Once upon a childhood – I might have been 8 or 9 years old – my dad was driving me to a birthday party at my favourite bowling alley. Not far from the entrance, he slowed down to a stop, and made a direct plea:
“I don’t want you drinking any Coca-Cola.”
“Why not?” I asked, undoubtedly rolling my eyes at another parental instruction.
“It’s bad for your teeth,” he replied.
So I stayed away from the Coke, but gorged on hot dogs, french fries and, always the pinnacle of a party chez Rose Bowl Lanes: a multi-layered, sickly sweet, high-octane frosted birthday cake, with pink or blue icing so thick, that I was probably on a sugar high for days. (Funny how my dad hadn’t placed any restrictions on THAT.) (Funny also, how that pretty minor exchange – in the greater scheme of growing up – has stuck to me, after all these years, like the aftertaste of sticky corn syrup.)
Over the years, the scope of his lessons widened.
He taught me to wield a tennis racket like it was an extension of my arm – then he stood on the sidelines while I relentlessly whacked that thing with all my tiny might; probably, unconsciously, having a go at those balls instead of the punching bag I sorely needed.
My dad introduced me to the wonders of nature, his love for wildlife and the excitement of downhill skiing – though, my body, ill-equipped for winter, was overcome with fear and frostbite. Anyway, I fared better on a toboggan, gentler slopes and all.
As a trained architect/engineer, he opened windows and doors to the world, showing me beaches and skyscrapers and architectural marvels; and though he has travelled the globe, and never stepped foot into Brazil, it’s that country’s music that brings him the greatest joy.
My father encouraged me in math, taught me to swim, opened my mind to politics by watching the Watergate hearings on TV during our holidays, and modelled to me the importance of reading the newspaper (I’d rise early for years, just to get my hands on it first).
He taught me the finer points of driving a car – long before I could legally obtain a permit – by hoisting me onto his lap and acclimatizing me to the feel and spin of a steer. (Never mind that, in his later years, he’d balk at some “misplaced” stop signs and glide right through the intersection, as if they did not exist.)
From him, I learned the proper, polite, diplomatic way to write a letter to people in a position of authority – or, quite honestly, if I needed a forgetful or foot-dragging person to take urgent and immediate action.
Until very recently, my dad – by now a grandfather to 4 – loved nothing more than sitting behind the wheel. Road trips, and all the discoveries he made along the way, were his thrill and ultimate form of relaxation. That, paired with a bossa nova tune playing on Sirius.
Then, the pandemic crept into his life, as it did into all of ours. In one fell swoop, my father’s world shrunk. He – and my mother – downshifted, parked their cars, and slipped into deep – though, thankfully, active – hibernation. His daily rituals have been steady: disinfecting surfaces, clocking 2000 steps up and down their hallway; catching rays of Vitamin D on the balcony; gentle exercise with my mother, watching plays or movies on the big screen, reading emails, online dinners with the grandchildren, WhatsApp calls ad nauseum.
Today, eight decades after fleeing the Holocaust with his parents, my dad, resilience his alto forte, remains in *reluctant* isolation. [This morning, after he recounted the minor health blip that sent him briefly to the hospital the previous night (bad timing, dad!), I cajoled him into admitting that he’d made up an excuse of ill-health just to get a whiff and sight of the world beyond his front door.]
Today also, we celebrate his 88th birthday. We’re gonna Zoom this good-hearted dude – a.k.a. Saba Boo – from around the world, light candles, sing songs, play bingo and do the virtual hug thing as best as we can. Though it will be breakfast time in my time zone, I’ll have my friend’s scrumptious, homemade cupcake in hand. Coke will not be served.