Love for my father, Sanford Cleveland Kahrmann

My father, Sanford Cleveland Kahrmann, remains the greatest gift my life has ever given me. He was born 102 years ago today in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

I think my father and I found sanctuary in each other. When I was a little boy I would go to his room in the early morning, snuggle up next to him, and go back to sleep.

While my parent’s marriage seemed happy to me, I never heard them argue, they slept in separate rooms, we were told, because my mother was a light sleeper and my father snored. True on both counts.

My father taught English at Columbia University and John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and his desk faced the foot of his bed from about two feet away.

I liked to sit on the foot of his bed and watch him work. The paperwork that covered his desk was, for me, a delicious visual feast.

I’d be sitting there watching him work when I’d be overcome with surge of love for him, at which point I’d jump of the bed, run around his desk, and throw my arms around him. We’d hold our hug for a moment or two, and then I’d return to my perch. A short time later it would happen again. I’d run to him and hug him. He always hugged me back.

It wasn’t until years after he died at age fifty-five (I was fifteen) I discovered a gloriously love-filled truth hit me. Not once when I’d crawl into bed next to him or run around his desk to hug him was I rejected. He never responded as if I was a pain, a bother, rude – even worse, bad. No doubt, having your little boy climb into bed next to you in the early morning might wake you, and I know when you’re working hard at a desk, having your son rush into your arms every few minutes for a hug might interrupt the flow of things just a tad. He loved our rituals as much as I did. They meant just as much to him.

It didn’t matter if he was sleeping or working, what mattered to the two of us was the two of us. Father and son, para siempre.

Happy Birthday, Daddy. I would give up the rest of my life in a heartbeat to hug you again, just one more time.

Time on my father

My father celebrated his last birthday, his 55th, on February 16, 1969. He died 177 days later from peritonitis on August 16. When I celebrated my 55th birthday on October 2, 2008, it was not lost on me that in 177 days, March 28,  to be exact,  I would have outlived my beautiful father by one year. I knew the very moment I would pass him; he died at 1:43 in the afternoon. At 1:43 p.m. today I will have outlived him by four years.

Now there may be some folks who think my memorializing moments like this is maudlin, macabre even. I frankly don’t give a damn what those folks  think. To each their own, as they say. My father was and is the greatest gift my life has ever given me. I am positive I would not be alive today were it not for the fact his presence is alive and well in my heart and soul.

He was a remarkable man, and, a remarkable parent. Born to working class parents in Elizabeth, New Jersey, he served in the Army during World War II (his was in one of the three divisions that liberated the Dachau Concentration Camp in 1945, something I would not learn about him until after he died), went to Columbia University where he majored in English Literature and later taught same in Columbian University and, in the last years of his life, a second college, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

As a parent, he was skilled at knowing when it is better to let life rather than parent be the teacher. When I was about eight or nine I went into his room and told him I needed to talk to him because I was very, very nervous about something. At the time we lived in the hamlet of Pearl River, New York. Our home was a few miles from the hamlet’s business center, comfortable walking distance for us young folks. He leaned back in his desk chair and asked me what I was nervous about. “I want to buy a pack of rubbers!” I announced. To this day I have no idea why this was. I was certainly not sexually active. My father paused, then asked, “Are you short on money?”  “No, no,” I reassured him, “I’ve got my allowance.” “Okay then, what are you nervous about?” I told confessed: “I’m afraid the man’s gonna ask me what I want’m for!”

My father smiled. What he said next calmed all my fears and nervousness because what he said next made all the sense in the world. After all, I had purchased model airplanes and boats and such and did not think myself a novice when it came to shopping. “Well, Peter, I’ll tell you what you do. If the man at the drugstore asks you what you want them for, you just tell him you’ll read the directions.” Perfect! Why hadn’t I thought of that!

And so it was that I marched out of the house brimming with confidence. I suspect my father called the man at the drugstore and told him he was in for a wee bit of entertainment and could he please be kind as he went about saying no to my request for a pack of rubbers. I’m sure my father told him to ask me what I wanted them for because he knew the man would get quite a kick out my response. Which is exactly what happened. The man did ask me what I wanted them for, I said I’d read the directions, and the man said I should come back in a few years when I probably wouldn’t need directions.

Humor and entertainment aside, my father also knew when – and how –  to protect his son from fear, from feeling in danger. One winter day we were driving towards Pearl River proper on Washington Avenue. It was a snowy day, the plows were out.  Almost immediately after Washington Avenue passes Lincoln Avenue it takes a rather steep downward dip, perhaps a quarter mile or so in length. As we came over the rise and began our decent, we saw about six or seven cars stuck at all different angles at the bottom of the hill. It was still snowing and the hill was very slippery. We began to slide slowly down the hill right towards the stuck cars. “Well,” my father said, in a totally calm and matter of fact voice, “looks like we’re gonna hit.” “It’s like bumper cars,” I replied. “Seems so,” said my father. And so it was that we bumped into a couple of the cars and came to a stop. No one was hurt. Years later I realized that not once was I scared. My father was so calm and serene it didn’t cross my mind to be scared. How different my experience would’ve been if he’d gotten all wound up over the fact we were sliding down a snowy hill.

