When my mother died, my father went to live with my sister and her family in Howard Beach, Queens. Although he was in good health, he was of the generation of men who didn’t know how to boil water, which made it impossible for him to stay on in his otherwise perfectly fine apartment overlooking the boardwalk and the ocean in Rockaway, a short drive from my sister.
There were several problems with this arrangement. First, my father and my sister didn’t really get along. I was his favorite, and she was – a girl, a fate that relegated her to permanent second-class citizenship in my father’s eyes. He didn’t favor her desire to go to college, and though she defied him for a while, he finally wore her down. All that simmering resentment didn’t make for a happy household.
Location. Location. Location. Although Howard Beach was known for housing a number of mafiosi, including the notorious John Gatti, on the surface it was a standard- issue suburban community. There was no street life on the seemingly endless blocks of single-family homes. During the day when the kids left for school and the parents went off to work, the only human presence on the block was the mailman on his daily rounds and an occasional repair man whose truck indicated the problem he had been called upon to remedy – air conditioning, phone, plumbing, TV or, in season, lawn work.
This was the scene my father, through his long days alone, looked out on through the living room picture window. His only company was the family dog Fluffy, a yappy little white creature, not my favorite dog. But my father who had never had a pet, grew fond of his small companion because what else was there? I assume my sister left him lunch at the same time she prepared lunches for my two nephews to carry to school because his aforementioned helplessness would otherwise have meant a daily mini-Ramadan. Fortunately, my sister maintained a kosher kitchen, the absence of which would have been a deal breaker.
When the mail arrived, my father ignored any rules of privacy by opening whatever looked interesting, which meant mostly the bills. When I visited, he would whisper his concerns about how profligate the family was, based on the size of their electric bills, their phone bills and bills for occasional purchases. His standards were decades old, unaffected by inflation and deeply influenced by the double whammy of immigration and the Depression. My sister and I inherited much of that frugality, but her ownership of a house and a car – later two cars – placed her in a different, undisciplined class in his mind.
There was one other distraction – baseball. When the season was on – remember that these were years when day games still ruled – my father would be on the couch watching his late loves, The Mets, a passion he passed on to his younger grandson, recreating the bond with him that he and I had shared in my growing-up years. It’s a shame that he was a one sport fan – football and basketball were not on his radar – because once the baseball season was over, he faced that yawning abyss of nothingness. In fact, I realize that these sports have always been nighttime and weekend events, times when the rest of the household laid claim to the TV, so they wouldn’t have been much help.
Before returning to my father, I have to leap ahead to the present to explain how that image of my father, alone in the house, watching the Mets while the family and most of the rest of the world was working or studying appeared to me. Yesterday, I had an early appointment for some testing at the hospital, an activity that now occupies more spaces on my calendar than theater nights or dinner with friends. I hadn’t slept well the night before and my usually cooperative stomach was talking back to me, so I wasn’t good for much besides a nap. By the time I awoke, it was time for the much-ballyhooed match between the U.S. and Iran. So, there I was, in the middle of a workday, parked on my newly purchased recliner, fixed on the endless back-and-forth across the pitch, just as my father, in his retirement would have been on the couch in Howard Beach watching the pitchers working their way through the lineups.
I should add that I’m a bit of a fraud as a soccer fan. Just that morning, the technician who had completed my CT scan engaged me in a conversation about who was my favorite for winning the World Cup. Readers, you may already know that I’m an avid sports fan, but I come late to soccer – I still compliment myself for knowing to call the field “the Pitch” – so I was barely able to hold my own in that discussion.
Nonetheless, it primed me even more for spending the afternoon in front of the TV. But I am not my father. Spending the day in front of the TV evokes strong feelings of guilt. Even though, like him, I’m untethered from any formal work responsibilities, I have created my own work agenda of reading, writing and communicating with friends, family, former students and former colleagues. And I was most definitely not alone in the watching. My wife popped in from time to time to check the score, a thankless task in such a low-scoring sport, and offering to bring me lunch. I am grateful for how full my life continues to be. A day in front of the TV when I wasn’t feeling up to doing much else is a pleasure I should allow myself, but Puritanism or asceticism runs deep for this old Jew.
When I stood up from this game which had a happy ending for a fair-weather friend like me, I was filled with the need to do something “productive” to atone for my indulgence, but there was also this lingering sadness thinking about my father in a different time and place spending a similar day without any of the surrounding blessings that accompanied my day on the recliner.
Eventually, the tensions around my sister’s house and the depth of the unexpressed anger she felt at my father’s presence, spurred Rosellen and me to take action. We found a residence hotel in Rockaway, kind of a cross between what we now call independent and assisted living. It was a much calmer and more stimulating environment than Howard Beach. Men in their mid-eighties were an endangered species in that setting, so Daddy was much sought after there and even had a sort of girl friend for a while. The need for the Mets was less intense in the “hotel,” but he did continue to keep up, so in season we had that to feed on in our weekly phone conversations.
I do need to add that I’ve sold my father short here in one respect. Despite his limited formal education, he was a reader. We tried to supply him with books on subjects he cared most about – politics, history, Israel. When we collected his belongings after he died, most of the books we had bought for him returned to us, poignant reminders of a much richer life he could have lived in another time and place.