Originally posted Sept. 2013
Because my Dad passed away on September 1, I’m in a mood to write about him. Writing helps me consolidate my thoughts and my memories. Things become clearer to me when I try to talk about them, I suppose because I have to process thoughts in order to explain them. So I pace around talking to myself in the middle of the night and things become clear to me.
I have no reason to believe that anyone here has any reason to care about my father. That’s OK; I’m writing this time more for me than for you. However, I noticed that when I wrote about my son, people did care, so you never know. Also, some people are just supportive by nature I suppose, and I do appreciate that. But I’m sorry if I’m wasting your time. My feelings won’t be hurt if you don’t read this.
This will run long. There may be a memorial service at my Temple; in this case, a joint one for my wife’s father and for mine. Her father died August 23, the day after my father’s brain surgery. At the beginning of that week, we didn’t think either of them had a life-threatening problem. So, if there is a service for our fathers, I’ll probably have to talk about mine. That’s really where this comes from but, even if I don’t use it, it makes me peruse memories and, at the moment, that’s a good thing.
Oh well, my preamble is longer than a lot of posts.
If anyone who knew him reads this: This is written strictly from the perspective of my relationship with him, not really anyone else’s. In that respect, this isn’t anything like a biography. If, for example, his sister or mine or his wife were writing this, it would be completely different.
Dad was born and brought up in the Bronx. My grandparents were both from Eastern Europe, so Dad grew up in a bilingual household, speaking Yiddish and English. Years later, Dad and I went out to a movie one night when my mother and sister had something else to do. What should we go see? Well, there was this movie listed in the paper by a guy named Mel Brooks. I’d seen him on David Suskind once; he was funny. But there’s something odd about this movie for a guy like this – it’s a Western?? OK, we’ll give it a shot.
There was no better way to see Blazing Saddles than completely cold, expecting absolutely nothing, sitting next to my Yiddish-speaking father.
The first of what may be many tangents.
As a kid, he had rheumatic fever. That left him with a heart murmur, which may have kept him out of combat during the Korean War and which may eventually have contributed to his death, and it also changed his hair from straight to somewhere between wavy and curly. Dad felt that this somehow made him look less ethnic – strictly an observation, not a desire. He told me the story of getting onto the elevator in his building as a kid with a couple of adults he didn’t know. They were having a conversation and, when he entered the elevator, they switched to Yiddish for privacy. He went up in the elevator with them and, just before he got out, he asked Vifl azaiger? What time is it?
Even at that age, Dad had timing.
Dad always worked hard. His father was a man who took care of his family, took in his brothers as they emigrated to the United States until they got on their feet, and who had the best bullshit filter I ever saw. He didn’t have to work at it; he just didn’t process it at all. He had a little grocery distribution business and my grandmother and father and aunt helped out there with tasks like making soup mix to sell to the mom and pop grocery stores. I just inherited the scale. Dad said that during the Second World War, guys in his business made a fortune dealing in black market sugar. Grandpa wouldn’t touch it. I don’t know if Dad would have, but the thing about Dad is that if he did, he’d have acknowledged that what he was doing was wrong before he did it and not made excuses for it. Dad’s first commandment was Thou Shalt Not Lie To Thyself. Lying to others? Sometimes that was necessary to avoid hurt feelings or, in the case of business, to keep something to himself that was really nobody else’s business. But to yourself? Is it OK to take a pencil home from work? You’re stealing the pencil – you may think it’s fine to steal the pencil; just don’t lie to yourself about what you’re doing.
Dad worked hard, got up early, and went to bed early. I came out of college, lived at home, got up later than he did, had no objection to working later than he did, but he equated getting up with working. Hey, if I was going to live at home, I had it coming.
Dad was a streetwise kid; he described himself as the sort of kid his mother wouldn’t have wanted him to play with. He told me a story of going to work at one of his first jobs that paid, because his father’s business wasn’t big enough to support two people, and listening to one of the young men he worked with brag about how he’d spent time in this dangerous neighborhood. Dad didn’t have the heart to tell him he lived there.
(The neighborhood no longer exists as it was, though there have been reunions held for its former residents. A lot of them did very well over time.)
Streetwise but not trouble to his parents. When his diminutive father showed up at the pool hall looking for him, he always went home. When he was out with his cousins and they ate treif (non-kosher) cheeseburgers which they never would have eaten at home, Dad didn’t, not because he wouldn’t eventually give up kashrut but because you either followed it or you didn’t. My mother’s family, at least her immediate family, did not remotely keep kosher. When my parents were going together and Mom would eat lobster, Dad had to sit next to her because he couldn’t stand to watch. That changed. Years later, when my parents had a place on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Dad would trap and eat crabs just fine.
