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Father

SIF croppdAs I tossed about restlessly, I could almost see him. For an instant, he broke free of that snapshot I carry in my head–the rounded 65-year old body, fixed with the bemused-and-perhaps disapproving look, about to burst into a hearty laugh from his barrel chest, followed by a cough or two and a gasp. I tried to morph his image back into the younger man he must have been when his arms would catch me, racing to his knees. Daddy traveled so much, he was always like a special guest in the house. But he loved being a Daddy. I could tell.

Every Friday night he performed the blessings over wine and bread in a heartfelt tenor that discouraged joining in—although he wanted participation. At 40, he began his athletic career by risking his apple-shaped body on thin blades of steel, braving the too, too cold and the smelly relief of the warming hut, so I would have someone to ice skate with. It was an invigorating shared misery. He always smelled salty after these adventures.

Sylvan was a little surprised to find what a conventional life he led. He always acted as if he knew different worlds and could have walked through any of them comfortably. He seemed part Sam Spade, part Enrico Caruso. He idolized FDR and always mistrusted the establishment. People trusted him with their money and family problems and he helped.

He was rocked out of his small town ethnic America by the call to war: a war against fascism; a war against genocide aimed at his own people. He left the claustrophobia of the old neighborhood and was thrown in with other young men of every stripe, people he never would have met in ordinary times. He was Father to some, brother to others. He shipped overseas and was taken in by a grateful British housewife. He was commissioned In North Africa to buy supplies in French. He saw death, he knew women. He came home from war a pacifist.

I wish I had the day to day stories. “What did you really DO in the War, Daddy.” But instead I often rolled my eyes and whined “Dad” when the tales would begin their cycle again.

If he had lived longer, would I have gotten to know him better? Would I sit still for the repetitive stories, ask the probing questions, complete the pictures I stopped gathering over 20 years ago? Or would I be annoyed at his slowness and frailty, at the obstinacy and routines of old men. Would I have continued to be too rushed by the crush between generations to note the gifts of either one?

When I watched my mother slip into dementia, I would sometimes think “What would HE think about this.” I’d be embarrassed for her as I’d picture him there before us, critical as always. Then I’d remember—who is he to criticize her; he died. Where does he get off rolling his bulging eyes, judging her absent mind?

Sometimes I wonder why I had to run so hard away from my parents. Sometimes I’m in their clutches still…. I’m grateful for their wisdom and for the strange weave that they made in me.