My father at 100

If you are lucky in life, blessed might be the better word, you’ll have the experience of someone loving you completely simply because you are you. Someone with whom you can be yourself safely all the time. My father was that someone for me. He was and is the greatest gift my life has ever given me. If ever a human deserved a long life, it was my father. He died Saturday, August 16, 1969, at age 55; I was 15. When he died my ability to feel safe in the world died with him. It did not return until a few years of sobriety were tucked under my belt. I’d give up the rest of my life in the blink of an eye to hug him one more time.

My father, Sanford Cleveland Kahrmann, was born Friday, February 20, 1914, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Next Thursday would have been his 100th birthday.  I had hoped to drive the 400-mile round-trip next Thursday to visit his grave in Graceland Memorial Park in Kenilworth, New Jersey, but my financial realities will not let me do so. He would be the first to tell me not to worry about it. He is, however, always with me. Some years after his death it occurred to me that death does not take the all of someone away from us. My father is with me all the time. His presence in my life is alive and well.

And there’s more. There is a large tree next to his grave. Some years after he’d died I was standing by his grave. It occurred to me that his body had begun to feed the soil and the soil feeds the tree and so the scattered of small twigs and branches the tree shed took on special meaning for me. I gather some up twigs and gather more every time I go. By having the twigs near me or on my person my soul says part of my father is with me. On very rare occasions over the years I’ve given one of these twigs to someone I love who has, because they are who they are, arrived at a sacred place in my heart.

My father taught English at Columbia University and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He was a veteran of World War II, serving in the Army’s 20th Armored Division, one of three U.S. Army divisions to take part in the liberation of the Dachau Concentration Camp located about 10 miles from Munich. I did not learn about this until after he died. He never talked about it.

He was also my best friend. We built a tree house together, stayed in a cabin on Stokes Forest, New Jersey together, read books together. Once, at my pleading, he agreed to accept the non-dancing part of Herr Drosselmeyer in the Orange County Ballet Theatre’s production of the Nutcracker in which I danced the role of the Nutcracker Prince. He did beautifully and received wonderful reviews. One said his Drosselmeyer was the suave master of legerdemain. My mother gave him a box of matchbooks with those words embossed on the cover. He was little-boy happy handing them out to his colleagues.

My father also gave me the gift of reading. When I was about nine or 10 I went into his room. He was sitting behind his desk working on something. Behind him was a wall full of books. I said, “I’m not a reader like you and Mommy.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I can’t finish any of the books I start.”

“What makes you think you have to finish them”?” I was surprised by his response and it showed. “You’re thinking of school assignments. We’re talking about reading. Let me ask you, don’t you think the author has something to do with keeping you interested?”

I nodded.

“Okay then. Tell you what. Grab 10 books that perk your interest, forget page numbers, and read them until they don’t interest you anymore.”

Suddenly and gloriously the world of reading was mine. The first adult book I ever read was The Folded Leaf, by William Maxwell. I still have the copy from my father’s library on my shelf. To this day reading is one of my greatest loves and, when times get tough, refuges in life.

I loved and love my father my whole wide world. He loved and I suspect loves me the same.

Happy Birthday, Daddy. I miss you.

Happy 60th Anniversary

Today would have been my parents 60th wedding anniversary. They were married March 17, 1951 at the Central Presbyterian Church in Montclair, New Jersey. The minister was the Reverend Morgan P. Noyes. I recently found a picture of Mr. Noyes. The picture, taken June 22, 1938, is of a group of people just awarded honorary degrees by Yale University.  Remarkably enough, the group includes writer Thomas Mann and Walt Disney. Sadly, Mr. Noyes’s face is blocked by the Reverend Endicott Peabody in the first row.

There is nothing unique or special in my saying that I miss both my parents very much. Their marriage was my father’s first and my mother’s second. Her first husband had been an RAF pilot in World War II. To her dying day my mother had special place in her heart for England and the English, for good reason. She lived in London while England endured the savagery of the London blitz, a 57-day bombing campaign ordered by Hitler to demoralize the British which began on the afternoon of September 7, 1940. The campaign did anything but demoralize the British, though the damage and carnage was beyond brutal.

