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.

Kissing Michele

To say Michele’s  kneebuckling beauty and charm made English my second language would be a falsehood. To say her beauty and charm (along with the scent of Tabu) put my ability to complete a coherent sentence at risk would be closer to the truth.  We were 12 or 13 at the time of this all too brief flicker of romance.

Michele and I  danced with the Orange County Ballet Theatre (OCBT) just outside of Newburgh, New York. At the time this story took place I was dancing a lead role in a ballet called Elegy for the Joffrey Ballet. I would join OCBT for performances on a regular basis.  My first teacher and mentor, Regis Powers, was the co-founder and director of the company. Very often I’d dance the role of the Nutcracker Prince. Michele, as I recall, danced several roles in that ballet, one of which was an Arabian dance in which each of the girls wore a costume that exposed their bellies and lower backs. How I didn’t collapse into a puddle of helpless smittenfication when I watched her in that role was and is a mystery to me.

Never did the phrase head over heels in love find itself more accurately applied then when it was applied to my reaction to Michele. Being head over heels for someone (at any age now that I think about it) can toss many things related to good judgment right out the proverbial window. At the time, I lived in Nyack, roughly 50 miles away from where Michele lived in Newburgh. I couldn’t stand being apart, so, one night I climbed behind the wheel of my grandfathers Mercedes! (I’d never driven a car before, only go karts) and drove to her house in the dead of night just to, well, look at her house. The fact I got there and back safely is a miracle. A few years ago I had the chance to talk to Michele on the phone and told her about this middle-of-the-night drive. “Why didn’t you come in?” she asked (I could feel her smiling). I said it was something like 2:30 in the morning and I figured her family might want to know why on earth was I knocking on the front door at that ungodly hour and, by the way, Peter, whose Mercedes is that?

After a performance of the Nutcracker one night at, I believe, the Valley Central High School in Montgomery, New York, Michele and I walked down a dimly lit school hallway until we were alone. (It was then I learned exit lights are some of the most romantic lighting known to humankind.) There near the wall lockers, I summoned up my courage and kissed her. Our first kiss! When it was over and we began walking back down the hallway I swear I was floating! First, the romance of exit lights, then the greatest kiss that ever took place in the history of the world, and it was true, you could walk on air! At one point I stopped walking and asked, “Can I kiss you again, just to make sure that was real?” And we kissed again! It was real, and I was still floating.

Well, that was, I am sad to say, the beginning and end of our romance. But, then and now, it was a moment I will never forget and always be grateful for. Recently, a close friend of mine sent me a picture of Michele and me. When I saw the picture for the first time I swear there was a hint of Tabu in the air. I even looked down to see if I was floating again. I won’t tell you whether I was or not. (You’d never believe me.)