I will miss lots of things about my father: his advice, his love for the farm, his really bad driving, the funny way he walked because of all his horse accidents, and the fact that he always had a penknife when you needed one.
But what I will miss most about my dad is his having dinner with him. Our family had dinner together every night when I was a child, and it was at the dinner table that I saw the best of my father, and learned the most from him.
My three brothers and I would always try to get him talking about certain favorite episodes in his life. We loved to hear about how he grew up living above the little corner grocery store that his parents ran here in our town. He always joked that they were so poor that his parents couldn’t afford to give him a middle name. We never tired of hearing how he and his equally poor friends would crash weddings in dental school so they could eat, which worked fine as long as they didn’t say they were on the bride’s side and then discover they were at a Bar Mitzvah.
We loved to hear him talk about his stint as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, and how he could sell anyone a vacuum, whether they needed one or not.
We always begged to hear about how he got his started in the horse business, which is a story that my brothers and I often tell at our own dinner tables.
During dental school, Dad answered an ad for a Riding Master at a camp in upstate
He took a train in a middle of a snowstorm to New York City, where the owner of the camp lived. The gods of chutzpah must have loved him, because the snowstorm was so bad that they couldn’t get to the riding academy for a riding test. By the end of the interview, Dad had the job.
He got to camp a week before it opened, taught himself to ride, and pretty soon had more kids in the riding program than in any time in the camp history.
At the end of the summer, Dad told the camp owner that the horses weren’t really up to his standard, and that the owner should pay him to bring horses from his own "farm" the next summer. The owner agreed.
Just to review, Dad lived in a shared bedroom in his dental school fraternity house. His parents lived above the store. There was no farm.
A week before camp started, he went to an auction and bought the horses. He paid a shipper to take them up to the camp. He was in business. At the end of camp, the horses were shipped back to the auction, and Dad went back to school.
Dad named the business “Wonderland Farms” because it started out as a farm in a closet, and he wondered where the land was.
Some of my favorite stories started with my father saying, “I had a really interesting thing happen today in the office.” Now, you might not think that much interesting happens in an orthodontist’s office, but, if it was my Dad’s office, you’d be wrong. He had a gift for waiting to bring a story home until he knew the ending. He would talk about interesting cases, wonderful patients he had, the bravery of children he treated at the Children’s Hospital, and tell funny stories about his colleagues.
He would talk about his staff, “his girls,” as he always called them despite my telling him on many occasions how politically incorrect that term was. He loved them like family, as he did Jack and his staff in the office next door. We always wanted to hear about Barbara, who started with him when she was a high school intern, and 40 years later, was still with him.
This may sound old-fashioned, but my dad truly loved his patients. Their problems and triumphs became his. The bulletin boards in his office were always covered with newspaper clippings highlighting the exploits of “his” kids and adults. He was so pleased that in his pending retirement they would be so well cared for by Connie and John.
My brothers especially liked to hear tales of the many adventures my dad had on his hunts. “Tell the one about how you were lost overnight on the mountain.” “Tell the one about how Mom found a tarantula in her boot.” “Tell again about the time the grizzly bear charged Mom.” Dad was Indiana Jones and Mom was Annie Oakley, and we would sit at the table long after the meal was over and beg to hear the stories again.
We loved to hear of his adventures with his friends. Whether it was crazy gift-giving traditions – a certain candy bar comes to mind – sports events, or laughs shared at his favorite lunch spot, the old Howard Johnson’s, he and his co-conspirators were always having fun in each other’s company.
I learned a lot from my father at the dinner table. He valued friendship, honesty and loyalty, and taught us to do the same. When he gave his word, he kept it, and we learned from his example. He loved my mother, and they were in it together. He supported his children no matter what.
Eventually, we did our share of the storytelling. He always wanted to hear about the latest exploits of his grandchildren. The “big kids” told him their own tales, and we proud parents spoke for the little ones, who were always right there, often sitting on his lap pulling his beard. I loved telling him how I couldn’t go anywhere in the Little Blue State without someone telling me that “your Dad fixed my teeth.” Even my interview for a clerkship with the most feared Little Blue State Supreme Court Justice of his day began with “Your dad was my orthodontist.”
Dad wasn’t famous. His obituary won’t be in the New York Times. No biographer will write his story. He was a man who lived an honest and happy life. He raised four children who adored him, and was married for almost 47 years to his one true love. He had lifelong friends, work he loved and many adventures. He died too soon.
I didn’t get to ask him what he thought his legacy was, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have used such a grand term. He would have rolled his eyes, and said, “Oh, come on.”
I know I hope my seven year old son, named after his grandfather, will remember him. I’m going to be re-telling my Dad’s stories to be sure that he does.