I just came back from our local transfer station, otherwise known as the dump. Since we don’t have trash pick-up in our town, each resident is responsible for hauling any created trash and recyclable disposables to the transfer station. But when I threw a certain piece of paper, covered by a cardboard protective sleeve, into the dumpster, I immediately felt sick.
I threw away my father’s diploma.
My father would’ve been over 100 years old today. He died in the early ’70s when I was 14. Once it came into my possession, his diploma never hung on my wall and remained unseen, preserved in a cardboard carton for more than 40 years. I figured it wasn’t doing anyone any good, and my kids wouldn’t want it, so I threw it away. I didn’t even take a picture of it.
I immediately regretted it.
My father came to the United States in 1913 as a toddler. Scared, poor, and sick of pograms, his father preceded him, spending years earning enough money to send for his wife and 3 small boys (2 girls would be born later). They settled in Rock Island, Illinois, where my grandmother turned their home into a boarding house to help with expenses. Even before the Depression, my father often went hungry; the ongoing malnutrition was the likely culprit behind his small stature.
His parents realized the only way out was through education. Anything less than an “A” was unacceptable. Each child was expected not only to study hard, but to spend several hours a day after school and on the weekends working to help make ends meet. Mostly they worked on farms picking crops.
My father excelled. He sailed through high school while participating in the debate club and running a Jewish youth group. When it was time to apply for college, he had dreams of attending the University of Chicago, but had to turn down his acceptance (in itself a rarity due to Jewish quotas) because the tuition was well beyond his dream. He instead attended a public university, Illinois University, but even then the cost of tuition required him to work his way through school. He became a waiter for the dormitory, a job considered fit only for a low-life. He was popular, a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the captain of the university debate team, but the minute any girl he was dating found out he worked as a waiter, he was dropped like a hot potato. Back then, people were very class conscious. And while intellectually and through his social graces my father could keep up with the elites, his poverty remained a barrier to acceptance.
My father invited his brother Ben for a long weekend, in which IU would be playing college football against a fierce rival. When my father took Ben to the stadium, Ben couldn’t wait to find his seat. “Hold on there, we’re not sitting,” my father said, and handed Ben a stack of programs. “We’ve got to sell these first.” They made $25 each that day, a small fortune. And just as Ben sat down, my father excused himself. “It’s supper time at the dorm. I’ve got to work.” He came back near the end of the game, and brought Ben the cold dorm leftovers for dinner. It was then that my father confessed to Ben that school expenses, even with work, didn’t allow him enough for food. When leftovers were few, he was often forced to eat the half-eaten food remaining on college students’ plates that he cleared and brought to the kitchen. He tried not to think about it, just feeling grateful that his hunger was sated.
Not only did he make it through school, he graduated with honors, put himself through law school, and got his J.D. He passed the bar in 2 states (yes, I threw those papers away too) as well as the US Supreme Court bar.
I looked at his diploma for a long time. I knew I wouldn’t hang it on the wall, and it would just go back into the box and collect dust and not be of any use to anyone. Well, I thought, I can’t get too sentimental about every item, or I’ll end up with a mountain of boxes that will mean nothing to my kids, and then when I die they’ll just throw it out anyhow. And so I put it in the paper recycling bin at the transfer station. And when I heard the “clunk” as it hit the side of the bin, I begged my father’s forgiveness.
His legacy lives on in other, more tangible ways. It’s just a piece of paper, after all.
So why do I feel such remorse?