It has been a lot of years, though they seem in a sense stuck together like one rather elongated event. These are the 23 years since my dad, Nison Gordon, z’l, passed away. There is no yahrzeit now, just two small events that conjured these ideas and moved my thoughts this week in this direction.
The first is a friend who lost a parent last week and the matter of going to be menachem avel. He has now crossed over to what I have long considered this other side, which seems to be recruiting members with alacrity these days. I didn’t mention it, but I think he knew what I was thinking by that knowing look he gave me. “Life is tough,” is one of the few things he said. I nodded hesitantly in agreement.
The other thing that happened was this picture in my home that I decided, just the other morning, to move. The picture is of my parents at one of my nephews’ bar mitzvahs. The photo was taken at the simcha, which took place just about four months before my father passed away.
The photo is encased in a very neat black frame and sits on an artistic stand. For some reason, the photo—probably one of the last taken of my dad and one of the best that I have—was on a table in my teenage son’s bedroom. I ventured up there early last Thursday morning to wake him up on the morning of the Fast of Esther to have a drink of juice or a bite to eat before the onset of the daylong fast.
As I turned around to leave his room, there it was, again. Of course I’m up there more than just infrequently, and each time I make a mental note something along the lines of, “What is that picture doing there? It really doesn’t belong there.”
But last Thursday as I was about to exit the room, I reached for the photo and the stand and took it down to my office in the basement level of our home. I was thinking that maybe it belongs on the wall to the side of me so that when I twirl my chair around I catch a glimpse of my mom and dad. But then I just placed that handsome little stand alongside the computer monitor. As of today, whenever I look up at the screen, there, in my rather narrowed peripheral vision, are my parents in a picture from 23½ years ago.
I might or might not leave the photograph there, as it can be a bit distracting. I’m leaving it in that position for now because, well, I’m writing about what to do with the picture and, for this week anyway, it helps that it is directly in my line of vision. What I will do with it next week, I really don’t know yet.
My father is 71 years old in the picture, but he really does not look that age, and I’m thinking that this bodes well for the future. In the picture, my mom, may she live and be well, is sitting on a chair just in front of my father. She’s wearing a gray and black dress with a thin reddish line through parts of it. It looks like she has a black bow tied on the front with a strand of pearls around her neck. She’s not just smiling; she looks content and very happy.
My dad is wearing a black suit and a white shirt (of course). I can’t see any cuffs protruding past the sleeves of the suit and I’m reminded that as far as I can remember my father liked to wear short-sleeve dress shirts all year round. (I almost never wear them, maybe in the summer once or twice.) He also didn’t like when the collar of the shirt was too tight, so he always bought shirts that were a size or at least a half size bigger than what he should have been wearing. In the picture you can see the space between his neck and the closed top button of the shirt. He liked the room; he did not care for being squeezed or uncomfortable if he could help it. I don’t blame him.
As a young man his hair had tinges of red in it. (Three of my sons are redheads.) When he grew a Sefirah beard or didn’t shave during the Three Weeks, his beard—until it turned grayish—was completely red. In the photo, the red is gone, replaced by a gold/brownish color around his ears and a dull gray color on the brushed-back hair on his temples and moving up and back.
My father wasn’t stylish, just practical. My hair on the sides and the back of my head is what they call salt and pepper, with the gray taking the lead role. My father had hair on the top of his head; not that much, but enough to brush back and I guess pin his yarmulke on. A bobby pin in a yarmulke was once upon a time a thing to be scoffed at. After all, a pin of this sort was a woman’s piece of decorative or necessary hair equipment. I think my dad started wearing a pin in his yarmulke after we, his sons, began to do so. I think he realized the practicality of it and how it significantly reduced the number of times the wind would blow it off your head requiring you to chase it in unpredictable directions.
Let me tell you about the look on his face in this photo. Despite his age, he looks strong and vital. His eyebrows still have that deep red, almost golden, look from his youth. So what was he thinking while posing? Actually I can recall the event the photo was taken at—his oldest grandson’s bar mitzvah. He too looked happy and content; after all, a celebration like this is a milestone event.
My father, like all fathers I guess, had a private as well as a public persona, but they were not that diverse from one another. He was in his day—and sometimes, surprising to me, still today—a somewhat well-known writer and observer in the Yiddish press of the events of his time. He was also a prolific businessman who understood how to parlay his public relations and literary acumen into a marketable industry.
He ghostwrote books for philanthropists who wanted to leave a literary legacy. He wrote weekly columns in newspapers like The Day Morning Journal, The Forward, and The Algemeiner. In his time he was the backbone and foundation of these publications with entrée into and personal relationships with the leaders of major yeshivas and Israel-based as well as U.S.-based Jewish organizations. He was unique and always in the midst of some kind of project, but never too busy to tend to the most minute request of family members.
For many years, as I recall, he would drive my brother and me to yeshiva on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. I don’t think we ever saw a school bus in the morning until we started high school. On the way to yeshiva he would pick up his father, our Zaide, and drop him off at shul. Then he would go to do a day’s work at his office, which for most of those years was located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. That was the routine, and rarely was there any departure from it, week after week and month after month.
In the picture I am looking at, he is smiling and looking at me. This is one of those pictures that from whichever angle you look at it, it seems those in the picture are following you with their eyes. It has been many years, and aside from this and other pictures, I have an extensive collection of memories.
It is a treat, a privilege, and even a catharsis that I can sit here and recall these memories and write these words. It has been such a long time, but still his crispness and wit along with his knowing look of appreciation of some things and disapproval of others will no doubt linger with me forever.
I actually started to write this a couple of weeks ago, then stopped, did some other things, and now came back to finish it—for now anyway. Frankly, I can go on and on in all kinds of directions with recollections and even speculations about what my dad would have done in this or that situation.
This essay hardly scratches the surface of this multi-dimensional and dynamic man—my father. He spent many nights, often until early the next morning, sitting in what was sometimes a very cold and other times an overheated little office in the basement of our family home. He sat there alone with his thoughts, his typewriter, and reams of paper. He conjured thoughts and developed ideas, and then with the rat-tat-tat of his typewriter turned sentences that communicated ideas to his readers, many of whom held on to his every word.
It has been a long time, but still the past does not seem that distant. I haven’t moved this picture yet. It is still up there just to the right of my computer screen. I’m getting used to it being there and to those happy faces and very beautiful smiles. v
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