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My father, my buddy: Wish you were here

Out of My Head

Posted: June 15, 2008 2:33 p.m.
Updated: August 16, 2008 5:02 a.m.
 
Every year on this Sunday, as well as on most every other day, I say a quiet thank you to the extraordinary man who was my father.

He was one wonderful pop, that dad of mine, Morrie Schrager.

He was also "my buddy" - a term of endearment we'd given each other years ago, borrowed from a favorite old war-era song.

Although a dozen years have passed since my buddy died, his intrinsic goodness and resilient optimism remain compasses in my life.

Throughout his 72 years, Dad knew more than his share of struggles.

Oddly though, and oh-so-amazingly, those challenges never kept him from seeing the beauty in this world and finding meaning in every situation.

Born to uneducated immigrant parents, Pop grew up in a rather dog-eat-dog melting pot Milwaukee neighborhood where everyone - from the Jews to the blacks to the Italians to the Irish to the Poles to the Germans - chaotically lived on top of each other while waiting for the American Dream to appear.

There in his family's dirt-floored garage "home," Dad had one difficult childhood. Before reaching a double-digit age, he had steady employment: lighting coal stoves before school, delivering newspapers in the afternoon.

Dutiful job performance in frigid temperatures was a given. Rubbing two nickels together was not something my father did to afford fashionable clothes or new toys: His family needed the assistance.

Matters grew infinitely worse when Dad's father died from a sudden heart attack. Pop was 13; some of his siblings were much younger.

In that premature passing, a psychologically devastated and unemployed wife and her eight children were left to fend for themselves, living in a hectic abode without a strong figurehead to direct or support them.
Although my father longed to attend college, World War II had other plans.

He, along with his many siblings signed up: some Navy, others Army.

Uncle Sam's call was a sacred invitation: The military provided food, shelter, structure, medical care, money to send home and a chance to be heroes while defending their country.

Fortunately, Dad's widowed mom saw all eight children come home from the war.

Many families didn't know that luxury.

Marrying my mother after the war was a bona fide highlight of Dad's life.

Creating a family together was another realization of his dreams.

My mom, sister and I meant everything to him - and all he wanted was to love and provide for us.

* * * * *

Growing up financially strapped, a child's medical needs are often neglected. Such was the case with my father's untreated strep throat and rheumatic fever. Those severe illnesses that affected him as a little boy came back with a vengeance years later as severe rheumatic heart disease.

That valve-destroying disorder, coupled with the physical after-effects of a crash with a drunk driver who hit us head-on in 1956, turned Pop's life into a roller coaster of chronic medical/surgical sufferings, lost employment, and dreams quashed.

Through it all however, there was never any "Why me?" or "Woe is me."

Dad understood and accepted life, with all its pits and peaks. He knew that any person's luck can change on a dime, for the bad as well as the terrific. Admittedly, each day was a battle: He swallowed dozens of different life-sustaining pills; a pacemaker provided the rhythm section for his heart; he became winded easily (due to advancing heart disease); his knees buckled (from crippling osteoarthritis); his lumbar spine agonizingly locked up (due to being fractured in the car crash), and he had leg pain from old shrapnel wounds (leftovers of a World War II kamikaze attack.

While Pop's miseries were enough to make the average person turn bitter and depressed, he remained gentle-tempered and forward-thinking. He never lost his desire to see another sunrise, make others laugh and spend time with loved ones and friends.

Despite his pain and anguish, though, Dad always made me feel that I was the most loved and valued human being alive. He never struck me or spoke through angry or ridiculing words, even when he was in pain or up against another wall.

With his sense of direction sometimes askew, my father had a positive spin for every wrong path taken. He taught me that whenever you're served a detour, make the most of it.

"Think about it," he'd say after driving us 40 miles on the wrong highway. "If we hadn't gone this way we would have never seen that lovely river and hillside."

He applied that bright outlook to all unexpected life situations. And there were many.

* * * * *

A former World War II Golden Gloves boxer, Dad was a born fighter. He had to be to make it as far as he did in life.

Although we nearly lost him many times, it wasn't until my mother's 1989 cancer death that I feared he'd finally lose his will to live.

Surprisingly, he did not.

Any day Dad wasn't hospitalized he was usually with me (and my sons), taking delight in the simplest things done together - preparing a meal, attending ball games, or talking about the "wonders of life."

Although he missed Mom tremendously, he lived each day. An avid reader, card player, Dodger/Angels fan, Pop maintained his gift for joke and story-telling, replete with wild international dialects. He was our family's favorite entertainer.

Dad also loved "being useful" at home, including my home. Whether doing dishes, folding laundry, or picking up my dogs' poop, he was one cheerful domestic volunteer.

"I enjoy making your life a little easier, Sweetheart," he'd say as I'd protest his efforts while telling him to sit down and rest.

"Daughter, I'll have plenty of time to rest someday, but not now," he'd reply with a wink.

* * * * *

I lost my buddy in 1996.

Since then, Father's Day has never been the same. Heck, every day has never been the same: I still miss him from the center of my soul on out through my tear ducts.

My greatest regret is that we didn't have more time together.

Dad once said his greatest regret was that he "didn't have more to leave behind," as in a sizable family inheritance.

Truth be told, my one-in-a-million Pop had little to show on paper when he died. Yet his loving legacy and treasured life lessons remain everlasting riches.

My hope is that somewhere in the heavens, Morrie Schrager knows how well off he left this girl.

Diana Sevanian is a writer and Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own views, not necessarily those of The Signal.

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