I Miss My Father

He was born February 20, 1914 and died August 16, 1969 when he was 55 and I was 15. He was my closest friend and remains the greatest gift life has ever given me.

While I know there will be more missives like this one about him, I also know that any words of mine will fail in their attempt to tell you what a truly special human being he was. There are things I can tell you that may, I hope, give you a glimpse. For example, there was not an iota of bigotry in him. He comfortably accepted people for who they were. It didn’t matter to him, and I mean, it didn’t matter to him if someone was gay or straight, if someone was black, Latino, Asian, Jewish, Muslim and so forth.

My father experienced people as individuals, and was not adverse to stinging back when confronted by bigotry. When we moved from Pearl River, New York to Nyack, New York somewhere around 1967, the house in Pearl River had not yet sold. While Nyack was a truly integrated community Pearl River was, for all intents and purposes, snowflake white. We were known as a civil rights family. Our minister marched with Dr. King and all of us were very open about our commitment to civil rights – for all people.

One day my father returned to check on the Pearl River house to discover someone had written the words Nigger Lovers on the front window. My father either lost sight of the fact selling the house might be a tad easier if he removed the words or he simply didn’t care because, rather than remove the words, he added some of his own. When he drove away, the words Nigger Lovers were still on the front window, however, they were now followed by the words, And Proud of It.

Staying with this theme, my father let me fight my own fights but would, at times, be nearby in case things got out of hand. Soon after we moved to Nyack I became enamored with a beautiful girl who happened to be black. Anyway, some kids found out. One day me and about three or four boys my own age were hanging out in our garage when one of them told me they weren’t going to let me out of the garage unless I said the word nigger. Now, while I supported Dr. King’s non-violent movement I must admit I wasn’t very good at it. I punched the kid right in the face and next thing I knew I was in a fight with all of them. Suddenly one of the boys saw my father approaching the garage. Everybody froze. I went out to see father. I was disheveled and may have had a bloody nose.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. I told him what they wanted me to say in order to get out of the garage.

“You want some help?”

“No, I’m okay.”

“Okay. I’ll be nearby if you need me.”

And so I went back into the garage and ended things when, after more punches were thrown, I picked up a long-handled shovel and begin swinging for the fences which caused my opponents to flee.

When I went back into the house my father ran a bath for his bruised-up son. I sat in the bath and my father sat in the bathroom with me and we talked.  In a tone that told me he knew the answer he asked, “Did you say it?”

“Nope.”

“Good for you. I’m proud of you.” He stood up, leaned over,  kissed me on top of my head, and said, “I’ll get you some aspirin.”

I miss my father.

Buchanan Street

On the eve of this new year I find myself thinking of my friends on Buchanan Street in Pearl River, New York, a hamlet 40 miles or so from New York City. While I was born in New York City and, as far as years are concerned, lived a large majority of my life in the city, my fondest childhood memories are of my Buchanan Street.

My childhood friends, then and now, are family in my heart. I can’t or shouldn’t speak for them nor can I know what your childhood friends are to you. I don’t think it is a matter that they should or should not be one thing or another. They are what they are. For me, they are family. When I think of Jeffrey Graf (I loved his dog, Monty), Barbara Malmet, Patty Costello, Mark Jewel, Brian Baxter, Billy Damrow, Richard McConville, Billy Scott, Cindy Fine, the Guercis, Fitzgerald’s, Hausers (they always owned Saabs),  Gunthers and more, my heart warms, my eyes wet up, and I find myself smiling. Playing stickball or football on the street, one or all shouting, Car! Car! C-A-R! as warning when a car approached. Sledding down Van Buren Street, the best sledding hill in the world in my book.

When we grew up there in the 1950s and 60s, the area was rural. Our homes were surrounded by woods and streams, filled with deer and wildlife. Many of us were highly skilled tree climbers and fort builders. And we played cowboys and Indians (I was always an Indian), and of course we played army, meaning we were the American Army killing the hated (and still hated) Nazis. Many of our fathers and uncles, including mine, fought them.

Some of us have touched base over the years. Facebook has helped with that. A year or so ago I had some wonderful conversations with Patty who to this day possesses a rapier sharp mind, equally sharp memory, and, like me, a deep appreciation and love for our days on Buchanan Street.

I think of all of them with love because I love them all. And if any are in the “sound” of these words, I wish you happy new year and hope life affords us time to gather again, perhaps on Buchanan Street.                                                                        (Jeffrey, Me & Patty)

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.

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Writing My Mother’s Suicide

Writing about my mother’s suicide in the memoir is, as you might imagine, a deeply emotional task. I can’t say it’s an unwanted to task because at least when I write the sentences I have some control over their content, and suicide, if you’ve had the misfortune to encounter it in life, is a remarkable and merciless reminder that we control very little. Even with our best efforts, we can’t stop someone from ending their life if that is what they want to do.

My mother commited suicide with a well-researched mix of drugs and alcohol on August 12, 1992. I will say nothing more about that in this essay for it is not the salient point of the essay. The salient point is this; my mother, Virginia Kahrmann, was a complete human being who does not deserve to be defined by that admittedly singular moment. Nor does she deserve to be defined by some of her rather harsh and emotionally brutal treatment of me when I grew up. Very few of us, if any, are all one thing. We are amalgams of life experience. My mother was no exception.

Her suicide was the culmination of a life that, for a variety of reasons, some I know, some I don’t, robbed her of her ability to love herself and thus her ability to believe anyone loved her. How do I know this to be true? She told me.

