I’ve always thought of myself as someone whose been lucky enough to have had two dads instead of one. Seventeen years ago today, I lost my other dad. What follows are a handful of the things I learned from knowing him.
1. Let your life be about abundance.
My example of this is a small one. Most Sundays, breakfast consists of two eggs fried sunny side up, with bacon, hash browns, toast, and a great cup of coffee. That is, unless I have something to celebrate. Then the hash browns turn into potato salad. The toast turns into an “everything” bagel, the butter a smear of cream cheese blended with, or topped with lox (and onion, and capers). Sometimes I’ll skip the lox, and substitute white fish salad. When this breakfast becomes lunch I keep the eggs, and add the white fish salad as a side. Just like that, lunch becomes a feast. I didn’t grow up on these breakfast foods. Bay and Annie shared them with me. What good is the richness of your bounty, if it isn’t shared?
2. Be welcoming.
When a friend comes to your door, greet them with a smile and a bear of a hug. Every time. It’s the way he welcomed me every time I visited. It’s the way I welcome people I love.
3. Laugh, and laugh again.
My dad gave me my love of everything Broadway, and did his best to teach me about Classical music. We saw good movies, and many of them had to do with music (funny that). Bay helped me discover my love for physical comedy. It was with him that I first watched–on television–the wonder that is “It’s a Mad Mad Mad World.” There’s a fabulous collection of moments from the film here. My dad is quieter than Bay was. Watching it, Bay laughed to the point of tears. More than anything, when I think of the way I know to laugh, and that it’s okay to simply let loose, and laugh myself to the point where I’m gasping for breath? That was one of his gifts to me.
4. Don’t forget to laugh at yourself.
He owned an unusual looking car. A brand I’d never heard of. An Avanti. A what? Exactly. What I remember most about it was that it often didn’t run. One time, would-be thieves tried to steal it from a repair shop, and failed. They started it, rolled it into the side of the shop, and left it there. The car didn’t have any brakes. Or was it, no steering? It may well have been both! Whenever he told the story, he laughed.
Once while in high school I was out driving with a group of friends. I was in my car, a Dodge. JBR, Bay’s son–and my best friend–was driving his dad’s Avanti. We were driving aimlessly as teens can, happy to have friends in both cars. More importantly, some of these friends were girls we hoped to impress. We needed a destination. I tried to flag him down and was unsuccessful. Knowing that he’d boasted the Avanti had a Corvette engine, and knowing that mine had a powerful engine of its own, I decided on a manly approach. I would pass him. We were driving in an empty county park after dusk. What could happen?
I stunned JBR with the attempt, and was successful. As soon as I passed him, I saw blue lights in my rear view. A county police officer ticketed me for speeding. I was driving a grand 40 mph in a 25 mph zone. “Officer,” I said, “we weren’t racing. I was trying to get him to stop.” I actually said those words. “License and registration” was all I heard in reply. A speeding ticket for driving forty miles per hour? Yes, I was foolish to speed, even at that rate. Reasoning with the officer? That was pure folly. Later that night, I was too stunned to laugh. Too afraid of what my dad would say. When he heard the story? Bay laughed out loud, and out of love. My dad? I think he laughed too. Me? It took a while.
5. Some choices are simple and make perfect sense. When they do, make them.
What else stays? When I joined Bay’s family for trips to dinner, or to see a movie, we always took their Civic. It was new, and tiny. What did I notice most? It ran and ran, and ran. After the folly of the Avanti, it was the perfect car.
I purchased the first car I owned from his eldest daughter. It was five years old, a diesel, and got fifty miles on a gallon of fuel. I asked a mechanic about it. He told me that diesel engines “ran forever.” The car was immaculate. She had every receipt for every repair and oil change the car had ever had. That choice was simple. Seven years later, and with over 170,000 miles on the odometer, I gave it away and replaced it with an Acura. I’d planned on buying a Civic, longed for an Accord, and ended up with an Acura for a price in between a Civic and an Accord. That was also a simple choice. It is also as close as I’ve come to an Avanti moment. Fortunately the Acura ran well, and long. By the time I gave it away, I’d replaced everything on it except the engine block. Now I drive a Civic. It too, runs and runs, and runs.
6. Life is about taking care of others.
My folks raised me with a strong sense of Catholic tradition. In practice, my understanding about what’s most important, revolves around what people do, not what they say they believe. That’s orthopraxis trumping orthodoxy. I remember many conversations over dinner, and after dinner, having to do with healthcare, and the emergence of HIV. What mattered most to Bay–as I remember–was doing whatever could be done to help those who had HIV, and to protect those at risk for contracting the virus. Even now, his passion for justice, informs both my faith, and my life.
