I was driving down Lexington Boulevard in Clark one long-ago day. Coincidentally, my parents lived in the garden apartment complex there, which had become almost an entirely Jewish enclave of retirees. By chance, I saw a man walking down the street in a puff of what looked like cigar smoke. There it was, a thick cloud circling above his head. That man resembled my father strongly, even to the tan winter jacket and strong pace. I knew, however, that it couldn’t be my father, since he no longer smoked endless cigars.
My mother had just given me the day’s positive report, which was that he was still not smoking. He had recovered from a nasty head cold and decided then and there that after many decades of cigar smoking, he would not resume the habit. Mom cheered him on and reported to me often.
As I approached the not-so-young fellow, I jammed on my brakes. He more than resembled my father. He actually was my father. Caught in the act, he stumbled for words, for anything redemptive. He came up with, “Oooh. Don’t tell your mother.” I certainly did tell her!
And from that moment, he truly stopped smoking. He had been caught in this one final self-indulgence and he wanted to wipe the slate clean.
Even after approximately half a century of smoking, my father, Sam, was robustly healthy, ultimately reaching almost 98 well-lived years. The only little things that made him a bit nervous were mice, about which he had a surprising but genuine phobia. He was known to jump on a table to escape the little critters, causing himself great embarrassment if there were witnesses. I am a former elevator-phobe, so I understand the power of phobia.
I once witnessed Dad get stuck in an elevator at our apartment building in Jerusalem. He eventually escaped, after about an hour, and was completely unmoved. It had been no big deal. He had gone down to throw out the garbage and returned cheerily, swinging the empty can, casually stepping out of the repaired elevator, as if it was all routine. I couldn’t understand his calm demeanor at all.
But the mice were another story. He never, in all those otherwise brave years, found them to be adorable. It was Mom who dealt with them, on those few occasions when one of them mistook our home for a little cozy burrow. She would catch them by the tail (which is not an easy feat) and toss them away into the woods or weeds or whatever other place she deemed more appropriate than our home. She never killed them.
But his mouse phobia was Dad’s only major fear, and since there were very rare sightings, he didn’t spend much time dreading the little creatures. In other respects Dad was such a non-worrier that you might even go so far as to say he was too casual. Certainly when it came to car maintenance and tire changes, that description fit him perfectly. Sometimes you could see your reflection in his bald tires.
I have never changed a tire, and at my advanced age it’s unlikely that I ever will. But I do know the drill very well. I’ve seen it many times. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that almost every trip up to Parksville was impacted by a flat tire. It was just a matter of where and when. So there we would all be, after extricating ourselves from the suitcases packed with summer clothes and boxes of kitchen supplies, and finding a leash for Phoebe, or the dog of the day, standing on the side of Route 17, awaiting Dad’s practiced and very facile tire changings. Of course, the very worst of these already pretty bad moments were when there was no spare tire. I cannot, for the life of me, remember what we did on those occasions. Somehow we always managed to reach our destination.
The tire change I remember with the most horror was the one that took place one very dark night on the Pulaski Skyway, which we New Jerseyans know very well. It has no shoulders and is a uniquely menacing place to change a tire. Mom, my sister, Janet, and I hovered in the car for that one, rightfully fearing for our lives, while Pop stood behind the car and used his cane to direct traffic away from Dad. How lucky we were that no one had yet invented the cell phone. Imagine a distracted driver texting in his car on the bridge while we were captive in an old Buick, with no place to go except the deep dark frigid roiling waters of the mighty Passaic River below.
Dad could never attribute his longevity to his medical care. I have no recall of him ever seeing Dr. Brotman, or any of Newark’s other excellent physicians, for any malady whatsoever. The same is true for the rest of the family. Doctors would never have been financially secure if they had depended on us for their livelihoods. An aspirin was the cure to all of our ailments, and we remained healthy for all the years on Aldine Street and in Parksville. Neither Dad nor Mom, nor Pop, ever had any chronic conditions. No diabetes or heart disease or anything else that required doctoring or medicating. This, in spite of the family diet of meat almost every day, featuring chopped liver, substantial quantities of schmaltz, and other high-cholesterol foods that we didn’t want to believe were unhealthy. With today’s more rigorous guidelines, Dad should have been dead many years earlier. Obviously what he didn’t know didn’t hurt him. But in spite of his good fortune and the lack of attention to healthy eating, our family has spawned several new generations, which include quite a few vegans, vegetarians, and pescatarians.
His teeth were also an indicator of his overall fitness, although he hardly ever went to the dentist, even to Charlie, his brother-in-law, who Mom swore was the world’s best dentist. I was with Dad once, when he was already into his mid 90s, at a very rare dental visit in Herzliya. The dentist asked me if he could bring in his associate to see Dad’s mouth. He wanted to show his colleague the full and healthy set of teeth of a man already 95 years old.
Dad had made a vow about driving when he was approaching 70. At 80, he intended to turn in his license and never drive again. Since he had never been in an accident, despite his disdain for directional signals or checking his brakes or tires, we were all very skeptical that he would keep his pledge. He was a safe and careful driver and always enjoyed driving. But Dad was a man of his word (except when it came to cigar smoking), and as his 80th birthday neared, he and Mom, his most loyal supporter, decided to move to Israel, specifically to Herzliya, to be near my sister’s family, which included her husband, two sabra children, and a series of brilliant German shepherds. For their aliyah housing, they chose a two-bedroom apartment in downtown Herzliya, where a car would have been more than unnecessary. It would have been inconvenient. From Rehov Ruppin they were able to walk everywhere. There was a shul nearby where they became active and even an English library. Best of all, the Gorens, my sister’s family, were a few short blocks away. Dad did indeed give up his car and license and never drove again.
Dad used his favorite means of transport in Israel, his feet. He walked everywhere, miles and miles, with never a hat or bottle of water or sunscreen. Of course we have speculated that walking and longevity were connected. A man who walks may be able to eat his chopped liver and live to enjoy it!
Dad was shocked when Mom died before him. He was seven years older than she was and he had always assumed that she would be feeding him chicken soup on his deathbed. That was not what the Master of the World planned. Thus it was Dad who was the nurse and the surviving spouse. He then added the Herzliya Cemetery to his walk schedule and could be found there very often, equipped with a rag and a jar of water to clean the dust-covered stone, as Mom would have wanted it. Years later, he finally joined her.
He also always maintained his sense of wonder. Life and living fascinated him. We would often take him on road trips where he would find little things amazing, and no trip was ever boring or tedious. Even traffic could earn his enthusiasm as he’d say things like, “Look at how many cars Israel has these days. Isn’t that remarkable?”
Except for those rare moments when he encountered a mouse, Dad was inspirational, a man of courage and strength, a faithful and adoring husband, a respectful child and son-in-law, and a devoted, relaxed father who never spent time contemplating what could possibly go wrong. As the years progressed, he became a dearly devoted father-in-law, and a worshipful grandfather and great-grandfather. He always focused on good news and good things, and indeed that’s how his life progressed. I am a believer that a human’s life cannot be evaluated until it’s over. My father had a uniquely wonderful life! May he rest in peace.
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Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!