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.

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.

SHEP AND THE PRIEST

As mentioned in an earlier post, I will be placing memoir excerpts in the blog as the writing of the memoir progresses. Here is an excerpt.

I am living with less than a handful of homeless boys around my age in an abandoned three story brick house on 53 Street in Brooklyn between Third and Fourth avenues. It is very late November when I take up my quarters there. I take a small room upstairs in the front of the house. It has a door that closes and working electricity. The other boys, none of whom I know, take up quarters downstairs. It is our circumstances that have drawn us together. We develop a bond and look out for each other. We are the neighborhood strays. I have just turned 18.

There is no running water in the house but we do find a cold water source in the dark damp unfinished basement. A pipe runs across the low ceiling of the basement and with one working tap. When turned on it releases an aggressive stream of ice cold water. I find a two-coil hotplate and a small dusty black and white TV in a closet. I bring them to my room. To my great joy they both work, kind of. The hot plate works wonderfully and when the two coils glow red they generate enough heat to keep my room nice and toasty. The TV gets only two channels; NBC on Channel 4 and WOR on Channel 9. This is good news because not only do I actually have a TV but Channel 4 has Johnny Carson and Channel 9 has the New York Rangers.

There is an old stained mattress that must have been for a cot that I drag into my room. My girlfriend, Lyn, brings me some blankets. I am sitting in my room nice and warm, instant coffee freshly made, watching the Rangers, smoking a cigarette, safe from the cold. I think it doesn’t get any better than this. There is the sound of movement outside the door. I pick up my knife, hold it pressed against my thigh and open the door. A broken-eared male German Shepherd is sitting there looking up at me. His tail sweeps back and forth across the dusty floor. He has no collar. He gives me a look, then walks past me into my room and curls up on the mattress.

I go downstairs to the other boys. “Hey, any you guys have a dog?”

One of them says, “That’s Shep, man. He’s a stray. Hangs around the neighborhood. Nice dog but he ain’t ours. Everybody knows him though. Smart fucking dog.”

Back in my room Shep is sleeping. I sit down next to him; he shifts his head onto my lap, gives my hand a lick, and falls back into sleep. I am remembering my Dad telling me that when he was a boy he and his brother had a male Shepherd Collie mix they both loved. His name was Shep.

Shep and I join lives and are pretty much inseparable. He stays by my side and at night keeps the rats and mice out of the room. There are a few occasions that first week when a rat or mouse runs across the room and me at night but Shep is all about rapid response and soon the intrusions stop. Shep is protection, warmth, friendship and a damned fine conversationalist, thank you very much. It is not long before he loves Johnny Carson and, like me, is a devoted fan of the New York Rangers. I think he likes Eddie Giacomin as much as I do, although I suspect he favors Rod Gilbert more than he lets on.

I learn that Shep is beyond smart. In fact, he’s brilliant. I say, “Go meet Lyn at the train,” and he takes off and when she comes out the train station a few blocks away, there he is waiting for her at the top step. Sometimes he walks her back when it’s very cold because I don’t have a winter coat. As soon as she is safe in the station he returns. The sound of him bolting up the stairs is the sound of reassurance.

I am trying to figure a way to get off the street. I call John Jay College where my Dad used to teach. A man that knew him comes to the phone. I tell him I’m living on the street and does he know anyone that can help me. He gives me the name of a priest he knows. I call the priest and go to see him the next day in the city. The priest is a man of medium build with snow white hair, blue eyes; it takes me only seconds to realize he is a genuinely kind man. He tells me he knows a good man from Long Island that, like me, had been through difficult times and has become a very successful general contractor. He says he is quite sure that when he tells the Good Man from Long Island about me he will help me. The priest takes me to lunch. The restaurant is warm and there is comfort in the shelter of a booth. We order coffee. I am afraid to ask for more so I slowly sip my coffee. “Thank you, father,” I say.

“You need to eat, my son,” he says.

I say a hard thing to say, “I don’t have any money, father.”

“That’s okay, son. You order anything you want. Anything particular you like?”

I can’t look up because he will see my wet eyes. I say, “Grilled cheese.”

“Do you now. Well, we are alike there, my son, I can tell you. I love grilled cheese, but I always need more than one sandwich, how about you?”

