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.

Without book

It is one of the most uncomfortable unsettling experiences for me. That gap between books. I finish one and then, for some inexplicable reason,  finding another one to land in is a problem. It’s like trying on articles of clothing and nothing seems to fit.

I am happy to report that this does not happen to me as much as it used to. But when it does, oh my, the stress. When I am without book it’s almost as if I am being asked to get through the day without air to breathe. There are times when I understand why finding that next book is a problem. You get drawn into one author’s world and then find transitioning to the next author somewhat tricky For example, a few years ago I read almost everything by Charles Dickens. Anyone who loves to read will experience a gift from heaven if they read Dickens, which means, for American readers anyway, slowing down and taking your time with each sentence and then, if you do, his dazzling prescience, comprehension and understanding of life from all angles emerges and you understand why he is, without question, one of the greatest writers that has ever walked the earth. But when I finished my time with Dickens, I went through a rather uncomfortable period of who to read next.  Who on earth do you turn to after Dickens?!

One of my common reading patterns is to lock into writers who strikes my fancy and then read a lot of what they’ve written. Last year I gobbled up nearly everything John Dos Passos wrote. This year it was all the books written by Bernard Malamud and then books by a writer who is now one of my favorites and who seemed to understand life with the same kind of global prescience and comprehension as Dickens: J.G. Farrell. But, oh my, those periods of time between books. Nerve wracking. Like being adrift at sea without a compass.

For as long as I have memory I’ve loved books. Though when I was about eight or so, I found myself convinced that I was not, like my mother and father, a real reader. My father taught English literature at Columbia University and my mother had been one of his students after World War II.  My father had served in the Army and my mother had been in London during the war. Her first husband was a pilot in the RAF.  Needless to say, they loved to read.

And so at age eight I went to my father’s room. He was sitting at his desk marking papers. Behind him was a ceiling-to-floor bookshelf filled with books, to this day one of the most beautiful sights in the world  as far as I’m concerned.

“Daddy, I don’t think I’m a reader like you and Mommy.”

He sat back in his chair and gave me a gentle smile. “What makes you say that?”

I looked at the wall full of books. “Because every time I start reading one I can’t finish it.”

“What makes you think you have to finish it?”

I was completely taken off guard. Of course you were supposed to finish the book. Wasn’t that some kind of rule? “Aren’t you supposed to finish’m?”

“No no. You’re thinking about school assignments. We’re talking about reading. Don’t you think the author has some responsibility to keep you interested?”

I had to admit, he made sense. “I guess so.”

“Okay then,” he looked at the books behind him and back at me. “Pick ten books that seem interesting to you. Forget page numbers. Read them until you don’t want to read them anymore. One day you’ll look up and realize you finished one.”

My father gave me the world of reading and the freedom to explore that world. Books have been my joy and refuge throughout my life. Through my days of homelessness (I would nick them off the paperback racks in drugstores)  I’d always have one stuffed in my back pocket. Do I finish every book I start? Not at all. My book shelves are filled with books sprouting book marks.  And while I still don’t like being without book, the good news is there is no shortage of books and, for those of us on fixed incomes, there are libraries.

By the way,  I finished my first book a week or so after talking with my Dad. I still have it: “The Folded Leaf,” by William Maxwell. 

The Gift of Reading

Somewhere, damned if I know where given that on some fronts I have the organizational skills of a tree stump, I have a shirt that reads, So Many Books, So Little Time. So true.

Frankly, I can’t and don’t want to imagine life without books. I am utterly baffled by those who don’t read books. No doubt there are joys they have found in life that are foreign to me, or joys that I simply don’t understand. Car races for one. Millions get enormous joy from them so I am glad they are there; I like seeing people happy. But when I try to watch them, the cars going round and round  again and again and again and again…all I can do is shrug and think, Well, at least they won’t get lost.

When I am, as I like to say, without book, meaning I don’t have a book I’m reading in life (a rare thing), I really am like a fish out of water. My life is out of alignment. Hell, I’m out of alignment. On edge and physically uncomfortable throughout the day, I am swept up in a kind of anxiousness. When, finally, I find a book that I can develop a relationship with,  an enormous sense of relief sweeps over me.  Much the same kind of relief, my dopey mind imagines, that someone lost at sea feels when they finally reach the safety of land.

Reading has been my refuge for many, many years. When I was homeless as a teen, I would go into drugstores or five and dimes and steal a paperback off one of those wire racks that always screech when you turn them. This way, alone at night, or fighting for warmth or dealing with hunger, tucked away in a basement or abandoned building somewhere, I had a world other than my own I could visit.

It was my father who gave me the whole wide world of books, the never-ending always-present adventure of reading. He was in his room one day working at his desk. Behind him was a ceiling to floor bookshelf filled with books. I think a wall full of books is visually more beautiful than any painting I’ve ever seen.   “I’m not a reader like you and Mommy,” I announced.

He set his pencil down, leaned back in is chair, gently smiled, and said, “What makes you say that?”

Well, every time I try and read one of these books I can’t finish them.”

And then he said the most remarkable thing. “What makes you think you have to finish them?”

I was floored. “Aren’t you supposed to finish them?”

No. You’re thinking school assignment. We’re talking about reading. Let me ask you something, don’t you think the author has some responsibility to keep you interested?”


Okay then, here’s what you do,” he gestured at the books behind him. “Pick ten books that perk your interest and read them until you lose interest. Don’t look at page numbers and don’t worry about finishing them. One day you’ll look up and you’ll have finished a book.”

I was free! The world of books was mine! I grabbed ten books, even some I wasn’t sure I was interested in but wanted to see what was inside them anyway, and brought them to my room. To this day, if I lose interest in a book I put it back on the shelf and move on.

By the way, the first book I finished only weeks after my father’s advice was a novel called The Folded Leaf  by William Maxwell. It’s a great book. And there’s lots more.