Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Good Son

When my dad's identical twin brothers were born eleven days short of his first birthday, his mother almost forgot about him.  My dad used to tell a story about how he was rocking the cradle when one of a number of immigrant cousins came in and said in Yiddish, "such troubles for one so young."  There is a painting that is a reproduction of an old photo of my dad in short pants and Buster Browns standing between two chubby boys.  My dad is casting a furtive glance.  He grew up being outnumbered and outmaneuvered  by his younger brothers, who were favored by their mother.

My dad grew up to be The Good Son.  After his brothers moved away, he stayed and took care of his mom and dad.  When his dad was in the nursing home, he visited him every weekend. And when his mother would call up every Friday afternoon and say, in her thick Yiddishe accent, "I'm lonely," he never once refused her request to spend weekends with us.

Our weekends revolved around getting in the car on Friday afternoons and driving from our Southeast side home, up Jeffrey Boulevard to Lake Shore Drive and taking that all the way to where it ended on the far north side, and then making the return trip on Sunday afternoons.  That went on four, five years, weekend after weekend after weekend, culminating in sitting on furniture covered in plastic and watching Bonanza, the Lawrence Welk Show and Mr Ed before finally returning home.

When we moved to the south suburbs, my dad decided it was time for my grandma to move closer to his younger brother in Southern California.  We flew with her out to LA  December 1969.  My uncle came to the my mother's brother's house, and that was the last time I saw my grandma.  I don't think I even said goodbye.

"Uncle George called," I said to my dad as he and my mom walked in the kitchen door.  "Is he in town," my dad asked.  "No," I responded. "Grandma died."

"What is she doing here," he asked angrily, referring to my best friend, Sherry O'Connor, who had just come off the bus with me just a few minutes earlier. "You'd better go home," I said to her.

A year later I was walking through O'Hare with three men, two of whom were trading "You're so fat," insults.  "Who makes your clothes, Omar the Tentmaker?"  When my Uncle Harold, who was wearing Bermuda shorts and a t shirt, ended up on one side of a pillar and the rest of us on the other, my Uncle George leaned in close to my dad and said,  "He embarrasses me."   Both of my uncles, whom I rarely saw, had flown in for my grandma's stone dedication, which traditionally  occurs around the first yahrzeit of a person's death.

Summer of '72, my dad purchased an olive green Dodge Polara.  He chose olive green because my grandfather has been a lifelong employee of Illinois Bell, and that had been the color of their service trucks.  As he started to place plastic covers on the car seats, he stopped and asked himself what he was doing. The Dodge was the first of his cars not to have plastic seat covers.  

Shortly after my grandpa died in October '68, the Tribune published a nursing home expose.  My dad was consumed with self-doubt.  He asked me if he had done the right thing.  Given how stubborn his mother had been about not leaving their second floor walk up apartment, I don't know what could have done differently.  I don't recall much about the nursing home except that while it wasn't a cheery place, it didn't depress me, either. Depressed me more to see my grandpa catheterized and urine flowing from a translucent tube into a bag and barely able to speak.

I don't remember what he sounded like or was like as a person, except that, based upon the arguments my dad used to have with his mother, I gather that "Pa" was a quiet man who was easily intimidated by his wife. My grandma would neither consent to  live in an elevator building, nor would she consent to move to California where Pa could enjoy his last days in warm sunshine.  Right before Saturday visits, my dad would stop at the same small stand and buy my grandpa a corned beef on rye with mustard, so at least my grandpa had these small pleasures.  

My mother told me that "Pa" was very talented with fixing things, probably an asset to him as an Illinois Bell lineman.  My mother also told me that he had hoped that my dad would become an engineer like my Uncle George, but my dad didn't have the aptitude for it.  I imagine that my dad's occupation of professor of data processing was probably beyond his father's comprehension  

A year after my father retired as a professor at one of the Chicago City Colleges, my dad, who all ready has his father's disability, Parkinson's, had a mild stroke.  He rapidly spiraled into dementia after that.  Life had played a cruel cosmic joke on him by giving him his father's illness, and his mother's base personality that, in later years, made him almost as unpleasant to be around as she had been.  

What I choose to remember is the man with a great, sometimes earthy, sense of humor, tremendous sense of duty, generosity and a great deal of compassion. What I choose to remember is a man who took care of his parents, despite the fact that he lived in the opposite end of the city.  What I choose to remember is a man who loved his mother despite the fact that she didn't much care for his wife. I choose to remember a man who grieved his mother's passing when no one else would.  

Some might think that my grandma didn't deserve her son's love.  I believe my dad had enough compassion to love her because he knew she had had a difficult life.  I think she knew, on some level, that he was a good son.  


  1. It sounds like he was a good ma to know and hang out with until near the end. It would have been wonderful if he could have retained his wits forever.

  2. He was a good man to know. Even at the end his sense of humor would come through.