My father died forty years ago, and some of my memories of his amazing warmth and equally amazing stubborness are gone, but one of his particular actions will never die. It was March 14th in 1944, in the midst of World War II and I was nine years old.
My father’s beloved brother Uncle Saul and his wife Aunt Bessie had just received a telegram from the War Department that my cousin Sidney, the handsome one, the one who took me his pesky little cousin with him to visit his girlfriend at Smith, that brilliant tail-gunner had died in action over North Africa.
My father was in the produce business. His business seemed not to undergo any particular economic stresses from the war; we had everything we needed and there seemed to be enough money to go on buying war bonds and stamps forever, or so it appeared to me at nine
In those days, taxes were due on March 15th, and I remember that my father, who was neither a serious nor a declamatory man, insisted that we all sit down at the kitchen table where he had been doing his calculations.
My mother, my sister, and our maid Martha, dutifully sat down. This is what I’m doing, said my father. I’m paying taxes to the United States of America and I consider myself lucky and proud. Sidney is gone, but he went as a soldier fighting for the country that has given us life when Jews in Germany and other countries are being killed because they are Jews. I want you always to remember why we pay taxes, and to be grateful to this country for the privilege of paying them.
Although I have disagreed many times with the uses to which my taxes have been put, on the day I sign my return, now over sixty years later, I remember to be proud and grateful, even as I am groaning over the task.
In writing this essay, I surprised myself because my eyes filled when I remembered how much my father had loved that dead boy, how the day our city honored its war dead with a parade in 1946, my father, who always took us everywhere with him, went alone, and came home more defeated than I ever saw him. The paradox of Sidney’s death as a catalyst for pride and enormous sadness is reflective of how complex and contradictory life is. That is what I truly believe.