Even though I always looked like my father, comparisons usually ended there.
We had very little in common. He was a scholar with no interest in sports. I was a jock who really struggled with my studies.
He was patient and sedentary, an avid reader and crossword specialist. I can’t sit still, I’m impatient and I can only read newspapers, magazines or listen to books on tape when I’m on a long road trip,
Leo is very much on my mind this week because it’s my father’s Yahrzeit, the Jewish anniversary of his passing. He died 18 years ago, at the age of 79.
His father, Paul Damski, was a famous boxing promoter in Berlin and the sporting DNA obviously skipped a generation. Leo never once came to one of my games, from Little League to high school football, wrestling and baseball. Paul would drive 20 miles from Manhattan to watch me wrestle on Long Island and then go out and play golf the next morning.
Despite economic challenges, Leo was a shirt-off-his-back, pick-up-the check kind of guy, qualities that he inherited from his more successful, more expansive father.
My father was happy sitting in his jewelry store all day, schmoozing with customers and reading Michener novels and doing the crossword puzzle when nobody was around. His world revolved around my mother Rachel, and he had very few friends or interests that didn’t include my Mom.
He was easy going and had a very bearable lightness of being. Even now, my Mom, almost 94, is understandably suspicious and untrusting—after all, she lived through the the depression and the holocaust and Kristallnacht before escaping in 1938.
Dad left Germany three years earlier, before things got really ugly, and if anything, he was trusting to a fault. He loved the creative side and social aspects of owning a small town jewelry store, but the business challenges eluded him.
He was a great listener and happy to schmooze or offer a fair price to a customer, but my mother had to often step in to look after the bottom line.
His favorite hobby was collecting coins and stamps. During my sophomore year of college, I wrote a short story entitled The Stamp Collector. It was about a man who escaped from real world problems by subverting himself in his stamp collection.
My professor liked the story but unfortunately my father came upon some files in one of my drawers and read the story. I’m sure he was very hurt, but he couldn’t really bring himself to discuss it with me but he told my mother and she told me.
Before there was Google, there was Leo. You could ask him anything about World History and he would have a ready answer. He had gotten a solid enough education in German Gymnasium—their high school—and he continued to self-educate himself. After he arrived in New York, he had to work to help support his parents and younger brother and wasn’t able to apply to college.
After working as a traveling salesman, Leo ended up working in a airplane parts factory as part of the war effort—although he was now an American citizen, he had a punctured ear drum and wasn’t able to serve so this was his way of contributing to the country that saved his immediate family from extinction.
His father Paul got out of the boxing business—he said it was mob controlled and didn’t want any part of that— so he opened a jewelry business in midtown Manhattan. He invited Leo downtown one day, saying he had a surprise for him. There on the front window of the 46th Street Jewelry exchange was the sign “Paul Damski and Son”.
Leo was no match for his charming and powerful father so, despite my mother’s warnings, he joined Paul in the jewelry business. Eventually my mother convinced him that he needed to breakaway and together my parents opened a store in Long Island, where they had moved so that we kids could grow up with some trees around us.
He settled into what must have seemed like an idyllic life, especially knowing how tragically early life ended for his whole extended family in Europe.
He was proud of his kids, but left us to navigate on our own. My mother was his world, and his only escape was the fellowship of his Masonic Lodge. Otherwise, it was all about life’s simple pleasures.
He would do the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in ink, and he would fill it out as if it was a form, from top-left to bottom right, almost never having to jump ahead to look for an easy one further down on the puzzle.
When he died, there was his last puzzle, in ink, half-finished, by his bedside. I’ve framed that puzzle and it is one of my most prized possessions.
Now that I’m mellowing out, I’m finding more Leo in me. I definitely inherited his schmoozing gene, and my family always says that I’m a pushover when it comes to any kind of negotiation.
My love of music is definitely from my Dad. We would drive around and listen to WNEW and play a game to identify the singer, whether it was easy, like Sinatra, or challenging, like Dinah Washington.
When Sirius Satellite radio replaced my 40’s on 4 Channel with the Billy Joel Channel, I wanted to burn their house down but luckily some other old coots must have complained and it was Bye Bye Billy Joel and Hello Benny Goodman.
I finally got brave enough to attempt crossword puzzles and on-line Scrabble even though I’m lucky if I can finish the Wednesday NY Times puzzle—in pencil, with a well-used eraser.
The greatest gift my father gave me was his incredible curiosity and fascination with the way the world works. It’s why I’m glued to NPR and BBC, read a lot of newspapers and constantly think how nice it would be to call Leo to discuss how this all came to be.