November 27, 2011

What My Father Taught Me…and Why I Am Forever Grateful

My father is an amazing man. An amazing father to me, an amazing husband to my mother, an amazing man to everyone. I am lucky and honored to have been birthed and raised by such a fine person.

Dad, you taught me well and this series of posts is my documentation of what you taught me so that perhaps others might find it useful as I did. Maybe our father and son relationship can be brightened even more by knowing that we’ve positively influenced the lives of others, even if only in small ways. What a nice legacy that would be for us.

So let me attempt to do just that.

Dear reader, within the posts that will follow this one will be my attempt to convey to you some of the wisdom I learned from my father, or for which my father’s wisdom served as an entryway into useful knowledge or insight. It is a way I’m honoring my father while doing something I hope will be useful to others. If I were to write these posts as part of a book, I would title the book What my father taught me…and why I am forever grateful.

Each post will be an encapsulation of the wisdom I have gleaned from many years being raised by my father along with the many happy years of an adult relationship with him. Stay tuned to this blog for installments of this post thread. I’m excited to share with you what my father shared with me.

4 Comments on “What My Father Taught Me…and Why I Am Forever Grateful

Eve Donovan
November 28, 2011 at 12:01 am

Hi Race,
After i read your post the very bitchy ‘me’ came to the fore front of my mind and well,,,, the first thing that came to my mind was “Well goody for you…that you have a great father. “. But i realized that was just the bitchy me, which i can sometimes be. Seeing as my sperm-doner didn’t stick around very long, and when he was around he was often drunk and throwing things and us kids across the floor. He was very emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically abusive, cold, always complaining, and very bigoted. I always longed for a relationship with him that didn’t involve him telling me what a mistake i was, how he should have worn a condom, what an embarrassment i was, how i was his (and i quote), “favorite tax break” , how i would never amount to anything, and his personal favorite, how i was a complete waste of skin, breath and life. His words, and actions have haunted me ever since. These are “my demons” i guess. i guess even in a sense it’s shaped part of my Leather Dreams… But i know your question was on a more positive side, since you and your dad get on so well, and it is a tribute to his fathering, and to him as a person, and as a man. Since my father didn’t teach me anything positive, and i have nothing positive to say about him, i thought i would comment anyway, just to say that you, and everyone who DOES have a great father, step-father, foster father, father-in-law, Godfather, and even those in the kink world who have awesome “Daddies, or Masters” should consider themselves EXTREMELY lucky, to have what i have always seen as a dying breed, being a “real man”. For they are too few and way too far between……

Alan Arthur Chiras
November 28, 2011 at 3:06 am

My Father beat the shit out of me almost every day as a very young person until I was 12 years and stood up to him. He also whipped my back with a leather belt with holes in it. He died very old, but I’m still glad that he is dead.

Ces Willaims
December 6, 2011 at 4:41 pm

I had a wonderful father also, and he taught me many things. He taught me how to love and be loved in return, to be honest, and trustworthy. He use to say to me all the time I waited 42 years for you and gave me the female version of his name. I know not everyone had a great experience with their father and that saddens me. I look forward to the rest of your post regarding your father. Mine passed in 1982 but very seldom does a day go by that I don’t think of him. He was daddy to me until the day he passed on and even now at 66 I still refer to him as daddy.

David Ortmann
December 7, 2011 at 4:42 pm

I’m not sure anything can encapsulate my father, and what he meant to me, more than the eulogy I wrote and delivered for him at his funeral earlier this year. It’s a long one:

There are a lot of parents here today, and a lot of children too. I just want to say to the parents, please don’t feel like you have to keep your infants and toddlers quiet. You don’t have to take them to the quiet children’s room at the back of the church. My father loved children. He would want them here.

Late Tuesday morning I was sitting right beside my father. His body, after a brave life, a brave year, and a particularly brave few months, was dying. The wife that had a huge hand in keeping him alive and healthy for longer than any of us dreamed possible was right there with him and so was his beloved sister, Bobbie. We’d been by his side for almost three days. I don’t know what we would have done without my father’s sister Jean, his brother-in-law Robert, and their daughters JudeAnne, Darlene, Jeanne and all of their sensitive, loving children to help us simply by being there. They loved my Dad too, so very much. Whether he was Dave, David, Dad, Uncle Butch, or Butchie, my Dad was well loved under a variety of names. What I do know, is that keeping vigil and eventually consoling and holding my father as he left this plane of existence, changed my relationship with my Mom and Aunt forever. Sharing that experience bonded me to these two brilliant, loving, but admittedly different, women forever.

