Annie Miller Orgad, Beth Miller Tilis, Ellen Shapira Miller, Esty Miller, Florida, Janet Miller Brown, Jimbo, Kennedy High School, Monza, Orlando, Peace Corps, Rob Goodman, Sam Miller, Sierra Leone
When both of my parents had died, my mother Esty at the age of 90 and father Sam at the age of 93 1/2, we kept some old papers of theirs we had discovered and put them in a file we labeled as “Memorabilia.”
Yesterday, as Ellen and I were going through and discarding some of the huge amount ‘stuff’ we have stuck into various draws, cabinets, and boxes, I came across something my father had written that we had found and saved. I’m not sure of the date he wrote it, but it was sometime when our two daughters were quite young; so he wrote it at least 30-35 years ago and left it in the back of a drawer in our Orlando home. I don’t remember seeing it while he was alive.
I thought it could have interest for family and friends, not only for how important it is for me personally but perhaps also for others in these difficult days.
Richard & I
The letter with the familiar Sierra Leone postmark came towards the end of his first Peace Corps year. Chatty and whimsical in his usual way, it ended with the startling suggestion – “Sam, you always came to camp on visitor’s day at Samoset – why not now and here? It is probably a rough trip for Esty, but she deserves a separate vacation. Come – we will talk, you will see my segment of Africa, and your citrus will grow even in your absence.”
And so I did. From Orlando to New York to Freetown and then, the toughest part by mammy wagon, to Kailahun. I arrived in the late afternoon, unannounced, to flounder to the rather primitive dwelling my son shared with another Peace Corps idealist. A note on the door suggesting, that since my arrival was indeterminate, I find my way to the school, where Richard and faculty were building an imposing addition.
“You must be Meestah Meeler’s father,” a young voice piped behind me. “And how do you know that?” “You walk like Meestah Meeler.” I curbed the impulse to say, “You’ve got it backwards, kid,” and contemplated a truth revealed. I did walk like my son. Our role reversal was beginning. Here, on turf alien to me, he had established an identify all his own, independent and unconnected by any umbilical chord.
Pure pleasure to be with him – his obvious love and joy at the reunion matching mine. After the ground nut stew supper and news catching up, he said, “”Let’s talk about Ellen,” and we did. She was finishing college during his Peace Corps stint, and Esty and I had recently driven to New Jersey to vist and spread around some parental blessing. A lovely girl, our son had chosen, and we talked late of plans and marriage and the difficulty of separation.
The village chief, with a gesture of hand to breast, gifted me with a robe of country cloth. His praise singer informed me that the gift and gesture were unusual – the hand motion indicating he took me to his heart. Not that he truly knew my inestimable worth, but an indication of the community regard for my son.
Maybe the child is father to the man. Of course, it is warming to know that one’s flesh and blood has his own strong and sure identity, yet there is an ambivalence. The years had rushed by and regrets coursed through of missed words, missed chances, and missed touches.
Two days before his sixteenth (the legal driving age in Florida), Richard, his grandfather (Rob), and I went to Reed Motors in downtown Orlando. He had saved his bar-mitzvah gelt, his money from his two summer labors with an idiot stick in the groves, and our modest additions to bring it to a grand total of eighteen hundred dollars.
The Monza on the lot was his heart’s desire. Color, line, sleekness — all exactly right. The best deal was an even two thousand dollars. Rob started to reach into his pocket when callous, arrogant me caught his arm and told the man if he could find a way to accept our eighteen hundred dollars, call us at home at this number. Richard, with a slight lip termor, nodded at me and we walked away,
If I could only relive that day and save my good son that two hour agony until the call came saying it was ours
When he was nine or ten, with Jimbo, he built a tree house in the big oak fronting our Florida house. I came home tired and hot from the packing house and grove to face the small problem. I had visions of fifteen foot falls, hurts, law suits, and assorted ills. Balancing his enthusiasm while understanding my problem, we discussed it fairly amicably. At his suggestion, we resolved it thusly. I would climb into the tree house and if after stomping, banging and shaking , it survived. I would withdraw my objections. To my mild consternation, that solidly built hut withstood my assault. He was gracious in triumph and exercised care and prudence in maintaining security.
And he returned, after the two years, from Africa – bearded and some how bigger – to get a doctorate and start teaching at Kennedy High School in Washington, a rather unorthodox and free wheeling, open sort of school. On one of intermittent visits to DC to visit Richard and Ellen, now safely married, he suggested I spend a day at school. Seated in the rear, trying to be unobtrusive, I was bemused by the freedom and interplay betwixt student and teacher — a far cry from my high school experience.
Halfway through the first hour Richard announced, “we have a visitor.You have heard me mention my father; well he is that guilty party sitting in the back. You want to pump him. All I will add is that he thinks I am somewhat square and he will be honest with you.”
After about thirty seconds, the kids started firing, “How did your relationship come? Did we talk about sex? Why did I think him square? What was Esty like? How come we let him go to India on the Experiment in International Living when he was in his teens?”
The whole tenor of the hour left me with a sense that these adolescents hungered for communication with their parents that generally was non-existent; and a profound sense of gratitude at what we had.
With some of the faculty at Kennedy, Richard started a program for emotionally disturbed teenagers that came to be known as The Frost School. One of the teaching techniques involved the use of a video camera. On various holidays and family visits, Ellen borrowed the unit and video taped — a nice way to enfold us into their lives and keep us abreast of Annie, now seven, and Beth now three.
