I miss my father terribly. He passed away three years ago, a few days before his 83rd birthday, and I was fortunate enough to get there to see him one last time. My father gave me many gifts, but probably the most important gift he gave me was his own life; the way he lived his life was an example and an indelible inheritance.
Dad believed in work and family. The values that he lived by seem to be nearly extinct: hard work, loyalty, integrity, thrift. He was an intensely private man, quiet and reserved, and he didn't speak often, but anything he did say was worth listening to. He worked from the time he was twelve or thirteen years old, and nothing made him prouder than working hard and working well. One of his first jobs was sweeping the floors at the Quincy Patriot Ledger, and he talked as seriously of that job as of any other job he held. It made no difference to Dad whether he was sweeping floors or managing a whole district of retail stores: the job ought to be done as well as humanly possible.
When he was seventeen my father enlisted in the Navy. World War II was being fought, and he had already been accepted to Harvard; sacrifice is another value that seems to be dying out. At first he was sent to officer training, but Dad hated it--much later in life he would say "they tried to brainwash me." I still don't know exactly what that means, but he became an ordinary sailor and seems to have loved it. Like many men of his generation, Dad never discussed the war. But I did find some old photographs of him looking young and handsome in his denim trousers and pea-jacket, his sailor hat at a jaunty angle. The photographs of Dad on board the ship show a smiling, relaxed young man. He was on a destroyer in the South Pacific, and worked in the boiler room--an unglamorous and dirty job.
After he left the Navy Dad attended Harvard on the GI Bill. He worked his way through college, majoring in economics. He delivered dry-cleaning and opened up a cigar and newspaper stand in the college cafeteria, a business he passed on to his cousin. After college he went to work for a major retail chain, and continued to work for the same company for the rest of his career--something unimaginable today. There was loyalty and trust in the employer/employee relationship back then.
Dad didn't marry until he was well into his thirties. I have reason to believe that he had many girlfriends, but after his marriage my father was devoted to my mother for the rest of his life. They were married for fifty years; there were definitely bumpy years, but couples of Dad's generation stayed married. What I saw between my parents is another gift: the progress of love. The tenderness my parents showed toward each other was earned over a lifetime; they had to forge ahead through years of other kinds of emotions to get there. Love in the winter of life has its own beauty.
For many years my father traveled, and while I was growing up I honestly didn't spend much time with my father. I do remember that Dad was a reader; like Mom he always had a book going. Newspapers, magazines and books filled our house, and for some reason we always seemed to have either a dictionary or an encyclopedia volume at the dinner table--presumably to settle some point of contention.
The books Dad enjoyed were thrillers, books about history and politics, mysteries, and books about business. In case you were wondering who reads all those management books, it is people like my Dad. Even after he retired he was still reading business case studies and books about economics. Later in life Dad was on dialysis, which meant being on a machine for several hours every other day. He always took a book with him, and he never, never complained about the discomfort and boredom he endured.
In addition to kidney disease and diabetes, Dad successfully battled cancer. In the hospital his sweet nature made him a favorite with the nurses. He would crack jokes on his way into surgery, and got to know every nurse or technician who cared for him. Dad was the kind of person who treated waitresses, salespeople, janitors, mayors and professional golfers (he met a few) with exactly the same amount of courtesy and respect. He was remarkably adept at drawing people out in conversation. For instance, when he was recovering from cancer surgery (on his tongue) and could not speak, his used a white board and marker to ask his nurse all about her life. By the end of the first day he knew where she was from, that she was engaged to be married, and who knows what else--he was a good listener!
In his final illness Dad was hospitalized in the intensive care unit. He had a book next to him, something by Warren Buffet. I know he didn't have the strength or the energy to hold a book and read, but somehow I think Dad found it comforting to have a book at his side. As his strength and health diminished, reading became more and more of a solace, a comfort, a consolation. And as I sat in the hospital room next to him I read as he slept; I remember what I was reading too--it was Jane Austen's Persuasion.
To all the fathers out there, Happy Father's Day. I hope you leave as many gifts to your children as my father left to me, and I hope they will grow up to remember seeing you with a book in your hands.