Signing off, for now

Bob Brody photo at Podell bar mitzvah
Dear all,

Yes, that’s me on the right in the photo up there. But perhaps more importantly, I’ve decided to take my blog on hiatus, starting today. My main reason is simple: I have other stuff to do that takes priority.

This blog has turned out to be a singular adventure, and I’ve loved doing it. It gave me the opportunity to advocate for a cause close to my heart: preserving personal family history in writing for future generations. In the process, letterstomykids.org has brought parents and children a little closer together, one letter at a time. My blog, 500 posts later, has given voice to stories from loving mothers and fathers all across the country. Little did I ever realize three years ago how much this commitment would come to feel like a privilege and an honor.

Maybe someday I’ll bring my blog back. Even after so many words posted – easily 150,000, possibly 200,000, only about half mine, the other half from guests — I just might. If I do, it would probably be on New Year’s Day, 2014, or next Father’s Day. Then again, my hiatus may be permanent. It’s hard to predict, and I see no sense even trying.

Whatever the case, nothing I have to say right now about this decision is more important to me than thank you. I’m grateful to everyone who got behind letterstomykids.org – all the guest columnists, my board of advisors, all the media who took an interest, my family and friends and colleagues. Cheerleaders make a big difference.

Special thanks go to Pam Jenkins, who encouraged me to start this blog in the first place, back on Father’s Day three years ago. And to Snow Hudgins, who helped me set up the site. And to Frank Cavallaro, who posted far and away more comments than anyone else. And to my wife, Elvira, who gave me the all-important green light to proceed with this most personal of campaigns. And above all to my kids, Michael and Caroline, who fueled me with the inspiration for the overall concept.

For now, though, if you get a chance, maybe you’ll all do me one small favor. Keep spreading the word. Take the opportunity to let parents out there know why putting our personal family histories into words for our children matters so much – matters, ironically, even more than we can put into words.

Cheers,
Bob

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My Father’s Train Ride Into History

Dad photo
The five-year-old boy who is to become my father in 20 years stands on a platform in Newark Penn Station with his mother and father waiting for the train that will soon take him away from all he has ever known and loved. It’s September, 1931.

He hands the conductor his ticket and steps onto the train under the care of a porter assigned to him. His parents wave goodbye to him and he waves back. He is all by himself now, headed to a destination 868 miles away.

Nobody else on the train knows his name or where he’s going or, for that matter, his most defining physical characteristic – that he’s severely hard of hearing, all but deaf. Because his mother gave birth to him while she had German measles, he was born able to discern only about 10% of all sounds. He has difficulty making himself understood when he speaks, and an equally hard time understanding anyone who talks to him.

The train rattles across America, through Pennsylvania and Ohio, on into Indiana and Illinois. The boy understands only that he is going away, but has no idea for how long. Finally, he arrives in St. Louis, Missouri, at his new home away from home, the Central Institute for The Deaf.

There he will stay for the next 10 years, rarely visiting home during holidays. There, in the face of a society that regards the deaf largely as dumb – several doctors originally diagnosed him as retarded – he is to study hard. He is to learn how to speak without relying on sign language, how to listen and how to read, how to function the same as a hearing person – learn, in effect, how to hear.

For years I condemned his parents for the decision to ship him off. First, the kid loses his hearing, then his family and home, too. The decision addressed one disability but created a second one.

Because his parents dispatched him, he never learned how to be a member of a family, neither as a son nor as a brother, husband nor father. How could he? And so I held a grudge against my grandparents, a chip on my shoulder that grew bigger every year.

As it happened, the boy who became my father went on to become among the first students with hearing loss ever accepted at Washington University, and graduated from Rutgers University. In 1969 he founded a non-profit organization to establish a network that, for the first time, would enable the deaf to communicate with one another and everyone else by phone.

Toward that end, my father bought, stored, adapted, promoted and distributed teletypewriters, or TTYs. The devices materialized in homes, schools, hospitals, libraries and local police, fire and emergency call departments, first in New York and New Jersey, then nationwide. He also invented the world’s first Braille TTY for deaf-blind people.

For all his public service the deaf community honored him with awards. Bell Telephone accepted him to the Telephone Pioneers of America, only the 29th member since Alexander Graham Bell in 1911. He once received a letter on White House stationary, congratulations on his accomplishments from President Ronald Reagan.

Ultimately, then, my father learned to make do with his hearing loss. He never told me what those years away from his parents and two sisters felt like. He left me to imagine how lonely he must have felt, how homesick and abandoned, almost orphaned.

Indeed, he never spoke a word against his parents about having been a five-year-old boy sent 800 miles away for 10 years. He felt nothing but gratitude for getting the opportunity to better himself.

Only after my father died, in 1997, did I confront the underlying facts. His father had come to the United States from Austria at the age of 12, alone, with no money and barely any education, unable to speak English. He had spent seven days a week running a tavern in Newark and saved almost every penny he earned – enough, eventually, to finance an expensive special education for his son in the depths of the Great Depression. Year after year, his wife wore the same dress, unable to afford a new one.

Tuition plus room and board for one child for those ten years cost him more than later putting all three of his children through college.

My grandparents made a decision – to put education first and family second. Surely that decision came hard. Surely they felt as heartbroken as he.

My father later made a decision, too. He put work first and family second, even after his grandchildren arrived. He kept his distance from me and my mother and my sister and my own son and daughter. Maybe all he ever really grasped about family was the idea of distance. Maybe, in a sense, he never really got off that train.

Even so, it’s easy to pass judgment out of ignorance. Every difficult decision about children brings tradeoffs. The decision his parents made, with heroic self-sacrifice, spelled his salvation in a society which otherwise might have had no place for him. In the end, my grudge wound up buried alongside my father, where it belonged.

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/06/my-fathers-train-ride/276864/

Dear Kids: Here’s Why You And I Are History

My_Family_Me_Michael_Caroline_Elvira_jpg_scaled1000
In 44 BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman statesman and philosopher, wrote an essay that took the form of a letter to his son. The father detailed how the son should live and behave honorably, and how best to fulfill his personal duties and civic obligations.

In composing letters to educate his child, Cicero had plenty of company among fathers over the centuries. Robert E. Lee, the general who led the Confederate Army in the Civil War, wrote his son a letter offering practical advice to follow in life. Say what you mean to do and then do it, he wrote. If you have an issue with someone, tell him to his face.

