Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The buffet has closed...

As you may know, my father passed away from complications relating to Alzheimers and dementia back on March 16…it’s been a month now, and I want to share a few words about him.  This is not my normal post...if you're looking for a review or a rip-job, come back soon. For now, please indulge me. 

My dad was a simple, yet complicated man, but obviously, these few words cannot do justice in explaining him.  In fact, I’m not sure after 50 years I even could begin to adequately describe him.  He really was “indescribable”.

He was a man that could cook and bake…an entrepreneur and a restaurateur, a dreamer and a driver. A man with just a high school education, but a master Bridge player.  A storyteller that liked to be alone, and a man that liked a fine meal and lobster, but LOVED a Chinese buffet.  He was a man that listened to Verdi operas, Glenn Miller, The Gatlin Brothers Band, Earl Scruggs and Frank Sinatra (a perplexing taste in music). 

My father had some hard years, but was a man who could often be heard saying, “I feel good.  I’ve had a good life”.  These words were a frequent refrain in his recent years, before the disease really ravaged him.  My sister and I take some comfort that he truly felt that way, even though from the outside looking in it didn’t always appear to be so.

Many of you had the pleasure of knowing my dad.  Even though he was a storyteller, he was also someone who could not be told anything.  He was a man many people turned to for advice, though I always thought I knew better (but occasionally did not).  Many of his own friends asked him over the years to speak with their kids, if they felt those kids were coming off the rails a bit; my dad could guide those kids along the right path, because, I believe, he saw himself in them, and knew how to talk to them.  He really had a way with all kids…and dogs.  He used to say:  the key is, get down on their level.

My father would also not take “no” for an answer if he felt otherwise.  I recall that when I was being sworn in after passing the bar, I was only allotted two admission tickets, and I was already married.  Elayne was given one, and of course, with a Jewish mother, she got the other.  I felt terrible, and I called other friends who would be getting admitted that same day, but couldn’t score a ticket for my father; it was worse than high-holiday seating.  My father never seemed upset or bothered, and it was no surprise that he showed up at Faneuil Hall for the admission ceremony.  As we walked past the ushers/guards, my father walked right past them, and said “I’m not missing this just because I don’t have a ticket” and he kept on walking.  He never planned on missing it, just as he would never plan on missing any of our events.  We celebrated well when I passed the bar and Elayne passed the CPA exam; he took genuine pleasure in those accomplishments.  

My friend Hugh humorously refers to my father as “The Great Philosopher Gil Weinstein”; my father was never short on commentary and advice, and a lot of schtick-there a few that stick with me to this day.  When opening a fortune cookie, he would always say “help, I’m being held prisoner inside a Chinese fortune cookie factory.” (as if there are any other fortune cookie factories…) Then he would flip it over and say “never mind, I escaped”.  As Hugh would tell you, he would always say that kids don’t want your money, they want your time; despite whatever was going on in our lives, he gave us just that-his time.  From Y Indian Guides, to Cub Scouts, TBA Basketball, drum corps, my sister’s acting and dancing classes and recitals, he was there.

In his later years, he did become softer and mellower.  No longer was he eating 19 lobsters in one sitting (yes, it’s true, at Rusty’s Custy Scupper in Rhode Island), but he still did enjoy his Chinese buffet…you might say he became addicted to them, hence his nickname as “The King of the Chinese Buffet”…no matter where he was, he could find them.  Once, on the way to Missouri moving me out for law school, he told me to “pull over at the next exit”.  When I asked why, he said “I want Chinese, and I think there’s a place at the next exit.  I can sense it”.  Sure enough, even though I thought he was full of crap, we pulled over the there it was…a Chinese buffet.  And it wasn’t too bad.

Though he had job loss, failed businesses, family deaths and divorce…he was resilient.  He took figurative punches but never let them bring him down.   Was he easy to live with?…not really.  As kids, we called him Gestapo Gil...but it was an iron fist in a velvet glove. 

He loved to see his grandchildren, just loved to make sure they were ok.  Sometimes would drive over, say hello and leave...a 2-minute visit, precisely; but that was satisfying to him…to see them for those two minutes, and to know they were ok.  That’s all he needed because he reveled in their wellbeing.  That was “wealth” to him.

My father enjoyed that I, along with my high school friends, had turned out ok (in his opinion).  He was proud that Hugh became a surgeon, especially after Mr. Buell, our sophomore biology teacher, told us that we wouldn’t amount to anything; “The world needs garbage men too”.  He was proud that I, along with other friends like Lou, became lawyers.  He was proud that all my friends were good people and enjoyed knowing I still had many of my childhood friends in my life…

Among my father’s most important professional accomplishments (to him) was his small role in the space program.  After seeing action in Korea, he got a new billet in Natick, MA, at the Army labs, where he became a member of the “Climate Commandos”, a team of human guinea pigs, put through extreme physical challenges, while testing the first space suit liners, boots and the like.  His picture, as part of this unit, with the Mercury Project astronauts, was in the Smithsonian, and my father was immensely proud of his small role in American history.  He truly believed that this is the greatest country in the world, put his life on the line to protect it, and loved that he helped, in some small way, expand our horizons into space (maybe that’s why he enjoyed “Star Trek” so much… “Space, the final frontier…”).  Given the chance, I think he would have re-enlisted in his 70s…and that’s why he is buried in the National Cemetery in Bourne, MA.  Because when it is all said and done, and there’s nothing left to say and nothing left to do, by his choice, my father will rest with others that gave of themselves in ways that many of us can only imagine and admire.

Like most fathers, there were many lessons implicitly taught by him:   work for yourself but work hard; always do your best; and don’t expect someone else to a do a job that you wouldn’t do yourself, and he had a little poem he would recite at opportune times: “As you ramble on through life, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the donut, and not upon the hole”. 

My father was a depression-era baby, and like many people of that generation, was not afraid of hard work, or doing what was necessary to make ends meet.  He was tough as nails, and could not be embarrassed easily, and would never be ashamed of doing anything if it meant putting food on the table…but always looking ahead. 

My father, in his favorite position-in line, at a Chinese buffet-2009
So he was a man who had plenty of “holes” that could have derailed him at any time, but he didn’t focus on the negative…he put his head down and plowed along. Yes, he did it his way, but he made sure that we learned by his example.  He would want us all to do the same now…when things are tough…there is no embarrassment or shame…work hard, do your best, and plow through it.  

So plow along, we will, but for now, the buffet is closed.