One year for his birthday, I bought my dad, Eddie, underwear. It was a last-minute, harried purchase, embarrassingly unsentimental. I was racing to meet a friend for dinner with only minutes to spare, and there was a Big & Tall men’s store across the street.
I grabbed the first thing my eyes settled on: a three-pack of light blue boxers stacked neatly on a table. When it came time to give him our gifts the next day, he blew out the candles on his cake, and my mom handed him a large blue box decorated with a gold Ralph Lauren logo. In it were two polo shirts and a silk tie. I hid my package behind my back: the only wrapping paper I could find at home had Christmas wreaths, and it was now the end of March.
“It’s just a little something… ”I said shamefully, producing my Yuletide-themed present.
Dad read the card slowly and carefully, then tore into the package. He scrutinized its contents from all angles. “This is beautiful,” he said enthusiastically. “I love it. Exactly what I wanted and needed!”
I raised an eyebrow. “Daddy, it’s just some underwear…”
“It’s perfect,” he interrupted me. “Judy,” he asked my mom. “Do you see this? Beautiful!”
My dad was so full of joy it exploded out of him
That — in a nutshell — was my dad. A six-foot-two, 275-pound teddy bear of a man, so full of gratitude and joy, it exploded out of him. His enthusiasm encompassed anything anyone gave him: a free pen at the bank, a collectible plastic Yankees helmet that held his ice cream sundae at the stadium, and a Syracuse University Dad mug I accidentally chipped on the bus home.
He loved his family, friends, coworkers, and strangers he met on the street, and that appreciation for humanity colored each life he touched. At the rooftop pool club, he belonged to in Riverdale, neighbors argued over who got to put their lounge chair next to his. I loved to tease him about it: “You’re the Mayor of Manor Towers. Mr. Popularity!”
He would lay with a transistor radio held to his ear, listening to the Yanks game or 1010 News, but bolted upright each time someone paused to inquire how he was. The conversation might turn into a sports discussion, an observation on the weather, or even a card game (my dad was a poker shark). His favorite day at the pool was July 4 weekend when they had a cookout and free Good Humor Ice Cream. That was the day the entire family was asked to join him at a picnic table that had his name and a reserved sign waiting.
My favorite memory of my dad is when he befriended Lauren Bacall
Yet my favorite Dad memory has no occasion. It was 1999, and I was freelancing for a theater magazine. I had just interviewed Richard Chamberlain, who was starring in The Sound of Music on Broadway. I was invited to opening night, and Dad was my date for the evening. He adored Broadway shows, especially old ones, where he knew all the songs by heart. Thanks to the show’s press agent, we had great seats fourth-row Center Orchestra. My father was used to sitting in the nosebleeds with our family of four, so this was a rare treat.
“I can see right inside the orchestra pit,” he remarked as we settled in. “These are some seats!”
I made a quick dash to the ladies’ room before the show began and left him thumbing through the Playbill. When I returned, he had moved up one row, and a platinum-blond woman had her arm draped around his shoulders.
“Sher! This is Betty. Do you know Betty?”
I focused on the face of the woman beaming at my dad. “Betty” was the legendary actress Lauren Bacall. Oh. My. God. What was she doing here? And what was she doing with my father?
“I was just telling her how much I loved her movies…” Dad tried to explain.
“So sweet, Ed,” Bacall said. “I’m so flattered.”
Then I realized the connection: Bacall had just made a TV movie with Richard Chamberlain. She was there to cheer him on — and my father was cheering her on.
The theater lights flickered, signaling the show was about to start. I sat right behind them, and my dad turned around to wave. He was over the moon with his famous new lady friend, and she was enjoying his adulation.
“Wait’ll I tell your mom,” he whispered to me. “She won’t believe it!”
At intermission, he got Betty and me Cokes from the bar.
“Such a gentleman,” she said. When he returned, they continued chatting. As my father spoke, she tossed her head back and laughed heartily. He seemed entirely at ease hanging out with a Hollywood actress. Maybe, I pondered, that’s where I get it from — my ability to interview celebrities for magazines and ghostwrite their memoirs as if they were ordinary people.
My dad was always a people person. No matter whom he came across — from the guy who parked his car to the mayor of New York (he and David Dinkins once had a long conversation at a steakhouse coat check), he was kind, warm, and interested in what made you tick.
Whenever I feel jaded, exhausted, and uninspired these days, I think to myself, “What would my dad do?” He would stop complaining. He would open the apartment windows wide (even if it was 90 degrees outside) and let the fresh air stream in. He would ask how my day was going and make me recount every detail until I realized it wasn’t as bad as I thought.
My father could find joy in everything and anything
He would delight in little things, everyday things I take for granted. A Whopper and fries. A shiny brand-new minted quarter. A Frank Sinatra song playing in an elevator. A $5 bill you discover crumpled up in an old jacket pocket. Treasures, all of them, meant to be savored and celebrated.
My dad has been gone nearly 18 years but still smiles back at me from a framed photo on my desk. In it, he is holding my then six-month-old daughter on his lap, a burp cloth draped over one shoulder. The joy and pride on his face are unmistakable and uncontainable, and I can’t help but smile with him.
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