The Accidental Mensch (1998)

My father (1917–1998) was an ordinary man who lived with extraordinary purpose and humility. Therein lay his greatness.

IN 1993, WHEN I BOUGHT my first home computer, the first thing I did was to set up a folder called “Eulogies.” This was, I think, a very Sam Stregevsky thing to do—to plan ahead for life’s exigencies. Sadly, I never wrote a eulogy for my father, until last night. Nor, for that matter, have I written one for any of the others I have loved. In one sense, it is ironic that I outlined these words in the same spiral book of index cards on which I penned the words that many of you heard just eight days ago, at the bar mitzvah of my son, Nachum. 

In another sense, it is not ironic, but fitting. For Judaism recognizes that you cannot have simchas—happy occasions—without tzuris—misfortune. It is the measure of the man that in my father’s final weeks, his concern was not just, “Will I live to enjoy my grandson’s bar mitzvah?,” but “Will I live long enough that my death will not cast a dark cloud over my grandson and his guests on that day?”

An ordinary man

Sam Stregevsky, 1917-1998

Sam Stregevsky, 1917-1998

My father was no cultural icon, like Princess Diana. There will be no pilgrimages to the house in Bond Hill where he settled with a wife and two small boys in 1958, and contentedly stayed for forty years, while others fled at the first signs of change. Don’t look in the Sunday paper’s magazine section for porcelain dolls in the image of Sam. Don't hold your breath for CD-ROMs claiming to be the definitive multimedia biography. And shortly, as you drive with us to bury his enfeebled body, don’t bother craning your neck for signs of Peter Jennings, CNN, or paparazzi. Indeed, the only trait that my father’s funeral and the Princess’s have in common is a eulogy delivered by a close relative with an inflated notion of his worth and his words.

My father married in 1954, during a time when women, and men, still looked for qualities that would create and sustain a long, happy marriage. It’s a good thing that my father did not have to enter the marriage market today, after the self-absorbed eighties, MTV, hedonistic advertisements, and other diseases of modern culture had altered expectations for the worse. Open today’s Personals section, and you will find ad upon ad from women seeking men who can provide them with world travel, candlelit wining and dining, walks on the beach—in short, the finer things that money, and a life without children, can buy. These women know clearly what they desire. But they have no clue what a wife truly needs. 

No, Sam Stregevsky could not hope to compete in today’s marriage market. He was not a man who could give his loved ones all that money could buy. But few were better at providing them what they needed.

To clarify what I mean by desire versus need, consider the man who walks into the Lazarus department store and begins perusing the wares in Men’s Clothing. All of a sudden, a sultry voice behind him asks, “What is your desire?” Turning around, he beholds a comely saleswoman. Indeed, she is not merely comely; she is arrestingly lovely. “My desire,” he replies, “is to sweep you off your feet, drive you to my penthouse, slow-dance with you as we sip champagne, and make passionate love all night. What I need is a pair of socks.”

The safe provider

In my own courtships, I used to boast to my beaus that I had received the best traits of my mother Ruth and my father Sam. From my mother, I learned that there is no such thing as too much love. That love does not stop with members of one's own family, religion, or race. That wherever we found ourselves—in the grocery store, at a food kitchen for the homeless, or simply walking down the street—life was a series of opportunities to compliment strangers on their hair or their dress; to make others realize, “We’re all in this together.”

From my father, I learned that a family should check the batteries in their smoke detectors. That a family man should carry adequate life insurance. That CPR and the Heimlich maneuver are not arcane skills to be mastered only by paramedics, but vital skills that everyone should learn, and relearn. I recall the day, when I was nine, that my family was driving to Columbus, when we saw in the distance a car engulfed in flames and dense smoke. Without hesitation, my father pulled his car ahead of the burning car, removed a fire extinguisher from our trunk, and ran to extinguish the flames. This was the man I aspired to be.

Somehow, I convinced a few women that I was a man worth loving. But truth be known, they did not love me for my likeness to my father. Not because my gifts, even on Valentine’s Day, were jumper cables, smoke detectors, or reflective triangles for changing a flat tire at night. In short, they loved me not because I was the son of Sam, but because I was the son of Ruth, the wife whose actions bespoke her name and her namesake. As Susan, my son’s mother, has remarked, “I fell in love with Ruth before I fell in love with Paul.” She has quipped that she married me so that Ruth would be her mother-in-law. I dare say, no woman has loved me so that Sam would be her father-in-law.

But when the seas turned stormy, it was the qualities of Sam the Scientist, Sam the Safety Director, that provided the ballast. That allowed his children to go to bed knowing they could count on their basic needs, including love, to be met the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. Knowing that while at times they heard their father, made of flesh and blood, raise his voice against their mother, he would never raise his hand against her. Knowing that when the local cub scout pack needed a scout leader, their father would step in for four years. As we learn in Pirkei Avot—Ethics of the Fathers—“Where there are no men, strive to be a man.”

