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My World: 'No Man is an Island': Memories of my father

TALNEYWith another Father’s Day approaching, I think back on my own father. He was a complicated man.

With short, wavy hair and prone to being a little overweight in his middle and later years, he had graying hair as long as I can remember. He was 37 when I was born, and already his once jet-black hair was turning gray. He had contracted what was then referred to as “sleeping sickness” as a young man and it had left him with very poor eyesight. As a result, he wore thick glasses but always with rimless frames. In his later years, he was declared legally blind.

Like my mother, my father was an immigrant to Canada, first having arrived in the United States in 1907 with his mother and siblings from Odessa in the Ukraine, which was then part of Mother Russia. His father had arrived in New York a year or more before the rest of the family. In time, the family moved on to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where my parents eventually met, fell in love and married.

Unlike my mother, my father was so wounded by his immigrant experience he would never talk about it to any extent, and when he did, he often, as I later learned, glossed over or distorted the facts. He was like a combat soldier who could not relate his frontline experiences. They were simply too painful for him. As a result, he did everything in his power to shake off and reject any vestige of the immigrant — his accent, Old Country ways or even any recognition of his cultural past.

Unlike most other children whose fathers left for work each day and disappeared for eight or 10 hours, my father, as our local minister, performed his work often in our presence, especially on Sundays. Thus, more than other children, I saw him in his official role — preaching, reaching out to others and tending his flock. I recognized early on that he had these kinds of commitments that extended beyond his family, beyond each of us. I accepted his bifurcated professional life without question.

I remember how my father valued education and how he worked to complete his doctorate while still performing his full-time ministerial duties. On evenings and Saturdays, he could be found at his study in the church, working on his dissertation. We were all so proud when he finally completed his degree requirements and was awarded his degree with honors. He wore his doctoral hood at formal occasions with immense pride.

While my mother tended to the needs of our family and taught by her love and actions the values of family, my father taught, by his life and actions, that there was a world outside and beyond our family that needed to be served as well. “No man is an island,” from John Donne, was one of his favorite quotes.

Growing up, I could recall his work to improve living conditions for migrant laborers, his service on the Governor’s Task Force for Indian Affairs and his appointment by President Eisenhower to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. He was twice awarded the Valley Forge Freedom Medal for his public service. None of his efforts were to proselytize his beliefs, but to better the lives of those who deserved better opportunities in life. But in the process, he lived his beliefs.

When he became a minister, my father assumed a solemn and more dignified role in life. While he still enjoyed a good joke, he had a public presence to maintain. It was years before he would drive anything but a black car with black sidewall tires, usually a Packard or a Chrysler. I recall how excited I was as a high school senior to come home from school one day and find my father had purchased a new Buick hardtop convertible with white sidewall Michelin tires and blue leather upholstery. He upped my dateability stature instantly. But still, when it came to dress, even now I see him in my mind’s eye always wearing a suit and tie, and often a snap-brim fedora-style hat.

My father was an optimist. As he aged, I could see his ability to work gradually diminishing as his eyesight faded and his health grew worse. And I would see small signs of depression from time to time, as he would find he could no longer do something as he had done it in the past. But the depression would never last long. He always found a creative outlet that would allow him to feel alive again. If he could no longer garden, he could have a window box of flowers. If he could no longer care for a window box of flowers, he could have a single potted plant. And so it went. Despite his many health issues as he aged, he never seemed to realize he was old.

Even legally blind, my father still always found ways to know what was going on the in larger world. The Oregon Commission for the Blind provided him with a machine that enlarged type for books and magazines, and he used it daily, reading both the daily newspapers and the weekly news magazines. He was an avid Trail Blazers fan to the end, although he never attended a game and couldn’t see the team play on TV. He relied on the voice of Blazers announcer Bill Schonely to follow the action.

So looking back on my own long life, I have come to realize my mother’s gift to me and my siblings was our home, rich as it was. But my father’s gift to us was the world.

Yes, no man is an island.

Lake Oswego resident Ronald Talney is a retired trial lawyer, writer and poet. In 1985, he wrote the official dedication poem for the statue Portlandia. Look for his column, “My World,” on the second Thursday of every month in The Review.