My father served in the 20th Armored Division in the war, one of three U.S. divisions, the others being the 42nd and 45th Infantry Divisions, credited with liberating the Dachau Concentration Camp, something my father never mentioned. Like many veterans, my father did not speak about his war experiences. Once when I was around six or seven, we were watching a movie together, scene was of a soldier crawling among the rubble after a bombing trying to find a woman he feared was killed in the attack. I looked over at my father and tears were streaming down his face. I threw my arms around him. He hugged me back and asked me not to tell my mother. I never did.

They met after the war. He was teaching English Literature in Columbia University and she was one of his students. She was 10 years his junior. While time and distance has helped me understand what romance there was between them did not last, they were good friends and shared a love of music, dance, museums and books; all loves they successfully passed on to me. They were also very civil rights oriented. Our family’s minister marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and while my mother worked to free herself of slivers of racism, something she readily admitted to and admitted were things she needed to get free of, my father didn’t have a racist or bigoted molecule in his makeup.

My father died way too soon in 1969. He was 55 and I was 15. My other ended her own life at age 68 in 1992. No matter how or when they left the world, there is no easy way to lose a parent. And while I do not know what if anything comes after this life, I do know that when all is said and done, both my parents have made my life a better place to me.

Happy Anniversary, Mommy and Daddy.

Days For My Father

No words of any kind, past, present or future, can do my father justice. No matter how I tell you about the ineffably loving and accepting man that was and in my heart and soul is my father I will not come close. I’d have more of a chance of giving you the actual physical experience of summiting Everest via email. My father was, in a word, a miracle.

I can tell you that to this day my father is the greatest gift life has ever given me. And while he died at age 55 when I was 15, his presence in me has never diminished. He died  Saturday, August 16, 1969. We were living in Nyack, New York, a lovely community about 30 miles north of New York City. My father has been struck down with a case of peritonitis three days earlier and was in a coma in an iron lung in St. Luke’s Hospital in upper Manhattan. My mother didn’t go see him, she explained, because he was in a coma and wouldn’t know she was there anyway. While I understand, now, that my mother’s very real emotional frailty (she would commit suicide in 1992) prevented her from handling the emotion that comes with visiting your dying husband in a coma, it still tears me apart knowing my father died alone.

My father was born February 20, 1914 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He had one sibling, my Uncle Harry. Uncle Harry was one year younger than my father and I adored him. Both joined the Army and fought in World War II. Many years after my father’s death I  learned that his division, the 20th Armored Division, was one of three American divisions that liberated the Dachau concentration camp on April 29, 1945.  My father never said a word about this.

Ultimately my father taught English at Columbia University and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He was brilliant and humble. Remarkably, he was utterly free of bigotry. He didn’t care if someone was black or white, Hispanic or Asian, gay, straight or bisexual. He accept people for who they were and had little problem pushing back against bigotry. For example, when we moved to our house in Nyack we were still selling our house in Pearl River, a nearby community. We were well known for being a civil rights family, our minister, for example, marched with Dr. King many times. Anyway, one day my father went back to check on the house and someone had painted the words Nigger Lover on the picture window. Rather than remove the words, my father painted the words And Proud of It underneath and left.

My father fully accepted me for being me and when he died, my ability to feel safe being me in the world died with him. That sense of self-safety would not begin to return until I began my sobriety nearly eight years ago now.

I can tell you that I felt it, physically felt it, the moment he died.

On the morning of August 16th we received a call from the hospital telling us my father wouldn’t live out the day. The house was like a morgue, all of us home, waiting. A couple of my friends had come over to be with me. I was upset the hospital was in the city and I couldn’t get to my father’s side. A little after 1:30 in the afternoon I told my mother my friend and I were going to walk into town to pick up  some soda.  It’s about a 20 minute walk. We were more than half way there when suddenly the bottom of my stomach dropped out and I doubled over, hands on my knees. I looked up at my friends and said, “He just died.”

When I got home after two I walked into the kitchen. My mother was at the counter, she turned to me and said, “Peter, it happened.” My father had died at 1:53 p.m.

