Learning to Learn
“Learn something today.” This is the first thing I think of when I think about my dad. Every day, as my siblings and I would leave for school, he would say these words. And the thing is, he meant it. Each night as we sat around the dining room table for dinner, it would go like this:
“So, Linda, what did you learn in school today?” We could never say, “Nothing.” It didn’t take long to learn that if you answered this way, he would ask, “What? You spent six hours in school and learned nothing?” And then he would ask about each class. “Well, what did you learn in Science? In History? In English?” until he’d covered each class.
None of us wanted to be quizzed like this, so we came to dinner prepared with an answer. He would then pursue it and have an entire conversation about the subject before moving on to another child. The interesting thing about this is that at some point, each of us figured out how much fun this could be. When you are one of five children, individual attention is precious.
Our dad was a dedicated worker. He owned a Texaco gas station and repaired cars along with one other mechanic, Andy, and a tow truck driver. Usually, he left for work around the same time as we were going to school. We almost never had dinner until he came home, generally between 6:30 and 7:00. However, if there had been a snowstorm or other bad weather, he stayed at the station until the last car had been towed in, often after 9:00 in the evening.
It usually went like this: “Mom, when’s Daddy coming home? I’m starving,” one of us would ask.
“I don’t know. Call the station and ask him.”
Someone would call, and he’d say something like, “It’s hard to tell. Could be another 30 minutes, maybe an hour. You should just eat without me. Tell your mother I’ll do the best I can.”
Depending on what time it was, she’d say either, “Let’s wait a little while longer” or “Okay, set the kitchen table, and you all can eat. I’ll wait for Daddy.” Those were the only days we didn’t talk about what we did in school. One vivid memory I have is that when Daddy came home from the station in his oily and greasy clothes and shoes, he would go to the cellar landing and take off his shoes. Then he would go upstairs to change his clothes before dinner.
The Kids Pitch In
As we got older, we all worked at the station. My sisters and I would often pick up parts (See my story “The Wayward Traveler”), pump gas or work the register. My brothers helped with things like changing tires, pumping gas and minor repairs. As it turned out, my brother, Chuck, went to Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School and became a skilled mechanic. Rick went to University of Maryland, got a business degree, and worked as the office manager, bookkeeper and I don’t know what all. Because of our age differences, we didn’t all work there at the same time. Eventually, my brothers took over the business, Berman’s Automotive, when Daddy retired.
A Difficult Time
In 1953, my dad was in a bad accident at work. He was standing against the brick wall of the building facing a customer’s car. Something happened (I don’t remember what) and the car lurched forward right into his calf. He was rushed to the hospital. The first two doctors who saw him said there was no saving that leg. It needed to be amputated, but Mom wouldn’t let them. She asked a specialist, Dr. Wilder, to look at it, and he saved the leg by grafting a patch of skin from Daddy’s thigh to sew onto the place where the skin had been destroyed. It looked something like a patchwork quilt and left an ugly open area. Every night while watching TV, he soaked and drained pus from the injured open area and then elevated his leg until it was time to go to bed.
For the rest of his life, Daddy walked with a limp. In the summer, when we went swimming, he wore a skin-colored elastic stocking to cover up the wound so strangers wouldn’t be grossed out.
He was in the hospital about nine months, and Mom had to open the station every day so Andy could run it. When Daddy finally came home, he was in a leg cast and used a wheelchair—nothing like the fold-ups we have today. I wish I had a photo of that huge chair, about as big as a recliner. He used crutches for several months after he no longer needed the wheelchair. At that time, my sister was almost 11, I was eight and my brothers were six and three. My little sister was yet to be born. I have no idea how my mom managed it all, but that’s a story for another day.
The Fun Parent
Business wasn’t all my dad was. He was a fun daddy. He played acrobatic tricks with us, much to our mother’s chagrin. “Ralph, somebody’s gonna get hurt!”
Someone often did, but it was never serious. If you hurt your finger, Daddy would say, “Let me see it. Can you bend it this way? Can you bend it that way?” Of course, we could, and then he’d say, “See, you’re not hurt!” We believed that and just kept doing our tricks.
Daddy made a tire swing that hung from a tree in our yard. It was a favorite of all the kids in the neighborhood. Our house sat on an acre of ground with lots of trees. In autumn, we had an abundance of leaves to be raked. Daddy made it a fun game of raking them in a giant pile so we could jump in them! Of course, we eventually had to bag them up, but playing first made it a palatable task.
