I buried my father three years ago today. His was a peaceful death, as dementia, the unforgiving thief, had already stolen him from us. But in spite of my sadness, there was little time to mourn. It was election day, my husband’s birthday and we were still reeling from Super Storm Sandy. For almost a week we had neither power nor heat. And only a few hours after the lights came back on, I got the call I’d dreaded.
In my mind I’d drafted his eulogy a dozen times. But when I had to finally commit the words to paper, I was filled with despair. How could a writer have so little to say? Then I realized he had left nothing to chance. All I had to do was replay his “greatest hits”- his philosophies of life that not only shaped my world, but my writing.
Think of Tevye, from Fiddler on the Roof. Ironically, Tevye was my father’s middle name in Hebrew.
So as this season of gratitude approaches, I will share some of the wit and wisdom from the Harold Hymen Library of Life Lessons (with special thanks to my sister, Mira Temkin, for helping me recall the ones I’d already forgotten).
THAT’S BASEBALL. Don’t let the Cincinnati Reds hat fool you. My dad only wore it once, when he got to throw out the first pitch at a Spring Training game. Instead, he was a lifelong Cubs fan and knew all about losing. Which was the point of his metaphor every time I whined. Teachers weren’t fair. Cheaters didn’t always get caught. You could do everything right and still not win. Your friends might disappoint you, but you had to take the good with the bad. That’s baseball… and life.
STAY WITH THE GROUP. This was originally meant to keep me in line during class trips. He didn’t want me wandering off as I once did as a three-year-old at the beach. But later I realized he was also talking about staying part of a community. He was always active in town government, his synagogue, clubs and organizations, and believed that his life was richer for it. Staying with the group meant that my life would always have meaning and I’d never walk alone.
DON’T DO AS I DO, DO AS I SAY. As soon as I learned the meaning of the word hypocrite, I pointed fingers. Now I know differently. He was really trying to teach me that he’d made mistakes and developed bad habits, but he hoped I was stronger and smarter than him. Surely I could strive to do better, or at least not make the same mistakes.
DO FOR YOUR PARENTS SO THAT ONE DAY YOUR CHILDREN WILL DO FOR YOU. Every time I showed up in Sarasota to help my parents, my dad reminded me that my kids were watching and learning. He was right. My children are as devoted to me and my husband as we could ever ask, and I’m certain it has to do with the example we set.
CONFIDENCE IS THAT FEELING YOU HAVE RIGHT BEFORE YOU UNDERSTAND THE PROBLEM. This made me laugh because it was true, thought it wasn’t meant to discourage me. It was more about accepting that we are not perfect and that getting clarity takes time. He also never wanted me to get so comfortable in a role that I took my eye off the ball. It was always better to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.
NEVER WRAP ON THE DOOR WITH A RUBBER SPONGE. My father was a big believer in chasing dreams and creating opportunities. When I’d start a new job, he’d ask when I was leaving and what I planned to do next. If I was elected president of an organization, he’d ask if I was grooming my successor. If I was struggling with my writing, or an agent, or a deal, he’d urge me to push for what I felt I deserved, and not fear banging the door down to get it.
IF YOU LOVE WHAT YOU DO, YOU’LL NEVER WORK A DAY IN YOUR LIFE. With this philosophy, I left the corporate world and a steady paycheck for the uncertain writer’s life. Or what my husband calls the world’s most expensive hobby (that’s for another post). But once I discovered that nothing satisfied me more, or intrigued me more, or gave me more hope and happiness than writing novels, I had to follow my father’s advice. Yes, a passion can take you down a difficult path, but it will never feel like work.
Over the past few years, I have taken great solace knowing that he left a great legacy- not money- but something better. Valuable lessons that are as relevant today as they were when I first learned them. Not surprisingly, that was another one of his favorite expressions. “What I’m telling you today will be just as true tomorrow.”
Teach your children well, indeed.