Modeling Matters

I wrote this a number of years ago as an adult to help me understand my relationship with my father and how it impacted my fathering. It was my eulogy at my father’s funeral.

My Father’s Store

            At the time it seemed that I hated every minute I spent there.  But I really hand no choice.   It was either being there or rarely seeing him.  I yearned for his presence and approval and, unlike my father and son fantasy relationship, I was not able to bond with him on the ball fields, the family farm or on backwoods trails.   He simply couldn’t fathom the preadolescent American male obsessions with sports, automobiles, and outdoor adventure.

            This was alien to a man who had spent his youth in a tiny eastern European village in constant fear of starvation and oppression.  His flight to the so-called land of opportunity brought him only temporary respite from the harsh struggle of basic existence.  As he reached his manhood he found his dreams blunted by the responsibility of being the eldest child trying to help his family survive the Great Depression.

            Bearing his scars he married and raised two children to succeed where he had failed.  I, his second born and only son, had a difficult time reconciling this melancholy man working 70 hours a week, his martyrdom in constant view, with the image of the ideal father emerging from the mass media of the fifties.  He wore a tie only on Sundays, never mowed a lawn, couldn’t change the oil in the family car and didn’t know the difference between a defensive end and a quarterback.  His battlefields were not the corporate high rises, the ivy walls of academia or the client filled offices of the struggling professional.  Instead, his south Bronx grocery store became the arena to prove his self worth.

            A thirteen-year-old boy finds nothing heroic in the sight of his father, an apron around his waist, slicing cheese for a demanding housefrau.   But he took enormous pride in his ability to accurately add a column of figures on a brown paper bag faster than an adding machine, or guess the weight of a mound of tub butter before he put it on his scale.  Quoting Talmud or offering a Latin aphorism, remnants of his intense but curtailed parochial school education, he held forth to his customers on politics, current events and religion.  The multi-ethnic working class clientele looked upon him as the neighborhood intellectual – the eccentric and passionate king of his shabby emporium.  This was the world to which I came every Saturday morning.

            His pre-dawn departure for the store was too early for me, so my solo journey became my adventure of the week.  After leaving our apartment building, I would stop at the candy store near the elevated subway station to pick up the latest war comic.  With a “GI Joe” tucked in my back pocket and a long pretzel in my hand, I began the 45 minute trip trying to remember to change trains without losing the continuity of my hero lobbing a grenade into an enemy foxhole.  The reality of where I was would begin to sink in as I walked down the last block before arriving at the store.  My spirits would dampen as I visualized the coming day.

            I suppose that he either ignored my sullen face or simply didn’t notice as I greeted him with the usual query, “How’s business dad?”  As the day progressed, my mood would gradually improve as the rhythm of the store’s activities took hold.  His efforts at intimacy were genuine but tightly constrained by the environment.  He never asked about school or my interests; he expected and got good grades and I suppose he found my passions trivial.  It was understood that schoolwork would always be completed without questions or complaints and that any concern other than making a living or contemplating the meaning of God was self-indulgent and childish.  My successful attempts to master the skills of his work were the stuff that brought his approval.  He loved to show me off to his customers.  “Watch him make change in head.” and “See how he handles the slicing machine.”  were his expressions of parental pride served up to his customers along with their farmer cheese.   I knew it was a form of validation, yet, I was also mortified by his remarks and by the fact that I was indeed trying to perform in order to please him and win his respect.

            I now realize that I missed a great deal.  I was unable to appreciate or fully understand his humanity.  He never uttered a racial slur, refused someone in need who was unable to pay his bill, nor failed to extend a second chance to anyone who had wronged him.  Even the alley dwelling beggar, who played his violin to the taunts of the neighborhood children, was treated with equality when he entered the store to buy his daily meal of saltines, sardines and an orange soda.  Stinking of dried urine, counting out his pennies one at a time from his torn change purse, my father would engage him in conversation and serve him like his most valued customer.

            This Saturday ritual, except for summer reprieves, lasted for several years.  I finally found the courage to break away and stop going.  Simultaneously, the neighborhood deteriorated, supermarkets blossomed and the store was sold.

            My eldest son is now thirteen.  I answer his homework questions, relate to his interests, and acknowledge his athletic accomplishments.  We go to “Giants Stadium” and I play one-on-one with him in our driveway basketball court.  I am a well-educated and successful professional who leaves for work each day in a suit and tie, briefcase in hand; yet I doubt if I do any better, or even as good a job as did my father of setting an example of self-reliance, decency and respect for human dignity.

Richard C. Horowitz, – 1/90 (edited, 10/08)

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