Saturday, June 9, 2012

3 (ish) Words

I owe this post to my friend Sarah who often poses random but interesting questions to her friends on Facebook.  Sarah by the way has her own fascinating blog chronicling her unique journey as a young mother, a new immigrant and a person who like the rest of us is fighting to find her way in the world.  Her blog is is daring and beautiful.  She's not afraid to write about the hard stuff.  It's a good read, check it out.

Anyhoo, today's challenge laid out by Sarah was to describe your parents in three words.

It was hard to come up with just three, because really, my parents were so many things, 3 words is not enough.  30 words?  Maybe.  As I read through the list of other responses, I found lots of words like supportive, neurotic, inspiring, demanding, loving, overbearing, selfish.  Of course my parents had all this too but I decided to go with the first words that occurred to me.  

And it was clever, independent, tragic.

My parents had a lot of traits in common and that is probably what drew them to each other in the first place.  In asking them both that very question at various points in life, they gave me more or less the same answer - "I liked the way she looked," "He was charming and handsome." Keeping in context that my parents came from a generation where after you finished college you were expected to marry and start a family.  And my parents were true to that expectation.  They met in their senior years (my dad's of college, my mom's of nursing school), they dated, they got pinned.  They both graduated in June of 1957 and in September 1957 they got married.

Anyhow as of late, my dad has been on my mind a lot.  I think that is largely because we are in the cusp of summer, which was always my favorite time of year as a kid, particularly when I was a teenager and lived with my dad.

In summer, my dad was done teaching for the year and even if he taught in summer, as he often did, it was usually only a class or two so he had a lot more free time.  We went out for dinner a lot, during the school year we stuck close to home going to the Acropolis or Alfano's in town or over to Bartoletti's in Fredericktown near the store.  If my dad was in the mood for something more sophisticated we headed over to the Back Porch in Charleroi or our family standby, the Red Bull Inn.

In summer though,  he took me to the symphony at Heinz Hall or to shows at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh and I used to love those evenings with him.

We'd make a day of it, starting off in Shadyside in Pittsburgh, having breakfast or lunch at Pamela's or heading to Bloomfield to Tessaros.  We'd invariably end up in the afternoon in Oakland, walking the campus of Carnegie Mellon when he would tell me of his days there as a student or we'd go to the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of learning and stroll through the Commons Room and tour a couple of the Nationality Rooms which I highly recommend if you're ever in Pittsburgh.

We'd have dinner at family favorite spots Samreny's or Poli's and then we'd get lost in an evening of music, pomp and circumstance.

My dad also gladly shlepped me around a lot in the years before I could drive.  He would gladly take my friends and I to one of the malls in and around Pittsburgh and he would let me get my girl on and he would take the Sunday New York Times and he'd go explore the book store and of course the tool section at Sears and then he'd sit on one of the benches in the mall and read the paper while I shopped and enjoyed myself.

He didn't talk about it much, but as a single dad, there was a part of him that I think felt guilty that I didn't have a mother around to do girl things.  I think because of that he was indulgent about me doing girl things and that is why he would so easily give up a whole afternoon just so that I could shop, try on clothes, makeup and shoes and he never uttered a word of complaint about it.

During high school I spent 4 weeks at summer camp.  He sent me to Camp Tel Yehudah, situated on the Delaware River in upstate New York.  TY as it is known by it's campers is a Young Judea camp and having a Jewish identity and Jewish friends was something which my dad was important.

We lived in a very small town and there were hardly any Jewish kids around.  And while I enjoyed California, Pennsylvania and made good friends there, there was always a part of me that felt different from everyone else.  I was an active member of BBYO a popular youth group and  I enjoyed the weekend get togethers and activities.  I made friends in BBYO but it was pretty cliquey, I never quite made it into the "in" crowd there and I always felt like I was trying too hard.  At camp it was different.  Yes there were cliques but a lot of the kids in Young Judea in Pittsburgh were more down to earth, they seemed to have less to prove and I just fit in there more easily.

So every July I trodded off to the pinnacle of the Young Judea year, spending 4 weeks at Tel Yehudah.  I flew by myself to NYC and met up with the camp there and headed out for the 3 hour ride to Barryville, NY.  I loved camp, I made good friends there, I learned a lot and developed a love affair with Israel which continues to this day.

Still 4 weeks was a long time to be away and there was no Skype, email or Facebook so my dad and I wrote letters, his letters mostly consisting of small notes or something a newspaper clipping of things going on at home or comics or other little snippets he thought I'd find interesting.  Two or three times a week I would dutifully call collect and my dad would want to hear everything about camp, what we did, what we learned about, about my friends.

And midway through the 4 week period, there was visitor's day, where parents could come and see their kids at camp.  Most of the parents that came were those from NYC and the surrounding area.  For kids like me and many others, from farther away, trodding out to Barryville, NY was just too far to come for one day.

But my dad always came.

He would drive 7 hours each way to be able to spend 4 hours with me.  I'd show him around, show him my bunk, introduce him to some of my friends but mostly he enjoyed walking down by the river bank where there was nothing but the sound of the water running over the rocks and nothing but trees and blue skies all around.  We'd talk about home and the family, what was happening at the Store (which was always a common topic in our family) or we talked about the trees or the flowers or the indigenous wildlife of the area.

Those were perfect days, not just because I was young and as you get older your youth takes on a splendor which can only be enjoyed when the times are a few decades in the rearview mirror.  But they were perfect because they were wonderful in and of themselves.

When your parent commits suicide, it can, if you don't pay attention, color every memory with that one horrible, sad, tragic, inexplicable act.  You can forget that there ever was anything wonderful or beautiful.  The pain, that your loved one carried with them and endured until they could endure it no longer as well as your own pain, at the loss which can never be truly explained, take up residence in your head and heart.  If you're not careful, it can eclipse everything else.

Sometimes those beautiful memories are too hard to think about in light of what happened later.

But sometimes, something so inconsequential as a question can bring those beautiful memories back, they can also lay their claim to your mind and your heart and just be wonderful and beautiful in their own right.

Untarnished by any suicide.


  1. Beautiful post. You mentioned checking out Sarah's blog in the first paragraph, but where is the link?

  2. Karen R ShellenbergerOctober 31, 2013 at 11:17 AM

    Your dad was a wonderful, caring and funny man. Some of us have stories not fit to print but keep in our heads for future reference. I can't imagine what he was thinking when he ended his life. What is important to me is how he made me feel when I was around him and oh that mind! Your father raised you and what better tribute to him than his daughter Dana and the fine woman that she has become. He is so proud of you darling!