Love. That is the only word that does justice for my dad.
Love of my mother. Love of family. Love of Judaism. Love of country. Love of business. Love of books and bridge and golf and newspapers and politics. Love of his Chicago Cubs. Love of life.
My dad and mom are a major love story. He married her at 23 after just 3 months. They would have been married 69 years this July.
Their romance was storybook. Just a few years ago my siblings and I took them out for dinner on their anniversary. Mom shows up holding one perfect yellow rose. We asked where she got the flower. “My boyfriend,” she said. “He sent me a dozen and they were so beautiful I had to bring one to dinner.”
I realized no one came before my mom many years ago. We were teenagers and were being obnoxious like teenagers are. We were mean to my mom. And dad had just had it.
He sat us down. I remember his tall, towering presence as his wagged his finger in the air and said, “I’ve known your mother a lot longer than I have known any of you. And if I’m going to choose, it’s her.”
On another recent anniversary, we had a long table at Briarwood – really long – there are a lot of us. Mom turned to dad and said, “Shelly, look at all these people we produced.”
And as dad always did on family occasions, he made a speech. Before he even started we all were digging for tissues. In recent years, he always made us cry.
He talked about their first date at the Empire Room. It was a blind date. He said, mom would know it was him because he would wear a yellow scarf. Then he choked up.
He reached under his sweater and pulled out the yellow scarf. And choking back tears he put it on. And said, “And that was the best day of my life.”
Love of family. There isn’t enough time to tell the thousands of stories about family. My dad adored us. He kept track of every grandchild and great-grandchild and always asked specific questions pertinent to their lives. Even as recently as this week, he remembered everything about everyone.
I remember he held Andrew at his bris. And also he held his first great-grandson Carter.
Dad helped all of us. David has always said that when he started trading Dad lent him the money to do that. Dad was unconditionally supportive of David and completely trusted him. For David, that was a pivotal moment in his life.
For me, my dad picked me up when I was diagnosed with cancer, and before I started chemo, in his completely optimistic way insisted I believe I would be fine.
For Nancy, his influence regarding sports spilled over to school. Every book report she wrote was about baseball, or a player or a team. The teachers finally called my mom worried that she was sports- obsessed.
And Michael. My big brother. Just as my dad was the sweetest, most caring person we knew, Michael has become just that as he has gotten older. With his strong resemblance and Dad’s walk, he is the embodiment of dad. As all of us had our moments of falling apart this week, he was the voice of reason. He was the glue.
On my Dad’s last birthday, Feb. 27 I made dinner at my house for the family. It was magical. He was so happy, there were lots of stories told, and laughing that seriously had us falling over. I was especially proud to make Barefoot Contessa’s Chocolate cake. When he left, he said all the stories we told around the table were even better than the cake.
Love of Judaism. A founding member of Rodfei Shalom on the south side, it was there we spent many Saturday mornings. Later, he was active at Beth Hillel in Wilmette. It was with great pride he would say all of his children and grandchildren were Bar and Bat Mitzvah. He loved that I have read Torah on Yom Kippur for the last 6 years. In the hospital this week, his face lit up when Rabbi Steve was in the room. When Rabbi Steve grabbed his hand and told him G-d is with you every step of the way, my dad put his other hand on Steve’s. He loved hearing Steve talk about the Cubs. He loved the Hebrew prayers at his bedside. And the last time Steve was with him, Dad blew him a kiss through his oxygen mask.
Love of country. Dad was a navigator in WWII.
Growing up he never talked about the war. We knew there was a box of maps of the bombing missions in a closet, but he never wanted to talk about it.
It took some convincing for my dad to let me interview him. In 1999, he let me write a feature story that was published on Veterans Day. The title was “What did you do in the war, dad? - A daughter a chronicles her father’s World War II experiences. http://www.bergerreport.com/1999/11/of-all-the-articles-i-have-written-this-is-my-favorite-i-wrote-this-in-1999-about-my-dad-and-his-exp.html
Of all the stories I have written, this is the one that means the most.
I heard how the first time he flew he didn’t wear a belt so it became good luck to never wear one. How during his first flight he was “scared to death.”
Dad was 76 when I interviewed him. He remembered every detail, which isn’t surprising because even recently, at age 92 he remembers everything.
He remembers spending 10 hours in a Piper Cub with a woman instructor Helen Johnson. I was surprised that he remembered his instructor’s name, but it all made sense after he told me what she said to him after the flight training was finished: “If you ever become a pilot, I'll eat this plane.”
When he returned alive after his first bombing mission, he realized he didn’t wear a belt.
“I was terrified — there is no feeling like it. I was so nervous I forgot the belt for my pants. We made it back and I never wore a belt again. It became a superstition.”
After every mission the Air Force issued each man two shots of whiskey.
He flew 7 more missions.
I asked him, looking back, what it felt like.
“But for the grace of God it could have been me. All the young men I knew who never came back. When you see other planes on fire and men parachuting out, how could you ever believe you’re going to come back?”
He started to tell me about a buddy, Stanley Spatz, of Far Rockaway, New York who was killed on a mission, then stopped halfway through and- even all these years later couldn’t talk about it.
My dad told me that at the end of the war, the American bombing groups were so overwhelmingly strong that the Germans didn’t have a chance. He talked of shooting down other planes but even now, more than 50 years later, couldn’t say the words.
Instead, he said, “They got taken care of by our fighter pilots.”
The last three missions my dad flew were humanitarian missions in 1945 over Holland -“Chow Hound” was the code name for these food drops to the Dutch, who were starving.
“I remember we looked down after the food drop and they had written ‘Thank you boys’ in tulips.”