I once told her that her death (no matter how it came about) would be one of the biggest blows I would ever endure in life. She was completely and utterly baffled by this. “Really, Peter? Why?” I was speechless, a rare state for me.

As cruel as she could be to me at times – days after my father died when I was 15 she told me if I hadn’t been such a bastard he might have had enough strength to live – she inflicted far more damage on herself.

Yet, she was far more than the aforementioned. She was brilliant and the best conversationalist I’ve ever known. In the last 10 years of her life we became very close. I’d go to visit her in her Pearl River, New York home mid-morning, and we would talk straight through into the evening, our talks being accompanied by coffee, crackers and cheese, and going out to dinner.

We conferred regularly as we both threw all we had into fighting for the Brady Bill – a bill requiring states to have a waiting period to purchase a handgun until they had an instant check system in place – or when we fought against the death penalty, or the rights of immigrants. She countless volunteer hours to the GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis) a group she referred to as the best run non-profit in the country, and worked tirelessly to help refugees from Laos find homes.

Her demons killed her love for herself and ultimately guided her into ending her own life. I am asking, hoping, that readers will not allow those demons to blind them to the beautiful person she in so many ways was, and in my heart, still is. If they do, then the demons win again, and winning again is the last thing they deserve.
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PASTOR BILL DAMROW

Billy Damrow would be my first real childhood friend. But I didn’t know this when I was a little boy and me and my friends were playing football in my yard and we noticed the new kid next door in his yard. He was playing with his dog, another new member of the neighborhood, who was tied with a long lead to a dog house. Bill and his family were my new next door neighbors

It bothered me he was by himself and I didn’t want to put him on the spot by shouting out an invitation to play with us so when he wasn’t looking, I tossed the football near him in his yard and ran over to get it. When he looked at me I said, “Wanna play?” And he did!

I liked Billy right away. Taller than me, he had a nice face and a smile so kind and warm if you couldn’t tell the source of his kindness and warmth was his heart, you weren’t paying attention. Billy lived with his mother and father. His father was a quiet, solitary man who was in the Navy and was at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed by the Japanese. I figured this was why Mr. Damrow had the ability to calmly eat hot Chinese mustard by the spoonful when he was reading. I mean, if you consider that the man lived through the horror of being bombed, it’s no wonder eating hot Chinese mustard by the spoonful didn’t make him bat an eye. Mrs. Damrow had the most beautiful face I’d ever seen. Her smile too was warm and kind.

Our modest back yards in Pearl River abutted a large tract of untamed woods. Together and separately, Billy and I each had our solitary side; we sought and found delicious refuge there. A wide and fast moving stream was a comfortable walk into the woods. It seemed to go on forever. Billy loved the woods like me. His dog was named Crockett after Davy Crockett from Tennessee who died at the Alamo.

We were joined in another way. We loved to read books and were able to safely confess this to each other. Billy told me about the Doc Savage books and I read them and really liked Doc’s sidekick, Monk. Billy’s second-floor room faced our house and at night we would send signals to each other with our flashlights.

While I have no doubt he is a wonderful pastor, years ago I visited him at his church and behind his desk hung a picture of Albert Schweitzer, who, like Robert F. Kennedy, was a childhood hero of his, Billy could have been a comedian. He could get me and my family laughing so hard tears would flow. My parents loved him. One day Billy was up in the tree house me and my Dad built and I was standing on the ground. I don’t remember what he said but he had me laughing so hard my ability to control my bladder vanished and I flat went ahead and peed my pants which, of course, made us laugh even harder.

We were friends from the beginning but our lives moved on. We moved and Billy and I lost touch. We reconnected in late 1988, four years after I was badly wounded in a hold-up in Brooklyn. I was living in Ellenville, New York. We were both still avid readers and the beautiful Steinbeck biography by Jackson Benson that Billy gave me that year sits on a shelf not far from where I write these words. Steinbeck is my favorite American writer.

One day that year we went back to our stream in Pearl River and wandered the paths we had traveled as boys. I took lots of pictures but the camera with the pictures in it was later stolen.

In 1991, Billy performed the ceremony for my second marriage. But it was in 1992 that I received a gift from Billy that I will treasure for the rest of my life. He gave it to me not long after my mother committed suicide on August 12, 1992. Her suicide shredded my soul and decimated my heart. While the sun still gave my days light, it no longer gave them warmth and comfort. I functioned, but barely. I notified people, including Billy, of her death. I carried the blood stained mattress she died from her house alone. I had never felt more alone. Not even when I was homeless.

Weeks after her death a memorial service was held at her church, the Palisades Presbyterian Church. I sat in the first pew on one side with my wife and daughter and my sister sat in the first pew on the other side with her children. The church was filled with mourners. The words good people said to me that day were like cold stones in the air.

The service ended and protocol called for all to remain seated while my sister and I, joined by those seated with us, rose and left the church first. As I turned to walk down the aisle it happened. It was glowing. It was the kindness and warmth of Billy’s smile. He was there, sitting right there in the church, looking right at me. His beautiful face lit by a gentle smile. I swear the air around him glowed and I think I said Billy! out loud. For the first time since my mother died I felt warm and a little bit alive again.

The gift of that smile and the loving warmth in Billy’s face is the one and only distinct memory I have of that day. It is a gift more valuable than priceless. And so, while it will never be sold, I thought it should be shared. I think Billy would agree. In fact, I think it would make him smile.