Ziskind.com > Writing > His Story: Morris L. Ziskind > Chapter Ten - A Son's View of His Father

His Story: Morris L. Ziskind

Chapter Ten - A Son's View of His Father

I don't know if my father looked forward to the interviews that resulted in this story of his life, but he seemed to enjoy them. I, on the other hand, found them an extremely moving experience. As I asked my Dad questions about his life I learned much about him. While some of the stories were familiar ones, many were new. Even as his memory began to fail, the personality I loved and admired would shine through. His humor and wit emerged once again. Often he would argue with me, demanding to know why I asked a particular question. That was the way he always was--asking questions, demanding an explanation for whatever you said or did.

My father was a powerful man. He was not a big man, about 5' 6", but he was solidly built. He weighed between 180 and 190 pounds. He was heavier than he wanted to be but his broad build kept him from looking fat. While he was physically strong, his strength was his personality. He filled a room. He had a loud voice, an outgoing personality. He was not attention seeking but he was the center of attention in our home, and often elsewhere as well. At the dinner table he asked the questions and kept the discussion going. At family events he told the jokes and was the life of the party. At weddings and parties he and Mom were usually one of the first couples on the dance floor, even though Dad did not seem to especially like dancing. People came to him, sought out his advice and attention.

He was intimidating. His loud voice and powerful personality along with his intellect and outspokenness made him a person people deferred too. He was always "telling people off" when he felt they needed to be "straightened out."

As his son I was not generally intimidated but I certainly was deferential. I would avoid conflict with him because he seemed an overwhelming adversary. Yet above all he valued fairness, so I could appeal to logic and reason in any disagreement with him.

Though an intimidating presence, he was gentle with children. I don't think he thought much about parenting or how his behavior affected us kids, as modern parents are wont to do. We were spanked; I can remember maybe three or four times. His hand was big and powerful and he only needed to give a few swats and I was crying. The threat of being punished was usually greater than the reality. We were good kids. I don't know if we were afraid to misbehave but we didn't get into much trouble.

The dinner table was the focus of our intellectual life. There were always serious discussions during which we had to logically defend or justify whatever we said. He was demanding and merciless in his debate with us. Janet, the oldest, was the point person for the three of us and took the brunt. We would support and defend her position but often it felt to me that she was doing battle and we were watching. I remember her sometimes ending up in tears of frustration, but that didn't stop Dad.

He was a natural teacher. He did not instruct, but taught by example. We played a game when he took us home from Sunday school, which we attended in a nearby town, Hoboken, New Jersey. Each of us would get a turn to give him, the driver, directions. He would go wherever we told him, even when he knew we were lost. While we probably played the game only a half dozen times it remains a vivid memory.

Dad did not play with us like modern parents do. He did not enjoy games nor would he sit on the floor and play with cars and trucks with a child. So the leisure time activities we had with him stand out in my memory. He did not follow professional sports but he knew I liked baseball and took me to a number of games, including seeing my beloved Brooklyn Dodgers in Ebbets Field and the final game the New York Giants played in the Polo Grounds before the team moved to San Francisco. One year the Dodgers played a series of six games on a field in Jersey City, New Jersey and we had tickets to many of the games. I collected stamps and when I was 11 or 12 he took me to two large stamps shows in New York City. I am not sure what he did, as he did not collect stamps, as I wandered around the show, buying penny stamps and looking at the exhibits. That was the way Dad showed his love, through actions rather than words.

When I was young I saw my father as the life of the party. At family get togethers he loved telling jokes. He seemed to have an unending supply. I never learned to tell a joke. But I did develop a bit of the wit that he consistently displayed. As a teenager I remember sitting in the back of the car making what I thought was a clever comment. My Dad burst out laughing. "He sounds just like me," Dad said to my Mom. That was an incredible compliment.

He did not give many compliments. He did not make demands of us either. He set an example and we followed it. All three of us did well at school. If we brought home a paper with a 98 or 99 grade, he would invariably say, "Did you spell your name wrong." He was more likely to be positive with you than negative. He never put you down. He would suggest ways you could do something better without any negative, belittling overtones.

My Dad liked his soup piping hot, literally and figuratively. Countless times he told the waiter he wanted it hot and when it was invariably not hot enough (we teased him that he had an asbestos tongue), he sent it back. Sometimes more than once. While many around him would accept less than what they were entitled to, Dad insisted on getting what he felt was his due. He was not shy about telling you what he wanted, often in his loud booming voice.

Dad expected the same kind of performance in other areas of life. He cut you no slack. He cut himself no slack either. Yet as a father he knew when not to be hard. As a pre teen I worked in his veterinary hospital as a kennel boy, cleaning cages and walking dogs. He had two neon signs in the shape of a dog that hung in front of the hospital. For some reason one was on a table covered with newspapers and I unintentionally but carelessly broke it. I knew if I didn't tell him he would probably think he had broken it himself. I agonized over whether I should tell him and disappoint him with my behavior. Yet even then I understood and had learned his code of honesty and integrity. When I finally told him, he apparently understood I had suffered enough and had learned my lesson and never said a word about it.

