A Gift from my Parents: Lessons in How to Be a Character
My dad was a character. My mom is too, in her own somewhat less outrageous way. Or maybe she’s the more outrageous one? Either way, I learned about character from my parents, just not in the usual way.
My dad, Jerry Paul, used to greet people he’d just met by singing a few lines of a song that included their name (or a near facsimile). I don’t know how he remembered all these songs --- or made them up or improvised, but he did this singing introduction routine with remarkable reliability. He also once sang to my wife’s parents’ answering machine and was undeterred when it cut him off -- he called back three times to finish the song and, presumably, leave a more mundane message after the final verse. The anecdotes are endless --- he regularly drove me to school and to his later job as a college professor in a red metallic dune buggy built by a neighbor; he wore extremely clunky shark skin shoes made from a plaster cast because he was convinced they were good for his feet; and he once showed up at our house in a fake mustache to test his disguise before testifying in court about a drug deal he witnessed. There was never a dull moment when he was around.
My mom, born Betty Rosenzweig in the Bronx, eventually became a social worker and was clearly the less outlandish of the pair, in spite of meeting and marrying my dad while working as a burlesque dancer in New Jersey. He was the new singer that all her friends were talking about when she returned from a few days off. She was the more successful financially of the two for a while during their days in entertainment, but she knew he was the real talent in the family. This led her to once take a job in Hawaii (before it became a state!) and travel there on her own to help them make ends meet while he went to auditions and tried to make it big. Her guts and his talent helped them land steady work as cast members in Pearl Bailey’s show, and my dad eventually got to travel with Nat King Cole as his stage manager and one of his Merry Young Souls back-up group. They were two characters orbiting around, drawn to, and embraced by other, bigger characters and talents.
Regardless of their career success, either in their first passion or in their later careers, my parents taught me lessons in character that I’m just now learning to appreciate. It takes character to be a character. It’s not easy to not follow a mold and to forge your own way --- unabashedly and wholeheartedly, with everything you’ve got.
My dad has passed, but my mom is 88 and about to have her 7th ear surgery on her one good ear. She still dances (ballroom nowadays, and to the Lawrence Welk show in her living room during the pandemic), and she and I talk regularly about our meditation (and life!) practice. Before the recent doctor’s appointment where she found out she needed another surgery, she told me, “I’m done with all the drama around my ear. If I need another surgery, I’ll just deal with it and we’ll see what happens. That’s it.” She loves to communicate with others and has rich friendships, so of course her hearing is vital to her. Still, she recognizes now with wisdom gained from life that all the drama and ‘what if’s’ are just unnecessary noise and a distraction from getting the most out of each day she has left. That too takes real character.