My father died slowly. Little came easy to my #1 guy in life, including death. I am still so angry that my Dad could never quite get a break. His sweet beautiful body was so very sick and weak. Over a very long weekend and particularly during his last twelve hours, my father’s breathing became, thankfully, less labored, less painful, shallower and, ultimately, less frequent.

I was lucky to have been sitting right next to where his handsome head lay, that Tuesday morning. I looked at him. I was stroking his arm. He was gazing right through me. I have no idea what his tired, swimming eyes saw. One of his beloved doctors came in. Jean and Bob were there. His head was tilted toward the window, as it had been all night, the sun was shining. He coughed, which was new… he hadn’t coughed in hours. “I remember saying, “That’s new.” He coughed again and then he sneezed quietly. His face began to relax. I’ve never seen lines and wrinkles disappear so quickly. All the tension and pain left his face. He opened his eyes wide, looked right at me briefly and he grinned. It was the grin of a little boy. He took a deep breath, let part of it out, and his head fell gently to his right, settling on his pillow, and he smiled. He smiled. I knew my Dad was finally at peace and all I could hear in my head was the song I’d been singing to myself, and into his ear, throughout the last two nights. There are many great singers here today to honor my father, so I will simply read these lyrics. “Into the West” is by Fran Walsh, Howard Shore, and Annie Lennox from Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” and could have been written specifically for my father’s passing. It’s about the deep pain of goodbyes and letting go.

Lay down
Your sweet and weary head
Night is falling
You have come to journey’s end

Sleep now
And dream–of the ones who came before you
They are calling
From across a distant shore

Why do you weep?
What are those tears upon your face?
Soon you will see
All of your fears will pass away

Safe in my arms
You’re only sleeping

What can you see
On the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?

Across the sea
A pale moon rises
The ships have come
To carry you home

And all will turn to silver glass
A light on the water
All souls pass

Hope fades
Into the world of night
Through shadows falling
Out of memory and time

Don’t say
We have come now to the end
White shores are calling
You and I will meet again

And you’ll be here in my arms
Just sleeping

What can you see
On the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?

Across the sea
A pale moon rises
The ships have come
To carry you home

And all will turn to silver glass
A light on the water
Grey ships pass
Into the West.

I am David Ortmann Jr. I was named after my father David Ortmann, Sr., whose day of celebration this is. I’ve always been very proud of my father, and, as I’ve told him before, I am proud to carry his name and to be his son.

I just want to say, this honoring of my father is not something I am going to get through without crying or breaking down, and that’s fine. I think something would be wrong if I didn’t break down delivering an homage to my beautiful father on this very special, sad, day. I learned a lot from my Dad and one of those great lessons was that it was not only okay, but also right, for men to show their feelings, to be transparent about their love.

The 1970’s and 1980’s in our family were a whirlwind of love, laugher and irreplaceable good times. Between Dad’s sister Jean and Uncle Bob, their daughters Jude Ann, Jeanne, Darlene, Aunt Dot, Uncle Izzy, their sons Brian and Danny, my Mom, Dad, my sister and me, Aunt Bev, Uncle Tom, their daughters Jennifer, Christina, and Courtney… there was always a cast of thousands at BBQs, pool parties, birthday celebrations, and those long food-filled Christmas Eve’s. I remember, that Daddy and Uncle Izzy would always embrace heartily and kiss upon every greeting and parting (while most of my other male relatives shook hands or awkwardly patted each other on the back). I’ll never forget, I was about seven or eight, when I questioned why they hugged and kissed each other. Uncle Izzy said, quick and right on the spot, so very much his smart style “I love your Dad, David, why wouldn’t I hug and kiss him?” Dad said later that a lot of guys have a hard time showing affection, but that real men always showed and shared their love. Life was too short for anything less. That moment sealed something in me. I have never been afraid to show my love and affection for anyone, the children or the adults in my life, the men and the women. For that, I thank you Dad… and I thank you Uncle Izzy.

David Ortmann was a husband, a child, a brother, a son, a man, a boy, a father, a lover, a bowler, a Christian, a spiritualist, a reader, a historian, a walker, a lover of nature, a wonderfully attentive uncle, an effervescent grandfather, and a total goofball. His windingly long stories sometimes had no discernible end. His jokes, often fell short. But he made us laugh and seduced us with his boyish, often irreverent charm. Helen Ulozas once said she was smitten with Dave. I confess, without shame, that I was too. You couldn’t not be taken under his spell. What made it truly magic is that his charisma was unrehearsed and unconscious. It just was.

