My father, about whom I have written extensively here, died last week. He was 92. He died in his bed peacefully. No machines, no tubes, no wires. I was with him and was able to tell him one last time that I was proud of him and that I loved him. He went out like he lived, without drama, understated, quietly.
I wrote this essay about him 23 years ago. The Baltimore Sun picked it up and published it on Father’s Day. Dad and Mom came to our house for lunch that Sunday and I read the essay to him. He had not seen it and sat quietly as I read. It was my Father’s Day gift to him. I reprint it below as tribute to my father.
My father cannot throw a baseball overhand. He has a bad shoulder. I recollect as a youngster him trying a couple of times, but he threw awkwardly, like a young child. He stood there, looking apologetic and rubbing his shoulder. “It’s been a problem all my life, this shoulder of mine. But I can throw pretty darn fast underhand,” he said. So we played catch a while, he throwing underhand, I on the look out for friends who might see us and tease me.
That was a long time ago. He still throws underhand. I see him with his grandchildren. I am suspicious of the problem of the bad shoulder. He has never otherwise complained of shoulder problems. I think he never learned to throw a ball properly and is too embarrassed to admit it. One is taught to throw a ball. My children are learning now: Plant one foot, elbow high, follow through. It does not come naturally to most mortals.
My father was born in 1922. His was the rugged life of a youngster in Indiana during the Depression. The only picture I ever saw of him as a child was a faded snapshot of him and his two brothers kneeling in a sandbox, all looking typically boyish. He wore a beret, tilted. It must have seemed exotic, a beret, not a cap. They seem to be squinting into the sun and their clothes are ragged.
From what I know of his youth it did not have much room for ball playing with his dad. Like many of that era his father scraped for odd jobs here and there. He did not much comfort his family, my grandfather, but rather brought home the grief and struggle that was his experience. Once, my father told me, his dad hit him in the face with the back of his hand. It was at the dinner table. I think he told me to convey his own struggle, not only in growing up, but with fathering. Like ball playing, he was never shown properly how it is done.
I sense the struggle in my father not to be like his father. Each generation rejects the former generation in its individual way. He brought to fatherhood his best, a true heart and a deep character.
A man given to working with his hands, Dad was forever building me boxes and cars and toys in his workshop: building new things when properly he had other work to do. One of the first and best memories I have is sitting on the gray concrete slab of his workshop mixing water and sawdust in a cup with a long nail, while he worked away on something or other.
I inherited his engineering ingenuity. That is, I am pretty good at figuring a solution to a problem, but the skills are lacking. I tended to demean them in my youth. It was part of my statement of generational independence. The bookcase he recently built for me, now proudly displayed in my living room, is a monument not only to his ability but to my incredulity. How does one build something like this? When he gave it to me he ran his palm along the edge. I saw his knowledge and intelligence reflected in the grace of his hand over the wood, like a skater across ice. He built three houses in his time, two from the ground up, one essentially alone. How does one build a house? The answer is imponderable to me. He would have taught me his skill if I had let him.
My mother, whenever my father was doing something for me, would fondly advise: “Remember this when you have children.” She was, of course, referring to the devotion with which my father granted his time and skill. I think often of my mother’s statement. I have children of my own, and I am learning to appreciate what was my father’s gift to me: the best he could muster, even if it meant having to pitch underhand, and his time whenever I asked for it. One must be brave to be devoted so heartily to the next generation, and one must be loving and trusting of the future.
Originally Published in the Baltimore Sun, Father’s Dad, June 15, 1991