Dear Michael and Caroline,
This much I know for sure: I saw my father less during my childhood than I would have liked, and as an adult, too, for that matter. His presence in my life was defined largely by his absence. In that sense, it reminds you of a character in a play who mostly stays offstage, talked about but unseen.
He had his work to do, managing apartment buildings with his father in Newark, and that kept him busy from early morning to later at night. He took me to Newark with him a few times, and I saw him check in with the superintendents, bringing beer as a gift and explaining to me why.
We would ride to work on the Garden State Parkway, father and son, he behind the wheel of his powder-blue Chevy station wagon, and I would be so happy. Any time he had to stop short, he stuck out his arm across the front seat to keep me from tumbling forward against the dashboard, keeping me safe (this was before seat belts).
He wore a hearing aid his whole life – it might squawk and screech sometimes, like a message on a ham radio trying to come through – but he heard anything I said pretty well.
Once, while driving to his buildings, he started talking about God. He said that what was different about being Jewish was you had a choice about whether to believe in God.
Another time, as he built a bar in our den – he was always quite handy – he told me he disliked drinking alcohol because it left him depressed. He told me something about my Uncle Leonard, too, as if confiding a dark family secret – that he never really got along all that well with anyone.
He pulled the same move about my Uncle Ward, too, sharing a confidence that he never really worked, and that was because he already had so much money. He made these remarks to me, I believe, more to be instructive than to belittle anyone. He was trying to explain a little of the world to his son.
Now I find myself trying to explain my father to you, and to myself, too. Let me tell you this. He found his true calling later in life.
P.S. – See Part 3 tomorrow.