November 18, 2013:
My father died in 1975, having turned 75 on this day in 1974. That Christmas I drove home to New Jersey for the holiday, as my first wife and I usually did, and he took me into the basement to show me the antique chairs he was recaning but really to tell me that this was his last Christmas. How he knew must remain a mystery, because I didn't ask; I was too stunned; I didn't know how to react. But he was right. He died a month later, in the hospital, after a heart attack. I wish I had said good-bye. My mother did. "It's been a good marriage, Ax," she said, leaning over him to kiss him on the temple. His full name was Axel Hjalmar Brandt, a fine old Swedish name, but he had changed the middle name to Elmer, which I always thought was a mistake. We visited with him in the hospital, then drove back to our home in Shrub Oak, N. Y., a little village in northern Westchester County. On the way home we were listening to the radio and a Beatles song came on, the one with the verse "Get back, get back, get back to where you first belonged," and I knew I should turn the car around and go back to New Jersey. I didn't. That evening my brother called. It was over. A second heart attack had killed him.
My brother put his fist through the wall. I just lay down on my bed and cried for a while.
Only when they're gone do we begin to understand how little we knew our fathers. My own was a quiet man to begin with, and he was not a modern, participatory father, he didn't want to be our friend, he seldom did anything with us, and most summers, which we spent at the shore, we saw him only on weekends. Twice he took my brother and me to baseball games on a Saturday afternoon, first to Ebbetts Field and the Dodgers, then to the Polo Grounds and the Giants. The latter was rained out, but I still remember descending a long flight of stairs to the stadium. Going to the Dodgers game made me a Dodgers fan, until they absconded to Los Angeles. Those were the days of Peewee Reese and Preacher Roe and Jackie Robinson, all legends, and the age-old rivalry with the Yankees. In those days people worked five and a half days a week, Mon-Fri and Sat. morning, and occasionally my brother and I would go into the city with him on Saturdays and hang out waiting for him. He showed us how the IBM punched card tabulating machine worked, and that was amazing. And we saw how sociable he was in the office, where he was the assistant manager. It was a railroad insurance company he worked for, and he joked around with everybody, told stories, laughed a lot. We rode the train to Jersey City, where we took a ferry to lower Manhattan. It was a wonderful ride, the train cutting through the industrial heart of the state, by the backs of factories and rail yards full of abandoned, rusting equipment, then over the long bridge that crossed Newark Bay and into the yards at Jersey City, where the ferries were waiting. It was all very beautiful, in a masculine kind of way, and then there was the New York skyline before you.
I didn't particularly want to be like him, though, didn't want his life, which was circumscribed by his job,and our little family, to which he was deeply devoted, and his daily routine. What he was at the office he wasn't at home, i.e. sociable; he arrived at six every evening from the city, our mother would have dinner almost ready, then in the evening he would help her with the dishes and read the World-Telegram and Sun, having read the Herald Tribune in the morning. I didn't want that, didn't want the emphasis on job security, the limited scope of his life, the frugality with which they lived. But here I am, about to turn 77 myself, and I am like him. I have the same body structure, the same head shape. Set photographs of us next to each other and it's obvious I'm his son. I'm quiet like him, too, but sociable in a group, just as he was; I like to read just as he did; I can crack jokes like he did; I do crossword puzzles as he did, and take pride in not having to look anything up. As he did. He could draw extremely well, and I can't do that. But he had a marvelous singing voice, too, and so do I, only in a deeper register. He was very kind to people. I am still working on that, but getting there.
He had grown up without the advantages he was able to give us. He graduated from high school around 1918 and immediately went to work. His father was a skilled carpenter, a tool-and-die maker; my father started out as a secretary, at a time when male secretaries were the norm; my brother and I became professionals. As a family, we were climbing the ladder, and that was the way it was supposed to be in America. My brother and I both went to college, he to Cornell, and I to Princeton, then to grad school at Columbia, and there was never any question about it. We were going to college whether we wanted to or not. It turned out not to be all that easy to be fully educated when my parents weren't. I found that we had, in a way, less to talk about. My politics diverged from theirs. I traveled a great deal, mostly for my work, while my parents never had the chance to do that. I wanted to be a man of the world. They never had a chance to pursue such a goal.
Yet I think of him every day. Expressing love was not natural for him. Neither of my parents put much store in hugs and visible affection. But it was clear early on they would do anything to protect us; they were fiercely devoted to our welfare, our future, and the development of our character. They would tell us repeatedly that we could do anything we set our minds to. They insisted that we were as good as anybody else in this country. I took it to heart. I've never been particularly impressed by rank and privilege, and the confidence they instilled in me has served me well. They gave that to us. I think of him every day, and am grateful to have been his son. He had an inner dignity, a beautiful soul. I have regretted since the day he died that I never told him when I had that chance, in the hospital, how much I loved and respected him. In his quiet way he showed me how to be strong, how to endure, and how love is not just what you feel, but what you act upon. I think of him every day, and I miss him enormously.