I was reminded how extensively my father touched people with his great sense of humor on the evening following his passing. Some of his and my Mom’s closest friends and family gathered at our house in Avenel. We sat on the floor of the living room, and everyone had a story to tell about this man and, amidst the tears, people are laughing. And I don’t mean ha-ha. People cried out with laughter as we recounted the silly things this crazy, brilliant, fully present guy did and the crazy things he encouraged us do. The stories, the laughter, and the love were continuous themes throughout our lives, thanks, in part, to my father. I remember turning to someone that that night and saying, “It feels just like Dad is here.”

“He is.” They replied..

My father was a kid from Jersey City, the youngest of five children, the baby. The blonde, blue-eyed boy with the face eclipsing smile… the ridiculed pretty boy who eventually grew into his own natural handsomeness. My father was born into a life where more was stacked against him than for him. By his 11th year, both his Dad, Mom, and stepfather were gone. I think it’s easy for all of us to remember my Dad’s winning smile, it was infectious, contagious. You couldn’t not smile when he turned on that special light that was uniquely his. How many of us knew my Dad wore dentures, having lost most of his teeth in a street fight as a young teen. He’d been jumped by some older and bigger kids as he was leaving the Catholic Youth Association in Jersey City.

My father had to fight a lot, and I am not just talking about growing up in Jersey City in the 1950’s. Very little came easy to him. He worked hard for everything and rarely complained, whether it was the responsibility of a young family, a new mortgage, or the pressure of being a father when he had no father himself. My father learned fatherhood on the job. He had no role model, no manual. I reminded him often that he did a great job. He humored me, but I knew he could never really accept my validation of his fatherhood. Dad bore so much with great humor, dignity, and strength. Even through these difficult last years, with needles, and pick lines, and pokes and doctors, and pills, and tubes, and face masks, and pain… my father bore it all, smiled and always had something witty and loving to say, to everyone who crossed his path. Medical professionals in the hospital wept the morning my father passed. He touched everyone.

Dad was a true Jersey boy in his pegged pants and white tee-shirts, with a pack off Lucky Strikes rolled up his sleeve, standing on street corners and hanging out in Triangle Park with Uncle Stevie, Phil Chidichimo, and his crew of buddies, running errands for Nanny and Mrs. Tuland, courting my Mom and proudly showing off his bowling skills to her.

When I asked her when she first fell in love with my father, my mother said, “Right away. It was his smile, his sensitivity, and the way he walked. He would just bop around the office where we both worked. You know that walk of his? He just bopped. This was in 1966. He’d visit me in the file cage where I worked at Western Electric, showing me pictures of Bob and Jean Rhode’s girls. He was so proud to be an Uncle. He loved those kids so much. He glowed whenever he talked about them. All the girls at the office loved him. He was such an unapologetic goof. One day he’d forgotten to put on his shoes, so he just polished his slippers and wore them around the office. We started dating. Actually, I asked him out and he said ‘I am bowling tomorrow night. Why don’t you come see me?’ She did. “He lit up when he saw me. He was dating someone else and so was I, but before long, we were together.”

Dad was scarred at the prospect of meeting my grandfather, Poppi, for the first time, “I could just imagine this big Italian, with a cigar hanging out of his mouth, getting ready to fit me with a pair of cement shoes for dating his daughter.” Gram told my mother after that first meeting, “He’s not for you Mar. He’s too quiet.” Too quiet? My Dad? He must have been very nervous, very shy. But, in his typical style, he won them over. “It didn’t take long for Dad to start to call Gram, “Mom.” Before long, they were sharing beers after work and building their relationship. Dad was becoming a part of the family.

Every morning my father would leave my mother little slices of toast and a can of bluebird orange juice on her desk at Western Electric. “He always brought me breakfast, with little notes that said, “Good morning, hon. I love you.” They got married, I was born, and their life together began in earnest.

Aunt Dot, Uncle Izzy, Mom, and Dad, Aunt Bev and Uncle Tommy, had the kind of friendship that became family quickly and effortlessly from their teenage years at Snyder High School to their first jobs at Western Electric and up to this very day, almost a half a century later. I see them here today and they have been with us through all of this.

