This blog has been dark for several days, since my father died on Saturday, an unbearably sad event made worse by the circumstances surrounding his passing. Temporarily, our family has put these events out of our mind to focus on his life and our memories like these. Regular postings will resume early next week.
My father, Milton Elefant, was the kind of guy you’d never notice in a crowd but the one whom everyone would come to rely on nonetheless. A quiet, trustworthy and self-deprecating chemist, (when complimented on the reputation of NYU, his alma mater, my dad always replied that it was walk-in admission back in his day and an easier commute than CUNY), my dad was the one chosen to head up the lab at his company even though he never earned an advanced degree, and probably sat on 6 or 7 juries, since he was chosen every time he showed up.
As a chemist, my dad had that mad-scientist thing going, and was both absent-minded and curious. For my 9th birthday, he lead me and ten friends on a hike inTourne Park, and somehow managed to get us lost – so he left us by the roadside, hiked to a house and hitched a ride back to the picnic tables to pick up the car to retrieve us. My dad would take my sisters and me to his lab on weekends, letting us run wild, mixing compounds like phenolphthalein and HCl, the latter which I didn’t recognize as a potentially dangerous acid til high school. He was the most popular dad on career day with the dry ice and color changing experiments. He’d bring us guinea pigs and mice from the lab for pets and the mice, especially always got loose (they kept having babies;forever-multiplying mice). But my dad would fish the drowned bodies out of the sump pump without a word. One time, three of the escaped mice stayed loose in the house for probably 2 months – my dad trapped them in a bucket and simply couldn’t get over how they’d survived for so long. “They must have crept into the bag of dog food to eat, and drank water from the leak in the sink,” he speculated. “They were real Amazons.”
Needless to say, in a houseful of women – a wife and four daughters, my father scarcely had a chance to get a word in edgewise, and he wasn’t a macho, domineering type. He was the one whom my sisters would come to at night when we were feverish or had nightmares, and he’d let us play “beauty shop,” brushing the ring of hair on his balding pate and affixing bows to the single tuft on top. When my mom returned to college to finish her degree when my sisters and I ranged in age from 2-8, my dad took responsibility for dinner and religious school pick-up and bed-time two or three nights a week for the next five years.
Although we were girls, there was never any doubt that we’d all go to college – though back then, some girls were still directed to secretarial or two-year nursing school. My sisters and I received some aid and took out loans to cover about half of our tuition, but my parents borrowed money to make up the difference. I have no idea how my dad slept nights under that burden of debt but he never begrudged paying, never held it over our heads or demanded anything — even a glance at our grades – in return.
My dad paid for college because it was the right thing to do. Just as he paid for four weddings, and cleaned up under the table at night and rose at 5 am to jog with the family dogs that all of us wanted, but no one wanted to take care of and spent much his retirement watching grandchildren whenever he could to make my sisters’ and my life easier (And his grandchildren adored him, with even the 2 six year olds and eight year olds insisting on speaking at his funeral and proclaiming the date of his death, Remember Milton Day). Not because he sought awards or praise or (heaven forbid) to be cutting edge but because it was the right thing to do.
My dad was an ordinary man, someone you might easily pass by in a crowd. Yet in today’s often selfish, self-centered world, where we expect a pat on the back every time we help a spouse or go the extra mile for a client, or force our children to make sacrifices so that we can do what we want rather than the other way around, that my dad did everything he did, without complaint or expectation but simply because it was the right thing to do is, really, nothing short of extraordinary. May his memory be an inspiration.