Indeed, of 31 U.S. presidents who had daughters, from George Washington to Bill Clinton, 21 wrote letters to them. Most recently, President Obama wrote an open letter to his daughters, Sasha and Malia, soon after his election. “It is only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself,” the new president wrote, “that you will realize your true potential.”

Yet fathers today are more likely to text a child than keep a journal or write a letter. As a result, all too many of our children, given a test, would flunk family history.

It’s tough for fathers to keep such intergenerational storytelling alive. Both parents may work, curbing conversation at the dinner table. Family members of multiple generations seldom live under the same roof and usually farther apart, rendering reunions rare. Computers, smartphones and social media cut into time otherwise available for extended storytelling.

But plenty of fathers are trying, whether in actual letters, journals or so-called “Daddy blogs,” to record personal family history to benefit the next generation. We’re living longer than ever, too, granting us more time for retrospective reflection. In some cases, we’re even outsourcing the work. Membership in the Association of Personal Historians, who help create personal histories in the form of books, DVDs, websites and audiotapes, has grown by more than 20 percent annually for the past five years.

Five years ago I made a New Year’s resolution to do something I had long intended to do –write a family history, deeply personal, for our children, Michael and Caroline, then 24 and 19. My father never wrote anything about his family history for me and my sister, nor has my mother. And now so much is lost. Unless we document our personal family history, it will go untold, possibly doomed to disappear.

That would never happen to me. I started to keep handwritten journals, one for each child. Every week for the next year I took an hour or so to capture a special memory– how my son, as an adolescent, quoted wisecracks from the movie“Ghostbusters,” how my daughter, at age eight, sang “Colors Of The Wind” in front of an audience in Martha’s Vineyard.I also put down vignettes about growing up with deaf parents, a lavishly doting maternal grandmother, and friends who, like me, wanted to play sports all day long. I recorded my difficulties in school, my first date with my wife, and how it felt to land my first real job.

I surprised my kids the following Christmas by presenting the journals as gifts. The following year I completed a second set of volumes, also given at Christmas.

Then, on Father’s Day, 2010, with an OK from both our children to do so, I set up a blog, letterstomykids.org, that took these private letters public. I urged other parents to follow suit and enlisted some to contribute guest columns.

If you’re a parent, you might ask yourself how much your kids know about your past. As it happens, I conducted an informal survey of 100 parents and grandparents to find out. More than three in four respondents said parents and grandparents “should” write personal family history for the younger generation. Yet four in 10 reported they planned to do it and never got around to it. Nearly half said they lack the time to dedicate to it.
Asked “Do children today know more about family history than previous generations knew?” 59 percent said “no.” Still, some parents may forge ahead. Asked “What would motivate you to write your personal family history?” 36 percent named a combination of three factors: “leaving a legacy,” “rediscovering great memories” and “the opportunity for self-expression.”

As we mark Father’s Day, we fathers are often tempted to review our pasts, and also wonder about our futures. Fathers take stock of themselves, measuring our accomplishments to date against our original ambitions. We ask ourselves what our lives have meant, whether they have mattered.

That’s why we should invest in our pasts. Telling stories out loud is fine, but conversation often evaporates without a trace. Getting it all in writing, messages to the future delivered with the advantages of contemplation, is something else again.

Just imagine what would happen if more fathers (and mothers) decided to get personal. In playing family historians, you would recount your origins, your struggles, your triumphs. You would discover new truths about yourselves and express once and for all how deeply you love your children. You’ll leave behind children a legacy more valuable than any insurance policy.

The record you leave behind just might last forever. As Father’s Day resolutions go, it’s hard to do better.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bob-brody/dear-kids-heres-why-you-and-i-are-history_b_3436782.html

My Poppa, and Why Baseball Never Ends

Yankee Stadium train tracks
You and your grandfather Benjamin walk side by side as the No. 4 IRT line rattles thunderously overhead. The afternoon sunlight shafts through the railway tracks onto 161st Street in a flickering crosshatch of shadows.

Vendors line the street, a midway carnival selling baseball paraphernalia – programs and pennants and photos, caps and toys and balloons. The doors to all the bars are open, the aroma of beer and peanuts wafting onto the sidewalks.

The historic building looms over us. You reach Gate 2 and pass through the turnstile and take a winding ramp upwards. Your Poppa keeps his hand on the cusp of your shoulder to make sure you’re alongside him, there to have the time of your life.

We reach the upper deck in left-field and step out into the stands. You scan the panorama before you, and there it all is, with its trademark frieze overhead rimming the Bronx sky. You’ve come to Yankee Stadium on Sunday, October 11, 1964, to see the New York Yankees play the St. Louis Cardinals in the fourth game of the 1964 World Series.

You sit as far away from home plate as humanly possible without actually leaving the premises. Nosebleed city. The players look so small. All sounds from the field – the crack of the bat, a ball smacking into a mitt – are delayed a fraction of a second.
The game starts, and you’re feeling so giddy that you turn to your Poppa. “I wish this would never end,” you say. And for a moment you expect him to tell you it never will. Instead, he looks at you with a smile that also manages to be serious.
“Everything comes to an end,” he says.

You have no idea what he means. Certainly you doubt it to be true. How could it be? Everything will last forever. Of this you’re quite confident. The Yankees will always be the Yankees and nobody you love will ever die.

Your own father has long since lost interest in baseball, too busy with work to pay attention to a sport that his son now ranks in importance alongside breathing and eating. In any given October, your father has no clue which teams are competing in the World Series.

He once takes you to a game at Yankee Stadium, your father does, a doubleheader against the Minnesota Twins, and there proves once and for all his utter indifference to baseball. Somewhere around the fourth inning, with cracked peanut shells littered in his lap and some 50,000 vocal fans all around, he actually dozes off. Even with Harmon Killebrew warming up in the on-deck circle, your father is snoring away.

All the more reason for you to adore your Poppa. You can always count on his attention, never need to court his affection. He always seems glad to see you, asks after you, worries about you, dotes on you.

Above all, your grandfather fills in for your father, his son-in-law, on the baseball front. In the very best of scenarios, a 12-year-old boy who loves baseball gets to share his love with someone older. You get someone who will tell you about seeing Babe Ruth swat home runs and Joe DiMaggio roam the outfield. In this sense, he turns out to be the father you needed your father to be.