I share all this with you because I hope you have or have had someone in your life like my father. Someone who loves you completely simply because you are you and need not be anything but you. Life has taught me this is not a common experience. And while I was only 15 when he died, you can be sure I wouldn’t give up those 15 years with him for a thousand years with anyone else. So when the clock reaches 1:43 this afternoon, I will be thinking about my father. I will be grateful for the four years I’ve reached that he didn’t and I will, as I always do, tell him that I am doing the best I can, which is all any of us can do, and is exactly what my father would want me to do.

I love you, Daddy, my whole wide world.

It’s good to be alive


Rhythm moving moments remembering soft

Sweet tongues in sweet wood rhythm

It’s good to be alive


Shifting sound breathes flesh to flesh

Memory deep in glistening time

It’s good to be alive


The curling bend of a guitar note

Glistens a tear to my eye

It’s good to be alive


Your voice calling across the nighttime sky

To me crying standing up again

It’s good to be alive


Come tomorrow’s daylight rising

I’m my father’s son I am always

It’s good to be alive


The Days You Never Met

When the clock struck 1:44 p.m. on March 28 this year, I entered the first minute you never met. Now I am living the days you never met, forging the unbroken trail. Not knowing what’s around the bend on the road you never traveled.

I love you Dad heart and soul, my whole wide world and then some. I know, really know, I would not be alive today were it not for you. I would never have gotten back to my feet after being shot in the head at point blank range were you not present in that moment with me. Right there with me you were.

You left this world at 1:43 p.m. on August 16, 1969. You were only 55. If you count the number of days from your birthday on February 20 to August 16, and then count the same number of days from my birthday on October 2, you arrive on March 28.

And so here I am Dad, meeting the days you never met, living them for both of us. Life is what it is but for the most part it’s pretty good. I have a friend Michael Sulsona who has become my brother Michael Sulsona. You would’ve liked him and I know he would’ve liked you. While he lost his legs in Vietnam, he’s the tallest person I know.

I miss you. I remember your smell, the scent of you in your flannel shirts, the twinkle of kind love in your eyes, and in time we will meet again. If we don’t then there is no justice and I just can’t believe it’s all that unfair.

Happy father’s day, Daddy. I love you my whole wide world.

Memoir Excerpt: The Boy

I am born October 2, 1953 in the French Hospital in New York City. My mother was a single 20-year-old woman who seven days after my birth would, as the expression goes, surrender me for adoption to the Spence Chapin Agency. I was placed with a foster mother for a view weeks and then, when I was about five weeks old, I was adopted by Sanford and Virginia Kahrmann, then residing in a place called Shanks Village in Orangeburg New York.

My father worked at Bell Labs in New Jersey and taught English at Columbia University. He was a World War II Army veteran. Long after he died I would learn he was among those who liberated the people in the Dachau Concentration Camp. My mother was a Columbia graduate who had married and later divorced an RAF pilot she met while living in London during the war. She would later tell me that one of the reasons she divorced her first husband was he had no sense of humor. I remember wondering why she didn’t notice this until after the wedding.

My mother was 10 years my father’s junior. He was born in 1914, she in 1924. They’d met after the war when she was a student in one of his classes.

While I don’t remember the first time I saw the boy, he was there as long as I have memory. He was rarely around when my parents were there. I knew my father would love him, I was not so sure about my mother. I don’t know if my mother ever saw him. He was rarely around when she was.

I can’t tell you the first time I saw him because I don’t remember when that was. I knew I liked him and I knew he liked me, and for me, that’s all that mattered. I never told anyone about him because I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I never had to say anything to my father because I secretly believed my father saw him too, and anyway, there was never a need for words when it came to things like us . It was like that between me and my father. With the three of is, me, my Dad and the boy, it was like that too. The boy loved us and although we never said it out loud, we loved the boy.

Now it’s not like I could see him all the time. He’d just kind of show up. Sometimes I wouldn’t see him at first. I’d be doing something, playing in my tree house, listening to music, walking in the woods, and there he’d be. A lot of the time he was smiling at me. He always seemed gentle to me, very kind and gentle. I knew he was kinder and gentler than I was. It’s not that I thought I was terrible, well, maybe a little. The boy looked plenty strong, but I knew from the beginning I’d protect him with my life. I don’t know how I knew. I just did. I also knew he had answers to questions I wasn’t ready to ask yet, or hadn’t thought of yet. Maybe there were answers I wasn’t ready to know and the boy knew it. He was smart. We were both smart.