Dad didn’t have a middle name. One of his cousins, Rita, came to the funeral. Well, Dad called her Rita, and my sister and I do because of that, but that’s it. Rita is actually her middle name, and Dad called her by that because he thought that a middle name should have a use. By a very strange coincidence, my daughter has chosen to go by her middle name, which was the first name of my father’s mother. It was a little eerie to see my daughter’s name (first and last) on a gravestone right near where we buried my father.
And bury him we did. When I’m at the funeral of a close relative, I don’t like to leave the gravesite with the casket showing (which I picked up from my great uncles) so, if it’s not completely buried, I pick up a shovel and do it myself. I did that for my son. By the time mourners had stopped using the shovels, there was a lot left to do, so I dug for a while, then stopped, then started again. But then I was joined by my two nieces and my daughter, my father’s granddaughters, all in their teens, and I could see that they all found the process cathartic, in addition to the fact that it’s such a tangible, physical way to express respect for the dead. Together, we finished that task. If I’d left my younger niece alone, she’d have filled in the grave to ground level. I doubt any of them will ever leave the casket of a loved one unburied. Watching that tradition actually take root in a new generation was really gratifying.
I don’t think Dad ever worried about God. He worried heavily about being Jewish in terms of belonging. His attitude toward davening (praying) was that it mattered that all the members of the club knew the same incantations and choreography and had the same customs. (Choreography in this context is my wife’s term, not my father’s.)
I suspect Dad had some sort of a learning disability. He didn’t enjoy school and he was a lousy speller, though an avid reader, and he finished high school at night. He always came across as way more educated than he was, but he was self-conscious about his lack of education his entire life. I suspect he finished high school because of my mother, who was always a straight-A student. He met her at a party when she was claiming to be sixteen (she was actually fifteen) and he seventeen. When my grandmother said to Dad “you know she’s really only fifteen,” his reply was “that’s OK, I’m only sixteen.” Mom was an only child from Queens, with American born parents and, even stranger, a pair of American-born grandparents. When Mom and Dad were overseas and Mom got a letter from her American grandmother, Dad was surprised because, in his neighborhood, old people couldn’t write in English.
Dad was drafted a little after they got married. Mom worked for the wife of the duty officer, also Jewish, who handled assignments for that group of draftees. One day she was asked “Where do you want your husband to be stationed?” “Somewhere safe where I can follow him.” “That’s Caribbean Command.” “OK, Caribbean Command.” So, when Dad got home from base that day, she told him “You’re going to Caribbean Command.” (The heart murmur probably would have kept him out of combat anyway, as it develops, and in fact may have.) That meant the Panama Canal Zone. Upon arrival, they were told: You’re going to leave with a camera and a baby. The camera I think got lost in a burglary years later. The baby’s still here. My parents were young when I was born – Mom was twenty and Dad was just short of twenty-two. So, I was always closer in age to my parents than my peers were to theirs.
When I was a kid, Mom went back to school, first to community college, then to the University of Maryland. She stopped at a Masters. Back then, there weren’t very many adult learners in college. Dad didn’t do school but he respected education, so he let her study, which Mom did heavily. That meant that he and us kids did the housework. Dad traveled a lot for work, sometimes staying out for a night or two, but he busted his tail to get home and spend as much time with us as he could.
I think Dad learned not only from his own father but from his father in law. My mother’s parents both worked. When they approached retirement age, my grandfather, who was sort of iconoclastic to begin with (and who I blatantly take after), retired, but my grandmother enjoyed working, so she kept at it. So, my grandmother worked and my grandfather cooked. Witnessing this for years, Dad didn’t approach housework or cooking as “womens’ work.”
This was how I had experienced life when feminism first hit big. In my world, men did housework and spent a lot of their lives trying to please women, and I was suddenly surrounded by people screaming about Ozzie and Harriet gender roles. In my experience, those roles were televised fantasy, not real life.
This whole approach of doing whatever it takes to run your household and take care of your family is something I learned from growing up with it. When my son was born and turned out to have cerebral palsy, I had the right habits to deal with that.
After J (my son) died, my father paid me the best compliment I’ve ever gotten and probably ever will get. He told me that he never saw another person devote as much of their life to the care of another as I did for J. I didn’t have the presence of mind to think of the reply I owed him: that I learned how to do that from him. But then again, I wouldn’t think that fast. I like to mull things over. Dad didn’t prepare stuff because if he did, he’d forget three quarters of what he wanted to say. You’d get a better result if you threw something at him and said “Think fast!”
