What I Learned from My Father

Lessons and blessings from my beloved dad.

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Upslash / Steve Shreve
Upslash / Steve Shreve

My father was my best teacher. As a Holocaust survivor who lost his parents at a young age, he learned early on to respect and honor the value of life. My father had many mottos, but one that he often repeated to me was “Live and let live.” With his brother, Bob, he immigrated from Germany to the United States in the late 1940s, and he was extremely grateful for his new life and job opportunities. From the day he stepped onto American soil, he refused to speak German and never looked backward—only forward.

Surviving this early horrific trauma gave my father the opportunity to learn some valuable life lessons that he generously passed on to me. Like most of us, his actions and philosophies were formulated based on his personality and his lived experiences. My father was a happy-go -lucky kind of guy; he believed in walking the high road and felt that if people were rude, jealous, or just plain nasty, chances are there were wounds inside of them that caused them to be like that. He always advised me that the best way to react to those types of individuals was to smother them with kindness. As I approach the age he was when he passed away, I realize that his advice was very sound and has worked out in a positive way, more often than not. 

Before heading to work as the manager of a retail store in Brooklyn, New York, my father loved stopping into the local diner for breakfast. He was the guy at the counter telling jokes to the waitresses and the other regular customers. He loved making people laugh and always lifted people’s spirits, but he struggled with the nature of his relationship with his wife, my mother, as they were so very different. My father was a survivor who felt deep gratitude, but she had a dark personality and battled depression. My mother often criticized him and never laughed at his jokes. Originally from Austria, my mother always loved visiting cemeteries, something he couldn’t stand, as he found it akin to the sight of rare red meat. He said that both cemeteries and red meat triggered his childhood trauma of being in a concentration camp from age 15 to 20. He said he’d seen too many dead bodies.

It frustrated my father that he was unsuccessful at making my mother happy. However, toward the end of his life, he came to accept that her moods had nothing to do with him, but were simply a function of her personality. He accepted that she was the only one responsible for her thoughts and actions. 

My father taught me to be grateful and always contended that gratitude led to happiness. I continue to model this sentiment with my three children and four grandchildren. My dad also taught me the fine art of sharing. While I was growing up, on numerous occasions I saw him toss dollar bills to the homeless. Once he even gave a shivering, elderly, homeless man the shirt off his back. He was that type of guy. People loved being in his company because of his loving and generous spirit.

Here’s a poem I once wrote about my father:

My Father

A radiant smile,

a handshake

to fracture a bone,

a giving heart

never a bad intention

tossing the shirt off his back

to the beggar on the street,

flattering waitresses 

until he made them giggle while

pouring his morning coffee

which he slurped down

at his local diner

where regulars arrived at six a.m.

Missing him today more than ever.

This many decades later,

his spirit encircles me.

Talking each day to the man who 

I know always loved me no matter what.

I am forever warmed.

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