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Last March when my dad turned 92, I came by to have lunch with him, along with the folks he was living with…and a wonderful 95-year-old housemate of his, said “so tell me a bit about your dad… what profession was he in when he was younger…” and we talked for quite a while.
But I realized after that, his profession was only representative of things that he had done – it wasn’t who he was… So, I’d like to share a few things that may give you a better view of my dad – Gil Stearn.
My dad was a great guy. And I’m not just saying that because he was my Dad. He was a great guy because he cared more about giving to others than he cared about giving to himself. He always told me if he ever won the lottery, he wanted to pay off my brother and my homes – he was never concerned about himself first…
My dad may not have been able to tell great stories, or even know a lot about his personal family tree but he had a sense of family commitment that is hard to find. He was always a ‘family man’ – and family time on weekends when we were growing up was always important. Always having dinner together and at the same table… taking Sunday drives…family vacations and even socializing — always included family – whether it was mom’s siblings or her cousins – he believed in spending time together, and for him, that – and making what he called “memories for a lifetime” — was what meant the most.
He was born in Chicago, grew up in LA and spent 23 years in NY with my mom before we all returned as a family to Los Angeles for a new journey.
When he married my mom, he became part of her family immediately. And not just because he moved to the east coast…more because he acted as a son and a brother – even my mom’s sister’s husband became a brother to him. Her cousins were a part of his social life and they all did a lot of laughing, sharing summers in the Catskills, and grew together as friends, not just family. But he never lost sight of his own family relations… in fact, his own wedding date was on my grandparent’s 35th wedding anniversary – July 9, 1949.
My dad was honest. When he first met my mom, at a B’nai Brith/AZA party, he told her he was already 21 –and didn’t want to let her know he was younger than she – but when he entered the door of his own 21st b-day surprise and saw her there, he took her outside immediately, and said, ‘I have something to tell you…’ and after a very quiet stroll of three blocks, he admitted he lied to her and would never do it again – and as far as I know, he never did.
My dad was soave – especially in his youth and younger years…. My mom always said he reminded her of Cary Grant – together, my fondest memories were of watching them dance – they did the foxtrot – possibly the only steps he knew, but he sure could glide her across a dancefloor – and when I was a little girl, he would hold me cheek-to-cheek and my small hand would rest inside his big palm, and we would fox trot too!
My dad was a good sport – whether it was in physical sports, games or simply through values – we have a selection of old home movies, and there’s a quick scene following a baseball game he played in with his men’s lodge… at the end of the game he walks over to be the first to shake hands with the opposing team – very typical of the good sport my dad was – he liked sports and he played games. And win or lose, he was always a good, jovial participant – and that continued up until the last few months, when we still played poker and cards together.
I remember the first and only house he ever owned… in NY… he photographed it as it was being built from the ground up and he himself planted trees and shrubs, grew and mowed the grass, and even created his own vegetable garden – with probably the largest eggplants you had ever seen – he would never hire anyone to do the work – it was his and he was proud. He was a great handyman too – always figuring out a better way to do something – his patience was endless in fixing things and no matter what was broken, he could always fix it and make it better. He once built a laundry shoot in the house from the upstairs bathroom down to the washing machine in the basement – anything to make it easier for my mom.
During my youngest days my dad worked hard – in fact, he had several different jobs — but he’d always find time to come say goodnight and brush my hair 100 strokes and read bedtime stories. And when I was sick, he’d play board games and watch TV with me… and though he didn’t always necessarily have a lot to say, he was always there for me, providing what he could. He gave the same 100 percent to his grandchildren when they were young – perhaps the biggest gift of all. It was never a question for him to help Shannon with anything – and when Jacob came along, they taught each other about email, communicated by phone daily – and he never missed a sports game. Yes, Poppa was his pal.
And in my mind, my dad was always a big strong guy – over 6 ft tall, with a friendly smile and demeanor – after mom was gone, we moved him to Simi Hills and he lived independently in senior living – and for the first five years or so it was a real blessing. He was so friendly, he became a brand ambassador for the facility, participated in the activities and thrived playing poker three nights a week.
But when he started to lose his memory, that’s when things got tough, and it was our turn to give back to him – reminding him of the 57 years he had with mom – the beautiful trips they had taken in better years – to places like Paris, Switzerland and Hawaii — and to offer stories of the family and friends that loved him. He was proud to have been a Navy man in WWII – still wearing a Navy hat everyday – and no matter how many gifts of USC hats Jacob brought his way, it was the Navy hat that remained daily.
He liked to hear any stories we told, even though he couldn’t remember most of it – in fact he was apologetic for it – reminding me that ‘his mind was now kaput!’ – but we could still make him smile, and still get his hearty laugh going. He was a jokester, and he liked to tease others… but he mostly just wanted others to be happy and to see them smile… especially children… it always did his heart good to see the kids.
For many, many years my dad was a golfer too… he played with the same group of guys on Sundays in California for more than 30 years – and though he was never a great golfer, he’d remind me “it doesn’t matter how it gets there… as long as it goes…” and for him, that was kind of like the latter part of his life… except for his memory, when I’d ask him how he was doing, he’d say ‘I’m coming along… I feel pretty good…in fact, I just might make it to 100…’
Well, daddy… you nearly did… and you did it by caring about others, keeping your commitments and always being true to your word. If he told you he’d be there 6 years from Tuesday at 3:47 in the morning, you can bet he’d arrive early and be waiting for you.
I know mom’s been waiting for you for a while now – nearly 13 years – and now you can be with family again.
In fact, because we took a little time between my dad’s passing and this service, I had the need to visit my Dad just last week – here – and spent a quiet 30 minutes in a private room alone with him — seeing how restful he finally looked and realizing what a toll this damn disease had taken on him. But I was comforted by seeing he was no longer confused, in fear or had any more discomfort.
And then I took a walk through the grounds here and saw a good portion of his family that will now be with him again – his parents, his two sisters and their husbands and of course, my mom. Tomorrow would have been his sister — my aunt Jean’s — 104th birthday – and she always celebrated with my mom – who’s own birthday was 4 days later (this coming Thursday) – well now, the foursome will be together to celebrate once again.
So today, let’s celebrate life and rejoice in smiles and every once-in-a-while, my dad and those with him can look down and smile at us too.
As Dr. Seuss, and a good friend, once said “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
I’ll miss you Daddy, but I’ll always be proud of who you were and what you meant to me.
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