This is a story about what happened the year my father turned eleven. It’s a story about a tailor and a professor and an icon in the nonviolence movement. Most of all, it’s a love story.
Eleven should be a good year in the life of a child. It is a mostly carefree age, the last year before the roller coaster of middle school begins. I remember my eleventh birthday vividly; I dreamed that a chariot of unicorns would deliver me to a party at the end of the rainbow, where I’d recline on a cloud and sip endless chocolate milk shakes.
Instead, there was an ice skating party and homemade cake. There were Nikes with a purple swoosh and rainbow laces. The rest of the year was a blur of happy and safe routines: family dinners, softball games, church. The daily walk to school (uphill both ways).
My father’s eleventh year was very different than mine. He was only eleven when his father died, his siblings even younger: the boys seven and three, his sister an infant.
It hurts to think of them, my grandmother holding the baby, rousing her three sleepy boys in their shared room in a cozy house in Euclid, Ohio. What it must have been like giving and receiving that news. If there was a Richter scale for heartbreak, it surely measured 11 that day.
So eleven was the year my dad grew up. I imagine he and my grandmother were a force –both kind, gentle people with backbones of steel. He got a job, studied hard, helped with his siblings, learned from his wise mother.
But he did not forget the lessons of his father. And years later, he took all those stored memories and he wrote a sixteen page letter to my aunt, the baby who never knew her father. He wrote to her what it was like to be the child of John Terchek.
It is a story of a good childhood, of live turkeys won at Thanksgiving church raffles, of country outings and the teasing of chickens, of my father’s inopportune fall in a stall of manure. Of their home on Tracey Avenue, back when open fields were their playground and dirt roads abound.
My father also had memories of the Great Depression. His own father was a staunch believer in the American Dream, in hard work and persistence. But my grandfather taught his son that some of it came down to luck, particularly during hard economic times. And so a little boy watched his father (a tailor with limited work himself) quietly help others with bills and groceries.
My father told his sister of the family gatherings, what it felt like to be a child sitting at the feet of those first and second generation Slovenian immigrants. He wrote of strong coffee and homemade wine, of lively political debates. My father observed that his dad and aunt were usually the protagonists in any debate, “strong-willed people who were warm, generous, and tolerant, except when it came to those momentous problems which neither could ever solve but which always seemed to be too important to compromise on.”
My grandfather wanted to teach his children about the momentous problems of the world. They’d gather at the radio and discuss the news they heard. My father writes, “what was memorable was not the discussion, but rather a feeling that the world outside was important and should be taken seriously. The fact that he [their father] never advertised his own politics to me was his own way of trying to get me to think independently about the world and make up my own mind.”
I know these lessons resonated with my father. He was a smart and dutiful son, yet he was almost expelled for daring to denounce Senator Joseph McCarthy in a senior speech at his Catholic high school (It was not a popular position in the mid-50’s). A supportive teacher stepped in; my father did not step down.
Perhaps it was my father’s destiny to become a teacher and scholar; perhaps his own father awakened that seed in him. My dad, the first in his family to go to college, went on to become a professor of political theory. He is a Gandhi scholar, a Midwestern boy known in India for his work.
I wonder if he was drawn to Gandhi because of those early lessons from his father. Perhaps John Terchek and his son heard about Gandhi’s nonviolence movement on the radio. Both men died too young, my grandfather’s heart giving out in the fall of 1947, Gandhi assassinated a few months later. Yet despite the distance—in miles, education, background—the tailor and the world leader shared a great deal: the same ready smile, warmth, and passion for justice.
In the end, what moves me most about my father’s letter to his sister are these lines:
Boys my age did not often think of the quality of relationships between their father and mother. What I remember is warmth, mutual respect, and love. They were manifested in the little, day-to-day things that made themselves felt in a secure and happy home. I took those simple, happy routines for granted.
When my father turned eleven, those happy routines were upended. And yet. In their eleven years together, my father’s father taught him to be compassionate, an independent thinker, aware of the wider world. He modeled what it was to be a good man, a good partner, a loving father.
And my father embraced those lessons and has lived them faithfully, every day. Gandhi said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” He could have been speaking of my grandfather and my father.
Happy Father’s Day, to the men who teach and show us how to be our best selves. Theirs is a gift more valuable than any unicorn-drawn chariot. It just takes some of us a little while to figure that out. I love you, Dad.