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.

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In all times

In all times

And in all lives

There are moments filled

With the sincerest intimacy

You and I shared such moments

And I thank you

And love you

For those times

~

Note: I wrote this poem for my father, Sanford Cleveland Kahrmann,  alone in his room the day after he died on August 16, 1969. He was 55.  I was 15. It is the only thing I’ve written that I remember word for word. Never have I been more focused when writing than I was that day.    ~  PSK

And the boys sing

***

Shift rocking stumble knees sing sweet songs on the corner

Rusty acapella chains  shackle hearts and the boys sing

Mama where’d you go to now  so far away

Soft skin close Mama it’s so hard when you can’t see

Skipping stone ladies hopscotch blues bending string sounds

Wounded soul arias for millions and the boys sing

Papa’s all gone before curtain rise and back grown full

Son stands on corners lost and hungers gained

Powered thighs stride across fractured dreams

Words shuffle sweet sad peace and the boys sing

***

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.

My father

This is not the first and will not be the last time I write about my father, Sanford Cleveland Kahrmann. He was (and is)  the greatest gift life has ever given me. Yes, he died way too soon at age 55 (I was 15), but his presence in my life for those 15 years and for every single day since (death only takes away so much) has made all the difference in the world for me.

I miss him on a daily basis and would give anything to be able to sit and talk with him for hours (and hug him). After he died I learned some things about his life I’d like to ask him about. When he was alive I knew he was in the U.S. Army in World War II and I knew he was in the 20th Armored Division. It was only a few years ago that I learned the 20th was one of the three American divisions to liberate the Dachau Concentration Camp. Like most war veterans, my father never talked about it.

All of us have relationships with our histories. Much of getting to a healthy place in life revolves around getting free of the damaging messages we received about ourselves when we were growing up, when we were too young to have any reference point to tell us what we were being told about ourselves was wrong. People (often family members) saying: You’re stupid, too fat, too thin, too ugly, too intense, the cause of all our problems…and then of course, the are those children who’ve been on the receiving end of abuse: verbal, physical, sexual, where your entire being gets the message that you are unforgivably inhuman, worse than dirt. Also damaging is the messages some get that they are smarter, better, superior than others. One’s self-image is badly skewed when on the receiving end of falsehoods like those.

Getting free of these messages may seem impossible. Not so. If you were (or are) lucky, you had someone like my father in your life. Someone who simply loved you for being you. All you had to do was be yourself to be loved and accepted, and in that, you got to discover that there is such a thing as being safe with another human being. It’s a helluva lifeline, I can tell you. Perhaps there is someone in your life who loves you like that now. I hope so.

At this writing I am 59 and I’ve been  on my own since I was 16. Were it not for the presence of my father in my life I would not be alive. Some have said it was an act of courage for me to get back to my feet after being shot in the head at point-blank range. Maybe so. But, if so, my father (and my then seven-year-old daughter) provided the ignition that allowed what courage I have its full rein.

I’m not entirely sure what prompted me to write about my father today. It may be because we are closing in on the end of a year and about to start a new one. I tend to get a bit reflective around this time of the year.