I was born in New York City, but when I was around four years old, my family moved to Chicago. For a short time, I was daddy’s little girl, the apple of his eye. But he only lived with us for a brief 11 years. And during those years, he was gone most of the time on “business” trips. We later learned that he had a secret life that included drugs, crime, and other women. But I was a little girl, and all I knew was that he was “My Daddy”! When he came home, he always had presents for everybody and things felt normal until he left again, and until eventually my mother divorced him.
(My Daddy and I - swimming)
What stands out in my mind about my dad from my childhood is that on at least one occasion he was the neighborhood hero. One hot summer afternoon, our whole family was outside togetherbehind my grandparent’s apartment building. The adults were talking, laughing, smoking cigarettes, and sipping cold drinks. The children were playing over at the building’s playground. The merriment was interrupted by the piercing scream of a woman, from somewhere high up in one of the top floor apartments. As everyone looked up in the direction of the scream, a young man could be seen running down the back steps of the building. Instinctively, my father knew that the man had something to do with the woman’s distress. To my mother’s dismay, my father got up and ran after him. The woman was yelling that she had been robbed by the young man. In broad daylight! Now my mother was really alarmed, afraid that my father would be hurt by the desperate burglar. Someone must have called the police, because they arrived a few minutes later. A search of the area began. They found my father around the corner of the building, holding the man on the ground until the police could come and take control of the situation. When it was all over, my father emerged a hero. Even though my mother continued to nag and scold him the rest of the evening for taking such a risk, she was proud of her husband and I was the envy of all the kids present that day.
His dad, my paternal grandfather also doted on me. I was the first grandchild born to that side of the family (no one minded that I was a girl). We used to visit my grandparents every weekend and it was the highlight of my week. As soon as my parents’ car came to a stop, I climbed out, and raced ahead of my parents, and flew up the few flights of steps to my grandparent’s apartment. Grandma would meet me at the kitchen door with a kiss and she would then turn to greeting my parents. I ran through the apartment searching for Grandpa.
(My Grandpa and I - in the park in New York City)
Sometimes I found him working in his home office. I loved Grandpa’s office, especially when he would let me work in there. As a child, I spent hours in his office, sitting like a grown up on his very own chair, pushing the keys of his adding machine and using up the entire roll of adding machine tape. He would appear in the doorway, looking at me with a stern look on his face, pretending like he was mad at me for using up the whole roll of paper. But I would only smile; I knew he was going to replace the roll and in no time I would happily banging away on the keys again. My Grandpa also had an endless supply of yellow, lined writing tablets. I filled many tablets while visiting at his house – with everything from school homework to practicing my penmanship. Filling up these tablets was my first introduction to writing.
Other times I found him in the bedroom reading. From my grandfather, I received the gift of a passion for reading. My grandparents had two double beds pushed together. They were the kind of beds that had shelves built into the headboards, and they were crammed with books and magazines. Grandpa and I spent entire Sunday afternoons reading together, laying on that giant bed, he on his side, and me on my grandma’s side. I “read” all his books and looked at the pictures in all of his magazines. I especially loved National Geographic. My Grandpa had books, magazines, and newspapers strewn all over the house - even in the bathroom. My favorite bathroom book was Jewish Jokes for the John!
After my parents got divorced, my mother, my brother, and I moved far away from my father and my grandparents to Pennsylvania where my mother’s family lived. There I got to know her father, Grandpaw. He didn’t have an adding machine or writing tablets. I never saw him read a book. In fact, he didn’t even know how to read in English. He didn’t have an office either. But, he did have a shop of sorts.
