Monday, June 20, 2005

Memories of my father

06/19/05

Memories of my father have grown hazy with the passage of time.

On Memorial Day 1980 Kathy and I came home from a picnic with my brother and his wife to hear on the answering machine that my father had been rushed 50 miles to the hospital in Hanover, N.H., victim of a massive aneurysm. Two weeks later, on Father's Day, he died in the intensive care unit. He was 70 years old.

Still, even now, 25 years later, a few vivid images remain, either real or reinforced by the telling. The weekend before dad's aorta burst, my parents had taken us to a Jacques Brel retrospective in Brattleboro, Vt. Gunther Lanson rarely enjoyed life in silence, and as the performers sang and danced to some of the favorite tunes of his past, he twisted in his chair to look at me, his green eyes sparkling, his face alive in a boyish smile that belied his years. He said something like, "isn't it terrific," a little bit too loud, to which I responded, "yeah, shhh." At 31, I hadn't fully outgrown dad's propensity to embarrass me. His sheer enthusiasm for life could overwhelm.

Dad was a short, round man, Santa without a beard, a red face younger than his years and a fringe of snow white hair around a bald dome of a head. But his size said nothing about his stature. In ways he was larger than life. He wouldn't so much shake hands when we'd drive to his "hill," the 14 acres of Vermont meadow he and my mom had bought in retirement, as he'd throw out his right arm and lunge at you in a shake that was more of a shout of welcome.

He was funny, ferocious (when he "blew," as he'd put it), outrageous, energetic and all-embracing. Long before his abrupt death, "Gunther stories" were legend in our small extended family and among our friends. There was the time on suburban Long Island when he ran out the front door with nothing on because he'd forgotten to tell my mother something before she drove to school.The wall in Mexico City, where he relieved himself as thousands streamed out of a bullfight we'd just witnessed. The Vermont snowbank into which he'd skid time and time again at the bottom of his hill, usually passing on the blame to his neurotic mutt "Mini," his roar-- "Mini, you stupid bitch" -- echoing up to the house, where inside we'd howl in laughter.

Gunther lived in perpetual motion. In retirement, he'd race around northern New England selling paddle tennis courts, drive here to deliver furniture and there to pick someone up at an airport. In earlier years, we'd pile into the car on weekends and drive to friends and relatives or to his mother and her generation of fellow refugees from Nazi Germany. At the old people's houses, we’d sit in powder-scented rooms with heavy-set women who wore glittering broaches and hats and, inevitably, served us cookies and cake.

When he wasn't moving, Gunther made lists, endless lists on yellow legal pads, though I'm not sure he ever read them. His work and career fell short of his dreams: A U.S. vet and refugee in his mid-30s by the end of World War II, he never made it past middle management in his uncle's lighting company. But when people needed him, he delivered, even if it meant taking risks and bending rules.

There was my brother's friend, David, the valedictorian of Carle Place, L.I., High School. Apolitical, he did nothing to avoid the draft while finishing a Fulbright after college. The Army shipped him to Texas and trained him, a linguist, to be an interrogator of the Viet Cong. The nightmares and sleep walking began when he heard tales of VC being dropped from helicopters if they didn't talk. When his shipping orders to Vietnam arrived, he deserted. My father arranged his passage to Sweden.

There was another friend of my brother Dennis from the Peace Corps. The daughter of a devout Catholic family, she got pregnant out of wedlock and before Roe v. Wade. My father helped her arrange a trip to Puerto Rico for an abortion.

And there was the week, that legendary week he called the most important of his life, when Gunther, a Berlin-born enlisted man and staff sergeant in a U.S. Army propaganda unit, joined in the liberation of Bavaria at the end of World War II and helped reunite his first cousins -- Jews by Hitler's definition -- by hiding two of the daughters in the trunk of an Army vehicle and driving them through U.S. checkpoints to their stately home on the banks of Lake Starnberg. Through miracle and mystery -- Dennis and I have long tried to decipher how -- father, mother and three sisters, their home commandeered by the Nazi mayor of the village, had survived the entire war in Germany, escaping the cattle cars that shipped Jews to near certain death in the extermination camps.

I thought of this and more today, Father's Day, as I sat through a special service at my cousin's Unitarian-Universalist Church. Some parishioners talked about their father's. I thought about mine. About one of my earliest memories, a train trip from New York to Philadelphia to watch the beloved Dodgers, who the previous year had deserted Brooklyn to move to LA. About the night, when I was 17 or so, that dad, in a fury, took an open-handed swing at me -- and I caught him as his knee buckled and asked, "Are you OK?" About his and my trips each Christmas to Yorkville, the now-vanished German section of New York City, where we'd buy chocolate and sausage and stinky cheese and eat wienershnitzel in a restaurant where the waiters wore white gloves and a violinist in tails played waltzes.

At 56, I am just a year shy of my father's age the day his knee buckled and I caught him on the way down. He always swore it was the day he realized I was becoming a man. My own daughters at 24 and 20, are older than I was. And I'm not in the business of taking swings. But I still sometimes vent at them, if somewhat less explosively than Gunther did that day. And I wonder and worry about my girls as I imagine he did about me well into my 20s. Do they appreciate at all the work and time Kathy and I devoted to their well-being and education? Do they remember, at all, the adventures we've taken together, to Europe, cross-country by train across America, through the Rockies and up and down the California coast? Will the day arrive when -- no matter where they live geographically -- they will again come home, when they'll share things with me besides their pique at my questions, when they'll trust that my interest and concern is in something other than controlling their lives? Do they love us?

With a few years to spare, dad lived long enough to know the answer in my case was a resounding, "Yes." And, other than in my darkest moments, I know it is for my daughters as well. But still I have much to learn. Perhaps on this Father's Day, a quarter century after my father and I hugged for the last time, I can draw a lesson from his imperfect parenting – the kind we all offer our children despite our best intentions.

Years after dad died, in a folder in a file cabinet in his oversized desk, we found a bunch of letters I had written to him from Colorado in my early 20s. Dad had circled all the misspellings and grammatical errors in red. So much for my high-priced education. But he never sent the letters back with his corrections. Either common sense or my mother prevailed on him to let me learn on my own.

3 Comments:

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November 3, 2005 at 10:28 AM  
Blogger Amon said...

Well done on a nice blog Jerry Lanson. I was searching for information on Christmas party Ideas and came across your post Memories of my father - not quite what I was looking for related to Christmas party Ideas but very nice all the same!

We're all getting ready for Christmas and I've just put the finishing touches to my new site specially for kids, or rather their parents and relatives. You can go there and get Santa to send a really nice personalized letter to a youngster. It's great fun! If you have a moment, perhaps you'd enjoy taking a look: Letter from Santa .

Well, a merry Christmas to you and yours!

November 25, 2005 at 7:25 PM  
Blogger Amon said...

Well done on a nice blog Jerry Lanson. I was searching for information on Santa letters and came across your post Memories of my father - not quite what I was looking for related to Santa letters but very nice all the same!

We're all getting ready for Christmas and I've just put the finishing touches to my new site specially for kids, or rather their parents and relatives. You can go there and get Santa to send a really nice personalized letter to a youngster. It's great fun! If you have a moment, perhaps you'd enjoy taking a look: Letter from Santa .

Well, a merry Christmas to you and yours!

December 7, 2005 at 9:34 PM  

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