This is a revised and expanded version of a post I wrote two years ago about my father.
Some quotations require no comment. Here is one from a legendary baseball player of the 1950s and 1960s:
“Some people are so busy
learning the tricks of the trade
that they never learn the trade.”
–Vernon Law (Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher)
I recently watched a documentary on the life of Bela Bartok, the 20th century Hungarian classical composer. He died at age 64, still full of ideas yet to be put to music paper, not to be given the life that would allow us to be enriched by his creativity. He knew it and he regretted it, saying on his death bed that he had hoped to have left the world with an “empty trunk.” His “trunk,” occupied by what he could yet compose, had he “world enough and time,” was still full.
It strikes me that Bartok’s sense of responsibility to life is admirable. He believed that since he had come into this world with nothing, as all of us do, he should leave with nothing. He saw this as his obligation to himself, his fellow man, and to life itself. That is, to give everything that he had, to empty himself of whatever “good” or goods he had to give. In other words, to live as full and complete a life as possible in revealing the gifts that nature had bestowed upon him.
Creative people often feel chosen. They tend to believe that they have a “calling,” something that cannot be ignored. They write or compose, not because it is a way to make a living. Indeed, they often continue their creative efforts despite the fact that, like Bartok, they cannot make a living doing it (Bartok was about to be evicted from his New York City apartment when he died). These people persist, even without recognition, out of an “inner necessity.” They write, in a way, because they cannot do otherwise. Many people consider this to be something similar to the religious calling often described by clergy.
What is your calling? Perhaps you don’t feel you have one. But even if you lack this sense of driveness and purpose, Bartok’s example might still provide you with a model for life. I think that Bartok’s notion isn’t really very different from those athletes who say that they try to “leave it all on the field,” giving everything they have to the game they are playing. And, while most of us are not great heros, creative geniuses, or athletes, we can emulate this model if we choose: to live as fully and intensely as possible, work hard, love our friends and family passionately and well, seek always to enrich our knowledge and understanding, face challenges rather than running from them, and give the world whatever we have to give in order to make it, and us, better — in Bartok’s words, to arrive at the end of our days with a trunk that is empty.
To choose such a life rejects the alternative of dutiful routine and “quiet desperation.” It will also, I suspect, reduce your chance of regret. And what is regret? According to Janet Landman, it is “the persistence of the possible,” the aching reproach of the road not taken, the fear not faced, the effort not made, the life that might have been, “if only…”
Yes, the idea of living so that one might leave with “an empty trunk” has appeal.
I can think of worse philosophies of life.
Father’s Day can be complicated.
Like any day of honor, some tributes are deserved more than others, or not at all.
Some obligations are carried out with joy, while others are a matter of dutiful routine.
And sometimes there is pain, where once there was (or should have been) pleasure.
But, for myself, Father’s Day is pretty simple.
While I miss my dad (who died 11 years ago), the sense of loss is no longer great. He was 88 when he stroked-out in July 2000, soon to be followed by my mother in February 2001, and our family dog in November 2001: a tough 16 months.
The experience taught me what Hamlet’s uncle Claudius knew when he said to his wife (Hamlet’s mother), “O Gertrude, Gertrude, when sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.”
“When will dad be OK again?” my children asked my own wife. It took a little while, but eventually time and the loving support of family and friends did the job of healing.
But being healed isn’t the same as being indifferent and, as I said earlier, I still miss my father.
If you saw the movie “Peggy Sue Got Married” with Kathleen Turner and Nicholas Cage, think back to the scene of her time-travel from middle age to age 16; specifically, to the moment when she talked to her deceased grandmother on the phone, now suddenly back to life.
I’d give a lot to have a moment like that with my dad.
He wasn’t, of course.
Somehow, all the records of his “career” in the major leagues had been “lost,” or so he told us. He also informed me and my brothers that he’d been able to pitch nearly every day, and was so reliable and dependable that his teammates called him “Rain or Shine” Milt Stein (able to pitch, “rain or shine”). We all came to value this funny tale and, in fact, had my wife and I had a male child, the boy’s middle name would have been “Rainer,” as in “rain or shine,” in honor of the newborn’s grandfather.