The last tape depicts Beth on my bearded son’s lap gravely discussing her day. “You went to the doctor with mommy?” Vigorous nodding of the head. “Why? “My ear hurt.” “What did the doctor do?” Indignantly, “He put a stick in my mouth.” “What?” “Yes he did.” “If your ear hurt, why would he do such a silly thing?” Giggle, “I don’t know.”
Why my sudden ache and nostalgia to have my forty-two year old an infant in my lap and to gravely joke with him as he is now with Beth? Is there ever enough? What I would give for one more day — to ride the groves, to talk of my day and his day; of what he and Jimbo fell out about — the Little League prospects and maybe girls; and I would try not to hug him too tightly.
Ah, the magic clock. We have four grandchildren, the two girls in Washington and two older grandsons, courtesy of Richard’s slight older sister, Janet. (I suspect that he thinks I am soft in the head as well as heart about my first born.) Why then, the fantasy of turning back the clock and longing for one more day? “Dote” is the hackneyed accurate word re the grand children; and our relationship with our children strikes me as rare. They embrace us and include us in their lives. Filial piety, in the Chinese sense, is rendered in full measure. But I want one more day.
If, like Sisyphus, it were granted by the Gods, I would merit the same punishment and receive the deserved doom There is never enough.
Brian Steinbach said:
The child is the father to the man. Rick, i felt that you could have written much of this yourself.
Such a wonderful treasure to have that letter. I know as he got older you had a wonderful relationship. I can also envision how you got your terrific ability to put in written form your travels, relationships , book reviews etc.
The letter is really a testament to how caring, understanding and loving you are. It makes me so appreciative of having you in my life
Ed Scholl said:
Wow, what a wonderful letter! Your father was a great writer. Thank you for sharing that.
Beautiful. I wish I could have one more day with Esty and Sam too!
Liz Frost said:
Enjoy the memories of cleaning out unforgotten drawers and back closet corners. In my process of tackling the forgot corners or boxes on the bottom garage shelf, I have found Larry’s life items before 1978. Some are marked and others have been reveling an unknown history.
Sam’s letter was beautifully written. I am one of the lucky to still have a parent alive. I call my dad, 96 years old, once a week. He talks about the mistakes and what if’s. the unforgettable events in his 10 children’s lives, and the talents that were never encouraged.
romana campos said:
Wow, that was deep! What a treasure. The love and respect he had for you and you for him is the script behind the words. His legacy of the written word definitely lives on in you.
Samuel clover jr. said:
Good evening Rick our heritage is a gift we should all treasure, you certainly have a blessed one…mr. Sam..
…psychologists would loose their jobs if everyone was so fortunate…mr. Sam
Ethel Geisinger said:
Tears are streaming down my face…for the emotions expressed so elegantly, for the memories described so vividly and for the good fortune you have to have found that letter.
The Duke of Brooklyn said:
Dont throw this away!!!
(It’s great that you/Ellen are getting
Rid of “the clutter” we all have—-
This is not clutter, it is a treasure that
Will last for ages).
I can just hear him saying and reflecting
on you, his visits, etc. Priceless!
You are blessed – but you already
Know that! Sam and Esty live on!
James Montgomery Kilby said:
When my favorite nephew died, suddenly, I kept calling his cell to listen to his voice, just one more time.
A truly ‘love’ly letter. I know my father loved me, he was also an excellent writer, but he never put the two together in such a beautiful open and caring sharing way. Reading your father’s letter makes me miss my father very much – he died forty one years ago next month.
Land Wayland said:
The comments above cover my response to this wonderful short essay. How fortunate you were to have such a caring insightful father who made the effort to compose this series of observations about so many subjects. A fine way to remember him. One more day would be appreciated but it would not be nearly enough because one can never feel loved enough (although it would be nice to try)
To all who commented above or wrote me direct emails:
This post turns out to have been the most read of anything I’ve ‘published’ on MillersTime in the 10+ years I’ve been subjecting family, friends, and a few foes to my various interests, thoughts, activities and observations since retirement.
I thank all of you who have written to me about it.
While I’ve always been aware of the special and wonderful relationship I had with Sam, the new thing that rereading this ‘essay’ he wrote and never showed me (I found it stuffed in the back of my adolescent desk drawer) was what a gifted writer he was. I knew he was well accomplished (and largely self-schooled) in literature, classical music, chess, the dog track, and the citrus business. That he also wrote so beautifully and deeply, I didn’t really know about that – his gift to put into words his observations, his experiences, his thoughts, and his feelings.
I had some indication from some letters he sent to me and from one other essay I found in that same desk drawer, one in which he captured what it was like for him to drive in an orange grove, listening to his picking crew calling to each other from their ladders, often singing Negro ballads, and the beauty that he found in that along with the perfumed smell of the orange blossoms.
I wonder what else he wrote that I or others never saw.
Renee Shelton said:
Elliott Trommald said:
There is a richness in your life that sustains you and keeps deepening the love between you and your
daughters. You always talked fondly of your dad and now I know why. Cheers Richard
Clare Bolek said:
Although, I never met your father, I knew him through you. Thank you for sharing this and for all who publicly commented. It was needed on this day…well maybe for the last 90 days.