It’s is surreal, though, being here today. I am wearing my father’s suit and I’m standing exactly where he stood hundreds of times, right here at this lectern, in this church where he read those gospels that were so important to him. My father was a man of faith, certainly not a casual Catholic by any means. He lived and breathed his belief in, and his commitment to, the loving God he envisioned, spoke with daily, and was grounded by.

St. Andrews, this church, meant so much to him. He was a Eucharistic Minister here, a Lecter, he taught CCD to hundreds of neighborhood and parish children, myself included. Many former students regaled me with stories last night, at his wake, tears in their eyes recounting how my father’s influence changed their lives. My father always loved children. At the risk of psychoanalyzing him, I would say that he was trying to give all the love he was robbed of in his own youth.

My father loved easily. How this man who came from so little grew to become so much, to so many people, is a story I wish I had time to tell. My father wouldn’t like my even describing him that way: as a man who had become something, or someone, of significance. My Dad didn’t think much of himself. He thought he was unnecessary and unworthy. I like to think he can see this crowd of loved ones today or the 300 plus people who passed through his wake yesterday. I know he was the only one who held that particular low opinion of himself, but I think it was that strong insecurity and sense of “being on the outside” that drove my father to be the fearless jokester and storyteller he was. His tales may have been long and rambling, and more often than not, his jokes didn’t quite fly… but to us it simply didn’t matter. In fact, it made him all the more endearing. He made us laugh and reminded us not to take him, or ourselves, so seriously.

My father was a strong, decent, fine man and (as he would so often remind us all), a fine-looking man. How many of us have heard Dave remind us how good-looking he was? Not that he was exaggerating. My Dad was a stud, a beautiful man, inside and out, but so much of his self-aggrandizing humor covered his very private core, the core he thought we wouldn’t accept: the awkward Dave, the insecure Dave, the shy Dave, the lonely Dave. The Dave that hurt at the holidays because holiday memories of his childhood were so painful. Humor was a good defense. So much of the stomach splitting laughter he gave us, came at is own expense. The proverbial Tears of a Clown could have been written for my one-of-kind father. We never quite understood why he didn’t think he was good enough, funny enough, worthy enough or simply enough… probably because he had us laughing so much while he made us effortlessly fall in love with him. He cleverly distracted us from the fact that he’d missed out on loving that wonderful man we were all so smitten with.

What kept an orphaned street kid from becoming a delinquent — a bitter, drunk, resentful, and broken man? His life could have easily gone down that path. Maybe it was the strength of his soul, the conviction of his faith, the structure of the navy where, for the first time, he felt equal, a peer, within a diverse community of men. Perhaps it was just a desire to do better. Maybe it was the lifelong love and protection of his sister Barbara, or the open house and open arms policy of his surrogate mother, the irrepressible Jean Lee and his sister Jean Rhode. Maybe it was the adoration of his beautiful young wife Marion, or his selfless devotion to his own children and, later, his grandchildren. Not to mention Meghan, BreAnne, Makayla, Makenzie, Colin, Kirsten, Dylan, Bianca, and Rachel. Maybe it was because of all of us. My father was a deeply sensitive man and we touched and loved him so deeply, and we, over and over, were touched and loved in return.

My Father’s main weakness was his heart. One that I am convinced was a little too good for this world. Untreated rheumatic fever at age six weakened his heart, valves and contributed to his first heart attack in his early 40’s. He battled heart illness for almost thirty years. Paradoxically, his heart was also his greatest strength in that he loved easily, fearlessly, selflessly and with no conditions.

In the 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz, the Tinman seeks a heart all his own and travels many miles and through great toils to finally be given one by the great Wizard of Oz. The Wizard tells him, though, that having a heart is not enough because, “Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable.” My father had his heart broken a lot in his life but, true to form, it never kept him from going right on loving, laughing, living, and setting an example for what it means to live a decent valuable life. I am sure I am not alone in saying that I know I have a heart right now, because it is breaking.

The Wizard also says to the Tinman, “And remember, my sentimental friend, that a heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”

Look around, Dad. I hope that some part of you is here, beautiful man. This is not the life celebration of an unlovable and unworthy man. I hope you can see all the love you’ve created and shared in. It is in this alchemy… my #1 guy, my pal, and my father that you have achieved a level of immortality. Your love and your laughter live on in us and, and though we will cry and grieve, and miss you terribly, we will always remember you and we will smile, we will tell your stories, we will love you, and, above all… in your spirit, we will laugh.

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