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.

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