This Father’s Day, award-winning Seattle author David Laskin writes about his best memories of his brilliant can-do father, which have re-emerged to replace the haunting images of his dad’s illness and death.
My dad never expected much on Father’s Day, and I was happy to oblige. A card, a phone call — most of it spent checking in with my mother before she handed the line to Dad — maybe a shirt or a new pair of pajamas and we’d call it good.
So on that first Father’s Day after his death, the stab of pain came as something of a shock when it hit me that I would never be celebrating this holiday with my dad again.
But then, I was shocked by how I felt about a lot of things after my dad died.
My father, Meyer Laskin, was the son of immigrants and a child of the Depression — circumstances he shared with a large cohort of the Greatest Generation. But Dad stood alone when it came to brainpower. First in his class, both at his large New York City public high school and then at Syracuse University’s College of Forestry — an odd choice for a poor Jewish kid from the Bronx — Dad was quick, sharp, logical, decisive, good looking, resourceful, optimistic, conscientious and superb with numbers.
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In short, a born businessman — and he made the most of his innate talents over the course of a long career, first at a wholesale jewelry and watch business owned by my mother’s family, and later as CEO of a firm that imported licorice root for the manufacture of licorice extract.
Dad was never the most domineering or creative guy in the boardroom — but he was invariably the smartest and the best prepared.
And the most honest. Dad valued honesty above all traits, and it served him well, both in business and in family life. In Meyer Laskin’s book, if you had to win by cheating, lying or boasting, it wasn’t winning.
Dad loved his work, but he was most himself and most alive in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York that he fell in love with while in forestry school. I was 10 the first time we went backpacking.
I still remember watching in awe as my Bronx-born father dammed a trickling stream with stones to create a basin of clear drinking water. At dusk he silently summoned us to observe a deer step out of the woods to sip from his provisional pool.
My father never drank or smoked; he kept his weight down; he exercised frequently; he had long-lived parents. He should have lived forever. But inexplicably, he went into a decline in his early 80s.
There were the inevitable rounds of tests, but for months, the condition remained undiagnosed. Eventually it emerged that his glossopharyngeal nerve, which controls the ability to swallow efficiently, had been damaged as a result of radiation received to shrink a benign tumor. Rather than swallow his food, he was inhaling it into his lungs, which led to severe weight loss and repeated bouts of pneumonia.
The last years were a series of erasures — first the vitality, then the decisiveness, then the sharp memory, then the will to live. Shrunken and struggling for air, he died at the age of 84, in 2010, uncomplaining to the end.
For months after he passed, I was haunted by Dad’s end. But strangely, time has largely blotted out the confused, gasping bedridden patient and given me back my real father. The can-do outdoorsman who dammed that stream, the patient grandfather who constructed a clock of cardboard and wire to teach my oldest daughter how to tell time, the open-minded husband who unhesitatingly backed my mother’s decision to work full time as a physician when her peers were driving carpools and playing bridge, the naturalist who taught me to plant gardens and love trees: that is the father who lives in my memory. Time, which can cruelly obliterate memory, has been kind to me this time around.
By all rights, Dad should have moved to the Pacific Northwest — higher mountains, bigger trees, career opportunities in the timber business. I like to think I’ve transported some of his savvy and resourcefulness out to this mossy corner of the map. I know that the best of what I will pass down to my own kids comes from him.
The love of beauty was never Dad’s strong suit — modern art he dismissed as scribbles, and his idea of literature was The New York Times magazine — but he always savored the view from the top.
This Father’s Day, whether I’m scaling some peak or just out in the yard weeding the tomatoes, I know I’ll have my dad by my side. No halting phone call, no corny card or superfluous present — but Dad and I will be celebrating this day all the same.