“Everything comes to an end,” your Poppa told you 48 years ago. And for a long time afterwards, you refused to believe him with all the brute will of an innocent who knows no better.

But after your Poppa dies – in 1981, at age 70, of cancer – you finally believe him. The World Series game you saw with him came to an end. The Yankee streak of World Series appearances came to an end that year, leading to a drought until 1976, by far the longest in team history. The Yankees fired manager Yogi Berra and announcer Mel Allen.

The original Yankee Stadium came to an end, too, the hallowed cathedral demolished before your eyes. The Bronx as we knew it – the Bronx where you were born and lived your first 28 months – came to an end by the mid-1960s. So did your boyhood.

Then again, maybe your wish – that the game would never end, that everything will last forever – has some truth to it, too. Nothing you love ever truly has to come to an end. The Yankees are still the Yankees. Baseball is still baseball. And your Poppa will always be your Poppa.

After all, he loved you enough to take you to see baseball games when baseball meant the world to you. You still wear his Swiss watch and, come winter, his plaid woolen overcoat. You think of him often, all the more so every time the start of baseball season rolls around. Nothing you love ever really dies unless you let it.

http://www.newsday.com/opinion/oped/expressway-poppa-the-world-series-and-an-undying-love-1.5485354

Father’s Day Guest Columnist Laura Rossi: Papa’s Special Gift To You

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Laura Rossi Totten, mother of 10-year old girl-boy twins, is a blogger and social media addict with her own public relations agency. Her blog, My So-Called Sensory Life http://www.mysocalledsensorylife.com/, was named a “Top 25 Most Inspiring Families Blog” by Circle of Moms and a 2010 Babble Top 40 Nominated Mom Blog. Previously, Laura worked at Random House, Viking Penguin and W.W. Norton. Her writing has appeared on local NPR and in Psychology Today, NJFamily.com, and The Chronicle of Higher, among many other places.

Dear J and M,

We talk about “gifts” in our family a lot.  Not the gifts you put in your hand but rather hold in your heart. It’s this other type of gift I want you to think about tomorrow.

What you don’t know about me is that my philosophy of seeing the best in all situations and being positive no matter what is a gift that I trace back to my own father, whom you two call Papa and love as dearly as I do.

Papa has always been one of my greatest teachers and still is today. It’s miraculous to have him be able to do the same for my own children. The bond you both have with him started on the day you were born and grows stronger all the time. Papa embodies the word grandfather.

On Sunday, we’ll have the rare chance of celebrating Father’s Day with both your Dad and my Dad.  

As an extension of my personal blog and writing, I practice finding daily gratitude.   This Sunday, I’ll be thankful that Papa’s gifts are alive in both of you:

  • A love of learning
  • Curiosity
  • A sense of humor
  • Patience
  • Listening…really listening
  • History, facts, trivia
  • The bonds of family
  • Fixing and figuring out how things work
  • Appreciating how fun a trip to the hardware store or dump can be!

 And so much more. 

You’ll always have part of my Dad, your Papa, inside each of you. Not all children get this special gift.  It’s one I know you’ll pass down to your children someday. 

Here’s to celebrating the wisdom of fathers throughout our family.

Love,

Mom

Father’s Day Guest Columnist Joseph Scalia: Locked And Loaded (part 3)

Joe Scalia, twice divorced, is the father of four grown children and grandfather of five grandchildren. Born and raised in Borough Park, Brooklyn, he lives in Farmingdale, Long Island, where he taught English and Creative Writing for 33 years to reluctant junior and senior high school students. He has published five books: the novels Freaks and Pearl and three short story collections, No Strings Attached, Brooklyn Family Scenes and Scalia vs. The Universe or My Life and Hard Times.

Dear Janine, Ian, Jesse and Mikki,

That fall I went on to high school, and my father returned to giving haircuts and counting his loose change. We never talked about what happened. My father and I never talked about much of anything.

A lot of years have passed since then, more than I care to count. And though my father is long gone, I sometimes see his soft hands while I do crossword puzzles in the newspaper, or just folded in front of me when I watch TV. Sometimes, if I tilt my head just right, staring back at me from my shaving mirror I catch a glimpse of him about the eyes.

Today, after all my years as your father, I see my own father differently, just as I know you see me differently, too. Oh, yes, early on, I noticed how you looked at me whenever I failed to measure up as a father because of my foolishness and shortcomings – those embarrassed, disapproving looks you gave me. But now you cut me a little slack. Funny how time and growth bring a certain clarity.

It’s only natural for children to judge their parents and be disappointed, at least until we grow up enough to see our parents as they really are. We are all of us imperfect. And if we’re lucky, we come to understand that what we once thought was their weakness was really their strength.

I love you.

Father’s Day Guest Columnist Joseph Scalia: Locked And Loaded (part 2)

Joe Scalia, twice divorced, is the father of four grown children and grandfather of five grandchildren. Born and raised in Borough Park, Brooklyn, he lives in Farmingdale, Long Island, where he taught English and Creative Writing for 33 years to reluctant junior and senior high school students. He has published five books: the novels Freaks and Pearl and three short story collections, No Strings Attached, Brooklyn Family Scenes and Scalia vs. The Universe or My Life and Hard Times.

Dear Janine, Ian, Jesse and Mikki,

Before lunch, Mrs. Higgins, the owner, introduced me to her son, Junior, who had just returned after a morning “doing chores” with his father. Junior, 13, was kind of geeky and by my standards hardly cool, but we hit it off okay and I was glad to have somebody almost my own age to hang out with.

It was Mr. Higgins who promised to make that an unforgettable summer for me. He was tall and thin, wore a straw cowboy hat and drove a beat-up pickup truck. He lived in his faded jeans and denim jacket. His hands were strong and hard and callused, and his face leather-lined. He smoked Lucky Strikes, and he let the cigarette hang in the corner of his mouth when he talked. He never said much, but when he did, his tone had a quiet toughness. He smelled of tobacco and the sweat of hard work. He was a real man, the father any 14 year old would want. Junior had to be the luckiest kid in the world.

