This is an expanded version of what I said at my father’s funeral. He passed away on March 2, 2020 at the age of 89. May his memory be a blessing.
My dad never wore his heart on his sleeve. I can’t help but do so today. So Dad, forgive me.
He was an extraordinary man who acted like an ordinary one.
There wasn’t a pretentious bone in his body.
Yesterday, a friend who heard that my dad had passed away told me he was larger than life. Yes he was. We could tell stories about him for hours. And we often did.
He himself was the consummate storyteller. Years ago, he told me the phrase he wanted on his tombstone:
His heart was full of stories
He got that one so right.
He wrote hundreds and hundreds of stories on Jewish themes, sports, daily life, his children and grandchildren. They appeared in publications all over the world. The New York Times. The Wall Street Journal, the Reader’s Digest, the Forward, Hadassah. You can read some of them here. We published some of the best of them for him here for his 75th birthday. He took to heart the advice of the poet Dylan Thomas who encouraged us to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Dad was writing and publishing stories at the age of 89.
But he didn’t just write stories. He wanted to be a poet — he would tell me his goals were modest — he didn’t aspire to be at the level of Emily Dickenson — who he adored — or Robert Frost say, or Edna St Vincent Millay (who he called Edna St Vincent HOORAY!) but maybe someone like oh I don’t know, James Dickey. A “minor American poet” was how Dad described his goal.
He told me “It’s not fair — I have the heart and soul of a poet but God didn’t give me enough talent.”
He wrote poems anyway. Song lyrics. He was always trying to get someone in Nashville to work with him.
How my father could dream. He loved to quote Robert Browning — oh that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for? So in 1985, he sent his lyrics to Stephen Sondheim. Dad cherished Sondheim’s rejection letter — signed “Steve Sondheim” — explaining that he didn’t look at lyrics from strangers for legal reasons.
My dad wrote a children’s book called Oodles of Noodles. One of his grand-daughters illustrated it.
He even wrote what he called a fight song for his synagogue, set to a melody he improvised.
ETZ CHAYIM — it’s a heckuva shul.
ETZ CHAYIM — it’s a heckuva shul.
It’s got latkes and chochkes and kiddush, too
A wonderful place to be a Jew
ETZ CHAYIM — it’s a heckuva shul
Or something like that. The middle part varied depending on his mood and what struck his fancy. I mainly remember the “heckuva shul” line which he would sing with great relish.
His superb ability to communicate was part of the secret sauce that made him successful as a non-STEM person in the STEM world of managing computer programmers on missile defense projects that was his day job.
And right now I can hear him saying “SECRET SAUCE? No one’s going to know what that means. Say it more simply!” He was and will always be the reader over my shoulder, encouraging, critiquing, offering advice.
But there was one thing he loved more than words.
On a Saturday night in 1947 in Memphis, Tennessee at a dance at Beth El Emeth synagogue, a 17 year old named Ted Roberts asked a 15 year old named Shirley Goldberger for a dance. The rest is history. Four years later, they were married, a dance that lasted for 69 sweet years, years where his love for his wife burned fiercely without flagging. Just last month he referred to her as his bride.
At a party, someone once asked him: How did someone like you ever get a saint like Shirley to agree to marry you?
Without smiling, he dead-panned: I have a lot of money.
That certainly wasn’t true in 1951. His family didn’t have a lot of money. His father sold bedspreads, linoleums, lamps, and other household items door-to-door in Memphis.
Eventually, my dad had what he thought of as enough money. He used to tell me that his measure of success was supporting his family and staying out of jail.
He and my mom created the incredible home that nurtured all of us and in turn, our children, too.
He was an incredible father. He was an incredible teacher. Keep your eyes open he would tell us when we’d travel.
He liked to say: In families, love flows downhill.
And did it ever. Not by declarations of love that he usually found cloying and that he disdained, but through the time he gave his children and the love he showed, but rarely proclaimed. We felt that love beyond words.
And what a grandfather he was.
He turned his sit-down lawnmower into an amusement park ride, putting a grandchild on his lap and letting them steer it around the yard. He’d make homemade waffles and lemonade.
He would take the grandchildren fossil hunting. He came to know the kind of rocks and hillside that could yield the imprint of a shell in a stone and maybe something grander. My daughter wonders if he planted them. Of course not, I reassured her. But he would have if he could have. That would have been so Dad.
He loved sending his children and grandchildren letters. With little presents and goodies. He’d send his grandkids a cicada in a cylindrical pill container. He’d find a dead frog that had been run over in the street, peel it off the asphalt, tape the corpse to a piece of paper and send it to one of the grandkids — look at this! Isn’t it interesting?
Long before photoshop he’d cut out a photo of one of the grandchildren, put it on the head of someone in the Huntsville Times sports section who’d caught a big fish in the Tennessee River, and then mail the photo to the grandchild. Congratulations, he’d write, I didn’t know you were so good at fishing.
When he came to visit us, my kids followed him around the house like he was the Pied Piper. Papa — tell me a story! Tell me a story! Tell me a story! And so he would tell them a story. And then another. And another. All from his fertile imagination and eager heart.