“One’s okay, father.”

“Oh, no, I couldn’t live with myself knowing I ordered two and you had one. That would be the height of unfairness, put things out of balance it would. I’ll order us both two and we’ll go from there. And some fries, I think we can use a plate of fries.”

I have to whisper my thank you because I know if my vocal cords move too much what self-control I have left will vanish and I will burst into tears here in this restaurant with a nice priest whose kindness overwhelms me. I am not surprised when the priest tells me this is one of the very rare times his eyes are bigger than his stomach. He asks me if I would be good enough to consider handling a third grilled cheese sandwich. I can.

KAHRMANN MEMOIR – CHAPTERS 1 & 2

Chapter 1

I DON’T UNDERSTAND

I am dying on the ground bleeding to death and I don’t understand. I wasn’t bothering anybody. I was just going to work, minding my own business. I wasn’t doing anything wrong and now I’m on the ground dying.

I’m 30 years old and just a little while ago I’m walking down Bergen Street to pick up my cab from the fleet garage. I have a block and a half to go. I hear the sound of keys behind me. A hand grabs my shoulder and a kid with wild floating eyes is pointing a gun at my head and he says, “Don’t fucking move.”

I say, “I won’t,” and I look away because I don’t want him thinking I’ll remember his face.

The gun’s against my head and somebody’s behind me now going through my pockets and getting the sixty-three dollars I have to lease the cab today. I’m waiting for wild floating eyes to hit me on the head with the gun because I know he will so they can get a running head start. But he doesn’t hit me at all. He shoots me.

I’m on the ground and feel nothing neck down. Nothing. I can’t see. The top of my head feels like it’s been blown off there is so much pressure. I open my eyes and I can’t see and can’t feel and I know I’m going to die.

There’s Jennifer’s face listening to someone tell her Daddy’s dead and maybe if I can get up and die trying to get to the hospital she’ll know I didn’t give up. She’ll know I tried the best I could. I can leave her a courage note that way – if I can only get up.

A dark damp blanket tightens around me and I think of Daddy and how he died when I was fifteen so if he can go from here to there, from life to death, maybe it’s okay then. Maybe it’s not so bad dying. Now I feel less scared. Now I can see smoky light and dark images and shapes and they make little sense to me. Jesus fucking Christ I’m dying and I’m seeing a black and white movie and I don’t understand.

The smoke clears for me and I see I’m on the sidewalk on my right side. I see a tree near me.

I’m standing and I don’t remember getting up, I’m just glad I’m standing. I lift my hand to my head and blood hits my hand before it gets there. I untie my blue hooded sweatshirt around my waist and press it against my head to stop the bleeding.

Chapter 2

“OOF!”

I am six years old watching my father at his desk reading and marking college papers. He teaches English in Columbia and John Jay College for Criminal Justice. I am sitting at the foot of his twin bed because it faces his desk. He and my mother have separate rooms. They say it’s because my father snores which is true and my mother is a light sleeper which is also true.

I love watching my father work. He wears half-glasses and a draftsman’s light is clamped to his desk. Smoke from his cigarette curls like a white snake up to the light and rolls along the length of the flourescent bulb before rising up and disappearing into thin air. Behind him is a wall of books. I feel a surge of love for him, do an end run around the desk and throw my arms around him. He says, pretending I’ve knocked the wind out of him. We laugh and hold each other and then I go back to my seat on the bed and return to watching him. He returns to his papers. I run and hug him a lot like this and he always hugs me back.

I am two, three, four and I already know my parents are God. Everybody knows their parents are God. I’m on to this right from the start. My mother isn’t even looking when she catches me doing something I’m not supposed to.

She says, “I have eyes in the back of my head, young man. I do. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up too.”

I know those eyes are in the back of her head somewhere because she says she never lies so I know they’re ther. I can’t find them no matter how hard I search her graying hair, but they’re there alright.

My parents are in charge of everything, of course, because they are God. On Sunday’s we go to the Naurashaun Presbyterian Church. I don’t understand this because my parents are God and they live with me. The Reverend Bill Daniel talks about God like he is invisible or something but I’m not fooled for a minute because I have God sitting on either side of me. Why don’t they just say so? Why don’t they just admit it?