. He sold newspapers in front of Bushwick Stadium in Brooklyn. At three cents a throw I guess he got to keep a penny.

Along came my mother to tutor him sufficiently to pass a high school equivalency test and then on to college for the required two years to receive his license to practice Pharmacy. He must have been dyslexic; it took an inordinate amount of time for him to read a newspaper article.

His model was compelling enough for me to follow that path into pharmacy. I remember how deliberate he was reading a prescription. In those days the ingredients were often written in Latin with a sort of educated scribble, unintelligible to most, as if the doctor and pharmacist were engaged in a clandestine operation. Simply counting and pouring came much later. Prior to 1950 drugstores were gardens of herbs with crude drugs emitting a vapor from their apothecary jars.  My father carried that scent in his body, pungent, organic and intoxicating.
A single inhalation could pacify my world.

The mean streets seem not to have left its mark on him except  his compassion for the disadvantaged which came out as a kind of abstract vehemence against greed and injustice. It landed him, apologetically, in left-wing politics. 

In the meantime his father had remarried and accumulated four more children. All of them were raised in an orphanage. Perhaps in a state of inebriation my Grandpa Louis named one his new sons, Samuel, forgetting that he already had a son with that name. Sam, meet your brother, Sam. Even Dickens couldn’t make this stuff up.

He loved his half-brothers, particularly his namesake whom I remember for his beautiful handwriting in the V-mails we used to receive during W.W. II where he served in the Merchant Marine in the North Atlantic.

Here’s my question. How does a boy, discarded by his birth father and raised as a street urchin, turn out to be such a soulful, loving, even-tempered father? I have no memory of him ever raising his voice. He never complained. He seemed at home in this world. Where did that sweet nature come from? I ask you Charles Dickens?   

My father took the hand dealt him and went further, father.