My parents saw little of me that whole week. Instead, I got up early every morning to tag along with Mr. Higgins and Junior. I helped with chores. I raked hay, fed chickens and cleaned out stables. I worked harder that vacation than I ever worked at home. Afternoons I bounced around the rutted fields in the back of the pickup, while the smoke from Mr. Higgins’ cigarettes blew past me in the wind.

My father watched me from the area reserved for guests. “Be careful,” he called whenever I rode by, standing in the open truck. “Hold on!”

Labor Day morning, before we left for home, Mr. Higgins came out of the house holding two old .22 rifles and a box of shells. “Why don’t you boys run off and see what you can shoot,” he said, handing a rifle and some shells to each of us.

I had never seen a real gun before. My parents were opposed to guns. My father refused even to let me have the Daisy B-B gun I wanted to order from the back of my comic books.

We ran off into the trees and down the path. There, we pumped a few shots into the back of an old abandoned car wreck rusting away in the bottom of a ravine.

“Come on,” Junior said, “let’s go down to the creek” — crick he pronounced it — “and shoot some frogs.” He led the way to the little stream where guests sometimes went to swim. We could hear the frogs croaking in the brush and the shallow water on the other side of the creek.

We had been shooting in the direction of the sounds for half an hour without hitting anything. The guns made lots of noise and our shots kicked up water like little geysers. I was loading up when I saw my father coming down the path toward us. I could feel my face getting red with annoyance at his intrusion as he approached.

“Mr. Higgins told me you were out hunting,” he said eyeing the guns. “And I was worried . . .”

I pulled the trigger and the sound made my father flinch.

“That’s really loud,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be so loud. I could hear the sounds all the way back at the house.”

Another loud pop made him blink again. “Mind if I try?” he asked.

That really surprised me. I handed him my gun and held it tentatively, as if it might turn on him at any second. He lifted his glasses to the top of his head and sighted down the barrel, pointing at the water. Then he pulled the trigger, but nothing happened.

“Take the safety off first,” I said, feeling a little superior, knowledgeable in the face of his ignorance.

“What are you hunting for?” he asked, locating the safety and slipping it off with his thumb.

“Bull frogs,” Junior said.

Then, as if on cue, we heard a loud croak from across the creek. My father turned and shot in one smooth motion. The bullet made a splash in the water twenty yards away and a surprised frog plopped against the far bank, most of its insides on its outsides. Its legs twitched wildly as it tried in vain to hop away. Junior’s jaw dropped open in admiration. I was in disbelieving awe at his perfect shot. And then I turned and looked into my father’s face. He had put the gun down on the rocks, and tears welled up in his eyes as he watched the struggling frog.

Junior looked from the wriggling frog to my father’s tearing face and then to me and laughed. The rage boiled up inside of me. I kicked at a bunch of stones and rushed past both of them with my head down. Like my father, I was crying too, but for very different reasons.

I stormed back to the room and sulked, sullen and silent, until a taxi finally arrived to take us to the bus depot. I left without saying good-bye to Junior or Mr. Higgins. My mother asked what was wrong, but I kept my mouth shut, and my father just stared out the window. The ride back home was nothing but silence.

P.S. – Please see part 3 tomorrow.

Father’s Day Guest Columnist Joseph Scalia: Locked And Loaded

Joe Scalia parents
Joe Scalia, twice divorced, is the father of four grown children and grandfather of five grandchildren. Born and raised in Borough Park, Brooklyn, he lives in Farmingdale, Long Island, where he taught English and Creative Writing for 33 years to reluctant junior and senior high school students. He has published five books: the novels Freaks and Pearl and three short story collections, No Strings Attached, Brooklyn Family Scenes and Scalia vs. The Universe or My Life and Hard Times.

Dear Janine, Ian, Jesse and Mikki,

I never knew my father. Although we passed twenty years in the same house, eating meals, watching TV, I never really knew him.

Let me tell you what I do know. He was an old fashioned barber, my father, not a hair-stylist, as you find today. He had a two-chair shop in Brooklyn where we lived. One chair was never used for cutting hair, because business was never good enough to hire a second barber even part-time. But sometimes my father would sleep on it, between customers, or sit there with his glasses pushed up on his forehead and work on crossword puzzles, passing the time. His hands were soft and he left faint traces of lilac talc wherever he went. I’m sure if I could go back to the house where we lived and open his closet door, I’d still smell his smell, that trace of lilac talc, even today.

When I was 14, my father’s soft hands and lilac talc fragrance were an embarrassment to me. That was the year I was into cool and my head was full of James Dean movies, Marlon Brando on a motorcycle, fast cars and crushing beer cans in one hand. By those standards my father was none too cool. As fathers went, in fact, he was quite a disappointment. He had no car. He didn’t even have a license.

“No need,” he said. “My shop is just blocks from the house, and I can always take the subway or bus for longer trips.” Not that he ever went very far. He was content to spend evenings at home watching our 12-inch black-and-white Motorola TV.

The summer I was 14 would be different. He and my mother had made plans to take me away on a real vacation, for a week at a Catskill Mountain guesthouse a customer had recommended. All summer leading up to our vacation, I sneaked past his barbershop on my way to the schoolyard, or to Joe’s Candy Store for vanilla egg creams with my friends. Sometimes I could see him inside giving a shave, or if the shop was empty, counting the day’s receipts, or looking through his pocket change for the old coins he collected. Sometimes he’d be outside when I passed, and then I’d wave and rush by before he could ask me to run errands for him.

Monday morning that last week of August we loaded into Uncle Danny’s Ford station wagon to the Trailways depot for our bus ride to the Maple Lawn Farm in the far-off Catskills Mountains. When I saw the lawn chairs filled with old people, just like my parents. I just knew it was going to be a horrible vacation.

P.S. – Please see part 2 tomorrow.

