Most days, including that monumental one, Father’s Day, I think about my dad, Sidney, and I miss him terribly.
He was a big, brawny, cuddly bear of a man who told it like it was. If he didn’t like someone, he called them a “dog”—never to their face, of course. But, he had a fierce love and loyalty to his family that is irreplaceable and immeasurable. He was my biggest fan.
My dad was a general contractor and remodeled homes and businesses. He had his own company, but did much of the work himself. In his fifties, he knew he couldn’t do it much longer. He retired at sixty after his back and knees had given way and moved to the Promised Land, South Florida, to spend what he thought were his final few years. Most of the men in his family had died prematurely and he was convinced that was to be his legacy as well.
Who knew that he would add another quarter century to his own lifespan? The old joke, “If I knew I would live this long, I would have taken better care of myself,” was tailor made for him. His last decade was excruciating for him to live through and for our family to watch. My former football/bowling/golf playing, boat loving, WWII vet dad with a full head of Andy Griffith hair and twinkling blue eyes was reduced to having strangers take over his daily functions. His body had been ravaged by diabetes, high blood pressure and a series of small strokes.
Many of my fondest memories of my dad revolve around his trilogy of passions—food, boating, and cars.
I remember him gathering all of us together on a Sunday evening to head to whatever new family restaurant was in vogue. To make the cut, most had to have a lavish salad bar. Salad bars were the Holy Grail for my dad and we were always on the lookout for more enticing ones, both in the Chicago area and later in his adopted town of Pembroke Pines, Florida. If the main course included ribs or seafood, all the better. (But, no ham or pork please, we’re Jewish.)
My dad loved the open seas, or rather his version of it, commandeering a small motorboat on Lake Michigan. His first was a tiny wooden motorboat not ready for an actual Great Lake and later his classy, gleaming white fiberglass Chris-Craft model, aptly named, Six Seas. (Our family of five by then had increased to include a daughter-in-law.) That boat was his baby.
None of us fully embraced the sport, but being dutiful kids, we went along for the ride. We really didn’t have much of a choice. That was the era of slathering yourself with baby oil –no SPF 100 for us. We would lie on the bow of the boat in Diversey Harbor all lazy weekend afternoon long with an open album cover lined with aluminum foil positioned close to our face so as to get the maximum sun coverage possible.
It is no wonder that at the end of the day, our mostly blonde haired, blue/hazel eyed family was as red as a lobster and in danger of needing an ER visit. Nice color,” my mom would beam, although my current dermatologist would disagree. But, we were all together and that made my father most happy. Watching him at the helm of the boat, I saw a look of peace on his face that I had never observed on dry land.
Driving, too, was one of his great passions and he had a succession of cars we couldn’t afford but that he got a great deal on. He loved the Lincoln Mercury brand and I remember riding with him in the racy Cougar in my teens.
In the early years, we never took an airplane for vacation. Part of it was due to the high cost of hauling a family of five long distances. But, the larger issue was that my dad had developed a fear of flying during World War II. He became the sole survivor of his WWII Air Force platoon in the Pacific when he was forced to have an emergency appendectomy and missed the doomed mission. He never talked about it much then, but it weighed on his mind. He didn’t want to relinquish control to someone else when he had the responsibility for, what he called, his ‘precious cargo.’
Instead, we took family trips by automobile and various incarnations thereof, mostly to Florida to get some sun, Rochester, New York, to visit my mom’s large family there, and one very memorable trip to California during winter vacation.
The California trip was billed as the last hurrah for our family. My brother would be graduating from high school soon and going off to college. He already had a serious girlfriend and it was expected that he would not be touching down at home much after that. My sister was about fourteen and I was nine or ten. Most families of five wouldn’t venture two thousand miles in a pink Rambler station wagon (a nod to my favorite color which doubled as his work vehicle)—for fun. But, then again, we were not most families.
During that trip, I learned many things. I learned how to do school assignments in fairly legible penmanship in the back seat of our station wagon while my dad maneuvered the vehicle at high rates of speed. I learned to horseback ride at a dude ranch in Arizona. I learned that you should not leave with ‘souvenirs’ in your pockets from the Painted Desert. I learned that the witch from the Snow White ride at Disney Land is much, much scarier in person than in the movie. And I learned the Zen art of “holding it in” during those incredibly long stretches between service stations along Route 66.
To this day, that California trip is the gold standard by which I measure every other vacation.
My dad would tell you if he were here that I hit the jackpot with my choice of a mate. He was none too pleased with some of my previous selections and told me so. Actually, he told the whole neighborhood, in his not ready for prime time voice. Some of my boyfriends he tolerated, others he gave that look that screamed “Get outta here, you are NOT welcome.” Quite a few took the cue and immediately headed for the hills. No one seemed remotely good enough until he met Duncan.
He adored my husband and the feeling was mutual. After our first newlywed fight, something about my foodie groom refusing to eat the bubbling Tuna Noodle Casserole I had just concocted, duly noting that none of its ingredients were fresh, I called my parents in Florida in tears. After all, that dish was half of my cooking repertoire and I was certain that they would agree with me that the offense was quite heinous. I was an attorney, after all, not some Suzie Homemaker. Hearing my sobs and the basic storyline, they both asked what I had done to that nice boy. I never again called them to complain about him--it was abundantly clear which side he and my mom would take.
A year later, we moved to our first home in Northbrook, a 1960’s raised ranch on Cherry Lane. I told my husband that I could no longer live with competing Harvest Colors in our tiny kitchen. So, he and I went to Abt and bought a new kitchen hood with a fan for over the stove in a nice, neutral shade of beige. The salesman told us installation was simple—it was just a matter of “two screws.” We wanted to believe him, although we were skeptical. The handyperson gene had not shown itself to be present in either one of us this generation.
My dad was in town for the summer and came to the rescue, spending the afternoon working on it with my husband. Turns out, it was much more complicated than the “two screws” the salesman had suggested. Additional work had to be done to make sure that it vented outside. After working all day with my husband of one year, my father summed up my accountant husband’s construction skills with the now famous mantra, “I love him like a son. When it comes to things around the house, hire people.” We do, dad, we do.
In his later years, Sidney would regale us with his WW II exploits in Sydney and the South Pacific. We would once again see that long gone, mischievous glint in his eye. He told us about the time that he went on a mission to bring some beer to one of the officers and how another time a pilot got into trouble flying a plane under a bridge, just because he could.
Toward the end, in the nursing home, I entered his room and he insisted quite vehemently that he had to leave and that he wanted the keys to his car. He hadn’t driven in many years. Freedom was still paramount to my proud, stubborn dad.
My dad enjoyed his hobbies and he greatly valued his wartime service, but they couldn’t hold a candle to his one true love—his family. We all meant the world to him and we didn’t doubt it for a moment.
So Dad, on this day and every day, thank you for your time, love and patience. Thanks for that dry sense of humor. (You will be pleased to know that your grandson, Noah, inherited it.) Thanks for believing that it was always the teacher’s fault when my grade dipped below an “A.” Thanks for (almost) always taking my side.
I’d like to think that you are spending Father’s Day and every day on your boat or in your car, eating a Dagwood sandwich and feeling the wind in your hair.
Rest in peace, Dad.
I love you.