That was the great irony, he said. The planes that were designed to destroy ended the war as agents of good will.
My dad loved his work. It was thrilling for him to expand Best’s Kosher beyond all the sports venues in Chicago even to Japan – what an accomplishment to have been instrumental in the growth of a business –Best’s Kosher, built on the backs of our family for over 100 years.
When I wrote the op/ed in the Chicago Tribune “End of a Chicago Tradition” he loved it and called me crying. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2009-01-23/news/0901220700_1_kosher-hot-dogs-rabbi-dov-behr-manischewitz
He loved to read and devoured the Chicago Tribune and New York Times every day. He often called me to tell to turn to page 3 of NY Times or read some opinion piece. He read multiple books a week. He was more current in world events and politics than people way younger.
Just last week we had devised a way to understand what he wanted as it was hard to speak with oxygen. At first he could scribble notes. On Wednesday he wrote, “Did the mayor win?”
When he couldn’t write, he made letters in the air with his finger. T. Then a R. He wanted the Chicago Tribune. And always the sports section first.
And when Philip, his first grandson was in from Calif. He made the letter W and mouthed WATER. We asked if that’s what he wanted. No - then he made the letter C. the A. then L. California! I figured out he wanted to know about the drought in Calif. How was Phil’s lawn?
His Cubs. A lifetime at Wrigley Field. Our Sundays as kids he would go to Ricky’s to buy rye bread. And every Sunday the guy behind the counter would say,” No meat to go with that?”
At home, my siblings and I formed an assembly line. One laid out bread. The next mustard, Then salami or corned beef. Off we would go with two dozen sandwiches. More if it was a double header.
My best Cubs memory was when I was 16 working the switchboard at best kosher. My dad grabbed me late morning and said we are taking the afternoon off. Off to Wrigley field - we got seats in the grandstands. And that day we witnessed a triple play. I googled the calendar and found out it was Wed July 31, 1968. The Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Cincinnati Reds. Now that was a moment.
My father was always this strong towering presence who had the ability to emote unlike men of his generation. From a very early age he would talk about how much he loved us. As he grew older on birthdays and other family celebrations, we came to expect a poignant speech, peppered with tears.
I imagine as a young man flying bombing missions he learned to be tough. As he journeyed through life it was important to share his feelings. He really did live these last few years as though every day could be his last. Every phone call ended with “I love you”. An “I love you” that was not rote. It was heartfelt. You heard it in his voice. Hearing it each time went right to your heart.
This last week he gave us a gift that is immeasurable. The family came running. In his room we each held his hand, told him stories and searched the TV for sporting events. We worried but did not show it. His hand was never empty. If his eyes were closed, someone would grab his hand and say “Hi Grandpa. It’s me Lizzie. Or Danny, Or Laura or Annie or Steven or Sarah or Abby or Andrew. Grandpa’s eyes would open. And as the days went on and it was the names of the out of town grandchildren he heard– Matthew, Philip or Allison, there was a smile behind the oxygen mask and even a tear. I will never forget the look on his face when Philip entered the room. Pure joy.
In spite of a body that was no longer cooperating, he was content. He was happy. He was still our beloved dad and grandpa.
At night one of us slept in the recliner next to his bed in the ICU. His children and grandchildren watched over his every breath.
My mother kept us laughing. She asked Rabbi Steve why he couldn’t pray for a Cubs win (he explained Rabbis are not supposed to invoke futile prayers)
His respiration rate would improve when mom was in the room. She said it was a result of the conjugal visit. When we all told her to tell dad that it’ Ok to go she did - in her own way. She reminded him that they have never been late for anything and added “Enough already.”
She kept all of us laughing this week just as she kept Dad laughing his whole life.
On the day of the Cubs opener he was not doing well. But a room filled with my mom, children and grandchildren drawing posters for the game made him rally. He watched the game with more people in that ICU room than Highland Park Hospital ever allowed.
My dad left this world he loved so much holding my hand and his grandson Danny’s. Both daughter-in-laws Becky and Rachel were there. So were his granddaughters Laura and Lizzy. For six hours he listened to Itzhak Pearlman play Mozart and Beethoven. He waited for Pachelbel’s Canon D Major to take his last breath. It was peaceful. In a room full of love he left us.
In those last moments as his hand was in mine, I flashed back to my hand in his as a little girl – holding his hand at Rib Hill for dinner, walking on Saturday mornings in our neighborhood in Wilmette to visit friends –especially Sally and Syd (the four of them were Lucy and Ethel and Fred and Desi) –I struggled to keep up with his long legs and fast, deliberate pace. I reached for his hand as we entered Wrigley Field, as we went to lunch at Manny’s deli on a work break and even as an adult if we crossed a busy street.
And now, in recent years he relied on my hands to steady himself and the hands of Michael, David, Nancy and especially Lina who he loved very much.
A lot of the kids talked about dad’s hands in the last days. Always perfectly manicured, and strong, it was those hands that always cupped the chins of his children and grandchildren. That was his signature touch.
I kissed my dad’s head as he took his last breath. It was the most powerful, beautiful moment of my life.
“We measure lives not in time
But in grace-
In the joy with which they lived
And in the love – which they leave behind.”
Thank you Dad. You’ve left us with a whole lot of love.
News Obit Chicago Tribune: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-sheldon-sternberg-obituary-met-20150412-story.html?fb_action_ids=10152656177175938&fb_action_types=og.shares&fb_source=other_multiline&action_object_map=%5B749442291841176%5D&action_type_map=%5B%22og.shares%22%5D&action_ref_map=%5B%5D