Guest Columnist Michael R. Lewis: My Father, My Hero

Mike Lewis parents

 

Michael R Lewis and his wife Vicki, who have lived in Dallas for more than a half century, have four children and eight grandchildren. Mike and his younger brother, Randy, were raised give a day’s work for a day’s pay, never back down from a fight or hit a woman, and stay true to your word. His career as an entrepreneur, management consultant, and senior executive has extended across industries from oil exploration and health insurance to construction and software. He retired in 2010, regularly contributes articles on subjects from parenting to economics, and is currently writing his first non-fiction book on business success. He blogs at LewsClues: http://www.lewsclues.com/

To my son Michael and sons-in-law, Andres, Rob and Chris,

Biology requires a man and woman to create new life. But fatherhood is more than the union of sperm and egg – it is simultaneously the most terrifying responsibility a man can shoulder and the greatest gift life can bestow. Some men wilt under the burden, though most do the best they can, striving to be good providers, teachers, and examples. Like fathers everywhere, you will fail at times. You’ll never be confident that your efforts are right or your hopes for your children will be fulfilled. Always remember that good fathers never quit nor give up on their children. If you constantly strive to make each child’s tomorrows happier, safer, and easier than today, you’ll be okay. 

My father came from generations of poor dry-land farmers, working sun-up to sun-down, grubbing a living from the worn-out, wind-blown prairies of West Texas and Southern Oklahoma. A hard life was made harder when the dust blew and the bankers took the farms, and harder still when the Depression substituted charity and public assistance for jobs. A tall, lanky man with blue eyes and sandy-brown hair, Dad finished high school in time to fight the Nazis in Germany. He was old enough to die and kill, but too young to legally marry my mother in Texas so they eloped across state lines to Waurika, Oklahoma. I was almost a year old before he saw me the first time. 

As a boy growing up with B-Westerns and immersed in the myths of the Texas cowboy, my father was my hero. Bigger than John Wayne, more courageous than Gary Cooper, he was a Man among men. He would work all day, then play catch in the front yard until dark or take my brother and me for a game of miniature golf. He could replace light switches without turning off the electricity, repair the transmission of our old car when it broke down, and even drive nails into his stomach to hold up his pants. (All right, that’s an exaggeration. He actually wore a body cast under his clothes for a broken back from an accident, but none of the kids knew about the cast and it was a good trick.) 

Being a good father is not just about games or tricks, however. The real challenge is when life turns against you and the family is threatened. My mother suffered a serious mental illness, bipolar disorder, first surfacing when I began the first grade. For more than a decade, she cycled between bouts of extreme rage and debilitating depression with multiple suicides and hospital stays. She attacked all of us, physically and verbally, especially my Dad. Many, if not most, men would have abandoned her and us, going on down the road to seek happier climates. My Dad didn’t leave, surrender to her rejection or his own anger. He took a second job and borrowed money to pay doctor bills, slept in her hospital room to be sure she wouldn’t wake up alone, and took her abuse, smiled, cried, and went back for more. Dad didn’t know whether she could be cured or, if cured, whether she would still love him, but he stayed month after month, year after year. 

We all suffered from Mom’s illness, Dad most of all. As I grew older, we became more distant, his focus being on her and mine on the problems of adolescence. At times, when our differences seemed unbridgeable, I remembered his unconditional love in the most difficult times, his courage in the face of the unknown, and his willingness to take up the heavy cross of responsibility. He was the epitome of what a Father should be, giving me an example to follow with my own children. 

Dad has been gone more than a decade, but he seems like yesterday when he swept me onto his broad shoulders, my legs straddling his neck, and I could see across the world, ready for any adventure because I knew my Dad would protect me. I still miss him.

Father’s Day Guest Columnist Vivian Kirkfield: Never Enough, But Always Plenty

Vivian Kirkfield parents

Vivian Kirkfield is a mom of three (Jason, Peter and Caroline) and an educator and author who lives in the Colorado Rockies. She’s passionate about picture books, enjoys hiking and fly-fishing with her husband, and loves reading, crafting and cooking with kids during school and library programs. She recently visited Singapore to speak at the 2013 Asian Festival of Children’s Content to share her ideas about using picture books as effective parenting tools to build self-esteem and strengthen the parent-child connection. To learn more about her mission to help every child become a reader and a lover of books, please visit her at www.viviankirkfield.com or contact her at viviankirkfield@gmail.com. 

Dear Jason, Peter and Caroline, 

I’m so glad that all of you got to know my father. He was a loving and generous grandfather. Do you remember the shopping bags he would bring when he visited us, filled with goodies like cookies, cakes and toilet paper. You might have thought it a little odd that he felt he needed to supplement what was available at our local stores, but there was a reason behind his seemingly eccentric behavior.

When he was 8 years old, he came home from school to find an ambulance taking his mother away. His distraught father never explained what had happened and subsequently declared he was unable to take care of his three young sons. The extended family must have been somewhat estranged, or just strange. The two younger brothers were reluctantly taken in by relatives and the oldest child, my father, was sent to an orphanage. Remember that this was back in the 1920’s. I shudder to imagine what orphanages were like in those days. After he lived there a year, a young, newly married uncle came to visit him and was so distressed by the conditions there, he called a family meeting and said if no one would speak up and take this child, he would. Shamed into action, the relatives agreed to share the responsibility and your grandfather spent the next six years being passed from aunts to uncles to grandparents. Finally, when he was fourteen, his father remarried (a woman in her early 20’s) and allowed his sons to come back home.

This experience molded my father. Perhaps he brought those bags of food and supplies to win our love (although he certainly had it anyway), or because he had gone without so many times in his youth and never believed he would ever have enough.

Grandpa was a cautious man – another trait foisted on him by the school of hard knocks, I guess – and he instilled those fears in his children. It’s no wonder I was always afraid to learn to swim – “Don’t go in water over your knees or you’ll drown,” he would tell me.  “Stay close,” he would often warn us, “Watch out! You might get hurt!” It’s no surprise I was hesitant to try anything new for most of my life.

My dad and I had a wonderful relationship. Perhaps because of his childhood experiences, he trusted few people. But he trusted me. When I turned 18 and wanted to learn to drive, he allowed me to use his car, his precious 1964 Chevrolet Impala – his first car ever – which he waxed and watched with an eagle eye. Parking it on the street in front of our house, he’d check on it as the day progressed. If anyone leaned on it or touched it in passing, he’d tell them to keep their hands off.

A few years later, something sad happened. Your Dad and I had been married about a year and had just moved. We asked my father if we could borrow his car so that I could go to work the next day (I was a kindergarten teacher) with our car and Dad could stay home and take care of phone hook-ups and other move-in chores and have a car available if he needed one. Grandpa never hesitated and immediately handed over the keys to his precious car. It was a stormy night, rain whipping through the streets. I parked our car near our new apartment, but there were no other spaces close by – this was New York City after all. Dad had to park the borrowed car around the corner. And the next day it was gone. The police never found any trace of it – and Grandpa never said a word of blame or reproach.

