My old man was a guy who did things. That’s him in July 1966, probably on his birthday; I’m the one in the foreground. He was 45. I was four.
By the age of 45, my father had already done a lot more than I’ve done at 50. Probably more than I’ll ever do in my whole life. He was born in 1921, came of age in the Great Depression, fought the Nazis in World War II, and came home to help integrate our schools and fight for open housing. Forty years ago, the Oak Park Public School District adopted its official Policy on Human Dignity, which was drafted by my father and a colleague. A year later, my father drafted a similar policy for the village’s Human Relations Commission. Those policies have evolved to be even more inclusive over the years, but it was my dad and a handful of others in the village who got that ball rolling.
I’m sorry that my dad didn’t live to see Barack Obama elected President. I’m pretty sure he would’ve approved. But here’s the thing: I can say with some degree of confidence that the work my dad did here in our village on the western edge of Chicago had an impact. It set an example for other communities around the country. It changed attitudes. And so in some small way, the work my dad did helped pave the way.
That’s living a life.
In any event, all that stuff was grand, as my mother would’ve said, but it’s not what made him my dad. I’m proud of the work he did, but a man’s work, even a man’s avocation, isn’t what makes him a parent.
Which is why the strongest memories I have of my dad are memories of completely mundane things. Hanging out with him in his basement workshop on a rainy afternoon, learning how to hold a hammer the right way, or how to use a miter-box. Watching him tune up the engine of a 1972 VW Microbus – the damn thing had a Porsche engine in the back with two carburetors – during the course of which I might have learned a new expression or two. It’s the day-to-day stuff, running errands, puttering around the house, shadowing my old man while he did all the things you had to do to keep a turn-of-the-20th-century house from collapsing to the ground … those are the things that stand out.
Years ago I saw Paul Sorvino interviewed on television, just after his daughter Mira won an Oscar for Mighty Aphrodite, and he said something remarkably insightful for a Hollywood actor. He said that when it comes to being a parent, there’s no such thing as “quality time.” There’s just time. You can’t just show up for a school play or a little league baseball game – or birthdays, or Christmas; whatever – and call that being a parent. You have to be there, all the time. Involved in everything.
My old man did that. He may have changed the world in his own way, but what matters more than any of that was this: He was there.