By Alan D. Abbey
It was simply an unlucky twist of fate that my father and John Lennon died on the same day in 1980. There was no common thread in their lives; in fact, my father disliked most rock and roll music.
While he never kept me from buying or listening to the Beatles, his music remained that of his generation: Big Band jazz and pop/torch singers, from Sinatra to Streisand (who had once served my mother and father Chinese food in some Brooklyn restaurant where she was working), Shirley Bassey to Lena Horne. I have those records now, the actual black vinyl discs they used to place on the “changer” that stacked two or three discs at once.
My father’s death was so unlike Lennon’s, as well. Lennon’s came in a sharp and bright blast from a crazed fan’s handgun; my father’s came after more than 18 months of brain cancer, which ate away at his intelligence, emotions and motor skills.
While Lennon’s death always makes me think of my father’s, other things remind me of his life. But it took years before I could think of his life.
Nowadays, when I think of him – and I think of him often – I can remember the fun and funny moments, the important and sad moments. I even know more about him now than I did then.
I remember several times from my childhood with special clarity. I remember the time he took me out early to go with him and his friends to a softball tournament on Randall’s Island in New York. Then (that would have been about 1966 or 1967), as now, Randall’s Island was a central location for sports in the concrete jungles of New York. We met up with his friends at a diner in downtown Brooklyn, ate eggs or somesuch and headed to the game. I don’t remember anything of the game; I just remember the camaraderie of the guys, and how much that meant to him.
He once took me to his weekly paddleball game. Paddleball is a fast game played with small, hard rubber balls and wooden paddles. It is little known outside New York City. I believe it was at Marine Park, near my junior high school. I must have been 12 or 13 at the time.
I was lazily slapping my Spaldeen against a nearby wall – I was not allowed to play with the dads, and there were no other kids there – when I heard a cry and saw my father doubled over. I ran over to him as he crouched with bent legs and his hands on his knees in obvious distress.
“What happened,” I said in alarm.
“I got hit in the balls,” he said slowly, his breath short.
Many years later, when my parents were in Pennsylvania for the brief year before he became ill, my entire family gathered for an evening out. We went to a restaurant in one of the small cities in which my father co-owned clothing stores. It wasn’t Hazelton, so it must have been Shamokin, Tamaqua, Shenandoah or Pottsville (and I’m not even sure I have Pottsville right). It was before he became ill, and he was getting to know the people and players in these small cities.
He was driving an Electra Buick 225 (a “deuce and a quarter”) in powder blue, with powder blue, crushed velvet upholstery, power windows and probably the first cassette player I had ever seen in a car. By today’s standards it would be considered a pimpmobile. But it suited the flashy, 70s style he grew to prefer (it came along with his permed hair and clear lacquer-polished and manicured fingernails). It was the essence of visible business success.
We all piled into the car and we went to a restaurant where he was already known. For some reason, a true chef – an artist of the kitchen – was running this restaurant in one of these nowhere Pennsylvania coal towns that were deep into their late-20th century decline.
But we ate a 10-course gourmet meal that left us all flat-out satiated, and my father even more satisfied by what he had been able to show us.
Morris and Michael Abbey, c. early 1930s
There is far more to his life, of course, including his childhood in Brooklyn, his friends, his longstanding love affair with my mother, his time in the U.S. Army at Fort Lewis during the Korean conflict and much, much more.
These reminiscences only touch the surface. But they warm and comfort me as his 27th yahrzeit approaches, this year on Dec. 10 (going by the Hebrew date).
– Alan D. Abbey is Editor of In My Heart, former editor of Ynetnews.com and JPost.com and author of “Journey of Hope: They Story of Ilan Ramon, Israel’s First Astronaut”