May 23rd

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Joan Collins. Drew Carey. Rosemary Clooney. Douglas Fairbanks. Artie Shaw. And of course Nicole Jaffey, the voice of Velma on Scooby Doo.

All shared a birthday with my dad. Tomorrow he would have been ninety-two. 

King Philip the First of France and hypnotist Friedrich Mesmer. In fact, when I look at the list of people who shared Dad’s birthday—May 23rd—I really am mesmerized.

Franz Kline. Scatman Crothers. John Newcombe, who I once played tennis with on the courts at Timber Point on Long Island when he was out there practicing for the US Open. He showed me how to hold my racket.

It is the 143rd day of the year, making Dad a Gemini, and is World Turtle Day, which might be the coolest fact I uncovered. It is also National Taffy Day as well as World Colitis Day. And Dad’s “Birth Flower” is Lily of the Valley, which represents “humility”; perfect for such a humble man.

Those who died on the day of dad’s birth (though not the year) include John D Rockefeller, Kit Carson and Clyde Barrow; Bonnie is not listed, though I know she shared the barrage of bullets that day.

On May 23rd Joan of Arc was captured and sold, the Netherlands declared its independence from Spain, and Captain Kidd was hanged. Ben Franklin invented the bifocals and the New York Public Library was dedicated by Taft in 1911. On Dad’s 40th birthday, “Help me Rhonda” hit number one, and on his 54th birthday “We are Family” was certified platinum. On some May 23rd or another, the first Preakness was won, Joe DiMaggio hit three home runs, and Colin Wilson rode a surfboard 294 miles. Virginia succeeded from the Union on this day just two years to the day before Stonewall Jackson took Front Royal. On May 23rd in 1883 there was the first—and only—baseball game between one armed and one legged players, and William Love broke ground on his famous canal near Lockport, New York.  

And just three years to the day before Dad’s birth, Walt Disney incorporated his first motion picture company, “Laugh-O-Gram Films.” Just after Dad’s 50th birthday he and I walked through Walt Disney’s park in Anaheim and felt ill at a theater-in-the-round which made flying in a jet through Niagara Falls seem real. We held the bar in front of the row where we stood, but we still wobbled out with a loss of appetite. That was a great day. And about ten years earlier he brought me to Jolly Rogers, a small amusement park in Commack, Long Island, and we enjoyed ourselves even though I was too short for some of the rides.

On his sixtieth birthday we had a surprise party in the Virginia Beach home where my siblings and I all flew in to celebrate. He thought I was going whale-watching that weekend with friends in New England where I lived and when he saw me he almost seemed disappointed: He loved—absolutely loved—the idea I was going whale watching. A few years later he and I did just that off the Virginia coast and watched a humpback breach the water. That was a great day.

On Dad’s 90th we all went to Ruth’s Chris and Dad was in his glory with his favorite soup and steak. I had scallops and my son had a lot of alcohol not realizing the “Ruth’s Chris Coffee” wasn’t so much “coffee” as it was alcohol and he really enjoyed himself. Like we all did at that sixtieth surprise party when our mom’s brother Bob couldn’t make it so he sent a scantily clad woman to sing happy birthday. 

One thing is certain, we always—always—found time to enjoy the passing of time, with family, by ourselves, whenever we could. He made certain of that. I don’t need Google searches to discover significant events. My entire life is laced with significant events. Growing up it was golf with Dad and my brother at Timber Point, baseball games, and the five of us at quiet, low-lit restaurants where he warned us not to fill in on bread and crackers. In my teens I wanted to use his car so I’d drop him off at a local shopping center for him to catch a ride with a co-worker, but not before we stopped each time at Dunkin’ Donuts where he would buy me juice and a donut while he had coffee.

When my son was young we’d “run into him” at the mall, and years later I’d stop at a different shopping center where Dad liked to stretch his legs, and I walked with him, and we sat and talked. During those times every Tuesday we had Scotch at night, and once every three weeks or so my son and I would drive down and the three of us would go out to lunch, usually at the beach and usually he had oysters and beer, but it never seemed “usual.” Sometimes my brother joined us when he was in town and then we all laughed all afternoon.

After Dad retired but before Mom did, he and I went out to lunch about once a week—just him and me—trying different places.

My calendar is covered with significant dates.

Like the time Dad dropped me off at college and the entire drive up we talked about family in Brooklyn when he was growing up. That was a great day. Or when I used to travel throughout the country, especially out west in Arizona, and I could call him for free at his 800 number, and he always loved to hear what I was doing and where I was headed.

Or when Mom and Dad would come to my house and we’d sit on the porch. Or when he read one of my books and, with his sharp sense of humor, told me he didn’t get past page 46, so I read the page and found the line “years before my own aging father was born.” We all laughed hard. Or how we would always share books by John Grisham and talk about them, or how I discovered one of the last things he ever read, maybe the very last thing other than a newspaper he ever read was my essay, “Instructions for Walking with an Old Man at the Mall,” and he liked it. We had Scotch that night.

Or when my sister told him she was cancer free.

Or when he and my brother watched Notre Dame beat USC.

Or that last lucid conversation, that Thursday morning.

You can’t put the most important dates on a timeline; they exist in soft breezes on cool mornings or hazy evenings over Chivas Regal; they lie between holidays and celebrations when having a beer and a sandwich after a round of golf with Dad, my brother and my son. The important moments mark themselves in visuals of him watching golf on television, his hands folded before him, his gentle “tsk tsk” when someone missed an easy putt. Dad carving the turkey. Dad barbequing link sausages or steaks. Dad reading the newspaper on weekend mornings. He was old school; he was part of the “greatest generation,” and from where I stand, they earned the moniker.

Happy Birthday Dad. You made every day significant.

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