Monday, September 20, 2010
Daddy's Little Girl
oday, it is the 36th anniversary (yahrzeit) of my father's passing. A year or so ago, I had a rare chance to visit my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania after a very long absence. The experience was so rich that it was almost impossible to take it all in as it was unfolding before me. I am still processing the various events, sights, sounds, and smells (fresh cut grass on a humid summer's day, the musty smell of old prayer books and wood at Poale Tzedek Synagogue, the fish/mud scent of the Allegheny River, the perfume/chemical smell of department stores, my mother's cheek, the big blue slide in Frick Park--does the blue slide have a scent?? Of course it does!) of that trip. But there were some sour notes.
Few sour notes, it must be said, and most of them insignificant, but still, they horned in on my little trip here and there and made their presence known. In particular, I have rerun in my obsessive little mind, again and again, a particular instance in which I ran into an old friend of my parents, a woman I call "Aunt So-and-So" because she was so close to my parents and always at the house for weekly bridge games. I saw her as I was retrieving a shopping cart, right outside the Squirrel Hill Giant Eagle, A/K/A The Iggle. We recognized each other right away though we hadn't seen each other for over 10 years and began to catch each other up on various pieces of news.
Somehow, the conversation drifted in the direction of my father, George M. Meyers, who passed away in 1974, when I was but 13 years old. "Aunt So-and-So" was telling me that never had such a fine man existed before and never would such a fine man exist ever again. But, she continued, "You wouldn't know about that. You never knew him."
I was in shock. My facial expression must have looked pleasant enough but I went into face-freeze mode in which I don't show my real feelings and turn my face into a sort of mannered mask. But inside! It was like a punch in the solar plexus. I felt I couldn't breath. It HURT.
Part of this was her intonation. The words were said in a bitter sense, as if I didn't deserve to know him, as if I weren't worthy of knowing him. Somehow, those words were uttered as an indictment (of my generation?). I got through the rest of the chitchat and kept the wound close. I didn't relate this story to my mother, not wanting to upset her.
There, in the parking lot of the Iggle, I wanted to cry out and bear witness that I did indeed know my father. I knew him better than "Aunt So-and-So" ever could have done. I knew him in ways she couldn't begin to fathom.
I knew that his favorite actor was Frank Sinatra. That's right: his favorite actor and not his favorite singer. He felt that Frank was a brilliant actor and didn't receive his due for his acting performances.
I knew what mood he was going to be in at suppertime by which robe he had chosen to wear after his pre-dinner shower. The white satin number with the fancy black circles meant we were IN TROUBLE.
I knew he liked to eat Kiwanis peanuts and chase them with Chiquita Bananas every evening after dinner while watching TV. I know, because it fell to me to throw away his peels and shells.
I knew that the reason he was obsessed with war movies was due to the fact that he came home from the war with battle fatigue and forced himself to watch those movies as a cure. He always knew the actor's next line and would speak them a split second before the actor, even when it was a movie he'd never seen before. I have inherited this talent.
I knew that he adored rubbing his stubble against my tender cheek to make me cry out.
I knew he was proud of my piano playing and bragged about me to his co-workers. He told me to make a list of whatever music books I coveted and he would buy them for me as long as I promised to learn the theme song from The Sting so he could record it and play it for the guys at work. I kept my bargain and so did he.
I remember how, I alone, of my siblings, still enjoyed going on outings with my father even though I had passed the age of early childhood. Even a walk after dinner was an adventure. Once we walked all the way to the reservoir, and he showed me how I could drink from the water fountains there and no water ever tasted so good. Or we'd take off on a Sunday to view the trillium trails or go to the zoo where he'd tell me interesting facts about animal behavior.
I remember how he taught me the way to make friends with a dog. He showed me how to hold my hand out under the dog's nose to let him get my scent. Then, the dog would always be ready to accept my friendship. It always worked, even with the scariest dogs, such as Mr. Solomon's German Shepherd. But it worked especially well when my Daddy was by my side showing me what to do.
I knew that Daddy thought the cemetery was a place of beauty and contemplation and got great peace from our family outings to area cemeteries. I have inherited his fascination with these final resting grounds.
I know that at his funeral, there was no room left for all the people who wished to attend. They stood out in the inclement weather in droves. At the shiva, people we'd never known came up to me and said, "Your father was my best friend."
At the office, they had to close several account books because those people would only do business with George Meyers.
Four years after my dad died, a customer came and asked for him. He was crushed when he heard of my father's passing and began to weep. They called me down from my after-school job as an assistant to the bookkeeper Mary Ban and said, "This is George Meyers' daughter."
He said, "Your father was the finest man who ever walked God's earth."
I knew that my father and mother had a great love for each other but they were too elegant to let it show though on rare occasions, I got to see them dance together in the living room. That was a big treat.
I got to dance with my father at my cousin Arlene's wedding, and it was the first and last time I ever did so.
I knew that my father never gave up his dreams of furthering himself. He took night classes in architecture at CMU until the responsibilities of his job and his growing family forced him to give up his dreams of higher education. But he took classes in life drawing and would draw me in my P.J.'s as a special treat before bedtime. He took classes in Hebrew. He painted a beautiful painting of Rabbi Avraham Twerski using a newspaper clipping as his model, and another painting of a cattle car on its way to Auschwitz, which hangs in my home.
I knew that we were not allowed to buy clothing from Penny's because this concern was owned by anti-Semites, and for the same reason we could not buy anything from Germany and Spain. My sister once bought a used Volkswagen and he didn't speak to her until the old clunker gave out and died.
I know that he cared deeply about instilling Yiddishkeit into his children and it is because of my father's great love for his Judaism that I became religious and came to live in Israel. He always covered his head at the table, and had regular learning sessions with the associate rabbi of our shul. This in spite of the fact that he came from a home that was as secular as can be.
I know that he was a good father, a loving husband, and a workaholic, who left the house each morning at 5 AM to give the office his best efforts. I would sometimes join him in the early dark hours of the morning as he ate his breakfast and I can still smell his daily dose of Theragram. Sometimes I didn't wake up in time to be with him, and would awaken only when I heard the rustle of him taking his bag lunch from the landing on the stairs near the front door. After his death, I woke up at 5 AM each morning, expecting to hear the bag rustle, so I could go back to sleep, but I never heard it all that year or ever again. I know that after my father's own father died, he took over the support of his mother and younger brother, even though he was too young, too young.
I remember how I rolled my eyes and wanted to die one evening during my 12th year when Daddy came home from work and informed me that none other than Fred Rogers had visited the store, "I told him my daughter Barbara's favorite TV show is Mr. Rogers Neighborhood!"
I remember how he used to tell us often, "All I ask is that you make me a grandfather," and in a joking manner, I would always respond, "Poof, you're a grandfather."
Yet, his fondest wish was not fulfilled. He never was a grandfather, though I gave birth 12 times. He was too good for this earth. Or maybe he just did his duty faster than most folks. I don't know. But I do know that I did know my father. Yes I did. I knew him as only a daughter could know her father.