All parents are something of an enigma to their children. That was certainly true of my father, Sidney Levine, who died on July 5, 2012. As I have aged, I have felt a greater need to understand who he really was. On this sixth anniversary of my father’s death, I’m thinking of one aspect of Dad: his often-stated inability to know what to do with his daughter (me), his six granddaughters and, at the time of his death, four great granddaughters. The female gender was always a mystery to him.
Born on July 17, 1921, just shy of a year after the 19th amendment gave American women the right to vote, my father grew up in a world in which women took care of the home and children. Dad understood how to interact with his sons and grandsons. He taught my son how to keep box scores and took him to baseball games, as his own father had done for him. He bought him a mitt and played catch with him. It never occurred to him that he could have done the same thing with me and his granddaughters.
And yet, when he wrote about the contrasts between his own mother’s life and his granddaughter’s potential life in 1986, he provided a valuable window into the past and hope for the future. Dad’s words inspire me, his granddaughters, and his great granddaughters to work to ensure that women’s rights are protected from those who wish to go back to a time when women like his own mother had limited opportunities and choices.
In honor of the sixth anniversary of my father’s death, I share his reflections from 32 years ago that reveal a greater understanding of women than he thought his possessed. These are his own words on the occasion of my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah:
It is apropos in this year of honoring Miss Liberty [Statue of Liberty completed 100 years ago in 1886], that we reflect on the life story of Ida Rosenberg Levine, the great grandmother whose name you bear.
Orphaned at fifteen, she had to make her way to the New World under a false name and identity in the care of a family of strangers to join her siblings who had made the passage earlier and were struggling to establish homes in the "promised land." The priority was to find some menial employment, generally in the needle trades, to contribute to the family's economic needs. Education was limited to a few night school courses providing the barest rudiments of reading and writing. Only after years of painstaking laborious self-education, was she able to slowly and methodically read and enjoy a novel.
Careers and professions were as alien to her as flying to the moon. Marriage, motherhood, and homemaking were the only outlets for her native intelligence, energy, and determination, traits that you share in abundance. Cooking, baking, sewing, and needlecraft, and managing the budget through good and lean times, were among the acquired skills that were excellently mastered through sheer will and persistence.
My memory goes back to my eleventh year, in the midst of the great depression of the thirties, when the loss of our house seemed imminent through foreclosure. Despite her limitations, your great grandmother confronted a board of bankers and negotiated a new mortgage that preserved our home. In later years, she worked side by side with your great grandfather operating several small businesses that successfully provided their livelihood, despite the onset of debilitating illness.
Looking back, I wonder what my mother could have accomplished in today's world with the opportunities that are open to you [his granddaughter]. You have already "come a long way, baby," but the road ahead is unlimited. You have all the tools. Grab that brass ring and never let go.
I want to think your vision was true, Dad. I want to believe that my daughters and granddaughters have a road ahead of them that is unlimited. I want to think they will shatter glass ceilings, receive equal pay for equal work, and that it is not preposterous that my 12-year-old granddaughter thinks she could become president someday.
Despite his minimal involvement in activities I enjoyed growing up (“That’s your mother’s job”), my father encouraged me to leave home for college and even to study journalism. He loved to write and wished he had been an art history professor rather than an accountant. He lectured me on the importance of understanding past history to make wise decisions about the future. Dad influenced my political views, with the exception of the Vietnam era. My father ultimately conceded that I had been right about that war. He may have been disappointed that I became a teacher and later an early childhood educator rather than a journalist. But since I have started to write in my retirement, I think of how he would have been glad that I finally took his advice.
The morning of my father’s death, he told my mother, “If George Washington could die, so can I.” Mom thought he was hallucinating but I prefer to think Dad was giving himself a final history lesson, reviewing the names of all the presidents and great figures from history who are gone but not forgotten. Dad, whether or not you are “in the sky” as your great-grandchildren think, you are in my heart and woven into the fabric of my life. Perhaps the man who professed he didn’t understand what to do with his daughter made a greater impact than he thought.
There's something like a line of gold thread running through a man's words when he talks to his daughter, and gradually over the years it gets to be long enough for you to pick up in your hands and weave into a cloth that feels like love itself.
~John Gregory Brown, Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery,