At 85 years old, my father reads the Wall Street Journal cover-to-cover daily, sometimes devoting hours a day to perusing through it. He cuts out articles for me weekly: editorials on sports, education, books he supposes I will want to read; commentaries on entrepreneurs, and companies that I have worked with, or for. To me, the articles signify his interest and desire to participate in what matters to me.
He is patient. He doesn’t worry or panic. “I only worry when I have to worry,” he says. He lives his life on his own time clock. There has never been any rush or franticness with my dad. Time is part of reality to him, but it is not his driving force. He imposes a sense of order, an impression that the world will wait in all that he does. He knows how to take a deep breath, process, and to respond to situations from a place of gratitude and acceptance versus haste.
As his only daughter and child living locally, I call him a few times a day, every day. Each morning, when I ask him how he is, he never falters, “Every day is a good day. If I can get up and do what I want, it’s a good day.” And he means it. He is simple, but not simplistic. He’s a butter-on-a-roll is all I need for dinner type of guy, who also loves fine dining. He is well read and well versed, but he doesn’t feel the need to bombard anyone with his knowledge or opinions. Like an Andre Dubus character, he excels in listening. In offering advice that is both heartfelt and logical. Regardless of the topic, he consistently exudes patience, pragmatism, and serenity.
In a world in which we seem to have lost so many of the values and virtues of yesteryear, my father exemplifies authentic living to me. Beholding his approach to life often pulls me from my everything-all-at-once personality and reminds me to slow down; to live and enjoy each of my days, to be and give my best regardless of the hurdles I may face.
What Makes Us Who We Become?
Society often extols a person’s accomplishments as the makings of a great life, but to me, greatness is about the ingredients of a life, the quiet and often overlooked daily undertakings and interactions that comprise who and what a person is all about. I believe that who we become has to do with how we live each day of our lives, encompassing our public moments as well as our private ones. Our legacy is the collection of stories that others chronicle and narrate for us; they are the stories that endure, long after our chapters conclude.
A Life in the Making
My paternal grandmother, Hannah Bayles, journeyed to the United States from Lithuania, and my grandfather, Isador Weiss, who died years before my birth, journeyed to the U.S. from Russia. They met in Brooklyn, as many young immigrants did in the early 1900’s and married on May 26, 1927. In the summer of 1931, my father, Carl Weiss, their second child, was born.
My dad was a Brooklyn guy. Throughout his life, he lived in Williamsburg, Brownsville, East New York, Eastern Parkway, and eventually his family moved to Mill Basin, where he and my mom later bought their own house off of Jamaica Bay. His early years were not without struggle; he contracted spinal meningitis at a time when most people with the disease perished. My dad persisted, although for the first four to five years of his life, his home away from home was the New York Eye and Ear Hospital. My dad loves to tell stories of how as a young boy he raised chicks and rabbits on the roof of one of the apartment buildings he grew up in, and how the chicks used to run down the stairs and he had to rush after them to collect them. They were his pets; his little treasures. He loved animals from an early age, and they loved his gentle spirit, too.
He was an entrepreneur back in the days when the American dream was still robust. It wasn’t about how many degrees one accumulated, or what business school one graduated from, but about implementing practical ideas that served others. He graduated from Brooklyn Automotive High School in Williamsburg, New York in the late 1940’s, and aside from running track, he worked alongside his father in the second-hand clothing business, which had grown considerably in the U.S. and globally since World War II.
He joined the army in 1953, months prior to the end of the Korean War, and was positioned stateside in Pennsylvania, in the 506 Anti-Aircraft Artillery Missile Battalion. He liked the army, the camaraderie and orderliness of it, and enjoyed serving his country. He was a supply sergeant for missile component parts, and also a heavy truck driver, which explains his love, even now, of driving on highways next to 36-wheelers. He would have stayed on, but back at home his father, who was living with the incurable and progressive ALS, needed him to help out in supporting the family, which included his older sister, and younger brother. In 1955 he left the army on accelerated discharge. Years later, in 1959, at the age of 60, his father passed away. His mother, who we called “Nanny,” remained strong, despite failing eyesight, until her death at 81 years old in 1983. My dad was a devoted son, always making time for weekly visits with his mom. I never got to know my grandfather, but my dad has always reminded me of Nanny, who like him was good natured and good humored, with a gentle disposition. She often told me, “The more I know of people, the more I like animals.”
The Chapters of a Life
My dad met my mom on a blind date – my grandmothers, who met up at a resort in the Catskills – set them up. After their first date, my mom, with her laugh-at-everything, cheeky personality, insisted, no way. The reasons abounded: he was too short; he was nearly ten years older. But then there was a second date, and a third, and within six months, they were engaged. “I decided to give him a chance,” my mom liked to say, her big grin exposing her pearly whites. Their marriage lasted 49 years and 11 months. My mom passed away from cancer a month short of their 50th anniversary.
