When I was 8, my mother hoped I’d understand a particular concept.
My dad, Paul, who had spiraled a football with me weeks before, was suddenly thin. He walked with a cane. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “I need you to be brave,” she said.
When he went into the hospital, I tried. And when he died of melanoma that December, I tried again. Afterward, I remember my fears of the subway and of the elevator in our Manhattan building. My mom refused to let these stick.
“Read your father’s stories,” she’d say. “Here’s the scrapbook.”
My dad, a Life magazine staff writer and later an editor, had covered the Mercury and Gemini space shots. His hardest assignment was reporting on President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and writing the story that accompanied the motorcade images from the Zapruder film.
There was something about reading the scrapbook that changed my way of thinking. My child’s way of grieving changed, and I understood a thing I hadn’t realized. That my dad had left me with an eagerness, a sort of hunger, for the world of grown-ups.
I started thinking about times when my brother and I visited Dad’s office on Sixth Avenue. We’d be handed layout paper to draw on, and would poke around to peer into cubicles and through plate-glass windows. We’d listen to the sounds of raucous laughter echoing through newsrooms and halls.
One of Life’s traditions was to award a silver nut dish to employees with children. In my case, it should have been a highball glass.
When Dad was alive, parties at the magazine tended to migrate to our Chelsea apartment. My brother and I would march out in our pajamas to shake hands with the men and be kissed by the dressed-up ladies. On a good night, we’d be allowed little swallows of “hooch,” and everyone would laugh if we winced as the stuff went down.
No matter how late the gatherings went, my dad and other “Lifers” would head in the next morning and try to put words on paper. It was a matter of pride. Boozing and puffing on Parliaments were as crucial to my parents and their co-workers as to infantry privates.
You didn’t indulge? Then you weren’t part of the squadron. But no one seemed to want a life that was virtuous and healthy, but dull. When I think of how my dad would react to today’s child-focused grown-ups, I can almost hear his scoffing: “You can’t go out because of quality time with your kid? Have you lost your mind?”
This was the thing. I understood that drinking too much and smoking were bad. I knew that work in the office was important, and that you had to try hard and do well. But adults were adults, and that was fine with me.
Now that my dad was gone, I had a mission, scrapbook in hand. I’d aim to be brave, as Mom had wanted. But part of my mission was a secret. I would work on being my dad as best I could — using the voice in his articles as a guide.
Would anyone notice? I wasn’t sure. But I’d be a Lifer just as he’d been. I would carry on.
Peter Mandel is an author of children’s books, including “Jackhammer Sam.”