By Betty Gordon
© 2016 text and photo. All rights reserved.
When I was elementary-school age, my father and I would often take a leisurely walk around our neighborhood after dinner. Most likely, I would be wearing my Keds or saddle shoes, and be dressed in mismatched shirt and shorts — plaids clashing with stripes — handed down from my older sister.
My dark brown hair was about chin-length, with short, fringy bangs across my forehead. My mother thought this style was the best weapon against my recurring episodes of prickly heat, especially on my neck, in those pre-central-air-conditioning South Florida days.
In my memory, my father would still be wearing his suit trousers, a white short-sleeved shirt, his tie, and flat work shoes, this being the time before the explosion of specialty footwear.
It’s also possible that on some of those balmy 1960s evenings, he would be clad in the groan-inducing plaid shorts he favored, an open-necked shirt or T-shirt, and sneakers.
We would tread the pink-tinged sidewalk around our block in Coral Gables, passing shamrock-green, neatly trimmed lawns; swaying coconut palm trees; red-, yellow- and pink-blooming hibiscus bushes; and bougainvillea trees of muted purple, orange and fuchsia.
As we walked, my dad and I would hold hands, and he would give me words to spell. I could read by the time I was 4, and I was allowed to check books out of the school library in first grade, so I could spell words harder than “dog,” “cat,” and the like.
I was not much older than 6 or 7, and I can’t remember any one specific word that I had either mastered or that repeatedly stumped me. Perhaps I was working on gardenia, its fragrant bushes also amply represented in our neighborhood, or mango, like the tropical fruit tree we had growing in our side yard.
We’d walk for at least a half-hour, though at that age my conception of passing time wasn’t sharp. In addition to being educational, this was also my special time with my father. He was a young oral surgeon in his early 30s, still building his practice, with a wife and young family, living the suburban life in post-World War II America.
Many nights after dinner he would be off to dental association or other meetings, so I treasured our opportunities for father-daughter bonding. I think my curly-haired sister may have also been along on some of these walks, but not my brother, who at five years younger than me, was barely toddling.
We probably also talked about his family, where he grew up in northern New Jersey and other topics. I was absorbing legend and lore, but my childhood mind wasn’t thinking much about my father in his formative years as a boy, a son and, too soon, a teenager serving his country. To me, he was just Dad.
My two favorite pictures of my father reside on my living room mantel. Both are black-and-white photographs.
In the first, he’s sitting on a bench with his twin brother, in what looks like a studio portrait. They’re maybe 4 or 5 years old. They are adorable in matching suits, short pants and tucked-in ties. My father’s grin looks particularly impish.
In the second, he’s in his Army Air Corps uniform, standing in front of barracks at Aloe Army Air Field in Victoria, Texas, sometime in 1944.
He’s smiling, slim and handsome in his khakis, his garrison cap covering his already-balding head. He’s squinting into the sun, and there’s something about the grin that says: “The world is my oyster.”
This picture only came to light two years ago. I knew, of course, that my father had been in the service in World War II, like millions of other young men.
But it wasn’t until I took possession of his 400-plus letters to his teenage sweetheart, the woman who was to become my mother, that I found the negative for this photo and several others, and a treasure-trove of old pictures.
These letters, and about 200 more that my mother wrote, form the basis for my book, “Fondly with All My Affection: A World War II Love Story.”
Throughout my life, my father and I had a close bond. There was never an awkward period, or a time when we’d fallen out. I knew him as a kind, compassionate man, a skilled surgeon and a person generous with his time and money.
We’d talk often, sometimes several times a week. The conversations were generally brief, and he frequently asked me what book I was reading. He was always looking to stimulate his inquisitive mind.
Sometimes he called to get help on the pop-culture clues needed to solve the New York Times crossword puzzle, which he worked daily. Obscure, four-letter words with three vowels he could handle. The names or genres of chart-topping music artists and celebrities … not so much. But knowing them were essential to my job as a newspaper copy editor and writer, so he had a built-in supplier of trivia answers.
This week marks the 10th anniversary of my father’s death. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of him.