On Father's Day in the Missouri Ozark Mountains where I was raised, women and girls celebrated by wearing a red flower if their fathers were living and white flowers for those who were deceased. But we rarely saw our fathers on their day or any day; they worked on the railroad. Conversations too were sparse. And I was ashamed of my father Claude's dreadful grammar, fourth grade education and poverty.
Once when a boyfriend, a student at Yale, was visiting, my father dressed up in his new conductor's uniform to impress my city friend with his promotion. I was mortified.
Claude spent nothing on himself. He owned his work clothes, one dress suit and two pairs of shoes. One Father's Day we thought about buying a motor boat so he could fish in the local streams. But at $200, it was too expensive. Only years after his death, when I could no longer thank him, did I remember those lasting examples of his uncomplaining, noble spirit, deeds and words that have shaped my life. "A girl can never get too much education," he admonished.
At his funeral, I learned that his kindness was legendary. The week he died in 1964, African-American porters who had worked with him on the trains brought food to our house. Tearfully they told stories of the man they called "friend." "Mr. Claude stood up for us. He treated us no different than white people. And when we needed a few extra dollars, he never refused us."
Many years later when I interviewed Alice Herz-Sommer, the world's oldest living Holocaust survivor, she also spoke about discovering her father was beloved by his friends and employees only at his funeral. At 108 years of age, Alice credits her father with being more influential in her life than her mother. The values that helped her to survive a concentration camp and that govern her life still today were instilled by her father.
He was a modest man, eternally patient with his dismissive wife and pleasure-seeking sons. He was curious and forward-looking; one of the first in Prague in own a motor car and to install a telephone. And he was known for his courage in the face of danger. He once rushed into a burning factory building to save workers and extinguish the inferno. He never knew he was a hero and was hard at work the day he died.
After Alice, a concert pianist, was deported to Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, she devoted herself to comforting others rather than descending into depression and despair. "Music was our food." Alice says. And despite the hunger and unspeakable circumstances, Alice played more than one hundred concerts for her fellow inmates. Dr. Viktor Frankel, Rabbi Leo Baeck and innumerable Czech artists and intellects sat transfixed in her audience.
Although she had been a featured soloist with the Czech Philharmonic, Alice did not complain about her imprisonment, the terrible pianos or the Nazi restriction of her practice time to thirty minutes after her difficult work splitting mica chips. And she acknowledged the humanity in each individual -- even her enemies -- with a smile. When a young Nazi soldier who listened to her Beethoven outside the widow expressed his appreciation for her performance, she responded with "Thank you. I am glad the music helps you." Neither Alice's name nor the name of her six-year-old son ever appeared on the deportation lists for Auschwitz.
Today at her advanced age, Alice lives alone but is not lonely. Alice has been victorious in that she has forged a life without bitterness or hatred. She continues to practice at least three hours each day. Her life is filled with visitors from around the world who come to experience her joy. "Only when we are so old do we appreciate the beauty of life," Alice repeats.
Inspired by curiosity learned from her father, Alice is interested in technology, philosophy, literature and politics in Israel where she lived for 37 years. And Alice treasures each and every day with resilience and a reverence for life instilled from her father that sustained her in the camp and sustains her optimism today.
"I am so glad I woke up today," she teases with her irrepressible smile.
If you are fortunate enough to have loving fathers in your lives , I beg you not to wait. Your father deserves your gratitude today.
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