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My father, I could say, was larger than life, but what does that mean? As the youngest (and smallest son) of a well-known judge, he didn’t fully come into his own until his father and one of his brothers passed. The parallels, on a much smaller scale, with the Kennedy clan were hard to miss. Joe Junior and my father had, in fact, been roommates at Harvard, which earned Dad two Thanksgivings and one summer at the Hyannis compound, not to mention endlessly entertaining stories.

Dad, in his prime, fully occupied whatever space or moment in time he was given. A short, broad-chested man, he was nevertheless an enormously imposing presence.  At the restaurant where he lunched in downtown Milwaukee for nearly thirty years, the owners called him “the Don,” though he was clearly not Italian. His voice was loud, his spirit generous, his temper prodigious, his appetite for life endless.

Dad had what used to be called an encyclopedic knowledge of the world (this was before Wikipedia and Google searches put the world at our fingers); and he possessed a near-obsession with sharing what he knew.  His brain held endless amounts of both arcane and relevant pieces of information. If we wanted to find out or verify some trivial piece of information, we could go to Encyclopedia Britannica or the Webster’s, or we could go to Dad. He seemed to know everything about baseball and was featured on a local quiz show back in the fifties. Poetry, the Civil War, mid-twelfth century British history—these were also his specialties, but his interests ranged far and wide. I’d read in a school science text that we humans actively used about 10% of our brain; surely my dad’s percentage was far greater.

My dad loved debate and discussion; really, he loved a good argument. Although somewhat indifferent to religion, he would have made a great Talmudic scholar He wasn’t always in it to win it either: he welcomed and honored a well-planned précis or a carefully constructed case.  A guy’s guy–he loved sports and Scotch and fast cars–he also loved women, especially strong, smart women. While his comfort with and preference for his eldest son over his two daughters may have been a bit obvious in the early years,  he gradually became aware of how different—and, to his way of thinking, special–all three of his children were.

Dad had definite ideas about work and family; he was never going to work so hard that he’d miss dinner with his family…and he never did. In those days, someone with a small practice could make his own hours.  Being an attorney meant working from 9-5, which allowed us to be, if not wealthy, then comfortable and in possession of a full-time dad, one who took us ice-skating and to ball games and on car trips and sat at the head of the table nearly every day during my childhood.

Life with Dad wasn’t a walk in the park, chiefly because of the above-mentioned temper.  Nothing physical, ever, but still, Dad’s temper was a thing unto itself. Like a sudden thunderstorm or a flash flood, his anger could sweep through a space, laying waste to everything in its path. Just as suddenly, the storm would pass, the sun would be out and everything would be fine again. I’m not sure he ever noticed any injuries he may have caused among those who took longer to emotionally recompose. At one time, I resented him for that failure. Later, I realized that Dad never stewed. What you saw was what you got. And my mother certainly made it work. For sixty years they had a partnership filled with travel and art and love and laughter and lots of fighting. Not that his full-frontal personality was something I ever sought in a boyfriend or a mate: I wasn’t one who went looking for my father in my husband.

But as a Dad, a protector, a presence, and a truly inspirational figure, I couldn’t have asked for better. Dad ate and drank and opined nd argued and lived. Watching him fight for fifteen years against the organ failures that would ultimately claim him was at once painful and awe-inspiring. And fight he did, like a dying sun that burns disproportionately bright even as it consumes itself from the inside out. He traveled, he golfed, he drove (until we took away the keys) and he raged, oh yes he did. My father did not “go gently into that good night.” But as he fought death, he still lived life: he sang, recited, remembered and surrendered enough of his formidable ego so that I could talk to him, help him, and tell him I loved him.

Now every Father’s Day, I remember Father, with all his foibles, flaws, great strengths and greater passions. He was the sun in my life, without a doubt, larger certainly than my life. Or maybe not. Now that he’s gone, I’ve begun to discover within myself a tiny sliver of that fierce intellect. Thanks, Dad.

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