Meeting needs, quietly

I remembered these words in 1989, when members of the Stregevsky and Gniwesch families pooled their resources to buy my stepdaughter, Chana Sarah, a Macintosh computer for her Bat Mitzvah. Some members would be able to point to something tangible—the keyboard, the color monitor, and say, “I bought her that.” But over many years, my father’s example had taught me that much of what we call love takes place quietly, behind the scenes. And so I bought Chana Sarah the electrical surge protector. The disk defragmenter. The virus killer. Items that would do their work quietly, unseen and largely forgotten.

I realize today that, like the surge protector, my father’s virtues operated in the background, unseen, and unappreciated. During synagog service, as the congregation would chant a prayer, he would listen closely, quietly filling in the harmony on a moment’s notice if the harmony was being taken up by too few voices. He never mentioned that he did so. He didn’t have to.

Family man

His quest for harmony went unnoticed at home, as well, at least by me. For I will tell you today, my father had strengths that I mistook for weaknesses. Like many grown children, I have memories of my parents occasionally bickering, quarreling. My mother, as you know, has a presence that—what can I say?—eclipsed my father’s. And for decades, as I recalled times that my dad yielded to Ruth, I regarded my father as a husband who was weak, unassertive—the Philip Roth stereotype of the modern Jewish husband. 

A few years ago, during a visit home for Thanksgiving, my misgivings came to a head. The kitchen trash can required two hands to use: one to remove the lid, the other to toss in the trash. Moreover, the trash can was so small, my father had to go outside and empty it several times a week, instead of once or twice. “Dad,” I said, “Why do you take this? Be a man! Buy a real trash can and be done with it!”

I'll never forget his reply. “Paul,” he said, “I know you think that I do things Mom’s way out of weakness. But most of the time, I’m doing it for Shalom Bayis—for peace in the house.”

Most of us, I suspect, recall our parents’ disagreements. We do not recall the moments that they made up. How could we? Couples often make up behind closed doors. In Act I of Fiddler On the Roof, we watch Tevye and Golde sparring before their children, and we think, “Oy! What a strife-filled marriage!” Why do they stay together?” Then comes the heartfelt song, “Do You Love Me?” Their children don’t hear it. But we do. And we now understand that Tevye and Golde are just like you and me—neither saints nor rogues. Just human beings.

Unlike Tevya’s children, I was fortunate last week to hear the unseen side of my parents’ relationship. As I stood outside the door of my father’s hospital room, I heard my mother speaking to my dad in endearments I never dreamed she felt. “My darling,” she would say,” “can I lift your head?” “Bubbie, are you comfortable?” Indeed, not until last week did I learn that each night of their marriage, my father wished my mother to sleep with the words, “I love you, Doll.”

And so it was, two nights ago at the hospice, that my father’s life was slipping away. His eyes would not stay open, his breath was labored. Words could scarcely escape his lips. Desperate for a sign that her husband of 44 years was still clinging to life, my mother asked, “Sam, can you just say something? Anything?” His eyes opened, his mouth managed a smile, and he said, “I love you, Doll.”

Sam's tombstone in Cincinnati, Ohio

Sam's tombstone in Cincinnati, Ohio

There is a final lesson we draw from Pirkei Avot, and that is, “It is important to be liked.” If we are not liked, the sages explain, people will dismiss our good deeds rather than emulate them. Some two millennia later, for reasons less noble, Arthur Miller's salesman, Willy Loehman, enjoined his children, “It’s not enough to be liked; a man must be well-liked.”

It’s fair to say that my father was well-liked. Yet he never taught his children, “Be well-liked.” Indeed, he was not a learned man, in the Jewish sense. A working man who, like his second son, was usually exhausted at day’s end, he could not go around quoting from Ethics of the Fathers, or from other books of the Mishnah. No matter: To us, his children and wife, his deeds were his teachings. And as we know from Pirkei Avot, “He whose deeds exceed his learning, his learning will endure.”

In the example he set for two generations of successors, my father’s life will endure. One wife was all that he needed in one lifetime. It is too late for me to learn from that example; G-d willing, it will not be too late for his other children and his grandchildren. Sam and Ruth’s marriage was a long one. As I’ve been learning, it was also a happy one. I suspect that many of us knew little of the love our parents shared, unseen by their children.

Simply Sam

Sadly, most of us know one or more fine Jewish women in their thirties who are still searching for a husband. Searching, I am sure, for someone like my father. Men like him can still be found; ask my sister. But our friend will not find such a man by writing a traditional ad. Perhaps she needs help from us, from those of you like my father and mother, who married when marriage was forever. How then, might we help compose her Personal Ad? Perhaps it would go something like this:

Single, Jewish woman, who understands that we can’t have it all, seeks stable, gentle man who remains calm in times of adversity and stress; who is willing to invent bedtime stories on short notice; who is content with what he has, in marriage and in wealth; whose reach does not exceed his grasp; who is willing to work together to raise children who will not succumb to modern life’s vices; for whom it is reward enough to be the wind beneath my wings.

Such a man was the man we remember today, Sam Stregevsky. Such a man was my father, my teacher by example.

© 1998 Paul Franklin Stregevsky

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