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My Father, New York City's Best Baker

In 1961, my father won first prize for baking the finest challah (braided) bread at his union's annual trade exhibit. He beat out every other baker for this coveted prize. His broad chest seemed to get even broader as he swelled with pride. He received a brass plaque with his name, KLEMENS STRUM, engraved on it along with the words "FIRST PRIZE: BREAD AND ROLL DISPLAY." The plaque took center place on the credenza in our living room. My reaction to his winning? "Big Deal! How Stupid!"

I was entering adolescence at the time, and I wanted my father to notice to that I was growing up and that I was smart. He never did seem to notice. I used to get annoyed when he bragged about his friends' sons who got straight A's and who got into the best high schools and who were going to BE SOMEBODY some day. He never seemed to notice my grades or accomplishments. But, then again, I didn't notice him either. As I said earlier, my reaction to the plaque was, "Big Deal!"  

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Our families, whether we like it or not, offer us the greatest opportunities for learning how to love. How many of us go through our lives still bearing grudges toward our family members? My father came from a family of nine children. Stories circulated among my aunts and uncles about who screwed whom out of the family fortune 30 to 40 years earlier. How many people do you know who have gone to their graves carrying the unforgiveness of slights performed by family members decades earlier?  

Many metaphysical teachings talk about how we choose our parents before we were born. Some people I know are not willing to take that much responsibility for their lives. As one of my friends likes to say, "Only an idiot would have chosen my parents."

Although my father passed in 1980, it was only in the early 1990s that I came to appreciate all his goodness. As much as I wanted him to notice me when I was a little girl, I realized that I never once noticed him. My appreciation of him came when my mother became ill in 1993. My mother has a history of manic-depressive illness. She had also been diagnosed with paranoid personality disorder. As the only child living close to her, I assumed responsibility for her emotional well-being, a role that at some metaphysical level I believe I chose to undertake. During that time, I began to think more and more of my father and the tremendous responsibility he accepted by staying with my mother all those years.

As the weight of my mother's emotional dependency began to wear on me, I become more appreciative of the role my father played in bearing the brunt of her dependency when my sister and I were children. I remembered his good humor; how he was always the life of the party-at times dancing around with a lampshade on his head. I remembered how his friends loved him; he was the founder of a social club for European Jews called the Cosmopolitan Circle that began in New York and eventually moved to Century Village in West Palm Beach. He was the one that all the others in the Circle turned to for help. He was the one with the positive, uplifting attitude that could bring comfort to his friends, despite his own pain.

When I cleaned out my mother's apartment to move her to an assisted-care living facility (ACLF), I came across a copy of a letter my father wrote to the editor of The Palm Beach Post. The letter was an impassioned plea asking when humanity would wake up to its own self-destructive nature and stop spending money on bombs (I used to laugh at him for pronouncing the final B in the word bomb). On that day, I saw the letter and I cried. For the first time in my life I realized I was just like him.

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The plaque was one of the few of my mother's belongings that I kept. Wherever my mother moved during her remaining years, my father's plaque occupied a central spot somewhere in her room. During one of my visits, the thought occurred to me that my father would want me to have the plaque. I told my mother what I was thinking and she said that she had thought for a while that I should take it. My father's plaque for winning first prize in the Baker's Union 1961 competition now sits on a shelf above me in my office The plaque has released me from the resentments I'd been holding onto; I finally see my father for the magnificent human being he was.

There's a story about three mothers sitting on a bench in Miami Beach talking about how devoted their sons are to them. The first one says, "My son is so devoted to me, he sent me on a round-the-world cruise." The second one said, "That's nothing. My son is so devoted to me that for my last birthday he flew down all my friends from New York and we had a great big party at the Fontainebleau." The third one says, "I have you both beat. My son is so devoted that three times a week he sees a psychiatrist for $200 an hour, and all he does is talk about me."

Lesson: If you're still bitching about the fact that your parents didn't see you or support you or acknowledge you, have you looked at whether you ever really saw their strengths, weaknesses and all the things they had to go through to raise you?

My father taught me lessons about hard work, striving, perseverance, loving others, loyalty, and commitment. He was also the best bread baker in New York City. I have yet to find bread and rolls that have the same buttery taste, crispy crust, and flaky texture. I feel his presence with me, and believe he knows my thoughts and feelings. My regret is that I didn't share any of these thoughts and feelings with him while he was still in his body. But, I know that I can correct this mistake with other family members-my husband, mother, sister, niece, nephew. I know I can see the strides they make every day to be good people and I know I can praise them and support their efforts.

According to the death and dying literature, when we die we're not going to say, "Shucks, I should have worked harder," we're going to say, "Why didn't I love more?" Our families -- those closest to us-are a good place to begin.

Reflection
There was a time when I thought that my generation would turn out children who were less neurotic than we were because we did so much self-searching. It turns out that each generation blames the previous one for screwing up the world.
Among my aunts and uncles, antagonisms and jealousies festered. Family feuds about inheritance rights that happened over 70 years ago have carried over into the next generation of cousins. I have a 96 year old uncle, the last remaining sibling of nine, who becomes livid at the mere mention of the name of one of his brothers or sisters who screwed him out of his inheritance.

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Even at 96, life is far too short to continue blaming our parents, siblings, aunts, uncles or cousins for what they did or did not do to support us. And, according to spiritual teachings, the very thing that we think we need to receive from others, and get angry at them for not providing, is the very thing that either we don't need at all, or that we have the capacity to provide for ourselves. And as long as we don't release our family members for what the did or did not do, we imprison our potential to shine.

The following forgiveness exercise should help
Picture your family members in your mind. See their faces. Look directly into their eyes. Notice whether you feel more uncomfortable looking at one of your family members than the others. Focus on that one and say to him or her "I forgive you for not being who I wanted you to be and I accept you for who you are." Forgiveness works both ways. Imagine that a chain binding the two of you together has just been cut. Feel a weight lifting off your shoulders. You are now free to fulfill your own destiny.

               My dad and me
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