Monday, February 4, 2013
Yesterday was a celebration of my father on his birthday—a surprise cake among his many friends at his church, a lunch at his favorite, cafe, a somewhat disorderly assemblage of preferred foods from the Farmers' Market, organized into sub-specialty themes (here we have our cheeses and crackers, here our apple fritters, here our quiche, here our pecan pie), tickets to an upcoming high school production of Grease.
None of it being close to enough to honor the man who has always done so much for his wife (whose grave he still visits daily, even in blasts of winter cold), his three children and his three children's children. Kep Kephart has been a stealth benefactor, a man who has given without the slightest expectation a quid pro quo. Where there has been need, he has stepped in. Where there was college to pay for, he did. Where there were little TVs or kitchen pots that might have helped ease the lonesomeness of first studio apartments on Camac Street, say, little TVs and kitchen pots materialized. Where a trip away was precisely the cure for the tedium of too much stuck in a rut, a check arrived in the mail."Your father is a very good man," I was told, time and again, as I planned his surprise moment at the church. "We don't know what we'd do without him."
I was thinking about Kep Kephart, a Penn grad, devoted Presbyterian, retired businessman, and active consultant, while I was reading about Abe Trillin, the Jewish grocer of Kansas City, in Calvin Trillin's memoir Messages from My Father. Trillin's slender memoir never pronounces its guiding questions, its framing themes. Rather, it begins with a declaration—"The man was stubborn."—and proceeds to limn the life of a father who may not have made a strong first impression, with his "unprepossessing name," his "prominent nose," and his "negligible chin," but whose manners, values, and behaviors were of presidential caliber and consequence.
The contempt Abe feels "for people who felt the need to pump up their own importance" was encapsulated in a term; "that sort of person was "big k'nocker" (a phrase that would have fit nicely in with the recent New York Times story about parental boasting "A Truce in the Bragging Wars"). The fun he had with simple things—silly phrases, songs, marching tunes—seemed more important, looking back, than anything money might buy. His tenderness in letting an employee go, his admirable work ethic, his decision to be remembered, most of all, by his choice of yellow-tinted ties—all this gentleness, all this manliness, all this fatherliness. Calvin Trillin may have inherited his father's stubbornness, but he noticed, and absorbed, the bigger lessons his father taught.
Perhaps for Abe, and therefore Calvin, it all came down to a single phrase: "You might as well be a mensch." I hadn't seen the phrase before (the word, of course, but not the phrase), but I think I'd like to make use of it now—to seed my thoughts with its power. Here's Calvin in his trademark simply meaningful prose, parsing the line for the rest of us:
Even the words to live by that I have always associated most strongly with him—"You might as well be a mensch."—lack grandiosity. The German word Mensch, which means person or human being, can take on in Yiddish the meaning of a real human being—a person who always does the right thing in matters large or small, a person who would not only put himself at serious risk for a friend but also leave a borrowed apartment in better shape than he found it. My father clearly meant for me to be a mensch. It has always interested me, though, that he did not say, "You must always be a mensch," or "The honor of this family demands that you be a mensch" but "You might as well be a mensch," as if he had given some consideration to the alternatives.
I take mensch to mean a sweep of things, and also these essential things: Remember others. Acknowledge others. Be happy for what they achieve. Listen more than you talk, if you can. Don't make too much of your own glory.
For more thoughts on memoirs, memoir making, and prompt exercises, please visit my dedicated Handling the Truth page.