by Moe Rubenzahl
My brothers and I fell to the ground, rolling in
different directions across the big field behind
the house. My dad laid back, closing his eyes to
the bright summer sun, a stalk of tall grass dangling from his lips. I lay on my stomach, looking at him.
"Well," he said. A peaceful smile crossed his
face. "You've had some questions for me, for a
very long time. Now's your chance."
He was right. There were things I had always wanted to discuss. What was it like to move at
the age of 12 from a noisy, crowded ethnic neighborhood in Brooklyn to
the Catskill mountains with its old, rounded
hills and miles of unpopulated countryside? What were his parents like and how did he
feel when his father erupted with that explosive temper of his? How
did he cope as an only child and primary labor on a chicken farm? And what was it like to grow
up so fast? To lose a mother before graduating high school, be married at the age of 20,
then lose a father two months later? What was it like to hold me, the first of five baby boys?
Were you filled with joy, did you cry? Did you tremble with the weight of raising a family, owning your own farm,
house, and mortgages, and doing it all on your own? Or did you pretend you were not moved
and find some work that needed to be done?
I did not ask any questions. Instead, I woke
up. Since my father's death, I had often thought
of him. This was the first time I had ever seen
him in a dream.
Harry Rubenzahl died in 1986, at the age of 56, the victim of health habits, primarily tobacco.
I did not know it while I was growing up, but my father was an extraordinary human being.
A father at 20 with his own farm, he was a doer. When you're a farmer, you don't call someone
when something breaks or needs to be built
you do it. If you don't know how, you ask. If
there is no one to ask, you figure it out.
Dad was no Ward Cleaver. In my memory,
he never told us how to be, never sat us down
to explain life. He didn't talk about feelings and
he never explained himself. His way was to address the present and act.
Throughout my childhood, I don't remember my father ever
saying, "I love you." My mother said it all the
time but for the rest of the family, it was unsaid. In later years, I realized that he said it constantly he said it
when he worked, when he brought something home for us, when he told one of his corny jokes, when he took us
to work with him, when he came home. When I think now of all the fathers who leave their families or who are
never home, I realize just how much my father loved us.
When I think of my father, I always have the
same feeling. There is a thread that connects him
to me, my brothers, our uncles, cousins, and
other men who have carried the name
Rubenzahl. I have never tried to describe or explore the feeling but I know there have been
moments with my brothers when we all felt it.
Some years ago, my brothers and I converged
on the house where we were raised to give it a
new roof. We were all there, pounding nails in
the screaming August heat, slapping down
shingles and slamming down beers, the sweat
coming so fast that we never wiped it away, it
just dripped off our chins onto the next shingle.
As we worked in silence, I think it was Marty,
the second oldest, who first noticed the sound.
We were all whistling to ourselves. It's a quiet,
breathy whistle that comes from tongue and
teeth, following absolutely no recognizable tune.
I don't recall how, but we all suddenly became
aware of the four meandering melodies and began to laugh. We didn't discuss it but we all
thought about where the habit had come from.
There were hundreds of people at Harry
Rubenzahl's funeral. It was a bitter cold January day in upstate New York. Not a day to be
out. But many people loved and respected my
father and had to come pay their respects.
The focus was on his bride. Everyone wanted
to make sure she would be all right. Marion was
a teenager when they were married, a mother a
year later. These two people had never lived
alone. I remember the tight circle my brothers
and I formed around her, holding her and protecting her from the cold. Four sturdy sons, her
boys. Everyone knew how strong she was and
we all knew she would get by. But how? This
was too much pain. She would not use the term
"widow" for two years.
It is amazing to me how often I think of my
Dad. Even now, eight years later, he enters my
thoughts at least once a week. When I look in
the mirror, I see his committed brown eyes and
the two crooked front bottom teeth. When I talk
to Arty, who lives with my mother in the home
I first saw two days after my birth, I hear it as
he shrugs off a worry using Dad's "eh!" When I
think of Marty, so fiercely independent he lives
in Puerto Rico. When the youngest, Murray,
swings a hammer, nails hanging from the corner of his mouth, intently working, working,
working, I see our father.
Mom still lives in the same house in upstate
New York. My brother Arty lives there too. He
takes care of the place, grows a garden. Things
are different there. Different people, new
kitchen. The old chicken coops are gone. She
does all kinds of things Dad used to do manages the finances, gets the driveway plowed,
orders heating oil. Somehow, she manages to
get things off the high shelves. She has started
her own business. She even has a boyfriend or two.
But no matter how much things change,
Harry's presence remains. It's in everything. Not
just the furniture and the house and other tracks
he left in his path, but in the deeper things in
the personalities, habits, and memories of those
he left behind.
I will never get over my father's death. It will
never be history for me. I really miss him. Yet
there is a sense that he is still around.
Many men I know have lost their fathers.
There are a few life experiences that can not be
communicated birth, love, loss. Justin Sterling said a father's death is the biggest event of
a man's life, bigger even than the birth of a son.
Most men will experience it.
When a man I know loses his father, there is
nothing to say. I just let him know I have been
there, too. But I want to tell him much more. I
want to tell him I know how he feels. I want to
tell him no, you will never get over this. Yes,
you will always miss him. You will always wish
he was still there, making dumb jokes, embarrassing you with his old habits, doing everything his way, even when another way seems
better to you. You will continue to see him in
the mirror, you will keep seeing his tracks in
the lives of those around you.
My father is my first and greatest hero. The
things he gave me are immortal. I like to think
that makes him immortal too.