Grandpa was not a bookish man, but he loved reading magazines and newspapers. Movies were a joy to him. He had worked in the film industry as a distributor for over 40 years, first with Warner Brothers, then with Paramount. I remember, as a child, getting passes from him for the local movie theater. How proud I was to be able to walk in without paying. I felt like a celebrity. Do you remember how he would tape movies and send us VCR tapes of “Roots,” “Gone With The Wind” and “The Ten Commandments.” He watched the monitor carefully while taping so he could delete the commercials.

And that was his pleasure in the last years of his life – wanting to provide enjoyment for us. At Christmas he would order fruit cakes from Collins Bakery in Corsicana, Texas. For the 4th of July, he would send us a huge order from Omaha Steaks. And even when we moved to Colorado and he came to visit us, he would pack one entire suitcase with cans of sardines, boxes of cookies and yes, rolls of toilet paper. He wanted to make sure we would never want for anything.

That’s the man your grandfather was.

With so much love,

Mom

Father’s Day Guest Columnist Hamza Hassan Balol: My Father’s Blessings

Hamza Father

Hamza Hassan Balol lives in Riyadh with his wife, Noor, and two daughters, Ludan and Limar. He came to Saudi Arabia in 2002 to help his parents financially with the raising of his little siblings. A graduate in biomedical engineering in Sudan, he is currently working for a medical company as an International purchasing coordinator. Here he shares two letters his father, Hassan, wrote to him in the 1980s while Hamza attended high school 50 miles away from home.

My dearest son,

Your mother and I are the reason of your existence in this world and we have been eagerly waiting for you to come into the world. When you made your way into the world, our happiness was beyond description for your arrival and we could not contain our emotions that God has delighted our lives with you. As you grew up, we faced unbearable difficulty and experienced endless sleepless nights just to make you feel happy. It is not flesh and blood, but the heart that makes us family. Please be informed that our hearts are still full with unconditional love, unlimited care, and undivided compassion for you.

Much love and warm hugs,

Your father

My dearest son,

We will steadfastly hold the ladder for you as you climb up the steps to your prestigious independent life. But before you think of me and your mother and if you want to obey us, we would just like you to always remember that your real birthday is not when your mother gave birth to you. It is when you find yourself on the right track that guides you to God and when you find yourself strengthened by His faith. Seize each and every precious moment you are alive in glorifying Him and accepting Him into your life. Every day, try to do your best to recite some verses from the Holy Koran to cement your relationship with Him. This is the only best way to satisfy and please me and your mother.

Much love and warm hugs,

Your father

Father’s Day Guest Columnist Vincent DeNigris: The Long Goodbye (part 2)

Vincent DeNigris photo alone

 

Dear Vincent,

I was in front of my locker at the police precinct, half out of my civilian clothes when one of the guys ran over to me. “The hospital called,” he said. “Your father took a turn for the worst.”

I quickly changed into my uniform. The desk sergeant, knowing my predicament, told me to take a radio car to the hospital. I sped over the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan.

At the hospital, I saw what looked like 20 doctors and nurses all around my father’s bed administering CPR to him.

“He had another heart attack,” one of the doctors came over to tell me. “We started trying to revive him almost 30 minutes ago, but we’re still getting no pulse.”

Then he asked me if they should stop.

“Keep going,” I said.

I stood there in my police uniform, frozen, scared, as if I were a little boy, watching helplessly as my father fought for his life. I had tears in my eyes and wanted just to wail and fold up in a heap on the floor. But my police training kept me together.

After another 15 minutes, they finally got a pulse.

“Thank G-d,” I said.

I called my siblings to get over there as fast as they could. When we all assembled, the doctor informed us that although they had revived him, he would probably never come out of his coma, and that he was brain-dead. We all started to cry, except for me. I was the oldest, a police officer in uniform, and I had to keep my cool, keep myself together for all of us.

My father went on life support. I called the precinct to report what was happening. My brothers and sisters and I stayed with our father at the hospital all that day.  We sat with him day and night for five days while he lay in that bed, tubes in his body. To this day, the sound of that respirator still haunts me. Same with the beeps and buzzes from his heart beat on the monitor next to his bed.

On one such day, I looked out the 12th floor window. I saw people on the street, kids dressed in Halloween costumes, and felt bad about being unable to take my son trick or treating.

By the third day, the doctors said a decision had to be made about whether to continue life support. Because he was brain-dead, he had no hope for a life with any kind of  quality. After our family discussed it, my brothers and sister left it up to me.

I then made one of the hardest decisions of my life. I said we should take him off life support.

On the night of the fifth day, my brother Anthony – may he rest in peace – started to cry. He said he could no longer stand to be there. Every time he saw our father’s blood pressure drop on the monitor, he felt like he was going to lose it. “You stay,” he said. “I’m taking a cab home.”

“It’s 3 in the morning,” I said. And I drove him home.

I stopped at my mother’s house to tell her what was happening, and just then the phone rang. It was the hospital. Someone told me my father was near death and to get there right away.

But I was too late. By the team I got there, he was already gone. No more tubes, no more monitors, no more of the eerie sounds we had endured for five days, just silence and my father, all bloated, his eyes puffy, his hands swollen from all the fluids and meds given to him. A neatly folded sheet covering his body was tucked under his chin. It reminded me of those photos of newborns all wrapped up.

Alone with him now, I held on to the rail of the bed  and bent down and cried and kissed my father goodbye.

Father’s Day Guest Columnist Vincent DeNigris: The Long Goodbye

Vincent DeNigris photo alone

 

Dear Vincent,

“I can’t breathe,” my father said over the phone. It was 10:30 p.m. on a Sunday.”Vin, can you take me to the hospital?”

“Dad, when did this first start, Dad?”

“Yesterday morning.”

“I’ll be right there.”

My father and I had the same conversation at least once a month for a year before his death.

Frank DeNigris was a Navy man, a cook, retiring in 1977 after 30 years of service. After that, and up until he died, he worked as a cook for the New York City Department of Correction in the Bronx House Of Detention.

My dad was short and stout, had a great sense of humor, and owned the shiniest shoes I have ever seen on any man’s feet.

