In Memoriam: Dad
JASKOW, Ralph S. 83, of Tarpon Springs, passed away Nov. 22, 2009. He was a graduate of the Wharton School of Business of the University of Pennsylvania, 1943. He sailed as a Staff Officer in the Merchant Marines during the Korean War. He was also the Marine Personnel Director of Seatrain/Hudson Waterways. After retiring from the Merchant Marines, Ralph worked for the Orange County, New York Accounting Department. Ralph was also an expert craftsman. Services were held in New Montefiore Cemetery in New York. Ralph is survived by his devoted wife of 50 years, Selma; daughters Susan and Robin; brother Louis and sister Dorothea. Ralph was a very kind, gentle, ethical man who will be deeply missed.
My mother, my sister and I wrote this obituary in the meeting room of the funeral home the day after Dad died. Afterwards, we agreed that while it was well written, it didn’t come close to describing him. There are so many stories for each phase of his life... and Dad was a master storyteller. I wish that he had written his stories down.
When I was in elementary school, I had to describe what my father did for a living. The simplified version was “He puts people on ships.” In reality, it meant that my dad assembled the crews for his company’s merchant ships, and he was on call 24/7. If a crewman got into trouble on the other side of the world, my dad was instantly on the phone trying to help him out, and also to fill his position on the ship that was now missing a crew member. (For this reason, my father’s company paid our long-distance telephone bills throughout much of my childhood.) Since my father had been a merchant seaman himself—he was at sea for six years after graduating from college—he often spoke as a seaman during these conversations: “Aye, Cap’n,” and spelling out his letters and numbers the way they did when he had been at sea, not all that long before—for example, pronouncing the word “nine” with two syllables in order to distinguish it from the word “five” on a faint and static-filled overseas telephone connection.
I grew up taking telephone messages from crewmen from all over the world, many of whom had accents I had no prayer of understanding. But Dad understood them all.
I remember, deep in the mists of my childhood, hearing a story about how Dad went to The Tombs, a notorious prison in New York, in dreadful weather in order to bail out a crewman who had gotten into trouble. From wisps of conversation that I heard as a child, I figured out that Dad helped many other people in ways that no one will ever know about.
In his capacity as a staff officer aboard ship, it was my father’s duty to take crewmen who had broken the law to the brig. He told me how much he’d disliked that part of his job.
Once, a crewman on one of Dad’s voyages got drunk and went berserk. He grabbed a knife and started to threaten everyone in sight. The other crewmen ran to their rooms as fast as they could and slammed their doors. Only one door opened: my father’s.
Dad came out of his room, stood face to face with the drunk crewman and asked him, “What are you doing?”
“Purser, I like you,” the crewman told him, raising his knife. “I don’t want to do this.”
“If you don’t want to do it,” my father asked the crewman calmly, “then why are you going to?”
The crewman paused for a moment, and as he did, another crew member jumped him and disarmed him, preventing what could have been a terrible disaster.
As part of his work as Marine Personnel Director of his company, Dad got jobs at sea for young people just out of high school. Even as he was preparing to retire from his position, he used his still-current knowledge of the field and contacts to help a friend of mine apply for a job as a radio operator at sea after he (my friend) graduated from college. (That friend has since gone very far in his chosen field, and remembers my father fondly.)
Dad used to joke that my sister’s and my friends had better be nice to us... or they’d wake up seasick!
Dad was an avid do-it-yourselfer and a master craftsman. I remember him making wood pictures (from the kits supplied by the Constantine company) that he then gave as gifts, doing car repair, priming the pump of our artesian well whenever it ran dry, building our deck, showing me how to paint, and gardening. For many years, he had a subscription to Organic Gardening magazine, and kept a compost heap in the back yard. He taught me what leaf mold was, and was pleasantly surprised when I guided him to a large quantity of it that I found during a hike in the nearby woods. My sister and I grew up eating the vegetables that he and my mother grew in our little garden, and enjoying the plants and flowers that my parents cultivated both inside and outside the house.
Dad had a gift with numbers—he did our family’s taxes for years—and an incredible sense of humor. He also had a strong sense of fun and the gift of gab: he could (and sometimes did) convince unsuspecting friends and family members that their homes were sitting on top of an oil well, for example. Afterwards, they all had a good laugh.
He had an amazing sense of direction and could navigate by the stars.
Dad had the most beautiful blue eyes I have ever seen. I have blue eyes, too, but they are not as bright or as beautiful as Dad’s, which reminded me of blue topaz with a hint of aquamarine. When I was on my way to the US to see him for the last time, a Passport Control official looked at my passport and then at me to make sure that I was who I said I was. Then he said, “You have amazing eyes.” I answered, “They’re my father’s.” He said, “Well, then, give them back!” (He had no idea what was going on, of course. But I still almost dissolved where I stood.)