But he did more than tell (and write) stories. He created imaginary worlds for children and adults to inhabit. They were essentially comedy routines that began seriously but eventually the listeners figured out the game he was playing and riffed on the story going forward in a long form improv routine. To paraphrase the short story writer Saki in his brilliant story, “The Open Window,” a story my dad loved: romance at short notice was my dad’s specialty.
So Dad would tell the grandchildren a story about the international criminal mastermind, McGillicuddy. McGillicuddy often wore a green shirt, my dad would explain. When my dad was out with the grandkids, a man in a green shirt would provoke conspiratorial glee among the children. Could that be McGillicuddy? They would analyze the man in the green shirt’s actions, weighing the possibility that he was on some nefarious mission.
Or a richer story for adults. Years ago, at an October meeting, he told his staff that their Christmas present this year was going to be hand-crafted cuckoo clocks from the Black Forest in Germany. A few weeks later, he told the staff that the cuckoo clocks had been completed and were being put into special protective crates for shipping. The next week, Dad informed the staff that the clocks had safely arrived in a French port via a railroad car dedicated to precious and fragile goods.
Somewhere along the way, the staff would come to understand that the clocks were just a figment of my dad’s imagination. And that the whole thing was just an exercise in improvisation. I’m sure that the members of the staff with a sense of humor would press my dad for details about the clocks — which type of wood were they made from — what was the scene on the clock — how did it work, and so on.
As Christmas approached, my dad would mournfully assemble the staff and tell them that alas, a storm in the North Atlantic had sunk the cargo ship carrying the clocks. By then, everyone understood the whole thing was an elaborate fantasy that created an opportunity for camaraderie and laughter. My memory was that the next year would bring a different extravagant and imaginary gift. Everyone would be in on the joke from the beginning while pretending it was real.
People loved my dad. But he was a complicated man. On the surface he wore the mask of a clown and sometimes he was the gentle prankster who verbally winked while promising hand-made cuckoo clocks from the Black Forest. But he was like Pagliacci, the clown from the opera who had a broken heart beneath the painted smile. With Dad, something deeper lay beneath the surface.
He owned thousands of books and he had read most of them. His knowledge of European history from 1900 to 1950 was like a professor’s but he followed no intellectual fads and wouldn’t know where to find them. He didn’t read the New York Review of Books and for most of his life, there was no Goodreads or Amazon reviews to guide him. He read books that interested him, accepting and rejecting ideas based on his reading. So many of my friends treasured his advice and sought his insights into world events.
His rabbi in Alabama said that he combined the curiosity of a child with the wisdom of a sage. That’s exactly right. Everything interested him. And he drank deep from the spring of knowledge. History, poetry, opera, horticulture, diplomacy, Judaism, Christianity — all interested him endlessly.
My dad was a contrarian, a skeptic, someone who had little respect for so-called conventional wisdom. He did not believe you should drink eight glasses of water every day. He did not believe breakfast is the most important meal of the day. He did not believe economics, the field I chose to study, was anything like a science.
When I was younger, I’d argue with him. And oh how we’d argue. But Dad, you were right about all of those. Even economics. Maybe especially economics. Dad, please forgive me for when I was too harsh in my disagreement.
He told me years and years ago, that Judaism and Christianity would come closer together with time. I thought he was crazy. But when I read about the Christians who hold passover seders and build sukkot, and who sign Jewish wedding contracts because they want to affirm the Jewish origins of their Christianity, I realized that Dad was on to something.
To say he was unconventional doesn’t begin to cover it. He rode a bike into his 80s and never wore a helmet. He liked the feeling of the wind in his hair, even when there wasn’t much of it left. He usually ignored your birthday. He preferred spontaneous presents when they were unexpected.
He said it was good to walk barefoot through the grass. Yes, there were snakes in the world, but you’ve got to feel the grass between your toes.
One time he drove my mom to a party out in the country on a winter’s night when the weather forecast was ominous. The plan was for her to get a ride home when the party was over. He would go home and make progress on whatever book he was reading at the time. By the time they arrived at the party, the weather was so bad that he realized it wasn’t safe to drive home. So he went into the party and stayed a couple of hours. He had a great time.
In his pajamas and slippers.
That was my father. He rarely (never?) cared what others thought of him. He was the original cat that walked by himself. I think that’s part of the reason he liked cats so much. He identified with their unwillingness to curry favor with their owners.
My dad, like Robert Frost, had a lover’s quarrel with the world. And with many things. Especially Judaism. He studied the Hebrew Bible endlessly finding new meaning, new puzzles, new questions. Mostly questions. He loved rabbis so he could learn things but also to give them a hard time from time to time.
His soul ran deep. He saw the Divine in the everyday. He loved to tell me that if you’re looking for God, observe the cat. Look at how the mama cat takes care of its kittens, how it nurses, and how it will hide the kittens if she feels there is danger. We call that instinct. For my dad that was just a word to describe a mystery that enchanted him. Or a fig tree. That the fig is pollinated by a special breed of wasp he found especially satisfying.