7. Share your stories.
It doesn’t matter how many times you tell your stories. Tell them again. Stories are one of the ways we help each other remember that we share a human experience. That matters. Bay loved to look over the top of his glasses when he wanted to reinforce a point he was making, or deliver a punch line to a great story. With a gleam in his eye, and a smile on his face, I wanted to listen, even when I’d heard the story before (sometimes especially then).
In 1947 Bay founded the Atlantic Chemical Corporation with his brother Rubin. Rubin is also a storyteller. Here are a few comments about Bay that are part of a larger, and very funny rendering of Rubin’s career in the dyestuffs industry. If you can imagine this story punctuated with laughter, along with hand gestures assuring you that the best is yet to come? Well, you’ll have a sense of the way Bay told stories.
“The most dynamic guy I know is my brother Bay. He is also the only man I know who could have built the Great Pyramids without stones. He could have done it on enthusiasm alone. Bay, my sons Jon and Josh, and I were the sole owners of Atlantic.
I remember once a frantic call from Bay at the Nutley factory to me at our headquarters office. He needed some money immediately. Without a second thought, I quickly dispatched a messenger to Nutley with $200.00. I figured a “collect” freight must have arrived or something equally urgent. I called Bay to tell him that $200.00 was rushing on its way. Would it be enough? There was a prolonged silence…”I only needed money for a haircut,” said he.
Bay’s penchant for surplus machinery at bargain prices was legendary. Nothing compares to his purchase of one million dollars worth of Univac equipment from Army surplus for $5,000.00. Atlantic may have had the first computerized inventory system in the dye business.
One day I received this phone call: “Mr. Rabinowitz, this is the US Naval Base in New London, CT. We are pleased to inform you that yours was the successful bid on Lot #543A, one surplus, slightly used submarine. Please tell us where you would like this delivered.” I was absolutely and totally speechless. I couldn’t even stammer. The thought of a submarine parked in our yard next to micro-motors, Irish shillelaghs, lead-lined tanks and tons of hopcolite my dear brother had bought for “future” use was too much to absorb. All I could manage were some strangled sounds. Suddenly, I detected a giggle on the telephone wire. Who the *@#x* is this, I demanded? The laughter broke out in full force. It was Bill Hoffman, P.A. of Burlington Industries, surrounded by a bunch of other low-life friends of ours just having some fun at my expense.
To this day, very few people, except for Max Birnbaum, know that surplus beams from the second layer construction of the [George] Washington Bridge support much of Nutley’s equipment, Bay may have been given to overdesign since these beams could have supported the Empire State Building!”
8. How Love Works.
This piece of wisdom is the way he described his romance with his wife, Annie. I think it’s the only way love, for me, has ever worked:
I chased her, and chased her, and chased her. Finally, she caught me!
9. Words matter. People matter more.
Sometimes Bay would join JBR and I as we watched a baseball or football game on TV. I learned to look forward to the comments he made during the game. Invariably a certain moment would repeat. A play would end and he’d turn around. Looking at us over the top of his glasses, he’d shake his head and say, “Would you believe that? They did it again. He made a catch, not a ketch. A ketch is a boat for christ sake!” Words matter.
At the same time, he never corrected my usage of words. I’m sure I gave him many opportunities. For a time, I had a girl friend for who loved to correct every mistake in usage I ever made. He never did. They both helped me pay attention to the words I use. The people who use them? He continues to help me remember that they matter more.
10. Celebrate, and give honor where it is due.
Bay’s and Annie’s New Years parties were legendary. Their house would fill wall to wall with people. I’d see family, friends, neighbors, teachers, and more folks I didn’t know. To me, it seemed like they’d invited everyone in our town. At Hanukkah, Bay’d light the menorah, and the window facing the front of the living room would become quiet sacred space. “Blessed are you O Lord our God, King of the universe…”
When I was accepted to college. When I graduated. When I landed my first job. When I was engaged to be married (both times). When I married. What ever event was taking place in either family, they joined in or included me. We celebrated. Even moves. I helped with a number of moves. Wait a minute!
Bay passed away around the time “Bud” was conceived. When he was born, choosing his middle name was easy. Its Bay, and as his mom and I have always hoped, he’s becoming a man with a passion for life, and a love for people.
With appreciation, honor, and a lot of love for Bay Rabinowitz, born November 24, 1922 (a guesstimate), and who died on August 5, 1996. Thank you for all the lessons you keep teaching me.