What he gave me
We had the memorial service for my father last weekend. He died last October, and we had thought of having something in December, but there were a number of family members and friends from far away who said they would like to come, so we decided to wait.
There were 50 or 60 of us in the lovely church with a semi-circular worship space in West Hartford, Conn. Lots and lots of family, as well as a number of friends, attended. We listened to some of the music my dad loved (Handel), and heard stories celebrating his life.
Although the service was meant to help us say goodbye and move on from the loss of him, my dad is very much in my heart right now. When I think of all he gave me, it's almost staggering.
Prominent among his gifts was his sense of humor. He keenly enjoyed wit, satire and irony, and was a practitioner of all. But equally, he enjoyed silliness and slapstick — he was a devotee of the Marx Brothers. He had a fine sense of the absurd and was usually quick to laugh at himself. I'm glad to say I received a healthy share of this gift from him.
Dad passed his sharp intellect to all of his children, as well as his enjoyment of words and wordplay. I think I may have gotten an extra portion in this area; nothing induces self-satisfied chortling in me like getting off a groaner of a pun.
He shared his passions generously, exposing me and my brothers to a wide range of music, from opera to folk music (both Irish and American) to Gilbert & Sullivan to some of the corniest pop ever to grace a radio. I recall a time when he went around singing The Carpenters' "Sitting On Top of The World." He loved the outdoors and taught us to love it, too, taking us hiking around our home in Connecticut and for summer vacations to the Adirondacks. I didn't catch his enthusiasm for sports, but my brothers more than made up for my lack of athleticism.
And, of course, there was literature — novels, plays and poems. He loved Robert Frost, John Keats, Jane Austen, Alison Lurie, Dick Francis, Oscar Wilde, William Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson and a host of others. He read them for their wonderful stories, for their mastery of technique and most of all, for the way they illuminate the human condition. For him, literary art didn't just imitate life, it was life, distilled and reflected so as to teach, even as it entertained.
That was how he operated in the classroom, too: he went out of his way to bring to life whatever he was teaching, whether by staging a reading in class, showing a film, or whatever else might occur to him. He was often brought to tears by authors he loved, and I admired him for caring so much about ideas, beautifully expressed, and wearing his warm heart on his sleeve. I've been known to cry over a poem or a story, too.
He loved people and made friends easily — that legacy went more to my brother Peter than to me. But his real interest in knowing people and hearing their stories came to me also in generous measure.
The thing I really treasure about my dad, the thing I think makes him special, is the way he put all of himself out there for people to see. He wasn't reserved, didn't play it safe. Occasionally he was caustic or tactless. But almost always, his warmth, his kindness and his passion shone through. It drew people to him, made them love him and want to follow his example.
A friend once told me I possessed the gift of "unabashed sincerity." She was talking about my tendency, when my feelings are engaged, to just blurt out the truth as I see it, heart on sleeve. I like to think I got it from my dad.