He met my mother, Maria, in Italy while he was stationed in Naples in 1957. They married in Italy, moved back to the states and had four children. My parents always joked that I was made in Italy, but born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I am the oldest of four. After me came, in order, my brothers Anthony and Frank and my sister Rosemarie. My parents divorced in 1981.

My father smoked heavily for most of his life. His health problems startedafter he left the Navy. He quit smoking after his first heart attack, but the damage was already done.

Well, I hung up the phone that day and grabbed my duffle bag and drove to his home. I had work in the morning; I was a New York City police officer in Williamsburg’s 90th Precinct.

When I arrived, we argued – the same argument we always had.

“Why did you wait all weekend before calling me? You know I have to be at work at 6:30 in the morning!”

“I didn’t want to bother you.”

This was the script we followed, word for word, every month.

“All right,” I would say. “Let’s get all your meds and clothes together and go.”

He always wanted me to take him to the Veterans Hospital in Manhattan. I guess he liked it because it reminded him of the service, and he could chat with other vets.

As usual, I checked him in, and while we waited for a room, he flirted with all the nurses. It was around 5 a.m.

“I have to get to work,” I said.

“Go ahead, I’ll be OK.”

“I love you. I’ll be back after work to check on you.”

I left my Dad sitting up on his bed in the emergency room, chatting up one of the nurses.

The hospital would keep him for a few days and send him home. That’s how the script always went.

At least that’s what I thought would happen.

P.S. – Please see part 2 tomorrow.

Guest Columnist Michael R. Lewis: My Mother: No One Ever Loved Me Or Hurt Me More

Mother and me 1-30-66 edited

 

Michael R Lewis and his wife Vicki, who have lived in Dallas for more than a half century, have four children and eight grandchildren. Mike and his younger brother, Randy, were raised give a day’s work for a day’s pay, never back down from a fight or hit a woman, and stay true to your word. His career as an entrepreneur, management consultant, and senior executive has extended across industries from oil exploration and health insurance to construction and software. He retired in 2010, regularly contributes articles on subjects from parenting to economics, and is currently writing his first non-fiction book on business success. He blogs at LewsClues: http://www.lewsclues.com/

Dear Shelley, Michael, Shannon, and Amanda,

“You always hurt the one you love, the one you shouldn’t hurt at all.” Whether the plaintive cry of an abused child or the heart-felt explanation of contrite mother, the lyrics of the 1944 Mills Brothers song encapsulate and epitomize the complex relationship of loving abuse. My mother, a victim herself, fought a life-long battle with bipolar disorder, cycling through periods of prescription drug addiction, suicide attempts, hospitalizations, and shock treatments. No one has ever loved or hurt me more than her. 

Living with a manic-depressive is akin to being with someone who carries an unlit stick of dynamite in one hand and a flaming match in the other – you never know when or why the fuse will be lit and all hell will follow. Without warning, a slap, a pinch sharp enough to break the skin, or a whipping with whatever serviceable belt, switch, spoon or spatula was nearby would descend from on high, too quick to evade, too heavy to blunt. In the best times, her rage was directed to others who she thought had bullied or slighted me in some manner; she was an avenging angel willing to take on any size foe, man or woman, teacher or policeman, on my behalf. 

Sometimes, though, she would cower in her nightgown for days on end, hiding from life in a darkened bedroom, unable to toss off the sadness and guilt that covered her as completely as the bed sheets. My father, working two jobs to pay the hospital and doctor bills, was often gone, leaving me to feed and care for my younger brother of five years. My last task before going to bed each night during those periods was to check that my mother was sleeping, her cigarette extinguished, and any prescription drugs hidden away. 

I was a lucky child, however, blessed with two parents who loved me and my brother deeply. I learned at an early age that actions don’t necessarily reflect feelings, that people can be driven by demons they simply can’t control, no matter how much they want to change. I learned to live in the here and now, looking to the future, not the past. I learned everyone has good days and bad days, that most people try to do the right thing, but often fail, and that promises are rarely inviolate or eternal. Most of all, I learned to never give up, that sunshine invariably follows the darkest nights and that each morning is an opportunity to be a better husband, father, and friend than the day before. 

My mother loved me, sometimes with a depth almost too much for her to bear. She wasn’t perfect, but neither am I. She has been gone fifteen years and I pray every night that she finally found the peace that eluded her in this life.

Father’s Day Guest columnist Richard Kagan: My Dad’s Surprise Gift To Me

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Richard Kagan, who lives in Queens, is sports editor of Education Update and has freelanced as writer for 15 years, contributing articles about sports to Newsday, amNewYork and the Western Queens Gazette. He also conducts outreach and writes book reviews for the Queens Library’s innovative Mail-A-Book program, which e-mails books and provides a toll-free chat line to the homebound and elderly.

On a warm spring Sunday in 1968, while a junior in high school, I had an unforgettably exciting moment, thanks to my father. We lived in a pretty, bucolic suburb, Highland Park, 25 miles north of Chicago. Highland Park is famous for being the summer home to the Chicago Symphony, and when I was growing up you could see popular groups such as Peter, Paul and Mary and the Chad Mitchell Trio. A few years later, Janis Joplin played there and I listened to her near a fence just outside the grounds. Her voice came from the gods.

As for the relationship between my father and I, it was hardly what I would call the greatest. It felt like he was the sergeant and I a private. I carried out prescribed duties, like taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn, cleaning out gutters full of leaves, and being a pair of observant eyes around the house. My parents divorced and I became the surrogate father of the household. My mother was unable to drive due to an illness and my younger sister, Linda and I needed to get around.

On this particular day, my father was driving us around Chicago, near Lincoln Park, just north of the zoo, in his spiffy Oldsmobile Toronado. We parked, and my Dad, Linda and I got out of the car.

They both wore poker faces. Yet somehow I suspected they knew something I didn’t know.

We walked around, and saw a lot of cars parked on the street. New cars, older cars. My Dad loved cars, and he sized up the cars there that day, even looking into the windows. I’d seen him do that before.

We walked maybe 100 feet and we came upon a navy blue Ford Mustang that looked shiny and new.

“Wow!” I said.

“Do you like this car, Rich?” my father asked me. “What do you think?” His light-hearted tone of voice told me he was enjoying this moment.

