I’m writing this piece on June 19, Father’s Day. I hadn’t intended to write a Father’s Day column – otherwise I would have tried to do so in time for my June slot in this newspaper. I decided to do so, however, after reading a piece in yesterday’s New York Times – “Remembrances of My Father,” by Charles M. Blow.
Mr. Blow wrote that when he was young his father was rarely around – too busy with wine and women – and when he was there he was still distant. He ignored his son, both emotionally and physically. He openly claimed fatherhood only one time, when he introduced his son to some of his cronies as “my boy” – the last two words of the son’s touching article.
Today I’m thinking about my own father, as I do almost every day. He died in 1957 at age 66. He had been ill for many years with heart disease and high blood pressure. I remember when I was nine we went to Durham, North Carolina to visit him for a week. He had gone there for treatment, the Duke University rice diet. I had a good time – I met a kid selling newspapers on the corner near our hotel, and he let me help him. But I never understood why my father couldn’t just eat rice in Claremont. I don’t think the diet did him much good, but I checked online recently and see they are still offering that program.
Frank Steinfield, born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, in 1891, was conservative in politics and in life. His father, for whom I am named, brought the family to Claremont around 1900, the second Jewish family in the town, and my father lived there for the rest of his life. He did well in business (he and his two brothers owned the Claremont Waste Manufacturing Company), but he had little interest in material possessions. He was a member of the Elks Club (where he played poker weekly), a thirty-second degree Mason, an ardent fisherman, and a true believer in the Republican Party.
He was devoted to my mother. In his eyes, she could do no wrong, although I’m not sure he ever forgave her for voting for Roosevelt. When he became a father, he was middle aged, more than two-thirds through his life. He always looked at my older sister and me as if we were miracles he never expected. When I was an adolescent and impatient or sarcastic with my aging and ill father, my mother, whose name was Irene, would chastise me. My father would always intervene, “Now Renee, never mind, I understand him.” And he surely did.
If one measures the quality of one’s years on a happiness scale, my father wouldn’t have scored very well, at least from what I can remember. Beyond his poor health, his life was deeply scarred by his relationship with his older brother – they were partners in business, but for reasons I have never discovered, they did not speak.
If, on the other hand, you look at quality in terms of a person’s character and reputation, he would have earned a very high score. I know that partly from what I could see, even at a relatively young age, and very much from what people who knew him have told me. To this day I can hear my father saying that only one thing in life really counts – your good name.
Charles Blow’s father left him very little, really just those two words, “My Boy.” By comparison, my father left me a great deal. I’ve often wondered how I could acknowledge my debt to him, if not repay it. The best I’ve been able to come up with is to remember his wise counsel, his sense of right and wrong, and try to emulate his values as a father and as a person. I did do one other thing. I gave his name to my first child.