I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have been Milton’s son. He was a very smart, generous, loving, and humorous man. It was my wife, Sally, who reminded me yesterday of the story concerning Dad’s shoes. We were pulling the car into the Nevele parking area for an extended family vacation when we saw Dad pacing in front of the entrance. He always seemed to arrive at destinations first. I think it had something to do with his liberal interpretation of speed limits. I noticed that he seemed to be standing taller than I remembered. It was the shoes- the heels were at least an inch-and-a-half thick.
After we all greeted him, I said, “Wow, Dad, that’s quite a pair of shoes that you’ve got.”
“Yeah, I bought them just the other day. Guess, how much they cost? Only ten dollars.”
It’s a Mann family thing: we have trouble resisting bargains.
“Good deal,” I said. “And look at all those colors: blue, and orange, with pink highlights.” I felt compelled to describe the colors in detail, as Dad was color-blind.
“Yes, yes, and they look rather nice, don’t you think?
I was thinking, “nice if you plan on joining the circus” but I said nothing and simply shook my head, weakly in the affirmative.
That night, when he greeted us at the dinner table in the large dining hall, I noticed that he was still wearing the shoes. I mentioned them again and looked towards my mother who smiled at me, shook her head, and held up her hands, palms facing the ceiling. I’d seen that gesture before. It meant, “I tried. Believe me, I tried, but there is no talking to the man.”
When my father made up his mind about something, it was next to impossible to budge him. After he recovered from his last stroke in November of 2005, he decided he would drive out each weekend to visit Ruth on Long Island.
“Dad”, I said, “You’ve just recovered from a major stroke. You can afford to hire a limousine and relax in the back seat.”
“That won’t be necessary,” he said.
“I don’t want you behind the wheel, risking your own life and the lives of others, travelling at ninety miles an hour.”
“Ninety miles an hour?” He smiled. “It’s more like eighty-five now.”
Once when I visited him on a Sunday afternoon after he returned from Long Island, I saw the wheel of one of those giant trucks imprinted on the passenger side of his car. “I see that a semi made quite an impression on the body of your car.”
“Yeah,” he admitted, “That damn driver drifted into my lane.” I thought that it might have been the other way around, but there was no talking to the man. Over the course of the past three and a half years, Dad had four or five accidents, but miraculously, no one ever got hurt. As my mother used to say, “We were so lucky.”
Dad was only able to attend college for 3 months, as a young man. By the time he was nineteen, Pearl Harbor had been bombed and we had entered the Second World War. He enlisted in the army and entered the signal core. He learned to read and send Morse code at a speed of over forty words per minute and was about to be sent to the South Seas to intercept and decode Japanese communications when he came down with a terrible case of influenza. Many of his fellow soldiers never returned from their assignment but Dad safely spent the rest of the war teaching code in the states.
As an older man, he remained passionate about learning. He went to Montclair College, and in his sixties and seventies, he took numerous classes in philosophy, economics, and literature. How many children have the opportunity to engage in deep discussions with their father concerning Kierkegaard, Kafka, and Marcel Proust? Dad was very proud of the papers he wrote and often gave me them to read.
His passion for knowledge and understanding was nowhere more apparent than in his recovery from his last stroke. To this day, his recovery remains for me a source of the most profound inspiration. For over a month, Dad did not know who his sons were nor did he know who he was. I watched him return again and again to the sign outside of his hospital room, while holding on to the stand that held his intravenous bag. He was determined to put together the bits and pieces of his recently shattered existence and decode the numbers and letters on the sign. “Room 704”, he said, “July 4th! July 4th? No. No. Milton Mann? Milton Mann?” Eventually, he reassembled himself into a coherent whole and lived another 3 ½ years, doing exactly what he wanted to do: going to work, travelling to Long Island, and spending quality time with children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.
Dad loved seeing family and he was quite fond of taking us all to the Tick Tock Diner. Just a few days before his final stroke, we were all assembled there: Dad and Ruth, three sons, three grandchildren, and his three beautiful great granddaughters. I have never seen him happier. The workers all knew him at the diner, and when he would signal the waiting staff across that crowded room, they were quick to respond, and seemed to enjoy all of his eccentricities. Once when his grandson, Jake, was hungry, waiting for his hamburger and fries that were long overdo, he wandered into the kitchen to find out what was holding them up. It was like he owned the place. Another time he signaled the waitress while holding his empty glass. She came right over and Dad said, “We all need a little more… mayonnaise.”
“He means, water,” I said.
“Water, that’s right. My boy is right. We all need waaaater.”
Milt even found a way of dealing with the hardship of aphasia with charm and style.
But after this last stroke, when it was clear to all of us that the up-side of a possible recovery would provide no real quality of life, no measure of independence, and that the terms of such a life would be entirely unacceptable to him, my father took his leave of life in the same fashion that he did everything else in his life: quickly and decisively.
I feel so incredibly fortunate to have had Milton as my father and as a grandfather for my two boys, Jake and Isaac. On behalf of myself, and my brothers, Daniel and Gary, I’d like to thank all of you for coming here this morning and being with us on this day of mourning and celebration. My father lived a good and long life.