My father would have turned 100 yesterday if he were still alive. Ralph and I celebrated with one of Dad’s favorite dinners: roast beef with truffle sauce, or rather a cheap cut of beef I found on sale and a dab of Croatian truffle olive spread we received as a gift.
“I really miss Charles,” Ralph said several times during the meal. Charles was my father. Ralph brings him up almost every night at dinner. And frequently at other times as well.
“You know I was thinking about your dad today.” “Remember the time your dad….” Charles was a character.” “I really miss old Charles.”
My father was tall and elegant, charismatic if not traditionally handsome (bald but in a Yul Brenner way), an extrovert both charming and domineering. And he definitely had a temper. My siblings would agree that he was a better father to his daughters than to his sons, who were made to feel that they didn’t live up to his standards and expectations. My sister and I adored him, and as a little girl I never doubted that he adored me back, but our relationship grew complicated during my teens as I began to rebel. We never quite regained the closeness.
But if anything redeemed me in my father’s eyes it was Ralph.
Ralph and Charles were soul mates. They came from completely different backgrounds—my father the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant who made good and sent my father to an Ivy League college, Ralph the son of a Pentecostal mother who spoke in tongues and a father raised dirt poor in the hills of Alabama with ancestors who fought in the Civil War and possibly the American Revolution—yet they recognized themselves in each other from their first meeting.
They liked to schmooze as my father called their never-ending conversations about business and politics. Again, it would seem they had little in common. My father ran the business his father had started; Ralph was an entrepreneur just starting his real estate business when they met; my father was a Nixon republican, Ralph still a socialist when I introduced them. Nevertheless they talked and they talked and they talked, often loudly though never angrily, into the wee hours long after my mother and I had gone to bed. No doubt they were fueled by scotch, my father’s drink of choice, which he introduced to Ralph.
After a restaurant dinner with my parents months before Ralph and I ever discussed marriage, Ralph told me that my father had proposed while I was in the ladies room. My father used my absence as an opportunity to tell Ralph he would be very happy to have him as a son-in-law. I am not sure how Ralph responded.
Of course I was pleased that my father approved of my choice in husbands, but I admit I was also a bit jealous that my father clearly enjoyed Ralph’s company more than mine. I can only imagine what my brothers felt witnessing Ralph and Charles’s rapport, a rapport they did not have as Charles’s sons.
As for Ralph—whose own father, a skilled but uneducated mechanic, was a master sergeant when he retired after twenty years in the air force and never quite adapted to life as a civilian—he suddenly had the father he’d always wanted. He listened to my father’s advice with rapt attention. He lapped up the affection and praise.
And when my father died at 73, Ralph mourned much more deeply than he had when his own father died.
Months later, a whippoorwill settle outside our bedroom window at the farm and Ralph and I began to joke that the bird was my father’s reincarnation keeping us up at night . It was a comforting joke, an intimacy I look back to now with nostalgia, but it was a joke, a way to ignore or minimize sorrow.
Since Ralph’s cognitive impairment began, my father has loomed larger in his memory. As I have mentioned before, Ralph only holds onto happy memories these days. And his memories of my father are among his happiest. In the last few years he has decided that my father’s old marble top bar, now in our small formal parlor, is haunted by my father. In a good way of course. At least several times a week he calls me to come into the room because he senses my father’s presence.
Pre-MCI Ralph might have joked about a whippoorwill, but he is completely sincere now. And his belief is NOT a case of dementia. It is a case of affection so strong that it has taken a shape or at least a form. For all the negatives of Alzheimer’s, Ralph’s ability to feel purely is really a joy. And I am a little envious of his relationship with my father all over again.