My father was old enough to be my grandfather, but his age is what made him a great dad

  • I was born on my father's 50th birthday.

  • His age was a benefit; he had wisdom to offer, and it made him a great dad.

  • But it also meant I didn't get enough time with him, and I wish he'd seen my kids grow up.

My father was old enough to be my grandpa, but that's what made him a great dad. By the time I was born, he'd already lived through so many ups and downs that nothing ruffled him. He was patient and wise, and while he didn't get down on the floor to play, he taught me what he thought mattered: Work hard, but have fun when you can.

Born in 1911, Dad was an eighth-grade dropout who'd lived through the Great Depression, fought in World War II, and worked in New York's Garment District. He came home each night with dirty hands and dirty clothes but was rarely in a bad mood. He never owned a credit card, but he always paid the bills. And after the rent was covered, we could spend whatever was left, any way we pleased.

If we went out to dinner, he'd say, "Get whatever you like." If we went to the park and the ice-cream truck came around, he'd get popsicles for all my friends. "Is that your grandpa?" the other kids would ask, and he'd just laugh.

I loved spending time with my dad

I was born on my father's 50th birthday. It was a late-in-life gift for him, but I was the accidental second child my mom hadn't wanted. My sister is 12 years older, and our mother was frustrated by being a housewife in the 1960s.

Beth Harpaz and her father when he was 50 and she was six months old.
Harpaz was born on her father's 50th birthday.Courtesy of Beth Harpaz

So Dad was the fun one — though he sometimes treated me more like an old Army buddy than a little girl. We played poker, blackjack, and pinochle. He took me fishing and to baseball games. We watched war movies on TV, sang old-timey soldiers' songs such as "Mademoiselle from Armentières," and danced the Charleston, a '20s fad from his teenage years.

We spoke with each other in Yiddish, the sign-language alphabet, and pig Latin. I knew the hat-check girl at Dad's favorite restaurant and the bartender at Buzzy's, where he and I sat side by side on cracked red vinyl stools while watching whatever game they had on. He'd have a beer; I'd have a ginger ale with a cherry. Years later, when I made a rare visit of my own to a bar with my kids in tow, I was stunned to learn that state law now prohibited minors from sitting at bars. They must sit at a table.

Every night at dinner, Dad enthralled me with stories from the war about killing Nazis. He'd parachuted with the 101st Airborne Division into France on D-Day, Belgium for the Battle of the Bulge, and Holland for Operation Market Garden. I truly believed he'd personally saved the world from Hitler.

A wartime bullet destroyed the nerves in his arm, but Dad never felt sorry for himself. He relearned how to tie his shoes and light cigarettes with his damaged right hand, and he lifted sewing machines and fabric bolts well enough to earn a living.

I wish he was around to spend time with my kids

But here's what's awful about having an old dad: He died before his grandkids got to know him. He was 81 in a veterans' hospital when my first child was born. I smuggled the baby under a coat into the hospital for a cuddle, but a nurse busted us, citing infection risks for both the infant and the old man. Dad died when his grandson was only 3 months old, and he never got to meet my other son, who was born later.

Both my boys are men now. I see Dad in their mischievous blue eyes and ready grins, their courage and generosity, their penchant for fun and adventure. And whenever we go out, I try to ignore the prices on the menu.

"Get whatever you like," I say. Dad would have approved.

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