Friday, June 08, 2007
He was born in Buenos Aires in 1928, the son of an immigrant tailor. Only eight years before his birth, his family had moved to Argentina from a small town in the border area between Russia and Poland, motivated by local pogroms against Jews. And while his economic circumstances growing up were exceedingly modest, he grew up extraordinarily wealthy in human capital. The arc and distance he and his brothers travelled in terms of achievement and accomplishment reflected in part that store of capital.
While his oldest brother would go on to become a nationally recognized professional comedian (he reminded me of Jackie Gleason, except his English was better), and his middle brother would opt out of school to start his own business -- which is today a very large commercial success managed by my cousins -- my father was the scholar. And probably a grind. He went to medical school at 16 and was a surgeon at 23. One interesting aside -- Che Guevara, a rather disappointing and failed revolutionary, was a medical school classmate of my father.
There he met my mom, who was also studying to be a physician. She would eventually become a gynecologist specializing in infertility. Together, upon her graduation from the University of Buenos Aires and their marriage in 1954, they ventured to the United States. It was not originally intended that they would stay here permanently. But when they attempted to return to Buenos Aires in 1959, they found the only way to join the staff of the prominent hospitals was to become a member of the Peronist Party. This my father in particular found repugnant, and it caused him to become the adventurous and optimistic immigrant in pursuit of the American dream.
Their initial journey in the US started at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx in 1954 and ended in Baltimore. In between were spells in Tucson, Wichita and Boston. My Dad was especially proud of his fellowship in surgery at the Lahey Clinic. His mentor there was notable (at least to me) because he was the source of my name (and I don't mean Cardinal).
As a father, ours was a traditionalist. That meant he ruled the roost, and he was very tough, demanding and occasionally demeaning. As my brother said, our dinner table questioning was intended to promote learning and valued intelligence, but could occasionally make you feel pretty stupid. And that was okay. Scholarship, performance, achievement, contribution, production, responsibility and integrity were the values my dad drilled into us, every day. It was not always easy to be our dad's sons. But we absorbed the lessons. And as you grow older, you appreciate them more and more, and you understand the source of the lessons better and better. He was trying to teach us how to be good men because he loved us and wanted the best for us.
Dad was a bit of a Renaissance man. Though he was a surgeon, he was passionate about art, music, history, world affairs and travel. He was unusual in that he genuinely knew a lot about a lot. He prized debate and argument. He forced us into it, goaded us into it. He had capitalism in his brain, but socialism in his heart, and -- especially as I got older -- this prompted high volume debate and disagreement. That was how we spent our time. We talked about what was going on, or had gone on, in the world and usually argued about it.
Whereas my brother shared many of the same interests my father did -- think opera, symphony, silver, crystal and porcelain -- I think I mystified my old man. I was not much interested in these old world European things. I was a first generation American sports fanatic. I wanted to go to boarding school, sleepaway camp, hang out with my friends, chase girls. And to his credit, as long as my grades were good, he let me do my thing. I came to appreciate and enjoy many of the things he did over time, but early on I rejected the old world interests. Though I spoke Spanish before English, by the time I was five, I would only speak English. Only later would I remaster the language. Since I did pay attention to the same priorities that he cared for, he ultimately embraced my "Americanism," though even until last week it was occasionally bewildering to him. That makes me laugh a bit, and it made him laugh too.
Our father was without question an irascible character, a "piece of work," and he had a profound sense of integrity. Mom died in 1984, and her mother had been living with us at that time for about 5 years. For the next 14 years after our mother's passing, our father continued to care for our grandmother, his mother-in-law, often nursing her through illness and brilliantly keeping her out of the hospital until her passing at 95 years of age. I've often thought that this sense of commitment and honor was a spectacular reflection of his integrity.
Over the last few years, he began to suffer the indignities of aging, and acquired a particularly difficult condition which proved to be terminal. Naturally, since our Dad was a control-oriented person, he didn't tell us about it. In his mind, this assured that he would live his life as he chose. This meant residing in Buenos Aires much of the time, with quarterly visits to see us and his five grandchildren. The trips were tough on him. On this last one, he was especially uncomfortable -- but he insisted on coming quickly despite his discomfort. We later came to understand why -- he wanted to be with us. In the end, he trusted our judgment and gave us responsibility for him, something of which we are proud.
We love you Dad. Rest in peace.
What a wonderful post, CP. Your father was obviously part of a long tradition in your family of both accomplishment and humanity. It sounds as though he led a wonderful life, when all was said and done.
I'm a little confused by one thing.
"Only eight years before his birth, his family had moved to Argentina from a small town in the border area between Russia and Poland, motivated by local pogroms against Jews."
Wasn't Argentina the nation which gave solace to Nazi war criminals? Why in the world would Jewish refugees choose Argentina as a new home?
Thanks Guys, I appreciate it.
DF - my father's family moved there in 1920, long before escaping nazi's landed in Latin America. Argentina was 1 of 3 or 4 very attractive alternatives to escaping Jews from Europe at the time. The US was the first; Argentina and Brazil were popular; and of course there was Mandate Palestine. The US was pretty restrictive in those days and Argentina wasn't.
This was beautifully written, CP. Your father would have been proud.
I read it several days ago, but am afraid I was too choked up to think of anything to say. Wanted to rectify that omission.
Please accept my condolences.
I came here from Cassandra's blog. My condolences to you and your family.
I will say that having a father that interacts with you and involves you in life is far preferable to a father that's absent or disinclined to participate in his children's lives.
Your father's memory is to be honoured.