I stood at the foot of my father’s open grave, struggling to muster a few words to say. Dad’s contradictory life had left me with a heap of unresolved feelings, and judging by my brothers’ blank stares, I guessed that they were in the same quandary. I pulled my coat tighter against the December chill, as if protecting my bruised heart as well.
The smallest thing could enrage my father: an undercooked steak, a misplaced pack of Kent cigarettes, the television volume too low. Like an Army general, he insisted that all of his orders be obeyed.
I remembered the night 40 years ago, when I came home an hour past my teenage curfew. My father came flying out of the house. Before I could get out of my friend’s car, he leaned in and grabbed my arm. “Get in the house, you whore!” he hollered. I ran to my bedroom in tears, taking solace in the fact that I would soon leave for college. Yet that consolation only baffled my hurt and anger. It was 1973, and most girls I knew were college-bound, but my mother was determined to have me follow in her footsteps: marry, have kids, and keep house. It was my father who argued that I receive the same opportunities as my two older brothers and have a college education. Nonetheless, 20 years later, when he disagreed with my choice of a first husband — and he was right, that guy was a first class jerk — my father cut me out of the family for two years.
And yet, I remembered this thorny man seated beside me in our small Queens apartment when I was eight years old, teaching me how to use my new Easy Bake Oven. His stubby fingers mixed cake batter in tiny plastic bowls: he poured the mixture into the cake pan, and then slid the concoction onto the conveyer belt of the toy oven. A few minutes later, we picnicked on the floor, eating cake straight from the pan. This playful, lighter side of Dad emerged only rarely.
When my first child was born, I was extremely apprehensive about how this volatile man would behave as a grandfather. To my shock, the perpetual frown I recalled from my childhood was replaced with a grin; now his cornflower eyes were friendly, not steely. Over the next three years, Dad held each of my infants carefully, folding them into his body, his arm a cradle.
One night, when my parents were visiting, a few months after the birth of my second child, the baby woke me. My husband was away on business, my mother was asleep, and my father, an insomniac, was watching late-night television downstairs. As I was fretting over the mess in Jack’s crib, I heard my father dash up the steps. Without a word, he leaned into the crib and scooped Jack up. After helping me clean my feverish baby, he gently cradled Jack back to sleep while I changed the sheets. Then Dad took up a sentry post in the rocking chair and sent me back to bed.
As my boys grew, my father carved a permanent place in his grandsons’ hearts and our move to the east coast didn’t slow his visits. Despite chronic respiratory issues, and eventually, a continual need for oxygen, he traveled cross-country several times a year. By the time my mother died, my father had begun to work his way into my heart too. My husband and I tried to convince him to move closer to us; he refused to leave the home he had shared with my mother. But by the time my older son Joe was nine, Grandpa was spending all summer with us in New York.
Dad spent hours with the boys, telling tales of his boyhood on the city’s Lower East Side amidst immigrants from all countries, stories that seemed set in a far away land. The boutiques of our modern day Orchard Street couldn’t be further from the milk wagons he described, with their crates of blue-bottled seltzer delivered to his family’s crowded tenement. He adored Jack’s penchant for inventing new ways to play “Go Fish” and “War,” laughing as decks of cards ended up on the floor. It was hard to believe that this giggling man was the same person who had once shunned me. Yet there he was, well into his eighties, playing games, smiling, telling stories — content.
One summer, Joe, now 12, was about to leave for a wilderness camp. He sat in his room, surrounded by piles of clothing and gear, all of which needed to be loaded into a brand new green duffel bag. My father seated himself in an overstuffed armchair, setting his silver oxygen canister and tubing to the side.
“Robin, leave us,” he said. “I’ll help Joe pack his stuff, I’m an old hand at this.”
“Really, Dad? I don’t remember you packing anything. It was Mom who taught me how to fold and pack.”
“Your mom never learned the Army tricks I did. Now get out of here and let me at it with Joe.”
I left, but hovered in the hallway, eavesdropping on the packing tutorial.
“The heavy stuff goes in the bottom,” he instructed. “Bring me those blankets, and let me show you how to roll them up.”
“All three, Grandpa?”
“Yes, and bring the towels while you’re at it.”
Peeking around the corner, I watched as my father took another breath of oxygen, folded a woolen blanket in half, and slowly rolled it up.
“Joe, put this in the side of the duffel, so that it stays rolled up.”
Joe tucked the blanket in tightly, and reported back to the general for the next order.
“Here, you try this one,” my father said, pausing for another breath of oxygen.
“Like this? Grandpa, first I fold in half, right?”
“Yup. Carefully, start with one end and make sure you’ve got it as tight as possible so you can lay it down opposite the other.”
One by one, they tackled the packing list, my father pausing between each item for gulps of oxygen. After the towels came the raincoat and fleece, then the shorts, t-shirts, underwear, and socks. When they were finished there was enough room for the sleeping bag and its bulky pad.
“Thanks, Grandpa, the Army really did teach you a lot of stuff,” Joe said.
The following summer, in spite of weakening health, my father returned. Before sending Joe back to camp, he watched his grandson chant from the Torah for his Bar Mitzvah, Joe’s shoulders covered with the prayer shawl they had bought together. For the time-honored ritual of passing the Torah to the next generation, Dad handed the heavy scrolls first to me. Three generations stood abreast as Joe assumed his place in line and lifted the Torah from my arms. I thought then that this moment would be Joe’s last image of his Grandpa.
Yet four years later, my father was still present, although his health had deteriorated so much that he was too weak to travel east. That June, I stood in the doorway of Joe’s messy teenage room, watching him prepare for his first summer job as a camp counselor.
“Don’t worry about it, Mom, I have it,” grumbled my tall 17-year-old, as he began packing the now heavily traveled and battered green duffel. Silently, I watched as he piled his bed with woolen blankets, towels, shorts, t-shirts, underwear, and socks. I heard myself utter a short gasp as Joe began rolling up each item tightly, then carefully placing it in the duffel.
My sons’ grandpa, my father, died the following December. As it turned out, he was buried on Pearl Harbor Day, his Army service entitling him to a military funeral. Two cadets flanked the casket draped with a crisp American flag. The bugler’s mournful “Taps,” and the cries of my elder son echoed in the morning air. I loosened the grip on my coat and pulled my family closer.