I sit here writing this on Memorial Day. Memorial Day, a day that our nation celebrates those who fought and died for our country in faraway lands to preserve our freedoms here at home. We know, too, that all who serve are forever changed. What comes to my mind today, however, is a tribute not to some nameless war hero that I never knew, but to a man who served his country and fought in a war and never once talked about it to his children. I think and speak about my father.
My father was a man of uncanny silence. He never said much. He never let on about things that were bothering him, or even things that made him happy. He didn't just keep to himself; he was probably the only person who ever really understood himself. He and my mother were married for well over 50 years and I don't remember them ever really being affectionate or demonstrably aware of one another's presence in a room. Oh, they loved each other, but in their own way.
My mother was the dutiful homemaker and he was the breadwinner. He'd get up every morning before six and shower and shave and put on his suit and tie and don his hat and off to work he'd go. He'd make the long drive to Brooklyn to work in the store directly under the El in Williamsburg. The noise of the overhead subway was stultifying, but that didn't stop the commerce that was carried out six days a week. Yes, he worked a six-day work week from 7:30 to 7:30. And when he arrived home, his dinner was waiting for him on the table. He'd call my mother just as he was leaving the store and she needed to gauge just how long it would be before he arrived so that the dinner would be piping hot. She was a master at that.
There were no microwaves in those days and certainly no cell phones that would have alerted her to the traffic he was stuck in on the Belt Parkway. It didn't matter. She always had his dinner prepared just so and waiting upon his return.
We had always eaten before he got home so that his arrival meant that we would sit with him as he ate and my mother would fill him i with the stories of her day. He would eat and listen and nod sometimes in agreement or just because it was polite, but he didn't say very much. He didn't share his stories of what transpired at his store that day or even discuss if he had made any sales. Nope, he was usually just silent on matters like that.
I would fill him in on what I'd done at school that day and he would shake his head with approval even if he had no idea what I was jabbering on about.
I guess you could say that I really didn't know my father. We watched baseball games together and talked about that for quite some time. I loved baseball because it brought me closer to him. It was something that he and I shared and I had him all to myself during those times. I studied all I could about the game so that I could converse with him at any given time, even if our team wasn't playing. The New York Mets became the bridge to my father's heart. Through them I knew my father. I still root for them and always will. My father would like that.
But I think about him on days like this because I carry with me some truly dreadful pictures that my mother gave me on the day my father died. They were photos taken with a Brownie camera by soldiers as they liberated the death camps at the end of World War II. They are pictures of emaciated men in striped pajamas crying with joy at the sight of American soldiers. There are also pictures of piles of dead bodies as they were about to be buried en masse. There are pictures of horror and pain and unspeakable torture. My father, an American Jewish soldier was there and witnessed it and never said a word about it to anyone. But he put those pictures in a box never to share but always to keep.
Even in his silence he spoke loudly about what it all meant to him. In many respects, it broke him. The young, suave, Brooklyn street kid witnessed a nightmare that was to pervade everything he ever did in life. He saw hatred and never again spoke of love.
As Father's Day approaches and we think of our dads and all they mean or meant to us, I say a silent prayer that my father has finally found the peace that he never seemed to enjoy in this life. And while he never said these words to me, I know he wanted to desperately. I know he loved my brother and me and we loved him. We just never said the words.
Pop, I love you.