Sunday, June 15, 2014

Remembering Dad: A lesson in what matters most

Me and my Dad in the early 1950s. 
Blogger's note: This is a column I wrote for the AJC back in 1996. My daughter Lauren has been hocking me for months to post it on my blog. This, then, is for Lauren -- and my Dad.

There's a beautiful story I stumbled across recently that captures something truthful and transcendent about the human condition.

A little girl comes home and tells her mother she's confused.

It seems her Sunday school teacher has told her that God is bigger than we are but manages to live within each of us.

The little girl wonders how this can be. "Wouldn't God break through us?" she asks her mother. Of course, God does "break through" each of us when we're doing Godly things.

Ever notice the joyful look of people working really hard to help other people? Every notice how some people who seemed lost in their own lives find meaning and hope when they reach out to support a friend or stranger?

Helping ourselves by helping others isn't a new belief. It's a concept that is detailed and embraced by most religions around the world and by people of faith who intuitively understand the importance of charity and good deeds. It's a lesson I've been taught since childhood.

That it's taken me years to comprehend says much about my inability to learn things quickly and little about my teacher.

There was a man in my life who attempted to teach me the lessons of giving by example. His life was a constant reaching out. There were big things. Money to charity. Time devoted to civic and religious organizations. Taking care of his wife and children.

But it was the small things that  I remember most, the day-to-day efforts to reach out, to do good, to let God "break through" his life.

An example: It was one of those sultry summer days, hot and humid and threatening to rain. We had stopped at a small market, a mom and pop operation that sold milk, bread and cold drinks. While we talked to the owner, a neighborhood boy -- shirtless and shoeless, wearing only shorts -- came in to buy a drink, reached into one of those slush-filled boxes that were popular in the '50s and pulled out an icy "Co-Cola".

Just as he turned to leave, the bottle slipped and crashed on the floor. The boy froze. He stared at the mess and seemed dazed.

It wasn't till years later that I realized that the dime he had spent that afternoon was probably all the money he had in the world, that there was a good chance he had saved his pennies for a week or more, eagerly anticipating this treat.

My mentor reached over to the drink box, pulled out another bottle of Coke, popped off the cap and handed it to the boy. The youngster held onto the bottle like it was worth its weight in gold.

It was a tiny gesture, certainly devoid of any cosmic import in the overall scheme of things. And yet it speaks to the heart of what we humans are all about when at our best.

My friend and teacher is now 82. He does volunteer work in Columbus, both for the Police Department and for a local hospital.

He stays busy and reaches out to others.

It's a lesson I'm just starting to appreciate.

It's a lesson my father -- William Feinberg, called Bill by family, friends and strangers -- continues to explore in his journey through life.

A footnote: My Dad died in 1997, a year after this column was published. Hundreds of people attended his funeral, many of them there to pay their respects to a man who had touched their lives through his good works. Honorary pallbearers included representatives of the city's police department, where he worked as a volunteer, and Saint Francis hospital where he had logged over 2,000 hours as a volunteer.

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