Linda trailed a few feet behind, watching both of us. I looked in the window and saw the automatic stick shift on the console and thought, That’s so neat. The interior was a dark blue that looked so inviting. I felt like a young child gazing at the store window of the great Manhattan toy store, F.A.O. Schwarz.

“Gee Dad, this is a cool car,” I said, all the while thinking, What kind of game is he playing here? An adult version of cat and mouse?

“Why don’t you get inside and look it over, see how it feels?” he said.

Get in the car, I thought, growing ever more curious. What’s he talking about?

“Here, Rich,” he said, sounding a little more serious now. “Get inside and take a look.”

Just then he reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a set of keys. My eyes widened and I looked at him in shock. For a teenage boy this was equivalent to finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

“Rich,” he said. “This is your car. It’s new and it’s yours. Now you can take your sister wherever she needs to go. Just don’t drive fast.”

“Sure thing,” I said, nodding up and down. He put the keys into my hand.

Linda jumped up and down in glee. “I knew, I knew!” she said. “And I kept it a secret!”

“Oh My God!” I said. “How will I drive it home?”

“Don’t worry,” my father said. “You’ll get home. Just drive safely.”

The inside of the car smelled brand new, as if the leather might pop. I put my hands in the steering wheel. It felt scary yet comfortable. I was in a daze as I drove back to the suburbs in this shiny new Mustang.

I drove so carefully on the expressway, wanting only to keep my sister and I alive and avoid smashing up the car, that a cop actually pulled me over for driving “too slow.” Gave me a ticket, too.

We made it home just fine. There, I stared at my new car for hours. The next day, I drove Linda to school. For a long time, because of my father’s kindness, I was so happy it felt as if my feet never touched the ground. Life brings you plenty of surprises, but that one had to rank among the very best I could ever have imagined.

Father’s Day Guest Columnist Susan Gordon: Father Knew Least

Susan Gordon photo

 

Susan J. Gordon and her husband Ken of 47 years have two grown sons, two daughters-in-law, and six sensational grandchildren. She is a freelance writer and the author of two books, including Wedding Days: When & How Great Marriages Began, about the courtships and marriages of famous couples throughout history. Some of her work can be found at WWW.SUSANJGORDON.COM.

Dear Kids,

I’m so glad that our family celebrates Father’s Day with your dad, my terrific husband. I feel this deeply, because when I was a kid, I hated Father’s Day. In the stormy family stew that was my almost-daily diet, “father” meant “Sid,” and that meant trouble.

My mother left Sid when I was two years old, and took my older brother, Jerry, and me from our suburban home to my grandmother’s one-bedroom apartment in Queens, New York. Angry battles between my parents erupted with Vesuvian force as they fought about everything including child support which was always late, and court-ordered visits that Jerry and I endured with Sid. We never knew when he might appear at Grandma’s door, pounding furiously or climbing through her first-floor windows if we didn’t let him in “NOW!”  He never forgave my mother for walking out on him, but he aimed his rage at safer targets – Jerry and me.

I was barely four when Sid put us on the outside fenders of his car, and drove down Northern Boulevard. A few months later, he sent us (non-swimmers without lifejackets) off a rowboat that drifted around a bay while he watched from the shore. Another time, he smashed Jerry’s glasses and beat him up in a public park. An uneasy crowd of gaping bystanders stared but didn’t intercede because Sid insisted he was “just disciplining my boy.’ Even so, family court judges reduced but would not eliminate the visits. By the time I was eight, Jerry and I saw Sid only one hour a month, in the presence of a guard hired to watch us.

“Name the Ten Commandments!” Sid demanded. He often complained that we lacked religious educations. Quickly, I rattled off no killing, stealing, or wanting what your neighbor had, but deliberately skipped the Fifth – “honoring” your parents, which I didn’t understand at all. (Did that mean him?) Fortunately, the hour was almost up, and Sid didn’t ask again.

Our visits ceased when I was fifteen. Sid faded from my life, but his specter lurked around the edges of my consciousness. Terrifying memories haunted me and hung like heavy rocks around my neck. Now and then, he sent mildew-stained copies of old court records, but he never apologized for his actions. I wouldn’t respond; Sid’s punishment was never to know anything about me.

Much later, I learned about Amalek – the collective name of the ancient tribe that attacked and harassed the Israelites thousands of years ago during their forty years of wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt.  The Amalekites preyed unmercifully on stragglers at the rear of the caravan – the very young, the old, and the weak. And I realized that Sid was my Amalek – the evil malevolence you never spoke of but could not forget.

Decades passed until, through the flimsy grapevine that endures even in ruptured families, I heard that Sid was in a retirement home in southern California, and I decided it was time to show up. Maybe confronting him half-a-lifetime later would help me overcome my fears, and sort things out. Only after I made flight reservations did I realize I’d be there on Father’s Day.

Seeing him was a shock. In my mind, Sid was still forty-something, with meaty hands and a smile that could turn into a sneer. Minutes passed before the scraggy old man with wobbly dentures, smudged eyeglasses and droopy tennis socks comprehended who I was. “Susan?” he asked. “My Susan?” He lurched and embraced me, crying, drooling and laughing at the same time. I let him hug me, but I couldn’t hug back.

All afternoon, he tried to correct what he called my “misconceptions about the past.” “You were so young,” he said. “I was your father; you had no reason to fear me….”

No reason? I was exasperated. But my nightmarish recollections only produced cockeyed retorts: “You were just a child… your memories are distorted.” “Children often misinterpret their parents’ actions.” “Your mother brainwashed you.” “I didn’t kidnap your brother; he was confused.”

He begged me to call him “Dad,” but “Sid” was the best I could do. “Are you married?” he asked plaintively. “Do you work? Do you have children? What are their names?” He had missed out on everything.

I had grappled with the Fifth Commandment long enough. Even if I couldn’t forgive Sid’s unhinged anger and violence in the past, I could feel pity for this pathetic 87-year old man now. If I couldn’t “honor” him directly, I, myself, could behave honorably.  So I began to tell him about my life and my family, especially you, his grandchildren.

I never saw Sid again, but until his death, sixteen months later, I wrote to him occasionally, and shared more stories. I didn’t write to make Sid feel better, although I’m sure that I did. Mainly, it was good and healthy for me.