I got married in my late twenties. Just after I did, my mother left my father, an action he didn’t see coming. He remarried, and the dynamics of a second family attempting to integrate (or not) with elements of the first had its difficulties. Dad married a woman with an older teenaged son and an eleven year old daughter – they both regard him as closer to them than their biological fathers. Dad always took parenting very seriously, as he took being married very seriously. My stepmother understood what she had in my father and really appreciated him. My father’s two marriages were about the same length – close to thirty years apiece.
But my relationship wasn’t restricted to the familial because I worked for him, then with him, in what was his small family business and has been mine for a while. Before my parents split, our relationship might have legitimately been described as too close, particularly given that I was married. Working with him meant that a major part of our relationship was not interrupted by Dad’s divorce and remarriage, which was less true of other family members.
It also meant that I saw a side of him no one else in the family did. Dad talked about business with Mom but just in terms of some of the interpersonal stuff – he never sat down and explained exactly what he did and how it worked. In part, though he had a tremendous amount of respect for my mother, particularly in terms of her intellect, he didn’t want interference in his business because, in the long run, he trusted his own judgment first. Past that, I was the only person whose judgment he trusted, in large part because he trained me and knew that I understood his priorities, methods, principles, practices. And that I was his son and he didn’t have to watch his back, though in our business there are a lot of fathers and sons, and some of his peers with sons in their businesses were shocked when he told them, when I was still in my twenties, that I was authorized to sign checks.
I’m in the commercial audio business. Over time, we’ve been in related businesses as well. Dad always prided himself on not knowing anything about product. He wouldn’t admit what he did know. It was a running joke with some of his customers for years. When a product question came up, particularly once we had cellphones, I’d get a call from him at his customer and he’d put me on to answer it.
But when it came to the business side, when it came to understanding money, relationships, consequences, what exactly would cause whom to do what and why, I never saw anyone with that kind of grasp on the process. I learned from the best I ever saw. Dad was into maintaining his lifestyle rather than maximizing his income, and also he was not in the right part of the chain to really affect things optimally given his skills, so he didn’t get wealthy in our business, but he could have. I’m sorry now that my mother and sister never saw it; they never saw the really exceptional part of his skill set. It never occurred to me during his lifetime that they didn’t.
I’m not known among my peers as being an intellectual slouch. I can see things and their consequences faster and more completely most of the time than they can. Their observations rarely surprise me. But Dad’s did on a regular basis.
And I wasn’t alone in noticing. In the late seventies, we used to sell Philips turntables, for playing records. There was a woman at company headquarters in Indiana who was really annoyed at Dad because any time he asked someone for a business favor or exception, they gave it to him. She was in charge of a different part of the country than ours and just didn’t get why he got such special treatment. Finally, people up there were reassigned and she was now in charge of our part of the country. Things would change.
So he called her up and asked for a favor and explained exactly why he needed it. It made complete sense, so she granted it and figured she’d get him on the next one. Except, of course, that Dad always explained exactly why he needed it. Not only did he explain why he needed it, he explained why it benefitted who he was talking to, not him, one of the most important lessons he taught me.
Eventually, she just gave up and moved out to the DC area to manage our office.
That “why it benefitted who he was talking to” part matters. Our business is based almost entirely on repeat business. If I’m talking to a new customer and he wants to know why he should trust me – incidentally, I never ask for trust – my answer is that I’m dependent on repeat business and if I shaft you I won’t get it. You don’t need to trust me because I’m honest, you need to trust me because I’m not stupid. That was absolutely Dad’s approach. The truth is, of course, that we were honest, for moral reasons at least as much as business reasons, but we never expected people to take that for granted. That they learned from experience.
One day we were sitting down with one of my sharpest customers, a guy who has, among other things, won a Grammy. He manages a major firm that installs and designs commercial sound and video systems, and this firm has a sister company with common ownership, an extremely successful music store. He mentioned to my father that he was about to ream one of our competitors for giving the music store a better discount than his division got. (For political reasons, we didn’t do that.) My father instantly reacted: “The store’s entitled to a better discount.” “What??”
“You specify and sell what you need, then, after you know exactly what you need, you order it. They maintain inventory. You sell and then buy, they buy and then sell. They invest their money with manufacturers up front; you don’t. That’s worth a discount.”
A minute later, our customer was on the phone to our competitor. “[Kosher’s Dad] just saved your ass!”
It’s not that Dad had thought about that up front. As I said earlier, with Dad it was always Think Fast! for the best results. You’ve heard of chessplayers who can see six, seven, eight moves out? Dad was like that with business, only he didn’t have to analyze it, it was just obvious to him. He could see the rows of dominos. If you’ve played music with me, maybe the best way to say it is that he could see the dominos like I can hear chords.
