‘That’s cool.’ I said.
We were standing in my Nana and Papa’s driveway in Vero Beach, Fla. where they had retired after being classic ‘snowbirds’ from New Jersey, where they were classic urban/suburban migrants from Brooklyn. By this time they had settled away from the cold and snow for good.
It was dark and warm in November. I was no more than 10, an age that was much younger thirty years ago than it seems to be now. The warmth was novel and being in shorts in November was an absurdity to me being native to the snowbelt of Western New York.
‘Just think about what Papa’s seen. He was born in 1908. His earliest memories are of street maintained for horses. People weren’t even flying in anyway we think of it until he was man. A full grown man. Now we’re in his driveway watching the space shuttle take off.’ I could imagine it, I could conceive of what he was saying and my mind expanded that day. It was magic. He just layed it out with perspective, surely just trying to get me to understand why in fact ‘that’s cool’.
I feel shame about this now, but at the time I can say there was no intent to hurt at all, but when I was little I was a little embarrassed because I didn’t have all the same things as the other kids. We were fine. But we are also not descendents of robber barrons or royalty, and like any young family, and any large family, we occasionally didn’t get everything we wanted. One of those things in my case, at least for a few years, was the cool lunchbox. This is a thing to a 5 or 6 year old. A real thing to one, like myself, who had a tough go socially early on in school. I cried my way into a second kindergarten and once there was a kid that took a few hits. My parents were good and we were never too hurt, frankly, with the words, but I took a few sticks and stones in my day, mostly in the form of fists, and for me fitting in and avoiding having anything to make me draw attention as a VERY young lad was important.
When word got to him that I was disappointed by not having the same cool things everyone else had he solved it for me. Each night after getting all of us fed and to bed, all 5 at the time, 6 shortly thereafter, my mother would go about making lunches for the school kids. While my dad would surely help get this or that or go to the store to get bread or a bag of apples, the thing he did that I remember to this day is he would break out his tools, he being a designer by trade and a person that draws by nature, and draw pictures on my lunch bags. My brown lunchbags became pieces of art that I probably felt self conscious about at first. But quickly they became objects of desire for the other kids who would occasionally even ask to see them. This may have been a thing he did for years. He may only have done it once, who knows. But to this day I can remember a brown paper bag with a sea of waves and a tiny island, an island just big enough for a palm tree and the elephant that sat beneath it, head thrown back in laughter, trunk in the air. It was magnificent.
With the cacauphony of domestic life with six kids he took the time to insist I watch ‘Breaking Away’ with him when I’d reached an age. He somehow had the time to take me, just me, to go see my first concert, and he made it Pete Seeger. That was me. I’m the one that would be right for that show, of all the kids and he knew it. He’s received letters I’ve sent him about being confused about what I’m supposed to be doing in life, letters that I fear now showed more pain then intended. Or maybe not. He responded to them honestly, sending me letters back in which he let me know what he thought, let me know he knew I was a good person and an able and curious and smart and interesting person at a time when I needed to hear it. He sat down and read books becuase I said I thought he’d like them and took the time to understand that I was telling him about who I was and he respected my perspective, even before I did. He supported me and loved me and encouraged me at every turn. My guess would be that there’s 5 other folks out there that have a similar but unique story to tell about him.
My fathers the blueprint. These memories are little pieces of light he shined on me during times in my life that are increasingly relevant to what I’m doing now, with my own son’s surely approaching the age where I’ll do and say things that have long term impacts on how they are and who they are. For me I’m the proud son of a father that took on every responsibility he could, shared his love and curiosity simply and openly and was never ever too busy to be a dad to the kids who adored him. He was a good and decent man in all of his dealings and never once were we ever shown the example of a man making the expedient or convenient decision as opposed to the right and thoughtful decision. No matter how hard it might have been.
My father is a good and decent man.
It’s a humble phrase isn’t it. It’s unassming, direct, concise and unadorned. It speaks volumes without expressing any untoward pride. It’s very simpleness expresses a certain humility. Unfortunately, in regard to my father its a lie. A lie of omission. He’s far more then this very sufficient description. A description I had the great good fortune of assuming was common. A description that I’ve come to find out is an aspirational one for so many men. For my dad being simply good and decent was his floor. He was typically far greater then merely good and decent. I’m just thankful that I’ve gained enough perspective and managed to finally grow up enough to realize just how much that has meant to me.
I love you, Pop.