Friday, April 26, 2019

He Was My Daddy Before He Was Daddooooo

He was always larger than life, bigger than anyone else in his orbit, sui generis as I called him in his New York Times obituary. The world revolved around him - from his perspective and from that of those around him. We always considered, in the front or the back of our minds, how he would react.

Kids loved him. A lot. The five year old daughter of the divorced mom living with her parents across the street rang our bell every morning, sometimes before anyone in our house was awake, wondering, "Can Herbie come out to play?" My friends brought him their broken (homemade, of course) skateboards to fix. He was the first to grab the baby and dandle her on his knee, the one who was always up for an outdoor game, the one who would listen attentively to the most convoluted story told by a little one.

He was also the first one to pick up his ball and go home if things didn't go his way. His rules. His timing. His game. That was fine when his playmates were tiny; by the time they hit 8 or 9 they weren't buying his nonsense any longer.

He was always making or fixing something, whether in the garage or in the basement. His workbenches were orderly and paint spattered and always equipped with an extra chair for any small bottom that cared to sit beside him and learn. He was willing to let anyone handle just about anything, as long as he was there to supervise. Just as he did with Jenny he did the same with us - we always had a kid made birdhouse securely fastened to a metal pole around the edge of the property.

He was great in the snow, pulling a tied together string of sledders across the Bethpage Black Course, headed for the highest hill we could find. He helped us create snow forts and the piles of snowballs we'd throw at one another.... his always sailing across the driveway first, dead aimed at our opponents.

He was great at the beach, out farther than any of the other dads, kids in tow, clinging to his shoulders and his waist and his neck, buffeted by the waves but never putting us at risk, never losing his balance, the water's buoyancy compensating for his damaged hip. He was fluid in the water, swimming lengths of the pool without taking a breath, his body a sleek dolphin until he found the legs of an unsuspecting offspring. Then, without warning, the dolphin became a whale, water spouting from his mouth, into the face of his child happily paddling along.


He was a master gardener before the term was invented. His crops were legendary in the neighborhood, not as annoying as his brother's rhubarb (which were left, anonymously, on doorsteps when he couldn't give them away any longer), but certainly better than anyone else on the street could grow . Just ask him. He'd tell you so.

Out in the yard, he was good for the heavy lifting, the ladder climbing, the tool buying and cleaning. He was at G'ma's disposal, following her orders, never talking back or disagreeing. Those afternoons outside in the back yard were heavenly.

Annoying? For sure. We'd all be in the car, ready for our Sunday-Go-To-Grandparents-Day, when G'ma would wonder,"Where is your father?" Invariably, he'd found one last project to finish, one item that required his attention, one way to make the whole scene revolve around him. G'ma was annoyed, so we were too. Then he'd get in the car and start singing a silly song, or follow a windy imaginary line in the road, or tell us a story or ask us a question and we'd be off, the annoyance forgotten until, cruising the Belt Parkway under the flight paths of JFK (Idlewild, then) and LaGuardia, pointing out the various aircraft overhead, we'd hear G'ma's familiar refrain: "Two hands on the wheel, Herbit!" Reluctantly but obediently, his hand returned from outside the window, his eyes returned from the sky to the road , and we'd drive on.

He was big on exposing us to culture. Museums, restorations, operetta and ballet - we didn't have a lot of extra cash but there was always money for culture.... and pizza. "Anybody hungry?" was the signal to speak up for Carvel soft serve ice cream or a Vincent's pizza brought home, piping hot, eaten on paper plates to maintain the kashruth. He stirred his ice cream into soup in the cup, his pizza he ate plain.

He was a purist in many things,definite ideas about what was fashion and what was style. A bagel could have sesame or poppy seeds, onions or everything, but blueberries and parmesan cheese were beyond the pale: "THAT is NOT a bagel." Tools were put away where they belonged; he outlined them on the pegboard holder so there could be no mistakes. And, when it came to decisions around the house, each kid and he had one vote, but Mommy had 5.

That was just the way it was. He was complicated, not easy, and mine.
Passover, April 1961

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