The Gifts of My Father
In the end, it's all about breathing, isn't it. A not terribly unexpected middle of the night call on the 30th of June from a nurse at Brighton Gardens let me know my 94-year old father had "no respiration."
Almost two months now, reflecting on how best to honor his life, I'm realizing it's through how I live and what I value that I can best share my father's gifts.
Like many only children, I am a mix of both parents' talents and characters. That's becoming more and more a mantle of choice now that I'm officially an orphan.
Never known as an outdoorsman (in fact, rarely seen outside his 3,000 book-lined study, and the only 'sport' I ever witnessed was mowing the lawn) my father always did appreciate nature, or more to the point, the critters he encountered.
He could spend hours reasoning with a spider, nursing a wounded bird back to health, hand-tweezering fleas off one of the family's many cats, or counting the chipmunks that camped out in the tool shed.
Not especially fond of mice, however, the attic was generally well-outfitted with traps. But they got the last laugh when my dad stopped driving (thankfully) at 90. Sneaking out, a family of seven made themselves a new, much safer home in the carburator of a stationary Saab. With only 4,000 miles on a 10-year old car, the new owner didn't flinch when he lifted the hood.
And earlier this year, he followed the daily activities of Freedom and Liberty on DC's Live Eagle Cam with the enthusiam of a spectator at an Olympic sport. But when it took almost three months for them to leave the nest, he observed dryly, "Their parents must be very disappointed."
For more than three decades he taught history and political science at Gallaudet University, penned a thesis on the French Revoution, wrote numerous historical articles and erotica (unpublished), and was a sign language interpreter and translator for the State Department. But it was the 50's and 60's and, as in most family TV shows, dads were generally seen grabbing a briefcase and hat as they kissed their apron-clad wives good bye at the door. It was more or less like that. Didn't much matter what he did for a living. Dinner was at 6.
He was an avid stamp collector, and frankly, a collector of almost everything else as nothing was ever thrown away without deep regret. Always generous with me but never wasteful.
He taught me how to recite poetry at six, play chess, take photographs the painfully slow old-fashioned way with a light meter and waiting two weeks for developed film to arrive in the mail.
He taught me to say what I mean and do what I say.
He showed me the beauty of books and instilled an admiration for the most gifted of storytellers. With a nod to their place in history, he shared a love of great art and music. Especially music. Opera and most especially Giuseppe Verdi.
And from the moment he landed in New York City at age 16 with his parents from Nazi Germany, my father was proud to be an American. Having learned English at school in Hannover, he landed a job within two weeks and was, from that point on, self-reliant.
For a man whose childhood preferences and habits accompanied him throughout a long life, how readily he embraced his adopted homeland always impressed me.
But Kurt Beermann's greatest gift was choosing Rita Baumgarten to be my mother.