My father was born on February 20 and I was born on October 2. If you start out on October 2 and count out the same number of days that run from February 20 to August 16, you reach today, March 28.  I am 56. When the clock strikes 1:54 this afternoon, I will have outlived my father by exactly one year. When the clock struck 1:54 p.m. on March 28 last year, the exact moment I passed him in time, my hand was on his gravestone. There was no way he was going to be alone then. I knew that until that moment he had cleared the trail for me in life. I also knew that from that moment  on, I would be clearing the trail for the both of us.

All my days are for my father.

_____________________

HOW DO YOU WRITE A MIRACLE?

This year I will try to write the impossible; an essay about my father. I say impossible because I know anything I write will fail to fully express how much I love him, how much he means to me, and how much I still miss him.

Writing about him begs the question, how do you write a miracle? My father was and is the greatest gift life has ever given me. I know writing a miracle takes a miracle. Unfortunately, this particular miracle is nowhere to be found in my repertoire of writing skills, a fact that has many times stopped my pen from attempting this essay – until now.

Why now? I’m not sure. Perhaps it is because my health took a run at me last June or perhaps it is because I will turn 55 on my next birthday and my father was 55 when he died. Perhaps it is because I have this year been reintroduced again to the miracle that was my father, in part because I have had some who claim to love me drive knives of betrayal into my back, proving once again that it is easier to say you love than it is to love. In other words, talk is cheap.

The only wrong my father ever did me was a wrong he could not have foreseen. He loved me for me so completely that I adopted the mistaken impression that people who would love me throughout my life were like him: they would accept me for me without judgment or guile. For the longest time I believed when someone loved you, you were safe being yourself with them; when someone loved you, loyalty, kindness and the absence of cruelty were sure things.

It would be more than 35 years before I fully digested the reality that none of this was true. That in fact, my relationship with my father was a remarkable exception to the rule; it was a miracle.

Last year and this year I was betrayed by people who, if you asked them today, would stomp their feet and swear up and down they love me and care about me. Yet, there is a reason they say actions speak louder than words. Yeah, I know it’s a cliche. Once when I was a boy I groaned to my father about something being a cliche. He smiled and said, “Well, Peter, there’s a reason they become cliches.” Very true.

My father, Sanford Cleveland Kahrmann, was born on February 20, 1914 in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He loved to read and was, by all accounts, deeply creative. His brother, Harry, was born a year later. The two remained close throughout their lives. Both fought in World War II. My father was in the 20th Armored Division. I knew this about him because he told me and showed me his patch. I still have it. However, he never told me that the 20th Armored Division was one of three American divisions that liberated the Dachau Concentration Camp. He never said a word about that, and I can’t say as I blame him.

My father taught English in Columbia University and John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. It was my father who gave me the world of reading. I was about eight or nine. One day I wandered into his room. He was sitting behind his desk marking papers. Behind him was a wall filled with books ceiling to floor. To this day I think a wall full of books is just about one of the most beautiful sights on earth.

I said, “Daddy, you got a minute.”

He leaned back in his chair and said, “Sure, what’s on your mind?”

I looked at the books and then back at him. “I’m not a reader like you and Mommy.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Every time I try to read a book I can’t finish it.”

And then he said what struck me as a curious thing. “What makes you think you have to finish it?’

“Aren’t you supposed to finish the book?”

“No no. You’re thinking about school assignments. People are always confusing school assignments with reading.”

“Really?”

“Don’t you think the author has some responsibility to keep you interested?”

This made perfect sense to me. “Yeah!”

“Well then. Forget about finishing books. Pick 10 books here that perk your interest. Read them until you don’t want to read them anymore. Forget about page numbers, just read and enjoy them.” Suddenly all the books in the world belonged to me. I’ grabbed piles of books from the shelves and retreated to my room and looked through them all. I was free! I could read anything I wanted and if I didn’t feel like finishing the book, I’d put it down and move onto the next book. It is worth noting that during the dark days of homelessness, the says of solitude after the shooting and during other dark times, books have always been a safe refuge.

