Of Windbreakers and Dads: A Survival Tale
When a trip to Sears on a Saturday reframes the past
By Ed Goldman
My older brothers and I used to wonder what it would be like if our mom died before our dad. We agreed that unlike our resilient and social mom, (who would outlive him by about 30 years), our dad would be a little old man shuffling around a Sears store on a Saturday, wearing his tan London Fog windbreaker (with red plaid lining and cigarette holes), dark blue chinos and avocado green deck shoes. He wasn’t exactly fashion-forward.
We figured he’d be scooped up by one of the widowed or divorced women in his temple in short order. After all, he was reserved but chivalrous, had a commanding bass voice and was very handy around the house.
Robert Goldman. Painting by Edgy.
But as happens in the majority of long marriages, the husband died first, at 60—leaving our mom, still vivacious at 58, to play the lower-middle-class, Jewish-community version of the comic operetta, The Merry Widow.
Her suitors were all widowers, all fairly hopeless without their wives. One, whose name it wouldn’t be fair to share so we’ll call him Manny, was a heart patient with a nasal voice who began uttering a sentence in 1972 and was heading for the goal line when he began courting my mom in mid-1976.
Manny would walk to my mom’s house each afternoon around 3 p.m.—a half-mile trek each way—because it was part of his cardiac rehab program. Once at my mom’s, however, if she offered him a slice of pie and a cup of instant Folger’s Crystals coffee, he’d dashingly cast aside his regimen. He really liked pie. But: “A smaller slice, Betty,” he’d say to her, like Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth in “The Godfather Part II” but with a whine and no immediate plans to take over Havana.
Early the next year my mom, who lived in Southern California, called me to both seek my blessing and break her silence on an important matter: she’d been seeing a man for a few months and they were contemplating co-habitation as a prelude to marriage. “Would it upset you very much, Edward,” she asked, “knowing how much you loved your dad?”
The call caught me off-guard and all I could blurt was, “It isn’t Manny, is it?!”
She burst out laughing and said no, of course not. It was Dan Cohen, a dark, handsome man (and like my dad, a retired New York City firefighter) who with his late wife Tess, a weekend painter, had been friends with my folks. Tess and my dad had died of cancer within a few months of each other.
I was sincerely happy for my mom, but that simple remark belies how selfish I was: with someone in her life to mutually share and care for, I was relieved of a major stressor in my own.
In later years, after sweet Dan succumbed to a stroke in his early 80s and my wife became terminally ill, I thought again about that image my brothers and I had cultivated had my dad survived my mom. And sure enough, a few years later, my mom passed (at 88), my wife died 10 months later (at 56) and I found myself wandering around a Sears store one Saturday looking for some tool of other. It was a chilly January day in 2007 and damned if I wasn’t wearing my dad’s London Fog windbreaker, which my mom had given me when he died. I never much liked it but that day, I felt something cyclical stirring in the random ether of life. I had no chinos nor deck shoes. In fact, unlike my pop, I’d never really dressed like a dad.
I really hated it. But as my life began to change, I realized my dad would have done okay if he’d been the surviving spouse. It took me 14 years to get my life on track. But unlike him, I’d always been a slow learner.