Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Evening Star

Tonight I noticed the crescent moon with Venus glowing brightly below it--a beautiful sight in the western sky, just after sunset.  I recalled that Venus can be called either the "evening star" or "morning star" depending on her orbit relative to the earth and sun, and that she exhibits phases just like the moon. Tonight she was spectacular, losing none of her glamour despite being close  to the much bigger moon. 

Growing up, astronomy was very much a part of my world and early education, because it was a great hobby and source of fascination for my dad.  Thanks to him, I immediately recognized this conjunction, which we will not see again until the spring of 2010.  Often, on clear nights, and sometimes early in the morning, we would go out in the yard and observe the many wonders of the sky--the different constellations, the Northern Lights--which we could sometimes see where I grew up in northern Michigan--the Milky Way, and important stars such as Arcturus , Sirius, and Vega.  Dad subscribed to Sky and Telescope and for holidays and his birthdays a common present was some book he found recommended in his reading---usually quite technical and expensive!  Dad called these his "heaven books"  and poured over them often in the evenings after work.  He enjoyed the change of seasons for the difference it brought in the night sky, and we often had "quizzes"  where I would have to name a constellation, a star, or distinguish a star from a planet in the sky.  In addition to astronomy, he enjoyed science fiction, especially anything about other galaxies and worlds.  

A number of years ago, I  had the opportunity to travel to the Southern Hemisphere for the first time, which unfortunately Dad never did during his lifetime.  (The closest he came was when we were in Chennai, which is about 13 degrees north of the equator. )  Before I left, I got "educated"  on what to look for--the famous "Southern Cross" of course, and some other constellations that Dad had read about and studied on his sky maps but never had the chance to see personally.  I like to think that now he can see any star or constellation he wishes--and perhaps even a distant galaxy or two, far, far away... 

Thursday, February 19, 2009


There is a famous saying attributed to Mark Twain about how intelligent his father was becoming as he, Mark Twain, grew older: "When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years." While apochryphal, the saying illustrates a truism about a child's perception of his/her parents: it is a moving target. When we are growing up, our parents are usually larger than life, though they go through a major dumbing-down when we are teenagers and young adults. As we become adults ourselves, we see them more as they are, but often still with the color of our childhood experience. And all the while, our parents, too, are evolving, so our perceptions need to change not only with our aging but with theirs. And sometimes, too, we may begin to see things we had simply missed.

Growing up, and well into adulthood, I would not have used the word compassionate to describe my father. It was not that I thought he was unkind, but it was not a quality that stood out to me. Kind and compassionate seemed hallmarks of my grandfather's character, not my dad's. In contrast to my grandfather, who seemed to exude a kind of saintly wisdom, Dad was much more likely to pass judgment, at least in private if not in public. And there were simply other things about him that impressed me more as "Dad" qualities: his curiosity, love of learning, controlling nature, and willingness to engage in a discussion on nearly any topic that interested him, to name a few.

It is said that as we grow older, we become closer to our true values. Perhaps that is the case in part with Dad and the quality of kindness that emanated from him in the last years of his life. As our son Harry noted at the funeral, this aspect of Dad's character came into sharp relief as his dementia advanced, and in the end, his mental faculties gone, love and compassion were all that remained. A few years ago, before we went to India, Marty, Dad and I went out to dinner, and we were seated at the bar at our favorite restaurant. By then Dad had found it difficult to follow a conversation, and beyond talking about how he liked his food and early banter with the bartender when we arrived, he didn't say much during the meal. When we got up to leave, however, he went over to a woman who had been sitting alone opposite us, put his hand on her arm, and started talking to her. Both Marty and I had noticed the woman, who didn't talk to anyone while we were there, but we didn't pay enough attention to her for her emotional state to register with either of us. After a little while, she looked up at Dad, put her hand on his arm in return, and gave him the unmistakable look of one who has just heard some well-needed words of encouragement. One of us asked Dad about it, and he replied, "that woman is very sad. I could tell just by looking at her, and I wanted to say something to her to make her feel better."

While it became a more visible attribute in Dad's later years, a few days ago I came across something that made me realize that compassion, especially for another person's sorrow, had been part of Dad's character for a very long time. He was a great fan of Variety Magazine, the trade publication of the entertainment industry, and subscribed to it for as long as I can remember. Among his papers, I found this clipping, which he had kept all those years. It is not dated, but Variety was founded in 1905, so that would put this clipping at around 1944, when Dad was only 26.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Three Weeks Out

It is a little more than three weeks since Dad died. Most of the thank-yous are written (still a few to go), the death certificates received, the immediate process stuff done. I attend services nearly every day, mostly in the morning, which gives an early start to the day. I write a lot, and sometimes, I become melancholy around four or five o'clock, when I often visited him before coming home to make dinner. But life is returning to the new normal. Right now I am in Keene, where Dad did not spend much time, so his death feels more remote to me in this place.

At Dad's funeral I saw an old neighbor that I had lost touch with since my mother's funeral five years ago. He put me in touch with two other neighbors. Those connections, with their memories of my dad in his prime, feel comforting. I have gone through some old papers, and found things that I didn't notice when we moved the stuff from my parent's house--including some letters from when Dad was in the Army during World War II, a couple of poems he wrote, and his Masonic apron--the last item one I will mail to his old lodge, as it is an honor for a fellow Masonic brother to inherit it. All of this put me back in touch with Dad as he was when I was growing up.

The weirdest thing right now is the feeling of being an orphan. This sounds a bit crazy for someone in their fifties. It is nothing like being left by your parents at a young age, I am sure. But beyond the relationship with the parent him or herself, there is a different feeling when the second parent dies that I did not recall with the first. When my mother passed away, my father was still very much alive, with the prospect of several more years, and he was also living with us. There was a kind of shock then at losing a parent for the first time. Now there is a different shock, that of being left without any parents at all. Some people who have experienced this have said that they feel a new sense of their own mortality, that they now realize that they are "first in line". I don't really feel that --perhaps because if I live as long as my parents and grandparents I have between 35-40 years to go and that is a very long time. After a while I know this, too, will settle in.