If it was before noon when we saw my father, he would greet us with “Good Morning”. If it was after, it was “Good Afternoon”. Post dinner, it would invariably be ”Good evening”. I never once heard him acknowledge anyone with a simple “Hi”. I didn’t then (or now) see it as a pretension so much as a true expression of his own peculiar and antiquated sense of what was proper. He never imposed it upon us kids, but it was his way.
He arrived at breakfast impeccably dressed. Most often, he wore a long sleeved shirt with French cuffs and the required cufflinks. If he was in anything else, it was for tennis or Jai-Alai, and then he wore a polo shirt and shorts, crisply ironed. He didn’t own a pair pair of loafers. His closet was filled with racks of wing tip shoes in every conservative color, all custom made to accommodate his club foot. For his sports activities, he wore what I recall looked Jack Purcell sneakers, with their wide flat white rims.
He was a complicated man of massive intelligence, and he was unlike anyone else I have ever known. He could write with facility with either hand and almost as quickly upside down and backwards. It was a parlor trick to be sure, but one I have never seen repeated. He also had a truly photographic memory.
Once, when I scoffed at this claim, he told me to select a page from a book he had just read and tell him the page number. To my utter shock and disbelief, he proceeded to tell me what was on the page, not verbatim, but in great detail. He repeated the amazing feat several times before I had to concede that this ability of his was real.
My father had a surprisingly silly side too. He had fantastic muscle control, and was the one to teach me both to wiggle my ears and to cross one eye at a time. He had the ability to make his eyes move in a rapid and tight circle like I’ve never seen since- creepy and funny both at the same time. Daddy took delight in shifting his own scalp to and fro like a loose toupee, grinning from ear to ear. It was the kind of sense of humor which celebrated the absurd. No doubt, he loved the Marx brothers. Occasionally he would, for our benefit, cross the living room, ubiquitous stogie in hand in a perfect crouching stride, wiggling his enormous brows, and in a perfect Groucho accent announce, “That’s the most ridiculous thing I evah hoid!” Whenever I see a Marx brothers movie, I hear colors of my father’s own accent in Groucho’s. Intuitively, it makes sense to me, as both Groucho and my father were only twelve years apart in age, and both grew up Jewish men from the same area of New York.
My father kept a not-so-secret cache of toys in his bedside table. They were tin toys. There was a monkey who beat a drum by way of a squeeze bulb, another who banged cymbals together, a couple of wind up frogs and a few other wind up walking toys as well. We children were not allowed to touch them. They were HIS toys. In the summer evenings, when we were allowed to go see our parents before our own bedtimes, we were allowed into their bedroom for a ten to fifteen minute visit. We would find them in bed, in their nightclothes. If Daddy was in a good mood, we would ask to see his toys. Gleefully, he would pull them out. One at a time, and with great ceremony, he would wind the frogs up and laugh with childish delight as they jumped willy-nilly around the night table. If one of us extended a hand in their direction, it was met with, “Ah-ah-ah – no touching! These are MY toys!” The more we would plead, the more he laughed and said no, relenting only rarely and with careful supervision, lest we overwind them or otherwise cause them harm. They were his treasures, and we were expected to treat them so. And we did. The monkeys were his favorites, and it was a source of everlasting charm to him as they jauntily banged the drum or cymbals. My mother explained this peculiarity privately, by telling us that it must be that when he was a child, he’d had no such toys, which made him so possessive of them. I believe it was more the humorous longing he witnessed in us that amused him so.
He was as possessive of his candy and cookies. His favorite candies were French jellies , which he would dole out to us at bedtime when he had them, one at a time. In Florida, our neighbor, Mrs. Hewitt, would make us spice cookies around the holidays which were crispy and delicious. She had to make a tin for the general household and one specifically for my father. It was inevitable that we would polish off the whole tin way before he did, and eventually we would come begging for a sample. With this in mind, he always hid his cookies in a secret location in his closet, and when we asked him to share some of his, question us as to where ours had gone. Then he would have us wait outside the closet door lest we see where he had them hidden. He would emerge with one cookie for each that had asked for one, and admonished us with a smile, “Eat them slowly and make them last!”. He clearly knew how peculiar and miserly this behavior was, and seemed to savor it and our whining entreaties as part of a humorous drama.
His other weakness was cigars. He’d had throat cancer at 49 from smoking cigarettes and as a consequence had had part of his larynx removed. This gave his voice a bit of a gravelly sound and sent him headlong into a love for cigars for the rest of his life. The belief was back then that Cigars were harmless. Cubans were his favorite and he managed to have the illegal cigars shipped to him on a regular basis. Placing himself at ease on a chair, and putting his feet up, he would unwrap the package slowly as if it contained something of an extremely exotic and fragile nature, seemingly savoring the cigars within long before a match was ever struck. He would open the box, skimming his nose over the array. Breathing deeply to take in their aroma, with appreciation, he would smile devilishly. It was forbidden fruit, and he had it right there in his own hands.