Located in the corner of the sun porch, nestled behind the table my Grandmaw used for setting the pig’s feet to gel, his shop consisted of a huge watchmaker’s desk. It was a wooden roll top desk, with dozens of little drawers, sections, and compartments. He had a wide array of tools, parts, and an assortment of bottles containing oil and polish. There was also a chair next to his desk so I could sit and keep him company. By day, he worked as a coal miner. At night and on the weekends, he repaired clocks and watches for everyone in the neighborhood. He also fixed cuckoo clocks and music boxes. He worked long hours at that desk, jeweler’s loop in one eye, cigar in one hand, fixing everyone’s time pieces. When he dismantled them, he placed the tiny intricate pieces and screws on the desk, fixed the piece, and then put it all back together again. Although he drank beer while he worked, he never messed up anybody’s watch or clock. I was amazed by all the clocks he had on the shelf. After he fixed a piece, he would put it on the shelf for a day or two, just to make sure it worked properly. It wasn’t unusual for him to have 20 clocks or more and a few music boxes on the shelf at one time. I would wait patiently for the top of the hour to arrive so I could witness the symphony of chimes, rings, and bells. Emerging from the cuckoo clocks was everything from birds and ballerinas, to ladies with brooms sweeping off the clock decks. When I got older, Grandpaw entrusted me with the job of pulling up the chain pulleys on the cuckoo clocks so the cycle could start all over again. How important I felt being Grandpaw’s assistant! When he was finally finished with someone’s repair job, he put it in an envelope or a paper bag. The people would come to the sun porch door to pick up their item. If Grandpaw answered the door, he usually gave them the package without charging them any money. That was how kind my sweet my Grandpaw was. Besides, he enjoyed being a watchmaker. It was his occupation when he lived in Poland. Because he was too kind, Grandmaw took to answering the door and collecting the money when the people came.
When he was finished working, or if he felt we needed a break, we would sneak off to the tavern where he would join his coal miner buddies and other friends from the “old country” for beers and shots. He would perch me next to him, high on a bar stool where I had to lean against the counter to keep from falling off. If we got there around dinner time, the bartender gave me a free fried fish sandwich and french fries. Whenever someone ordered a round for the entire bar, I received a soda. I drank Coca-Cola and ate potato chips until I thought I would bust. His friends also used to buy me Hershey Bars and Baby Ruth candies. Often, I also came away from those jaunts with a pocket full of quarters and dimes that the guys gave me. On a good night, I even got a paper dollar bill or two from one of the miners. Many times we stayed at the tavern well into the evening hours. If I got tired, Grandpaw moved me to a booth, where I watched the TV high up in the corner of the bar. Sometimes I fell asleep. I loved those trips to the tavern even though I knew we would be in trouble with Grandmaw when we got back home.
On one of his trips back from the tavern, when I wasn’t with him, he got hit by a train. He was drunk, but he had the sense to leave his car at the tavern. We figure that he was blinded by the headlight of the oncoming train as he tried to walk across the tracks to come home. Grandmaw and her friends found him in the ditch next to the tracks when they returned from playing bingo. Grandmaw was real mad because she figured that he gotten drunk and passed out there. She and her friends carried him home where they dropped him on the living room floor.
The next day my uncle came over and told Grandmaw that we should take him to the hospital. There he died. I never saw my Grandpaw again until he was lying in a casket at the funeral home. Because the house was full with family staying over during the days before the funeral, I had to sleep in Grandpaw’s single bed. I laid there and cried all night, feeling guilty for not being with him at the tavern the night he got killed.
When Grandpaw wasn’t working or drinking, he liked to garden. I have a picture of him standing near his garden, holding a kitten in his arms. It’s my favorite picture of him.
(My Grandpaw and Grandmaw in their garden in Pennsylvania)
Harry was my mother’s second husband, my step-father. Harry came into our lives, stepped up to the plate, and assumed the role that my own father had willingly thrown away. My mother never had to work outside of the home after she married him. When my father stopped supporting us, it was Harry who took care of us.
(My step-dad, Harry)
It was him who took us out of the housing project bought us our very own house to live in. He was there for me during the most important time of my life – adolescence. He taught me how to drive. He had a few extra beers when I practiced the clarinet. He came to the high school football game to watch me perform in the marching band. He took a photograph of my boyfriend and me the night of our prom. He came to my high school graduation. He taught me that being a father is more than writing a child support check. More than a weekly collect telephone call I received from my own dad. More than the occasional letter or card he sent. More than the two-week summer vacation I spent with my own dad. He taught me that fatherhood is steady, consistent, and persistent. He acted as a role model for manhood that my brother chose to ignore. He was there for us until death took him. He had a heart attack on his way to work. After his death, his personal items from the car were given to us. He had a picture of me in his wallet.
It was Father's Day in 2006 when I originally wrote this piece on my old blog. I was thinking, that day, about how wonderful it is that Islam doesn't need to set aside a special day to honor fathers and grandfathers. My father and grandfathers are constantly on my mind. They each, in their own way, enriched my life and gave me numerous gifts that contribute to the person that I am.
Today seemed like a good day to recycle this piece!