He frequently gave me advice. Sometimes, well actually often, the same advice again. Sometimes I felt like assigning his lectures numbers, but the thing was that they were good lectures. He’d say:
“Always admit the obvious.” Makes sense. It’s obvious anyway, but if you admit it you get credibility for being honest without telling people anything they don’t already know. You want to try counting the number of politicians who haven’t figured this out?
He’d say, and I’m paraphrasing here to make this not industry-specific:
“If the deal isn’t good for all its participants, it’s a lousy deal.” On this one, Dad was a little like Rashi (a famous Torah commentator) in that he’d expect you to understand why he said it without actually explaining it.
However, I explain everything compulsively, so: If a deal is good for all participants, they’ll all continue to support it. If the deal screws any of its participants, they’ll continuously attempt to undermine it. Therefore, you need everyone taken care of if you want continuity and stability, if you want the deal to stick.
Think of this in political terms.
At the end of the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles was awful for Germany. The result was the rise of Hitler and the Second World War.
At the end of the Second World War, the U.S. used the Marshall Plan to help its opponents, and the result is alliances that are still healthy nearly seventy years later.
I studied for four years at Oberlin with a secondary major in Government; one of my professors helped write the damned Marshall Plan, and the best handle I ever got on the process came from a guy who finished high school at night, was self-conscious about his lack of education, and wasn’t even talking about politics!
The lesson is still valuable. If the Israelis ever cut a deal with the Palestinians that doesn’t take their sensitivities into account as much as they can afford to, we’ll see terrorism forever as they try to undermine the agreement. I can pretty much guarantee that no one in Likud has figured this out because,
None of those guys has as much sense as my Dad did.
They don’t see the dominoes.
Dad did have one blind spot when it came to the dominoes – he had serious trouble accepting that other people didn’t see them, because they were so blindingly obvious to him. “It’s common sense!” Well, define “common.” He’d later say that common sense wasn’t common, but he never actually accepted it. I’d hear these long frustrated rants from him and I eventually started saying things like: “Dad. You’ve spoken to this person seventy-five thousand times. Why the Hell do you expect the seventy-five thousand and first to be any different?” “You’re right,” he’d say. But that was lip service. I get it, I really do – if someone doesn’t grasp what I say, I try explaining it simpler. Then simpler. Then another way. I don’t actually accept the lack of comprehension either. In that respect, I am absolutely my father’s son.
Dad retired a couple of years ago but kept his hand in a little. I’d bring him to our national trade show every year. He’d attend meetings with me and then we’d talk about what happened, what was likely to happen and why, and what to do about it. He wasn’t connected to this stuff day-to-day any more and, given that I’ve done this for better than a third of a century, I didn’t think he’d surprise me, but at last year’s show he did, a couple of times, times where I’d think “Why didn’t I think of that?”
The Master was the Master.
Dad’s funeral was a few states away from where he lived, and we were having a short graveside service, so I didn’t tell business associates about his death before the funeral. Instead, when I had time to breathe, driving home after it all, I got on the phone.
That was a very different experience than I expected. I thought it would be difficult because of how much bad news I was handing out. Instead, what I learned, very graphically, is how much my father was loved and respected, which is a very good thing for a son to learn. Two guys on the other end of the phone actually sobbed. I heard “I’ve known him for over half my life!” I learned about how he’d inadvertently determined the career trajectory of someone who worked for him by sending him to a particular class – and this guy’s substantially older than I am. And when I called this guy to tell him Dad died, I learned that two people had already called him with the news. That in itself was significant.
One thing I learned from the death of my son was that language isn’t really up to the task of dealing with the pain. Sometimes, though, it can come closer than I thought. One of my friends from where I blog, this guy Bill (for those of you at OS, I mean Bill Beck) wrote the following:
“From personal experience, and from talking with many in the same situation over many decades, you are on the threshold of a new phase of relationship with your father. ‘Losing’ the loved one is not quite accurate because your mind takes over. This may be especially true for an adult child at the passing of a parent.
“When their physical presence ceases, their spiritual presence becomes more evident. The impressions that they have made on you in non-material ways begins to flood in day and night. It will likely inform your dreams, and come in moments as ordinary as placing a glass on a table. (Sometimes when I casually place a glass on the edge of something, I hear Mom say, ‘Billy, don't place that in a precarious position.’) When you're driving, you may hear/feel it. When you're discouraged, you may feel it. You will almost certainly hear your parents’ voices when you are parenting your daughter. All this is to say, if you knew them and loved them, you never really ‘lose’ them. The relationship is permanent. Only the nature of the way you interact with them changes.”
I hope he’s right.
I'm on an IPad so I can't include a photo. One of him can be found at the beginning of this link: