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.

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

My father at 100

If you are lucky in life, blessed might be the better word, you’ll have the experience of someone loving you completely simply because you are you. Someone with whom you can be yourself safely all the time. My father was that someone for me. He was and is the greatest gift my life has ever given me. If ever a human deserved a long life, it was my father. He died Saturday, August 16, 1969, at age 55; I was 15. When he died my ability to feel safe in the world died with him. It did not return until a few years of sobriety were tucked under my belt. I’d give up the rest of my life in the blink of an eye to hug him one more time.

My father, Sanford Cleveland Kahrmann, was born Friday, February 20, 1914, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Next Thursday would have been his 100th birthday.  I had hoped to drive the 400-mile round-trip next Thursday to visit his grave in Graceland Memorial Park in Kenilworth, New Jersey, but my financial realities will not let me do so. He would be the first to tell me not to worry about it. He is, however, always with me. Some years after his death it occurred to me that death does not take the all of someone away from us. My father is with me all the time. His presence in my life is alive and well.

And there’s more. There is a large tree next to his grave. Some years after he’d died I was standing by his grave. It occurred to me that his body had begun to feed the soil and the soil feeds the tree and so the scattered of small twigs and branches the tree shed took on special meaning for me. I gather some up twigs and gather more every time I go. By having the twigs near me or on my person my soul says part of my father is with me. On very rare occasions over the years I’ve given one of these twigs to someone I love who has, because they are who they are, arrived at a sacred place in my heart.

My father taught English at Columbia University and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He was a veteran of World War II, serving in the Army’s 20th Armored Division, one of three U.S. Army divisions to take part in the liberation of the Dachau Concentration Camp located about 10 miles from Munich. I did not learn about this until after he died. He never talked about it.

He was also my best friend. We built a tree house together, stayed in a cabin on Stokes Forest, New Jersey together, read books together. Once, at my pleading, he agreed to accept the non-dancing part of Herr Drosselmeyer in the Orange County Ballet Theatre’s production of the Nutcracker in which I danced the role of the Nutcracker Prince. He did beautifully and received wonderful reviews. One said his Drosselmeyer was the suave master of legerdemain. My mother gave him a box of matchbooks with those words embossed on the cover. He was little-boy happy handing them out to his colleagues.

My father also gave me the gift of reading. When I was about nine or 10 I went into his room. He was sitting behind his desk working on something. Behind him was a wall full of books. I said, “I’m not a reader like you and Mommy.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I can’t finish any of the books I start.”

“What makes you think you have to finish them”?” I was surprised by his response and it showed. “You’re thinking of school assignments. We’re talking about reading. Let me ask you, don’t you think the author has something to do with keeping you interested?”

I nodded.

“Okay then. Tell you what. Grab 10 books that perk your interest, forget page numbers, and read them until they don’t interest you anymore.”

Suddenly and gloriously the world of reading was mine. The first adult book I ever read was The Folded Leaf, by William Maxwell. I still have the copy from my father’s library on my shelf. To this day reading is one of my greatest loves and, when times get tough, refuges in life.

I loved and love my father my whole wide world. He loved and I suspect loves me the same.

Happy Birthday, Daddy. I miss you.

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.

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.