Ernie was my stepfather since I was four years old.
I’ve been a more than a little raw and exposed lately, for this reason and others. So when I was explaining my absence to a patient of mine who I see every week on the van, I told him who died. More than I intended to say in the clinic. It’s not about me. Shouldn’t be about me.
But he’s an avuncular guy, full of declarations and opinions, and when he sees how I’m doing:
“That’s your FATHER,” he said, “No STEP-father about it.” A kindness. And in Roxbury, also a way of saying with emphasis that a father is the guy who shows up and does the fathering. Well, I have a father too, I explained; but, yeah.
I’ve been seeing with greater clarity the things I learned from him, unconsciously imitated, semi-consciously emulated. Good things and not as good; kindnesses, adventures, aesthetic choices; ways of arguing or avoiding argument with my wife; procrastination; the shirts I buy, how to make chicken soup. Frederick Douglass; race and slavery as central organizing principles of American history.
My biological ancestry is mostly Anglo-American going way back on both sides of my family; still, my mom was laughing at herself and him too, because when I met my wife, they were both apparently wondering, “But is she Jewish?” before they registered how absurd this was. Ernie was completely secular, and neither of the women Ernie married were Jewish. (And no, indeed, my wife is not Jewish either.) But the question wasn’t about Jewish heritage or intermarriage; it was about, will Joe’s family still carry this part of Ernie?
There’s no Shabbat at my house. But I carry other things. He was a morning person, and my mom wasn’t. He and I both wanted to be quiet in the morning, just eat breakfast. “Hi Ern,” I’d say. “Hi Joe” he’d say. We’d be quiet together, him drinking his coffee, me eating my cereal. And when I sometimes just sit quietly with my daughter I think of this. That this presence, asking nothing, but being present and kind and calm, is one part of how I hope my daughter might remember me as a father. No step-father about it.