Friday, June 14, 2013

A Thwarted Eulogy - from the files of Cold Dirt Press in 2011

My father passed away on October 17th at the age of 89. His health gradually failed this past summer after angioplasty for blocked arteries in his legs. He survived a lengthy list of adversities from forced labor under the Nazis to having a lung removed over 25 years ago and yet he was the funniest person I ever knew. Not knock-knock jokes funny, he had more of a skewed philosophical take on the world that made you think before you laughed your ass off.

The photo above showed him displaying Christmas cards on a ribbon strung across the room like one of his favorite characters, Mr. Bean.

A few days before he died, I was cleaning out his desk drawers and came across a photo of the headstone that he chose over a decade ago. He was damn proud of that and didn't care if people freaked out over his satisfaction with it. My dad never finished school in Poland and his grasp of English was more like a juggling act. On this picture, he typed, yes, with a typewriter, "Please come wisit as." (The w in Polish has the vee sound.) That was his directive to us.

I'd written a brief eulogy for the funeral but the priest never gave us the opportunity to speak and I needed to share it. It's geared toward an audience in a Polish Roman Catholic Church and I refrained from my usual subversive, cynical attitude.

Here goes:

My father held the secret to the fountain of youth. That may sound like a strange thing to say about a life made up of 89 years but I believe that despite the toll that time took on his body; my father’s mind was still youthful and childlike. He looked at the world in the same way that his grandchildren and great-grandchildren do: with promise, curiosity and hope. His secret was something that he shared freely with everyone. It was through the combined power of humor and love that he conquered fear and adversity.

This power helped him to survive the occupation of his beloved Poland and the unfathomable separation from his family, being taken to Nazi Germany as a teenager. Despite their subjugation of his body to slave on their behalf, Pawel kept his mind under his own control, using his wiles to endure and remain positive that justice would prevail over tyrants. It also helped him and his young family to courageously leave behind the refugee camps and venture forth to a new life, making their way across the Atlantic Ocean on a military transport ship, to land in the home of the free and the brave.

Yes, he worked very hard as a machinist and a handyman supporting his wife and children but he also loved to play. Family gatherings were rich with culture and music. Given his innate artistic and socializing talents, my dad could light up a room of kids or adults alike entertaining them with jokes and songs. Even a power blackout was fun with my pop telling stories to make the time fly by. By the way, dad was one of the best polka dancers around, spinning across the dance floor with breakneck speed, expert grace and agility. All you had to do was hold on. He could easily engage any stranger he met with a tale or two from his vast experience until they became a fan of his in no time, wanting to know more about this fascinating man.  

My dad was a complicated man who loved tradition and history yet also appreciated innovation. The pride he felt at becoming a United States citizen was palpable. He mastered the flag code knowing the proper way to display the Stars and Stripes and he absolutely loved the power of the democratic process. He had no qualms about teaching his daughters to be handy with tools or demonstrating that men could be active participants in childrearing duties. He could be sensitive as well as resilient. My brother and I watched slapstick comedies and intellectual, esoteric dramas together with him without reservation. He held a philosophical view of life that questioned the way things were done and he loved the invitation to solve a problem. There was the infamous Paul O. unique approach to language, making up words and speaking in a skewed fashion that forced you to think in a different way much like a Buddhist monk dropping some knowledge on the novice student. 

I am sure that under different circumstances, my father could have been an engineer or a designer, an artist or a professional musician or anything that a formal education would have offered him the opportunity to explore. Whether you knew him as Pawel, Paul, Tata, Dad, or Dziadek, he was an unforgettable character. To me, he was already a creative renaissance man able to whistle while he worked, dance through life and remain forever young in our hearts.

Mom and Dad with my three sisters in the refugee camp in Germany.
The family in 1957 in New York State with my brother added.

Fun times with fellow refugees in Germany.

A contemplative pose.

One of my favorite pictures of my dad and his Sigmund Freud beard.

My pop and me. 

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