I've been thinking about my father a lot this week, so I wrote this short tribute to him:
I write often about my mother, but I have never tried to describe my father. Recently, Jon Katz mentioned that, and I have been mulling over how to capture Papa without writing a whole book about him. Maybe someday, I will, but for now, I’m going to attempt to just offer a few memories. I always called him “Papa”, never “Dad” or “Daddy”, and we named our daughter, Lee, after her grandfather. He was a tall man, who always stood up straight and proud, a Jew, son of a tailor, a lawyer and a judge, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army during World War II. He adored my mother, a wild, Catholic revolutionary, and he loved me as unconditionally as anyone ever has.
I thought when I was a kid that being a lawyer meant having the phone ring all the time at 2 or 3 am with some distraught person calling for help. There was the lady whose drunken husband was climbing up to her bedroom window on a ladder with a gun in his hand. My father asked her, “Why are you calling me? Call the police!” She wailed, “They won’t do anything! You’re the only one I know who cares!” And he did, for all the waitresses, cops, teachers, garbage collectors and everyday people who lived in our small town in Illinois. He helped them, whether or not they could afford to pay for it. He sat at the bar in the local tavern, drinking coffee each morning in the cozy place he called his “branch office”, listening to their problems. He stopped by again on the way home as the tired businessmen got off the train from Chicago, drank a beer and gave free legal advice.
He taught me how to shoot pool and bet on the horses. When I lived in New York City, my parents would come to visit and while my mom went shopping with her best friend, Papa and I would hang out together in some dive bar that I knew he would appreciate and watch football and get to know the locals. He never talked about himself. My mom told war stories constantly, but my father never revealed that he had gone into France before D-Day and organized the Resistance fighters. He never mentioned how one lovely summer day, a woman showed up at our house, walked through our unlocked screen door with a gun and threatened to kill him. I remember hiding in the coat closet while Papa convinced her to put down the gun and let him help her with her troubles. Five minutes later, he was making her a cup of coffee and asked me to get the tissue box so she could dry her eyes.
Papa never thought of himself as a brave man. He left that to my mother. Yet, in his caution and even his fears, he found the strength to do what needed to be done without making a big deal about it. My father always told me that there were two sides to every story. He said that any time I didn’t get along with someone, I needed to spend some time imagining what it was like to walk in their shoes. He’s been gone from this earth for almost 30 years, but not a day goes by where I don’t think about him. And each time I say my daughter’s name, I see his face. I can’t help but believe he’s sitting up in Heaven, drinking a beer with his buddies, watching out for all of us.