August 18, 2019

Lessons From My Father

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The great scholar Maimonides wrote, “The measure of honor and awe due one’s teacher exceeds that due one’s father. His father brings him into the life of this world, while his teacher, who teaches him wisdom, brings him into the life of the world to come.”

Maimonides was a highly respected intellectual, philosopher and a physician to kings, but maybe he got this one wrong. Why would you give more honor to your teacher than to your father? Well, there’s a catch: What if your father is also your teacher? If this is so, then the adage becomes a little easier to digest.

My father was born in Montreal in 1914. When my dad was only 12 years old, his own father died of a sudden heart attack. He was forced to quit school and start to work as a messenger boy in the garment district. He had to support his mother and his three sisters. There was little or no welfare at that time.  

Eventually he learned to be a cutter, someone who spreads rolls of fabric on a long wooden table, then uses an electric knife to cut out the various parts used in assembling a garment. After a few years in the cutting room, he became shop foreman. 

During World War II, my father served in the Canadian army, but because he was the sole provider for his family, he was given an exemption from serving overseas. So he worked at a military supply base in Longueuil, just across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal. There, he met his future business partners. After the war, he and his partners opened a small factory that produced women’s blouses. 

The business provided a modest lifestyle for our family. We had a nice home in the suburbs; we vacationed every summer in the Laurentian Mountains (the Catskills of the north); and every three or four years, my dad would buy a brand new convertible. But running the factory came with a tremendous cost. My dad worked a six-day week, often leaving the house before sunrise and returning at 9 or 10  o’clock each night. During the work week, it was rare to see him at all. 

“My father was a superb negotiator, and he used his techniques when speaking to his kids, his employees, his suppliers and his car salesmen, each of them walking away thinking they got the better of the deal.”

Sunday mornings were special. My father would still wake up early in the morning. He would take out a gray, steel file box and pay all the bills while sitting at the kitchen table. He would dress a little less formally on Sunday, forgoing his usual three-piece suit and tie for a short-sleeved polo shirt and cotton pants.

My sister and I came to the breakfast table just as my father was putting away his metal box. It was time for an “adventure.” First, we would look to see if there were any other children on the street who wanted to join us. My dad was always happy to stuff as may kids as possible into the back seat of his Mercury Monterey. We would then travel to the weirdest places that anyone has ever seen.

Once we went to the very politically incorrect Midget’s Palace in the east end of Montreal. A “little person” guide would lead our group through the various rooms where every piece of furniture was miniature. At the end of the tour, the residents would put on a show of singing, dancing and acrobatics.

One Sunday, my dad took us to Sainte-Sophie, a small town about 60 miles north of Montreal. According to my father, there were a few Jewish families who owned farms in Sainte-Sophie, and in the summer months, children from Montreal would stay on these farms for their holidays. My father had vivid memories of this little town and he was eager to share them with us. He showed us the tiny wooden synagogue with the Star of David etched on the front door. He brought us to meet some of his old friends, one who was a chicken farmer and the other who produced sour pickles. We enjoyed sampling the pickles directly from the barrel. 

The one “adventure” that most impressed us was a visit to the Port of Montreal. In the 1960s, the port was, well, just a port. There were no touristy attractions, Ferris wheels or bike paths; just a row of ships, cranes, grain elevators and salty sailors. On that particular Sunday, a huge Soviet ship was docked in one of the slips. The gangplank was extended and a few Soviet sailors were milling about. My father went up to the seemingly highest-ranking officer and asked him if we could have a tour of the ship. Amazingly, he agreed, and our group of five kids along with our dad boarded the ship. We were given a tour of the sleeping quarters, the galley, the bridge and the engine room. As we were leaving, my dad was given a bottle of vodka as a parting gift.

My father had a special way of speaking to people. He was a superb negotiator, and used his techniques when speaking to his kids, his employees, his suppliers and his car salesmen, each of them walking away thinking they got the better of the deal.

After I finished school, I entered the family business and that’s when I truly got to know my father. Unfortunately, I never picked up his negotiating skills, but I did learn to be honest, to treat all people with respect, to work hard and to give generously to those in need. 

My father died from cancer at age 66. He never got to meet his children’s spouses or his grandchildren. At his shivah, I was overwhelmed by the number of people who told me stories about my father.

“Your father helped me start my own business,” one visitor said.

“Your father saved my marriage,” recounted an employee who told me that my father showed up at his house to moderate a dispute between the employee and his wife.

“Your father was able to sponsor my wife to immigrate to Canada,” a neighbour exclaimed. 

There were other stories too numerous to mention. All of these adventures and episodes taught me so much more about life that I ever learned in school. So on Father’s Day, I truly honor the person who was my greatest teacher. 

Happy Father’s Day.


Paul Starr is a recently retired systems analyst living in Montreal. He belongs to a Modern Orthodox congregation.