My father was born in London – in Whitechapel, the Jewish quarter. He was a first-born – a son! – so I have a fine framed oval portrait of him, dressed rather royally as a toddler, standing proudly and with poise for the camera.
His family was on the move, en route to Canada ... where his mother died, shortly after giving birth to his younger brother. Moe was sent to New York City to be raised by an aunt, in Harlem, at that time a Jewish neighborhood. I have a sepia photograph of him dressed in a cowboy outfit and sitting, unsmiling, on a tricycle.
He attended public schools, served as editor of the Spanish scholarly magazine, and earned a diploma and a pennant labeled “Commerce,” which is pinned to the walls of my office. I also store in the bookcase in my parlor an anthology of American verse, a slim volume with a rather elegant leather cover. The book, a graduation present from the school librarian, is signed, “Jessie Wing.”
I valued my father’s ancient camera, with its crystal jewel of a lens and its leather-bound case, and used it during my youthful travels. I cherish the radio set that likewise dates my dad’s early life to the gadgets of his era, the early and promising 20th century into which he was born. He even collected early American coins, notably Indian-head pennies and nickels, and stone arrowheads.
Yes, I know the basic facts of the life of Moe (nee Moses) Fink (nee Finkelstein) and the dates of the chapters of his life. He was not a chatty person, so his stories are like blurred snapshots for me.
We drove by the blocks in New York City where he lived as a foster nephew. We once stopped in Montreal to glimpse his mother’s tombstone.
In our living room, with its beige wallpaper ridged rather like corduroy, there was a photograph of his mother plus a framed editorial letter he had written, during World War I, advising ways to use thrift as a contribution to The War to End All Wars. The essay was published, and actually somehow read to Congress. This item confers a yellowed honor upon his boyhood. Moe was too young to serve in the Great War, and too old to join the military ranks in World War II.
A few times, sitting before the fire in our front room, I met one of the friends from his earlier life, his brief bachelorhood beyond the border of Providence. One chum brought us a dagger from visits to the Holy Land. I thought the rust on the blade was a bloodstain! It was a thing of fascination and style. There was another, closer companion, whose high-school image lingers as one of two buddies arm in arm, encased in a fancy folder to guard it.
So you see that I, a third son, have been faithful to my father in terms of keeping the flame of memory flickering through the decades – at least via such objects and two-dimensional documents. I enjoy this display of mute testimony to his progress.
There are other ways to commemorate, or contemplate, the life of a parent. My father and I were not close throughout my boyhood – at least not by today’s standards. His times were pressured times: he opened a store and ran it without any helpful employees. He sold furniture, delivered the merchandise and collected the payments. He had to learn the various skills of an American homeowner: how to mow and shovel, patch and repair, keep up with the mortgage payments and save enough to feel secure about future family expenses.
Moe did not live for pleasures private or sociable beyond the nuclear family, and his personal habits were quite frugal. He loved Camel cigarettes, unfiltered and certainly never mentholated. He enjoyed a shot of whiskey once it was legal to purchase alcohol in a proper bottle. He got great satisfaction from a well-filled saltshaker, which he hoarded at table, close to his plate so he could sprinkle a pile of NaCl over everything, rather like ketchup.
After my mother went to work to keep the store open while he did errands – she did not have a driver’s license – he would stop by the house to prepare lunch for us between our morning and afternoon grammar-school classes. He would be furious if I did not eat what he put on the table. My brother claims he recalls that Dad threw me against the refrigerator when I complained that a boiled egg was too soft. I have no memory of that temper tantrum. I remember no physical punishment at all, only cross looks. There was a set of cat-o’-nine-tails in a bin in the basement, threatening whips that he never used but which still terrified, or at least briefly worried, me.
He purchased three sets of boxing gloves to teach the manly arts to his trio of bookish boys: A miniature Providence version of the New York model of how to succeed in the 20th century in the U.S.A.
I liked my dad nevertheless and invented or projected my own ideals upon him and the symbolic suggestions of the things and words that stood as objective correlatives for his character.
His contempt for decaffeinated and iced coffee pleased me, like his scorn for social climbing in any form. His thrift struck me as a kind of modesty, even humility: a noble and self-effacing stance in a world of self-indulgences. His jokes amused and refreshed me.
What distanced me from Moe was that he welcomed the friends of my older siblings, but not my schoolmates. He found them distasteful. Did that mean he found me distasteful as well? Did I resemble him too much for comfort?
He was not poetic, but he did relish good writing and clear words. His Yiddish was excellent, articulate. He would not allow me to help with the lifting of the heavy tables and chairs he sold, and went so far as to have me fired from my first paid job, for fear it would keep me from my books! He discouraged my travels and also my preference for a fine college away from my hometown. Was that because of the higher cost or because he wanted to keep an eye on my wandering ways, both in the realm of ideas and also of associations? And yet, if I gave a talk anywhere, he would show up, in the back row of the auditorium. I keep a nice pale beige attaché case he gave me for a birthday, and recall with wonder a case of French wine!
There were major battles before us, however. I had a friend who was married and had a newborn baby. The young couple and their infant came to visit, expecting to stay overnight. My father would not allow them in the house, and I had to ask a neighbor to take them in. I stopped speaking to my father after that and moved into a small apartment. I made a down payment on a houseboat.
My mother made a strange phone call to me. “I feel like a woman who has been asked for a divorce,” she said. “You must come back.”
A few seasons later, my mother was stricken with a fatal illness. Before she passed away, she wrote a love letter to my father, thanking him for his care. She also instructed me on how to care for him, to cook and clean and run the household. I immediately forgave my father, resolved our differences and stayed with him until I married.
I arranged the wedding in the house we had shared. He cleaned and polished every inch of our house, and his smiles of welcome are the highlights of our photo album. And I was able to invite him to a weekly dinner in my new world. He held my first child in his arms.
Since his death, I have explored his lifetime within my thoughts, perhaps especially when I stroll the shoreline and pick up glass or shells to enjoy the graceful shapes they take on under the sculpting effect of the endless waves of the tides. Maybe there is an element of romantic exaggeration, but I now see his virtues richly. The matter-of-fact tone of his life, the simplicity of his moods, the laughter and the tears, the regrets and the low-key tastes, the anger and the subdued sighs of pain, they were admirably honest declarations of who he was and who he is within me.
A parent never passes from present to past for a child – we are never done with each other. I believe there is no such thing as a completely successful family. But we create our mothers and fathers, just as they design us. And the flotsam and jetsam of their trinkets bring them back with the charm and poignancy of beach moonstones.
MIKE FINK (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.