My dad was a serial entrepreneur throughout his life. After devoting a portion of his early career to the second-hand clothing industry, he later got involved in painting companies and ultimately, he and his brother opened up a commercial sign company, which still exists to this day. He was a successful entrepreneur, a practical and open-minded jack of all trades, between sales, and customer relations, managing teams, and accounting/book keeping. As a young girl, witnessing my dad in action, I understood the ethic of hard work, of going the extra mile, of putting in the time and hours to excel not because one had to, but because one chose to. I understood early on in my life that giving second best wasn’t an option, and that treating people with kindness and compassion was more than a moral code: it was the reflection one saw in the mirror each day.
He was devoted to all that he did in life—whether it was his career, taking care of one of the shop dogs that lived in his plant, or being a husband and father. He was a hard worker. But what differentiated my dad from the mass of other men, was that he didn’t complain. He didn’t feel the need to share how hard he worked, or what a grind running a business was, or how hard it was to support a family. He wasn’t in search of some far-reaching jackpot or some other, better, different life. He was grounded and committed to doing all that he did to the best of his ability. Work wasn’t drudgery to him. It was how he spent his days, it was the people he employed, it was an opportunity on a daily basis to participate in the world in a meaningful way. Work was what he did, but it was also what he gave, and what he received in return. Perhaps he understood early on that how we spend our days is largely how we are going to spend our lives.
The Reciprocity of Kindness
My dad ventured to his office on Utica Avenue daily in what he called his work clothes, which consisted of navy work pants, a flannel top, and often a vest with pockets all over that he could toss various truck and office keys in. He wore belts to keep his pants up, and work boots most of the time. He tucked envelopes and pens in his vest pockets, so that if you were to encounter him during the day, you may mistake him for a disheveled handyman versus the owner of a company. He carried an old beaten up hard-covered suitcase, more along the lines of luggage, which he called his briefcase. When the lock on it broke from stuffing it with too many files and folders which he carried home each night, he tied a belt around it to keep it shut. Everyone loved to tease him about his shoddy briefcase, but he was not interested in upgrading it. Eventually, his employees, some of the shop men—mostly immigrants who were skilled artists who cut plastic letters and such for the signs they made—chipped in and bought my dad a new suitcase with the capacity to hold all of his folders.
People of all walks of life cared about my dad. He was as unpretentious and unselfconscious back then as he is now. Whenever I encountered someone who knew my dad independent of our family, they would say, “your dad is one of a kind,” or “he’s a mensch,” or “he’s a saint,” and they meant it.
Like most of us, adaptation has been a constant in my dad’s existence. He lost his father, his mother, and decades later, he lost his wife. Soon after, he lost his sister, then his brother-in-law. The loss of his wife—my mom—was perhaps the most critical turning point of his life. He was by my mother’s side all day every day once he retired in his 70’s. They traveled, dined out, laughed, and enjoyed their time together. When sickness set in, he was her devoted partner and care taker. I had watched so many men lose their wives to cancer, then fall apart, and join their spouses soon after. With my dad, I witnessed first-hand his bravery in picking himself up after her passing, and creating a new definition of life. One that was undoubtedly quieter, but meaningful and worthwhile, nevertheless.
In his next chapter, he learned to enjoy the friendships of men living nearby, and he became my cheer leader, traveling with me across the country to dozens of ultramarathon events which I plunged myself into as the next phase of my own journey. If the hours out on the race course—often through trails, deserts, or stretches of road—were long and tedious for me at times, I was always cognizant of how wearisome they must be to him as he sat around and waited for me, often for over 24 hours as I tackled one 100-mile race after another. There were the nights when moving through trails, or up mountains, I was freezing; I could only imagine how chilled my dad must have been sitting around waiting for stretches of five or six or seven hours for me to come through to an aid station. Patience is beyond a virtue for him; it is how he is wired. Still, now, after all that he has endured, he likes to laugh, to smile, to go out to dinner, and be around fun people.
What Makes Us Who We Become Part II
I don’t believe that we ever truly know if we are traveling the right path, or if there is any one right path for that matter. But to live each day to the fullest, to take everything in and to love, honor, and to live a grateful life is a gift that so few people ever achieve. If you ask my dad what makes him tick, he’ll likely tell you that he takes each day as it comes. He doesn’t worry, he doesn’t project. One day at a time is his mantra.
Most people wish to make their mark on the world and have their accomplishments flaunted in flashing neon lights. But in the end, perhaps it’s the impact that we make on the people in our lives that matters most. I contend that it’s our quiet, small, and largely uncelebrated actions that comprise who we are, and determine in the end the meaning of our days, which becomes the meaning of our lives, which others, woven into our paths, notice, appreciate, and narrate for us.