"If you are a good girl and say your prayers, God will reward you."
My father told me this many times. I worried about his words, when a case of measles blew my chance to be Cinderella in our second grade play, but I continued to repeat the prayers my father had taught me: one before breakfast and another at bedtime. He said many more than just those: one before meals and after, a prayer while holding the first fruit of the season before him and another while washing his hands before tasting it. "It's to show we are more than animals. To give thanks."
Wanting the best for those he loved, my father promoted praying to all his family, including his son-in-law-to-be. My future husband, defending his suspected lack of reverence, told my father they had in common a belief in God and the principles of Judaism, but each had a different way of expressing it.
"It's like we both are driving to Pittsburgh. I take the Parkway to get there and you go by way of Route 22."
My father's answer. "I never go that way."
My father was an observant Jew. His attitude toward his religion was not philosophical or probing, it was academic. If you adhere to its laws and recognize God's blessings, you could count on a good life, which he did have.
When he was 12 years old, he came with his family from Austria to the United States and headed for Glassport, a small town in Western Pennsylvania, where some of their "landtsmen" had settled. He and his father sold fruit and vegetables from a pushcart at first, later from a horse and wagon and then from their own store. As the store succeeded, my father bought rental properties which began to take most of his time, making it practical for him to open an office where he also sold insurance.
He kept a little red truck, loaded with tools and ladders, parked close to his office in case one or another of the houses he owned needed repairs. When my father went to his office, he always wore a hat: a straw one for summer and felt hat in the winter. If he took his truck, he wore a driving cap tilted at a cheerful angle.
At home, my father told us about fixing overflowing toilets or repairing leaks on steep, shingled roofs. No hint of complaint in his voice. He defined pleasure as productivity.
He liked to call attention to the quiet humming of the ice box which he oiled regularly. In his leisure time he deadheaded his roses or fertilized the garden. To find me curled comfortably in an armchair, reading, caused a gnawing feeling inside him, driving him to grasp for any remedy.
"Why don't you go sew something? Make something on the sewing machine." He didn't have anything particular in mind. He walked away, his discomfort eased, leaving me to make a decision.
Sometimes, after dinner, my father walked back to his office, only two blocks away, dismissing our family's worry about his being there alone at night. Once, our concern was justified. A man walked into the office, a bandana covering his nose and mouth, pointing a gun at my father.
"I don't keep any money here. You may as well put that gun away. You know what's the matter with you? You don't pray enough. If you would pray more, God would help you get along."
The burglar fled. Whether from fear or remorse or to escape a longer lecture, we never knew.
I don't remember ever seeing my father sick in bed until he developed an abdominal aneurysm; he was 74 years old. The procedure to repair it was so new that intensive care units were not yet a common resource in hospitals. Afterward, the surgeon said he would not have operated if he had known the patient was older than 70. My father lived another eight years.
It happened one morning, when he was visiting us. I was fixing breakfast and asked him a question. When he didn't answer, I turned to the table and sat beside him. His brown eyes were shining with moisture and he gave me a sweet smile, but still he said nothing. I rode with him in the ambulance and followed the stretcher when he was taken to his room, where I watched with disbelief to see his body rise and fall with violent spasms as if possessed by a dybbuk.
For two weeks, I visited the hospital every day, sitting beside his silent, still form, recalling aloud memories I hoped might awaken some for him. And to comfort myself.
One morning, as I came near his bed, my father opened his eyes, looked at me and said, "Hello, honey. I'm so glad to see you." Before I could answer, he closed his eyes again. Whatever random surge of function triggered his chemistry to bridge the synapses of his brain cells, it never happened again.
That precious second of awareness and his recognition of me was an unforgettable gift, a reward for both of us perhaps. If so, it was my father's prayers that were answered.
Janet Moritz is a writer living in Shadyside (email@example.com). First Published October 18, 2013 8:00 PM