Even though I was a sickly, scrawny, little kid, I never felt he was disappointed in me. I don't think he had any aspirations that I be athletic or stereotypically masculine. He accepted me for what I was. He and Mom took me to numerous doctors trying to diagnose and treat my illnesses. However he never discussed with me how he felt about having such a sickly child. He seemed to just accept it and in no way ever made me feel less of a person. I remember coming home early from a party at my Cub Scout troop. I went to my room and cried because my juvenile arthritis made it too painful for me to play the physical games at the party. The next day Dad bought me two how-to sports books.

Because I was such a sickly, diminutive child I think I never thought I could be like my Dad. I saw him as big, strong, and assertive; qualities that seemed unattainable to me. He always wanted me to be a lawyer. He despised lawyers so I think he felt if I were a lawyer he would have an honest lawyer in the family. Then he visited my first grade classroom and observed me teach, and he never mentioned it again. Years later when I asked him about that he indicated he could see how much I enjoyed teaching.

He also wanted me to be a lawyer because he wanted me to earn a good living. He believed I couldn't support a family on a teacher's salary. Once he accepted I was going to remain a teacher he figured out ways to augment my income financially. He and Mom loaned us money for our first home. After a few years of paying him back through monthly payments, they forgave the loan. On his birthday he gave each of us kids a gift of "mad" money. It usually was $10,000 in a bond fund, with the instructions we spend the income on things we might not otherwise be able to afford. We should go out to dinner or take in a show. While some of these gifts were probably made on the advice of his financial advisor to reduce his estate, they reflected his generosity and desire for his children and their families to enjoy some of the extras in life he could not afford in his childhood and during much of his early adulthood. He was more likely to spend money on us than on himself, and although he and Mom took many trips and a few cruises, I think his growing up during the depression and years of frugality made it difficult for him to spend money on himself.

When he gave us money there often were strings attached. He had definite ideas of how to manage and invest money and he expected us to handle the money he gave us in the same manner. When he gave us municipal bonds he expected we would keep them to maturity and then roll the cash over into a new bond. Some of my more vigorous disagreements with him occurred when I developed my own ideas of how to invest money and they did not agree with his. For example I preferred mutual funds, which I did not need to follow as closely as he did his individual stocks. He enjoyed calling his broker, hearing the latest jokes, and making deals. I did not have the time during the school day to follow my investments and I was intimidated by the whole notion of dealing with a broker.

In the early years of his illness he simplified his financial dealings. He sold all his real estate holdings. He never indicated that he was planning for the day when he could no longer manage his affairs, but his advanced planning made it easier for me to manage his affairs when he was no longer able to do so. His financial holdings were wide ranging. He kept his money in various accounts so that none of his advisors could know how much he had. When he had his lawyer write his will he told her just enough to know what kind of documents he would need. "That's all you need to know," he told her.

Dad was a dedicated and terrific veterinarian. In a way he had to be because I don't think he had that terrific a bedside manner. He had no patience when his clients did not following his directions. He was very good at bawling you out when you messed up. My sisters and I gave him a gag sign that said clients should treat him with care, because, among other things, "he was a master of the word that rankles." He hung the sign in his office where his clients could see it.

But under this tough exterior he could be very gentle. I remember seeing him cry after he operated on my sister Carrie's pet cat and it unexpectedly died. He wanted us to live in the apartment above his veterinary hospital because that was the only way he could see us kids because of the long hours he worked.

In addition to his veterinary practice, Dad always had a deal brewing. He dabbled in real estate and business ventures. These deals excited and interested him. He would spend countless hours on these deals, sometimes making money, sometimes not. I don't think it mattered a whole lot. He enjoyed the excitement of it. He was a very successful businessman.

He owned a small apartment house about an hour from our home when I was in my early teens. I dreaded when he asked, "Want to take a ride?" The good part of the ride to the apartment house was in the going when we were together and would talk. The down side was when we would get to our destination and he would go inside for what he called "a few minutes" while we waited in the car, for what seemed like hours. He never understood how incredibly boring that was. Yet on one of those rides I learned the "facts of life." It was time for me to know them and I was lucky to learn them from my father, a knowledgeable, well-informed father at that.

My father did not let life happen to him. He was goal oriented. He knew what he wanted and did what he needed to get it. He was a highly ethical man. His word was his bond. In my interviews with him he told me he wanted to be known for his honesty and fairness.

Unfortunately the cruel illness that plagued him the last ten years of his life, normal pressure hydrocephalus, resulted in fluid building up on his brain, robbing him first of balance and mobility and finally his memory. It left him dependent on others - a role he must have hated. But I never heard him complain. Up to the end, as the doctor who last attended him said, he was a feisty guy.