In winter, we played in the snow, and if it was a Sunday, Daddy would play with us. Mom always had warm drinks when we came in. If it was too awful to go outside, we played cards: Crazy 8’s, Fan Tan, Gin Rummy, and my favorite “Oh Hell.” This is a fast-paced card game where you have to be very quick. My mom really excelled at this one, but Daddy was no slacker. As we got older, it became a true competition.
Dedicated Jewish Dad
My Dad, the youngest of six children, was born to a mom who came from Latvia and emigrated to the United States where she met and married my grandpa. He died when Daddy was just six years old. My grandma did whatever she could to take care of her children, but I’m sure it was not easy, especially financially. I have no idea how she did it. There was certainly no money for Hebrew lessons for my dad, and he was never a Bar Mitzvah.
When my brother, Chuck, was practicing his maftir for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah, my dad decided it was time to learn Hebrew. He studied as hard as Chuck (probably harder) to learn. And he did. He handled the father’s part, probably as proud of himself as he was of his son. He also took the father’s part at my son’s Bar Mitzvah. I was kvelling over both of them.
The Patient Teacher
Our daddy had the patience of a Job. He taught all of us to drive and how to parallel park. Years later, when I taught my own children, I thought about his patience, wishing I had more of it. He didn’t want to harp on things he taught, so if I needed to come to a stop and wasn’t doing it fast enough, he’d stomp his foot on the floorboards, holding his tongue. I got the message. He made me practice parking between two barrels at the station. It was really hard, but when I took my test, the allowed space was so much larger than my practice space, I sailed right through it! Again, my daddy was a smart guy.
Speaking of smart, here’s my favorite story: Daddy graduated from the then all-boys Baltimore Polytechnic Institute High School. At that time, students had to pass an exam to be admitted. He told us about the math classes in which he excelled. The teacher would put a problem on the board for students to solve. When no one could do it, he’d say to my dad, “Okay, Berman, come to the board and show them how it’s done.”
When his grandchildren were old enough, he taught them the “Magic Square,” some kind of math game. I don’t remember it as a child, but my children do. It’s one of their fond memories.
The Legacy He Left
At age 40, I decided to go to college and enrolled at Catonsville Community College. Because Daddy had cancer, and we knew he would not be with us for much longer, I decided to attend the graduation ceremony even though I was old enough to be one of the professors! I was pretty sure he would not be with us by the time I earned my Bachelors’ degree at Towson University. After the ceremony, he gave me a beautiful card, and wrote inside, “Love from the Dad who really believes in you.” After all these years, my eyes still well up when I read it.
His funeral in 1993 was standing-room-only. Not merely because of his many customers and friends, but because of the myriad clubs he belonged to such as the Dandy 5th Democratic Club and others I don’t remember. And, of course, the congregation at Ner Tamid Synagogue. For his eulogy, Rabbi Chaim Landau made a parallel with Will Rogers who said, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” The rabbi said, “Ralph never met a person who didn’t like him.” Daddy was truly beloved by all and honored to be chosen Man of the Year in his synagogue in 1986.
This story is a tribute, not just to our daddy, but to a wonderful husband, grandpa, friend and citizen.
Please leave your comments below.
Read more by Linda Miller.
13 thoughts on “Tales of Our Daddy”
Linda, loved this story
Thank you. And thx for reading my story. Glad you liked it.
What a beautiful story about grandpa.
Thank you. And thx so much for reading and commenting. I sent a draft to my siblings for feedback. When talking with Uncle Rick, I asked a question about working at the station, and he said, “I’m not sure, ask Chuck.” A couple seconds later, he said, I’m always doing that.” Even tho it hurts my heart, I want to share with you. I know you’ll completely understand.
Thanks for sharing. Yes, I totally understand.
Great story mom ❤️ love ask the memories and guess what… I learned something 😁
Thx honey. Grandpa would be proud. I learned stuff too because I asked my sibs for input. They had memories I didn’t or had forgotten a out or just got wrong!
Really great story Linda. It made me want to cry. You really captured the essence of daddy.
Thx, but all of you helped. ❤
Linda, your Dad was beautiful, as is your story. Thanks for sharing it.❤️ I tried the magic square game, I didn’t crack it. Oh well.☹️
Thx Maryanne, and thx for reading my story. I’m trying to get as many memories written before it’s too late, a legacy for my children and grandchildren. My sibling helped with getting the details right. It’s funny how we don’t always remember everything exactly the same way.
Linda, as most have said, what a beautiful tribute to your dad. I’m sure your family will keep this as a wonderful remembrance of him. The story came out great. And I really love the photos!!
Thx. The input from you and others in our group was helpful. Thx for this response.