Sunday, July 6, 2008

When Dads Were Models for All of Us

This article hit home for me. Taken from the NY Times....

When Dads Were Models for All of Us

Long ago, I grew up with three dads: my own and two neighbors who had enough left over after dealing with their own kids to feel like dads to us as well. They lived in split-level houses next to one another that they bought around 1953 for about $30,000 at 39, 35 and 31 Tanners Road in Great Neck. Back then, they were too busy with the grand and quotidian duties of fatherhood to meditate too much about it. So, on Father’s Day 2008, a respectful salute to fatherhood before play dates, before anything 24/7, or 2.0.

Gilbert Isaacs, next door to us, never went to college, but he was the smartest man we knew — exotic and mysterious in his brazen detachment from Little League, pro sports and the other defining elements of suburban life. Instead of a lawn in the backyard there was the Japanese pebble garden he had designed and the 10-foot-tall copy of a famous Isamu Noguchi sculpture he had fabricated in his basement.

He knew about everything — orchids, the paintings of Emil Nolde, medicine and astronomy — not in the showy, keeping-score, intellectual résumé-building of today, but just because he wanted to know.

Once, he diagnosed his barber’s eye ailment, and was always greeted from then on with a respectful, “Good afternoon, Doc,” under the assumption that he was a physician, not someone who owned two jewelry stores in Queens with his brother.

Jesse Biblowitz could have been his opposite, someone so comfortable with the rhythms of our little cul-de-sac, it was hard to imagine him anywhere else. Where Gilbert’s eye was sardonic and clinical, Jesse had an unerring ability to see the best in everyone and radiated a sweetness hard to square with his big, stooped frame.

My brother called him the Golden Jesse, which didn’t really mean anything, but seemed just right. Going to play tennis with Jesse and assorted kids, relatives and visiting dignitaries every Sunday was about sports but mostly about life. You called every ball near the line in. You were awarded a second serve for any possible distraction. If Uncle Si didn’t want to move, you hit the ball close enough so he could remain stationary. Before the Jordan Rules, they were the Jesse Rules.

And my father, Jerome Applebome, who we never forgot was Dad-in-Chief, never strayed far from active-duty mode, invariably asking who wanted a nice peach, seemingly always around whether he was or wasn’t. He radiated a kind of Thurberesque suburban mensch-hood, fighting a losing battle with wily raccoons, implacable crab grass, balky commodes and the cruel vagaries of sports wagers, done in by every miracle play and impossible field goal. But without preaching, he was a master of teaching us how to do the right thing, how to be a father and a friend and an honorable person. He was a blend of Gilbert and Jesse, intent on litigating any political or intellectual point, every bit as goodhearted as Jesse without Jesse’s air of effortless suburban Zen.

We were lucky. Maybe some kids today grow up with the same air of total familiarity with their neighbors. But just as almost no kids seem to just go out and play ball in the street without an adult telling them what to do, it doesn’t seem today’s style.

But the dads were lucky, too. Gilbert and Jerome wouldn’t have made a glamorous buddy movie, but what great friends they were. Each trip to what was then called the appetizing store on Sunday became a gala excursion. Every visit by Gilbert later in the afternoon, when he’d torment my father by intentionally showing up at the most crucial moment of the game on TV to subtly shift the betting karma in the wrong direction, became a form of friendly suburban kabuki.

All three remained friends, almost brothers, for their whole lives, taking trips and spending holidays together, even if the Gilbert-Jerome bond was stronger than the Gilbert-Jesse one. Gilbert died in 1999 at the age of 82 and there was an appropriately sedate memorial a year later.

Jesse died in January at the age of 87 and there was an appropriately demonstrative funeral in which perhaps a dozen speakers found remarkably personal ways to paint the same picture in different brush strokes. My father’s 90 and still on duty.

There were, then as now, endless varieties of fatherhood, and it’s not as if they were all saints then and we’re all distant Hummer-driving power dads now. But on Tanners Road, there did seem to be more time, more grace, more of a center, more very visible models of the way to do it right than most kids, urban or suburban, grow up with today. People moved less often, they didn’t have P.D.A.’s to check on weekends, they had less fancy jobs but perhaps richer lives. You can postulate reasons, but Google can’t tell you exactly why.

Then or now, the one thing that doesn’t change is that it doesn’t last long. There we were in Jesse’s car, looking through Gilbert’s telescope or playing catch with my father, and poof, then we weren’t.

Chances are whoever counts as dad in your household is a bit bruised this Father’s Day. His stocks, if he has any, are down, his blood pressure’s up. While I was doing mall duty with my daughter last week, a salesman regaled me with tales of a pen that cost more than all three houses on Tanners Road combined.

Maybe if you’ve got one of those hedge-fund über-dads, he’ll appreciate that sort of thing. If not, buy yours a full tank of $4.50 gas, tell him how much you love and appreciate him, and hope he’s as lucky as Gilbert, Jesse and Jerome and those in their orbit were.

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