Another story he told frequently was based in fact rather than imagination.
Twenty year old Milt Stein had a tough time in 1932, the depth of the Great Depression. He could find little steady work, though he had enough to eat thanks to living with his parents. Finally, he landed a full-time job at the opening of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. His boss told him that he could work every day if he wished (although he didn’t have to), but work and money were so dear that he did — 170 consecutive days from May 27th into November.
It was a few years after my dad died when I first realized that these two stories were actually different ways of telling the same morality tale: my dad was “Rain or Shine” Milt Stein, reliable and hard-working, both on the imaginary playing field of his “major league” career and at the World’s Fair performing a real job.
I don’t even know if my father was aware of the connection between these stories.
Dad was an intelligent, but uncomplicated man. If he had lived in a more prosperous time he’d certainly have graduated college. But, as things turned out he worked as a postal supervisor, raised three boys, and was married to the same woman for almost 60 years.
When I was very little, my father played a game of make-believe with me. In those days before everyone had some sort of recording device, he used our floor model vacuum cleaner extension as a pretend microphone for a radio show he fashioned out of his imagination. We would take turns speaking into the nozzle as he interviewed me.
I guess my career in interviewing people goes pretty far back.
I owe my love of baseball, a sense of fair play, and a strong work ethic to my father; and the fact that years later, each night at bedtime, I would reach into my own imagination as he did with me during our “radio show,” to tell my young daughters a story; a different one nearly every night, especially with my first-born.
Dad was not a perfect man or a perfect father. His three sons all saw too little of him because of his dedication to work and the shadow of the Great Depression on his view of matters financial. He deferred to my mother too much for our well-being.
But it is Father’s Day, not the day to get into his shortcomings.
In 1985 Milton Stein’s youngest brother, my Uncle Harry, died suddenly. I’d not been very close to my uncle, so that loss didn’t much affect me except for the fact that it made my dad’s mortality palpable to me: if Harry, my father’s youngest brother could die, then surely my father would, possibly soon. The family history of heart disease had killed Harry, and my dad had narrowly escaped alive from his own heart attack at age 47, over 25 years before.
In the wake of Harry’s death, I asked my “old man” (now genuinely old) if he’d be open to doing a videotaped history of his life, with me as the interviewer — the “radio show” with the roles reversed. He complied readily.
I still have the four hours of video that my father and I created together. Much of it is filled with the detail of his life, but at a few points my normally controlled dad let down his guard.
Most moving of all was his recollection of returning to the USA from WWII service in Europe. He hadn’t seen my mom for about two years. He called her as soon as he was situated on American soil.
As I’ve detailed elsewhere (Love Letters), the catch in Milton Stein’s voice and the tears in his eyes as he recalled hearing the woman he ached for — the love of his life — would have been unforgettable even without the video evidence.
I’m sure that you can tell I have a soft spot for my dad.
And, lucky me, I have two wonderful daughters who will make me feel like the most important person in the world on Father’s Day.
But, I’m even luckier than that.
They make me feel like it is Father’s Day every day.
The photos above are all of my father, with the obvious exception of the vacuum cleaner, made available from the Open Clip Art Library; and the poster from the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, created by Weimer Pursell, silkscreen print by Neely Printing Co., Chicago; both sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
The first picture of my dad is probably from some time in the early to mid-1930s. The second photo looks as though he was a teenager when it was taken.
The night time snap-shot probably took my dad by surprise while he was on a date, before he met his wife-to-be (my mother). It was likely shot by a street photographer, who would have handed my father a numbered envelope that identified the negative. Dad would have had to mail the envelope to the company with payment in order to get developed copies of the picture.
I recall seeing such photographers in downtown Chicago at least as late as the 1960s. Now, of course, just about everyone carries his own camera/phone.
The final image is of the young Stein family in late 1959: my mom and dad and, left to right, Jack, myself, and Eddie.