Dad enjoyed giving us things that he knew we would like. He knew how much I loved cats, and when I was in high school, he introduced me to one of my favorite novels, Jennie by Paul Gallico. (I recommend it highly. It isn’t only about cats—though it’s clear from Gallico’s writing that he loved and understood them—but also about friendship and love.)
No matter what the weather or temperature, Dad took long walks every night with our dog, Sam, whom he loved, and who loved him. (It was the only male bonding he had in our house, outnumbered as he was by a wife and two daughters!)
On Saturday mornings, he woke me up to go to acting school in New York City, and drove me there and back. On Sunday mornings, he woke me up for Sunday school at our local synagogue, singing Irving Berlin’s song, “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.”
We lived in the country for most of my childhood, and often during the summer, bees and wasps would fly into our house. I can still remember Dad saying, “Don’t kill it!” and trying to chase it out the window instead. To this day, whenever I find a spider or other insect, I trap it and take it outside because of what Dad taught me all those years ago: never harm another creature unnecessarily.
(The day after he died, I was closing a window in my parents’ place—now my mom’s place. A lizard was caught between the glass pane and the screen. I could hear Dad’s voice in my mind saying, “Let it out! Don’t make it suffer!” I thought back: Dad, show me how to open the screen so that I can let it out! A second later, I managed to get the screen open and gave the lizard a gentle nudge with my fingertip. In a flash, it scooted out to freedom.)
Dad loved poetry. Many years ago, he copied poems that he loved into a little black three-ring binder that he had, and even wrote some of his own. (See the bottom of this post for several examples.)
Dad enjoyed making what he called “Rice Krispies Candy” with Rice Krispies cereal and marshmallows. I can still taste it... it was delicious!
Dad had an excellent sense of time. I still remember one occasion when we were waiting for the school bus to pick me up to take me on a trip. He saw the bus from far off and said, “Your bus will be here in ninety seconds.” We both looked at our watches. The bus’s tires came to a full stop on the ninetieth second.
Everyone who met Dad said that he had class. When his condition worsened to the point that he needed constant care, he made sure to thank everyone who cared for him. My mother says that whenever Dad wanted something, he always asked her for it politely, and always thanked her. Two days before he died, when he could barely move or speak, he asked me to tip the home health care aide who had come to bathe him. (I tried, but the aide would not accept tips.) After the home health care aide left, my father asked me whether I had given him the tip, and I explained that I had tried but that he would not accept it. During both these exchanges, Dad was having a great deal of difficulty breathing. It was so hard for him to speak... but he insisted on doing what he thought was right, and on following up.
Dad’s death was peaceful, and even at the moment of his passing, he gave us a gift of humor that I will write about soon. Even through our tears, we crack up with laughter at the memory, and imagine that Dad, wherever he is, is laughing himself silly over it as well.
Dad died with my mother, my sister and me by his side—a blessing for which I am profoundly grateful.
Dad had home hospice care during the last several days of his life. God bless the people of the Suncoast Hospice, who made such a sad and painful experience that much more bearable for Dad and for us. And God bless Mom, who insisted on keeping Dad at home and caring for him, keeping him alive much longer than his doctors believed possible, and for getting him that care, so that his last days would be as comfortable and dignified as they could be.
Click on the following pictures in order to see larger versions.
My father as a young man:
A poem that Dad liked, entitled “A Ship Comes In.” My uncle—my father’s older brother—read it at Dad’s burial.
My father’s clock. He made the wooden casing and embroidered the clock face (after asking my grandmother to teach him how to embroider).
A poem by my father, “Still Voyager.” He did not date the poems that he wrote, but I believe that he wrote this one after his six years at sea, when he took a job on shore.
“Still Voyager” by Ralph S. Jaskow
The river, on its way to sea,
Flows gleaming past my desk and me;
And laughing, leaves the tower high
Where I am prisoner in the sky.
(Guard well the man whose thoughts may be
On rivers that run down to sea!)
The train that takes me home to bed
Becomes, at times, a ship instead;
And, with a white sail all aquiver,
I pass my office on the river.
(Watch well o’er him whose soul has fled
The train that takes him home to bed!)
Each ship on which I sail away
Founders upon the reef of day.
Come nine o’clock and comes the hour
When you will find me in my tower.
(A curious place for me to stay,
Whose heart in ships has sailed away!)
(© Estate of Ralph S. Jaskow)
May the memory of my father, Ralph Sternfeld Jaskow, be for a blessing.
I miss him so.