Paul Greenberg

The mind wanders. You never know where it'll take you -- high peaks or deep depressions, home sweet home or a juke joint. There's no telling what will set the neurons firing, one flashback following another. Till you're driving down some kudzu-lined two-lane just this side of Kilgore, Tex., with a familiar figure from your past who is much more present than the present. It's said we're lost in thought at such moments, but maybe we're just being found.

What took me back this time was the resignation of a university president here in Arkansas. It was precipitated by his having accepted a "gift" to the school that had just one little ol' condition attached -- that the donor's contract with the university be extended.

Uh oh. When that provision came to light, he decided the best thing to do was resign. But not before he'd explained that such extras are the norm in his business. He was just fitting in with the culture, you see. And if the culture is corrupt, well, at least he had adjusted to it well. Isn't that what we all want to be -- happy, productive, well-adjusted members of our society? Our university president was just doing business as usual.

I didn't buy it, but my father always told me I had no head for business. The next thing I know, he's back. Not that he's ever far away. Now and then I'll be walking down a busy street, and be startled by my reflection in a shop window. "Pa! What are you doing here?" One of the things he left me was his exact looks.

Some visits with him are clearer than others. Like this one. Maybe it's because his yahrzeit was the other day. That's the anniversary of a death in the family, when it's customary to light a candle and say Kaddish -- a prayer that doesn't mention death at all. But it does tend to bring back a lot of memories.

In this one, I'm in the dusty back of the furniture store my father started after the war, the Second World one, when an honest shoemaker could no longer make a living, what with all the cheap imports flooding the country. Why bother to have shoes repaired when you could buy new ones a lot cheaper?

So I'm in back of the store typing out the monthly statements, dutifully putting a Mr., Mrs. or Miss before every name. That's when Pa says, No, some of these envelopes go out without the title. I knew which ones he meant, the ones that went to folks with names familiar from the Bible, like Queen Esther Smith or Vashti Brown.

I told him that was wrong. Didn't these customers deserve a respectful salutation? Weren't they God's children, too? Teenagers who are always being lectured by their parents (and need to be) love to catch them in some moral contradiction. So we can lecture them for a change. Ah, sweet revenge. And this was my chance. Oh, the satisfactions of being a sanctimonious young prig!

Besides, it was really the old man's fault. Wasn't he the one who wouldn't let me skip a day of Hebrew School? We'd just been studying Pirke Avot, the talmudic treatise on ethics, and one of the sages had asked why we address all men, regardless of their station in life, as Master or Mister -- Rav. The answer: Because there is no one from whom we cannot learn.

That's just the way things are done in these parts, Pa explained. Everybody does it. It's the norm, to use the university president's up-to-date terminology. He was just a shoemaker from the old country trying to fit in. But I wouldn't let up. I had to throw in another talmudic dictum: Where there are no men, thou beest a man.

He got huffy and stalked off, the way people will do when they're angry, mainly at themselves.

I guess I owe a debt to that university president, whatever he did or didn't do to warrant resignation, for bringing me back to circa 1951 and Pa, who was much younger then than I am now. (And a lot more trustworthy.) I wanted to stay there with him, and had to shake myself back to 2011.

Anyone of a certain age who has outlived his parents will know the feeling. I didn't want to say anything to him, or have him say anything to me, but just stand there next to him, wordlessly. Just to be in his presence. And once again see how he wore his overcoat and pulled down his hat on cold days, or watch him play pinochle with his buddies Sunday nights around the dining room table. Or just watch him tie his shoelaces. Just to be next to him again. That's all.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.