02/11/2014 05:50 am ET Updated Apr 13, 2014

The Legacy We Leave

My father died a quarter century ago today. I am now just eight years younger than he was when we lost him, so I find my thoughts increasingly turning to the question of his legacy and the legacy I hope to leave to my children. I wonder if my own will come close to his.

My Dad had none of the advantages he gave me. He put me through college, even though he never finished school, having to support his family during the Depression. He was a presence in my life, faithful to my Mom through 50 years of marriage, though his father was often gone, sometimes with women other than his wife. My Dad ran a small business and, through having me work in it, taught me lessons of customer service and hard work that have immeasurably enriched my own career. His father was often out of work and, though by many accounts charming, irresponsible.

What I find astounding as I reflect on his life is that my Dad turned out to be such an honest, hopeful man when he could have become dishonest and cynical. In business, he was sometimes cheated by both suppliers and customers. Yet he was scrupulously fair. As a Jew trying to open a store in a non-Jewish neighborhood, he was told by residents that no one would buy from him. Yet he had more faith in people than some of them did in him and went on to become the most successful businessman that section of the city had ever seen. At his funeral, customers who had not seem him for years showed up to mark his passing. They didn't say much to us, but their presence said all that needed to be said.

Equally astounding, my Dad developed the capacity for deep love despite the fact that he was often hurt by others. With money saved from selling newspapers, he bought his mother a washing machine so she no longer had to hand-scrub the clothes. He enrolled in home economics in school (the only boy brave enough to take the class) so he could teach her how to use it. When it was delivered, his father accused him of stealing the money for it and demanded he send it back (which he would not).

My Dad was not perfect. He could be hard on my brother and me in his effort to teach us the sense of responsibility he deemed so important. He could be emotionally distant because he had so few role models of how to be accessible. He could be gone when we wanted him home because, as he always put it, "work before pleasure." Yet, as I reflect on his life, his legacy was in who he was rather than in what he did not do. If it could be said of Arthur Miller's failed salesman, Willy Loman, that there was more to him in the front stoop he built than in any sale he ever made, it could be said of my Dad that there was more to him in his character than in any of the discrete events of his life.

So many parents today worry about giving their kids an upscale home, providing the material possessions they crave, striving to gain their entry to the right schools, supporting them in multiple after-school activities to make them more attractive to the best colleges and pushing them toward the "right," good-paying career. Had his hard-scrabble youth not turned into a hard-struggle adulthood, perhaps my Dad might have done the same. But I doubt it. He had the intuitive sense to know that we needed to take charge of our own lives. He also knew what was most important: not all the things he might do for us but who he was; not all the things we might do to advance ourselves in life but who we were.

We buried my Dad on Valentine's Day. It was a quiet ceremony in the bitter cold of an upstate New York winter. Yet whenever I stand by his grave, I feel overwhelmed by the warmth of his love for me. He did not show it in many of the usual ways -- he was not known for displays of emotion or prone to hugs and kisses. But he showed it in being the best man he could be, and he was the best of men. That was his legacy. That was more than enough. That is a legacy which I can only hope -- and try -- to leave my own children. To the extent I can, I will have honored this man to whom honor was so important.