Bill Birmingham was a man. He was a husband, a friend, a father, a brother and uncle. He was a teacher, a leader, and he was a consummate storyteller.
My dad sat up, when others might lie down. He sat in a chair in the corner of his living room.Early on a cigarette was cradled between his fingers, an ash, impossibly long bending towards the floor, a glass of beer perched on his knee.
Bill Birmingham was a teacher. In the late sixties, he took me to his classrooms in Bedford Stuyvesant and Harlem, where he stood before a group of prodigal students. Maybe they hadn’t finished high school, or junior high school, but he stood before them, a worn paperback book in one hand, a pack of Kents in the pocket of his old tweed jacket and offered a possibility. The possibility that the pursuit of knowledge and understanding could make this life better?
Today, when so many are fooled into thinking that value is measured in wealth, that the litmus test for success can be equaled to the size of your stock portfolio, Bill Birmingham, father of five, vveteran of the Korean conflict, owner of a “four-square” suburban home in Hackensack, New Jersey, would have been judged a failure.
But Bill Birmingham held values that surpassed avarice and acquisitiveness. He valued the security that money offered, but, at a time when ours was probably the last black and white television in Hackensack he said “I don’t want to earn enough money and pay the extra taxes to afford a color television.”
The last time I visited my dad in Connecticut, I had rented a car, so I asked if he would like to go down to New York to visit his sister, Marie. We drove down the Merritt Parkway, turned south on the Saw Mill River, and tried to come into the city across the Willis Avenue Bridge.
If you know that part of the city, and if you know how cheap I am, a trait I inherited from my father, you’ll know why I was heading to the Willis Avenue Bridge. It is the only route into Manhattan from the Bronx without a toll.
Unfortunately, I got hopelessly lost. I would have gotten on the Triboro, except I didn’t have a penny in my pocket, so I couldn’t pay the $8 toll. As we drove down a road in the Bronx, under an elevated train, with Manhattan visible in the distance, but that damn East River separating me from my destination, my dad said “I don’t think I’ve ever been here before.”
That said a good deal coming from a man whose mother lived in Brooklyn, who grew up in Queens, who shared a cold water flat on Sullivan Street with his new bride in the late forties, who started his family in an apartment in the Bronx, and who spent the last 35 years of his marriage in Stuyvesant Town.
I knew I might be in trouble.
But after a few blocks, dad said, “No, I was lost here once before.”
He told a story of driving a group of students from Harlem to a school related event in the Bronx. They had all met in The Bronx the previous month, but several of the women in his class told how hard it was to take trains and busses from 125th street to some god-forsaken location in the furthest reaches of this outer borough.
At the time our family car was a 1965 Volkswagen Microbus. So, Bill offered to pick them up in Harlem and take them out to the Bronx the next week. On the way back to the city, he couldn’t find the Willis Avenue Bridge, just as I couldn’t find the Willis Avenue Bridge, and he found himself stopping on some side street, looking for directions home.
As a white man driving a bus load of black women, in the South Bronx, in 1968, he feared he could only be mistaken for a pimp with his stable of girls if a cop were to come by.
Like my dad, I made it into New York City.
I didn’t know this would be the last drive I would take with my father, with Bill Birmingham. But, if I had known, I would have wanted no other trip than a visit with his sister, whom he loved dearly. As we sat in Marie’s living room later that afternoon, surrounded by a lifetime of books and artwork, Marie looked over at me and said “He was such a beautiful baby.”
I wish that I could have written this spontaneously as I did for my mom’s memorial. The more I pour over these words, the further, I fear, I stray from some fundamental truth.
As is true, I imagine, with most relationships between fathers and sons, it is more complex than between mothers and sons. I never understood my dad as well as I would have liked until these last few years, this “bonus round,” after my mother, Mary Louise died.
My mom told me once that he ate work like breakfast. That I could understand.
Outside of our kitchen door at 67 Willow Avenue in 1965 there was a cork board. I wish I had an image of that cork board now, but what I do remember was a note my dad posted in disdain of a Bob Dylan lyric. It was a lyric about mothers and fathers, “don’t criticize what you can’t understand”. I think his response was something like, “What an arrogant prick.”
At the time, as a seven year old in 1964, I thought “my dad just didn’t get it.” As the years went by, I understood that it was Bob that didn’t get it.
The counterculture movement disdained values that my dad never embraced in the first place. My dad embraced the values of critical thinking, creative expression, and spiritual enlightenment. We were not living a life from which the sixties could credibly rebel.
No one who knew my dad would doubt the importance of the spiritual community of the Catholic church in his life. But he lived a Catholicism that was very personal. He didn’t live his life hewed to the dogma of the church.
At one point, in high school, I asked my father, “If the pope walked in right now, and saw this life you are living, would he call it Catholicism?”
Even then, forty years ago, my father had thick, bushy eyebrows, which he could raise independently. He looked at me, his left eyebrow raised to the heavens.
“So, you think the Pope is Catholic?”
That question, left unexplained and uncommented upon, was imbued with more lasting spiritual instruction than anything I ever heard in church or catechism.
A man leaves behind a legacy when he leaves this life. He leaves a legacy from his professional life.
In my father’s case there is a legacy of the students whose lives he enriched. There is a legacy in the people who didn’t see themselves as students, but discovered a love of learning that enriched their lives. There is a legacy of teachers who were given the opportunity to teach for the power and insight that knowledge brings. To teach from the fundamental calling of this profession.
There is also a legacy in community.
Bill Birmingham left a legacy in the community of The Grail, an organization that both my parents loved. He left a legacy in the communities of learning at Fordham University and Touro College. His legacy is left in the community of Stuyvesant Town, and in his own way, in the City of New York.
The greatest legacy any one of us can leave behind, because, if you didn’t know, we are all
leaving, is the legacy of family.
In this, Father of Moira, John, Kate, Meg and me, Tom; brother of Marie Ponsot, uncle to all the Ponsot offspring, grandfather to so many gathered here and not, left a rich legacy of love and constancy.
Here, I must digress, and spend a few moments acknowledging my sisters and my brothers.
No one can give a greater gift than to open their home to witness and support someone in their last days.
For this I acknowledge the kindness that my sister Moira and my brother Jim gave to my dad and to our family.
My sister Kate did almost nothing…just ask her. All she did was to run her life for almost four years to weave an invisible safety net that offered my dad his years of independence after my mother’s passing.
If she was the weft of this invisible net, then my brother John was the warp. Together they created a web upon which my dad could relax and know that his bills would be paid, his pills would be poured, and if he set out on a journey across Stuyvesant Town, he would arrive safe at his destination.
Hmm. but what did Meg do? Meg provided an advocacy, informed by her training as a health care professional, inspired by the fundamental values with which she runs her life, and maintained by the unfailing generosity of spirit with which she is blessed.
After my mom died my dad said, “I know I’ve done wrong, but, I must have done something right to find myself surrounded by my family at this time in my life.”
My father was not a perfect man. He was a man. Whatever things he may have done of which he was not proud, I am blessed not to know. But, he cherished the forgiveness offered to him, and forgave those who trespassed against him.
That is the legacy of which my dad was most proud. The legacy of love that surrounded him. Was taught by him, and which he learned to count on late in life.