Musings from the Bunker 6/21/20
Happy Father’s Day!
This is the first full day of summer, Father’s Day, and the 100th anniversary edition of Musings from the Bunker! Next week I’ll share some thoughts about these 100 days but today I’ll celebrate fatherhood.
Given that it’s Father’s Day, I figured I’d indulge myself and introduce you to my Dad, Bill Sonnenberg, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year. I hope these memories spark a few for others, as we all remember our fathers.
My father was born in a tenement in New York City to uneducated parents who emigrated from the Village of Slonim, in what is now Belarus. He was the youngest of three children (actually the youngest of four, if one includes a twin sister, who died at birth). That my grandparents, whom I never knew (I was named for my grandmother, Gussie), would have raised two boys that would become doctors and a daughter who would become a teacher is a tribute to the premium many immigrants placed on education.
My father didn’t talk much about his childhood, other than acknowledging that they grew up poor. The family moved quite a bit around New York City, but mainly lived in the Bronx (explaining my father’s love for the Yankees and his begrudging acceptance of our local teams)—mostly because of my grandfather’s lackluster and inconsistent employment history. It wasn’t the happiest of childhoods. My father said it wasn’t that his father didn’t love him…it’s just that he loved everyone (including, equally, his family, any little kid, random stray dogs, and “the ladies”). It is said that boys growing up under less-than-ideal fathers will either emulate their experience or commit themselves not to replicate it. It is my good fortune that my father chose the latter.
Once my grandfather left for good, it fell to my Uncle George and my father to care for their mother. They were good boys. George went to medical school in Germany in the 1930s, studying during the rise of Hitler. Figuring out that Germany probably was not the place to finish his education, he moved to Italy for his last years of training. It is a tribute to his intelligence that he studied medicine in two languages he had to learn on the fly.
My father became a doctor not out of choice, but out of duty. He originally wanted to be a lawyer. Upon informing his mother of his goal, she responded, “Your brother is a doctor—you’ll be a doctor.” In those days, what Momma said was the law. He attended Vanderbilt, back in the day when Jews weren’t exactly commonplace in the halls of that institution. One day his senior year, his chemistry professor advised my father that, notwithstanding outstanding academic performance, he wouldn’t be attending because they already had too many Jews. So he returned to New York for medical school and residency, eventually opening his practice in the Bronx, on the first floor of the walk-up. Back in those days, doctors did house calls (I still have my father’s little black bag).
Fast forward to California, to which my parents moved in the 50s (my father’s first job here was at UCLA…it didn’t rub off…). They ultimately settled in Anaheim, where my father figured a pediatric practice could thrive amidst all the young families, Disneyland, and a growing aerospace industry. He was one of the founders of the first pediatric medical group in Orange County (with at least one partner who proved to be a member of the John Birch Society—more on that later). He worked hard.
As hard working as my father was, he was always there for his family. We went to countless Angels and USC games, endless symphonies and plays (many of which helped cure his insomnia), Cub Scouts campouts, family vacations that required back seat navigation (he had no sense of direction whatsoever), and any number of deli brunches and Chinese dinners. He was Santa at my elementary school (“I don’t want one of the Christian parents to miss out being with their kid and Santa”). He was a voracious reader who never stopped studying medical journals, even after retirement. He was the “go to” resource for my family and friends, always there for other people, funny as hell, and an all-around great guy. Plus, he could blow a perfect smoke ring from the always-present cigar. Although never credited for it, I’m convinced he invented the sotto vocce zinger.
In every aspect of his life, my father was a paragon of integrity, responsibility and good humor. He taught me bravery, duty and selflessness, including caring for his wife and daughter, both of whom died too young. He never complained. He was the best man I ever knew.
Wishing all fathers a happy day,