When one of his cats would die, Dad would bury it under the fig tree. When my children would visit him, he would show them the fig tree and how it was flourishing — “That’s Queenie’s doing” he’d tell them.
One of his best stories was about Amos Goodheart, a fable about a man the king sends out on a journey to a faraway land with the proviso that he can only take with him that which cannot be carried.
It’s a long journey and the path uncertain. Amos is frightened.
What can he take that cannot be carried?
It’s the journey that all of us must take.
And Amos discovers the one thing we can take on that journey which cannot be carried — our good deeds. The voices of those who love Amos, the people he has taken care of and nurtured through kindness, their voices rise up from the deep and bring him home.
My dad is Amos Goodheart. The king has sent him on a journey, but I am sure he will find his way home, carried by his good deeds.
What were my dad’s good deeds?
When you think of someone who does good in the world, you might think of someone who gives to the Red Cross or the Jewish Federation. Someone who volunteers. Someone who is an activist for some cause. Someone who visits the sick in the hospital. Someone who has a loving demeanor and can comfort a friend.
My dad did send checks to family members in need. But he gave very little money to institutions. He taught Bar and Bat Mitzvah lessons to every kid in his synagogue for 35 years, without pay. But he was never on the board or involved in the day-to-day life of the institution. My mom was active in the synagogue’s sisterhood. My dad preferred to stay home and read.
In his late 80s, my dad did his first real volunteering, serving the free coffee in the lobby in the cancer institute that had taken care of him when he had had cancer. To amuse himself and to amuse the coffee drinkers, when he’d hand out the coffee he’d say things like “this one’s on me.” Or “this one’s on the house.” Or “special today — two for one!” Or “put it on my tab.” He loved his coffee job. But it was only something he found late in life. He didn’t like visiting the sick. He hated funerals. He hated public displays of emotion.
He was an introvert and even something of a misanthrope. He did not have the demeanor of my mom, who exudes love and goodness. Everyone loved my dad but to be honest, and I think he would acknowledge this, he was not lovable in the usual sense that people use the term — someone who always has a kind word for everyone or a sparkle in their eye. My dad did have that sparkle, but it was mischievous rather than a charismatic gaze that drew people to him.
So what were my dad’s good deeds?
My dad gave his family the gift of time.
It’s not the easiest gift to give. There’s nothing grand about it. No glory. No public acclaim. There’s no plaque honoring the Amos Goodhearts who build a family through the loving gift of time. It’s a gift that accumulates slowly over the years, taking shape though the steady gift of attention and devotion.
When you think of someone being good to their family, you might think of the parent who is at every soccer game, who is always there with a shoulder to cry on, who advocates for their kid at school, who sends the kids to summer camp, who takes their kid to the museum.
My dad pitched to me in the backyard but missed most of my little league games. We never went to summer camp. The idea of going to bat for me with my teachers was totally alien to him. He took me fishing many times but he was not a big museum guy. I always sought his advice when I was younger but crying on his shoulder was not his thing. My mom did all the comforting.
Yet somehow, my dad was the best dad in the world and the best grandfather. Being a father was a craft he worked on relentlessly.
The letters he wrote us before email and when long-distance phone calls were expensive. The stories he told us. The poems he read to us. The ideas he shared from all those books he read. The imaginary world he let us inhabit through his deadpan stories. All this required devotion.
Along with my mom’s gifts from her heart that complemented Dad’s — they created our family. That closeness we share is as real as any plaque or inscription honoring those who are more generous in more tangible ways.
My dad never wrote an epic poem or a novel. His masterpiece was the relationships we shared with him and still share with each other. I didn’t appreciate that achievement fully until after he was gone and we took stock of his life.
I sometimes think that my dad really could have been a minor American poet or a more renowned storywriter if he had spent less time with his children and grandchildren. The tradeoff was easy for him.
He chose us.
He had many talents. Being a father was the talent he chose to cultivate. All of us who survive him, his good wife, his children and his grandchildren, are so lucky that we had him for so long.
So If you want to honor my father’s memory, spend more time with your children. Or your parents. Or those you love. For dad, quality time demanded quantity time. It’s harder than it seems. So many things, more tangible, more alluring, with more immediate returns, call for our attention and distract us.
Spend the time. It’s more precious than rubies.
And if you are as lucky and devoted as my father was, perhaps love can defy the odds and flow uphill as it surely did from all of us toward Dad.
One of my Dad’s poems, called Strength, captured how he felt about family, and the bittersweet nature of life. He wrote it for my sister when he was on a business trip and missed the haven for him that was his family:
May our family laughter
Bring warmth and strength
For all the joyless miles
That we must travel
And even though our dreams
Only briefly light the night
And praise comes small and late
At home they think
We’re greater than the great.
Dad, the day has finally come that you must travel separately from those who love you and who you loved so fiercely.
The laughter you gave us, and yes, even the tears, will bring us warmth and strength.
And Dad, as always, you were too modest. Even people outside your home think you’re greater than the great.
Godspeed my father, Avraham ben Baruch Bendit haLevi v’Etta. May flights of angels sing you to your rest.