How can I cherish having a father if my own dad died when I was just a baby?
My only memories of him were those that I may have imagined from stories my mother told me.
I remember hearing that in the days after my father died, I crawled over to his lookalike brother because I apparently mistook him for my dad.
And since my mother died in my early 20s, before I was old enough to really talk with her as adults about what my father was like, I didn’t know much about him.
Oh, I knew from pictures that Joseph Israel was already bald like me when he died from a heart condition at age 40.
My mom also told me how alike we were in so many other ways. When I started playing basketball in Bayonne’s No. 3 school schoolyard and in the Parks Department, Jewish Community Center and P.A.L leagues, I learned how much my father was also into basketball – especially the Knicks, whom I worshiped.
When I started listening and writing about jazz, it blew my mother away. My father was not only into jazz, he took my mother to some of the places I wrote about, like New York City’s Village Vanguard, where they saw musicians like Thelonious Monk, whom I loved and wrote about.
And I’ll always remember a quiet moment when I was a little boy sitting next to my mother on the couch and she told me that when my father was dying, he assured her that he knew she would take good care of "our son."
But when people asked me what life was like growing up without a father, I said I didn’t really know because I never really knew what it was like to have one.
Yet as I’ve grown older, the telescope of time has allowed me to see things more clearly. I’ve realized just how much I missed not having a dad.
I remember how icky I felt whenever I saw my father’s mother – my grandma Bessie – and she would hug me too tightly and sob as she mourned her son.
I remember one quiet night at sunset, when I was 7 or 8 and playing in my grandparents’ backyard with a friend who also didn’t have a father – Peter Potochny - and we somehow managed to talk about, or acknowledge, our fatherlessness. That created a bond we couldn’t articulate but surely felt.
I remember how simple things that other boys took for granted mattered to me, like not having a real leather baseball glove because my mom bought me a flimsy plastic one at the Bayonne Woolworth’s. She didn’t know better – something a guy surely would have known.
I remember going to a Mets game at Shea Stadium with my friend Johnny Washuta and his dad – and being embarrassed when my mother came along.
And, of course, when Father’s Day rolled around, I couldn’t make a Father’s Day card like the other kids in school made for their dads.
So when my father-in-law, Joe, gave me his real rawhide leather baseball glove a few years ago, it meant more to me than he’ll ever know. That gift – and the love behind it - somehow crystalized what not having a father all these years meant.
And now, at 65, I’ve finally realized how fortunate folks are to be able to celebrate a day to honor and cherish something I never had – a father who loves you.
Happy Father’s Day.