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.”
“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.