When I fell in love with the ballet at age five and began classes at age eight and at age 13 found myself dancing a principal role for the Joffrey Ballet, my father was very proud of me. He didn’t like missing my performances. But, unlike my mother, his happiness with me was not contingent on my being a dancer. Many years later my mother would tell me that my quitting dance hurt her more than the death of my father and her parents rolled into one. My father loved me because I was me.

My father and I not only loved each other, we liked each other, and enjoyed each others company. I can’t remember a single fight or argument between us that stemmed from a disagreement between us. When we did argue, which was rare, it nearly always revolved around one of my fights with my mother. My mother and those in the dance consistently made it clear to me that I was a dance prodigy and destined for greatness. It was a given, they said, that dance was my destiny; I was different from other children. My mother and many others expected me to be another Nijinsky. So I did what any other boy would do; I expected the same. Many a child’s life has crumbled into dust under the weight of expectations like these.

My father liked me and loved me because I was me. When we had dinner with his colleagues, no one pointed out that some might find it unusual for a 13-year-old boy to be an equal part of conversation with college professors. We were all friends. It was just life with Dad.

When he taught me how to tie my tie or when he taught me how to ride a bike, it was the two of us, internally illuminated by the love we had for each other, a love that was so strong and complete that on reflection, I am surprised we did not glow. And I was like most sons who learned to ride a bike with their father’s running along side with their adult hands stabilizing the bike, the moment I realized he was no longer running alongside me holding the bike steady, I did what any young boy worth his salt would do, I crashed.

My father taught me chess. He gave me a slender book on chess one Christmas. Inside he wrote a note saying he knew the day would come when my expertise in chess would surpass his. And it did. I suspect it did because the adult mind deals with far more than the child mind, thus allowing the less cluttered child mind to concentrate more fully on the game at hand. We studied chess books together. We played out the games of the great players: Capablanca, Lasker, Alekhine, Rubinstein, our mutual favorite, Sammy Reshevsky and, of course, later, Bobby Fisher.

We went to an American Chess Championship tournament held in a New York City Hotel. Six or seven games were taking place on a raised area in the front of the room. Hung on the wall behind each game was a chess board with pieces that would be moved when the players made their moves so all in attendance could see. Small chess sets were out throughout the room as we all studied the games and tried to determine what the next moves would be. We went the day Fisher played Reshevsky. To our great joy Reshevsky won the game. Fisher would go on to win the tournament. We went up to the table and congratulated Mr. Reshevsky and Mr. Fisher. Mr. Reshevsky dabbed the sweat from his forehead with a white handkerchief.

I said, “Good game,” to Mr. Fisher who shook my hand, looking none too pleased.

My mother and others in the world of dance brought me to the belief that anything short of greatness in the world of dance would mean I was a complete and utter failure. The pressure and strain was immense. But I had my father, he was my refuge. Our relationship was my safe haven. But that all came to and end on August 16, 1969 when he died unexpectedly. I was 15.

Freed of my father’s peacemaking presence, my mother put me in reform school on a PINS (Person In Need of Supervision) petition 16 weeks after his death. That was the end end of my family life. It took all of 16 weeks. My father dies, family disappears, I am orphaned.

When I was released from reform school a year later I was not allowed back into the family. I was homeless for more time than I like to remember. It would be nearly 10 years before mother and I reconciled. And while we became friends the last 10 years of her life, I was never included in family events. In fact, when she committed suicide in 1992, she left word that I was not allowed to speak at her memorial service.

Over the years I have come to believe that loving heart-to-heart loyalty between two people is crushingly rare. But, I am blessed with my father, my miracle, who, while I can not write him and do him justice, lives inside me.

I would not be alive today without him. And today is the 39th anniversary of his death.

When my father died, my ability to feel safe in the world died with him. When I got sober more than six years ago now, my ability to feel safe in the world began to return. It is not back all the way, not yet. But it returns more and more every day.

I know he is glad that once again his son can again be happy and at peace simply by being who he is. I can be me, and that is enough. After all that’s all he ever wanted for me in the first place. Come to think of it, it’s a miracle.