Dad was born on Ohio's North Coast in summer 1934 when Hitler's reign of terror was beginning, baseball great Babe Ruth's career was skyrocketing and the sounds of Duke Ellington was permeating the American soundtrack. Tough times indeed, but somehow my grandfather Jerome soldiered on to make it all work. Jerome ran a business to take care of his wife Fannie, their two daughters Annette and Rosalind and my dad, Bernard - better known as Bernie. Dad never liked that name "Bernie," but honestly, the name suited him throughout life. Dad’s childhood nickname suited him as well, “Boobie.”
For quick context, Jerome and Fannie came to America after growing up in Eastern Europe. Jerome trekked through the old country to get on a boat to Canada before World War I. Years later, on the way to my grandfather’s funeral in January 1988, Dad told me all about his father’s sacrifices to come to America. That word, my dad explained, was the theme of his father’s life.
Jerome hopped into a boxcar on a Canadian freight train and jumped out to America where he kissed the soil. It wasn't the most legal way to get to The States, but the government granted Jerome amnesty a number of years later. Jerome's family was not as fortunate. They stayed behind for the years to come in what became Poland – Dad said that Jerome was technically born at the edge of Austria. Nevertheless, Hitler's army found my grandfather’s family. They didn't stand a chance.
By the time my dad was born, Jerome had more than a full plate with a large family and running a Sinclair gas station and auto repair shop through The Great Depression. Jerome worked hard to survive while still finding time to be dedicated to his religion by walking to temple on the Sabbath, holding Passover Seders and even lighting the Hanukkah candles - sometimes late at night, my father would later informed me during our own Hanukkah celebrations.
As a kid, Dad went around his Cleveland-area Kinsman Road neighborhood collecting scrap metal and aluminum for the war effort while becoming interested geography and in words, specifically word origins as he grew up. The interest in word origins led Dad to become a master speller winning four spelling bees - the last contest earned Dad a Western Reserve University scholarship. While Dad was a natural at chemistry, geology was his true passion. But a living as a geologist seemed far-fetched to my dad's parents in the 1950s. They told young Bernie to go into something more practical so pharmacy won out in his higher education. First attending Western Reserve and finishing up at Toledo, Dad went into a long pharmacy career - with stints in Cleveland-area pharmacies. He became a member of the AZO pharmacy fraternity.
Dad married my mother in the late 1950s. My two sisters and I were born in the 1960s. While so much turmoil and change was happening in the world, my parents were ensconced in Cleveland's idyllic east-side suburbia where in summertime, patches of green grass thrived, kids played unfettered and butterflies flourished. Certainly my folks were touched by President Kennedy. Years later, I found a framed JFK photo and Cleveland Press newspapers clippings of President Kennedy's assassination in the basement. Indeed my parents were familiar with The Beatles, but they were more into The Weavers with their single "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena" and Johnny Horton with "North to Alaska."
During that period of change in the 1960s, family, career and life in the home kept Mom and Dad preoccupied. Dad embarked on his own adventure to co-own/operate Mayland Pharmacy in Mayfield Heights - an east side suburb - during the late '60s/early 70s. Mayland was where one could go to get TV tubes, candy and school supplies in addition to prescriptions. Both my dad and his partner Stuart enjoyed the freedom of running their own store, but after several years, competition from big retailers like Gray Drug and Revco Discount Drug Stores made them feel that they had to sell the business.
Dad and Stuart both joined Revco and worked there throughout the time my sisters and I were growing up. The early Revco years were probably my dad's favorite since he didn't have to worry about operating his own store, but still had the responsibility of running the pharmacy as well as the retail part of the store. So many wonderful things happened through those Revco years including my Bar Mitzvah, Dad's interest in western wear, our high school graduations, tons of parties and even some travel. What I remember most was the fact that Dad supported my interests. When I was a 5 year old, I loved trains so Dad would take me to the train yards in Euclid, Ohio. Later on, I was fascinated by TV and radio, so Dad took me out to the local TV stations’ transmitters on Cleveland’s west side. We went to scores of movies including my first R rated feature, Magnum Force. This was after Mom took me to see The Way We Were. Later into childhood, we took some fishing trips. The fishing trips were few but memorable.
During the time I was growing up and for years to come, Dad loved to pull me aside and provide "lectures" on a number of topics. Those lectures were numerous, but some of them still stand as gems such as the time he told me about how the military mindset affects one's personality after we viewed the Clint Eastwood film, Heartbreak Ridge. I later learned that Dad was in the Reserves for about 30 days, well after the Korean War ended. Another time, he reminisced about the “Kinsman Days” and the type of cars he drove. Dad loved cars from the 1940s and 1950s. When helping with my sisters' moves to and from college, Dad and I enjoyed listening to the music radio while picturing what the artists looked like-this was the pre-MTV days when my oldest sister was first attending school. I'll never forget how times Gerry Rafferty's "Right Down The Line" played when we were visiting my sister Amy during her freshman year. Years later, Dad moved me in and out of dorm rooms and eventually helped me with my move to Atlanta in August 1989.
The Twinsburg-based company in which Dad worked for was at just the right size in the early '80s. Later on, my sisters and I worked at Revco in our teen and college years. Dad put us all through college by working long hours in those pharmacies.
When it came to completing things around the house, Dad was quite active. In his 20s and 30s, he took on many home projects including perfectly wallpapering scores of rooms as well as finishing the basement complete with paneling and extra lights installed. In addition to the home projects, Dad used the skills he learned as an assistant to his father in his gas station. Those handy skills led Dad to perform tune-ups to tire changes. I will never forget those studded tires that were allowed on Ohio's roads. Dad took good care of his cars especially his 1972 Pontiac Bonneville - in which he took us for so many Sunday drives to Ohio's countryside in that car. From Roscoe Village in Coshocton and to the Whoollybear Festival in Vermilion, a myriad of family memories took place with us over the years.
Over time, the home projects declined while Dad's work hours increased. The company was growing fast thus taking away his retail duties while the job became more difficult with insurance and regulations becoming more burdensome. Dad put up with the hassles for several years. The twilight years of Dad's pharmacy career took place as CVS took over the company. Dad became more interested in his morning crossword puzzles and his library filled with dictionaries which he would study in his larger second house.
Dad visited me on occasion throughout my years in the Atlanta area. On one such visit, Dad arrived sans Mom to take a test to practice pharmacy in Georgia. Of course Dad passed with flying colors, but never had the chance to use the license here in the Peach State. We had a great time on that visit by going to wonderful restaurants like Dominick's in Downtown Norcross. I'll never forget viewing the Nick Nolte vehicle Mulholland Falls with him during that week. Later on, Mom and Dad came to visit when my daughter was only a few months old. Dad’s last visit to the Atlanta area was in 2005. It was a rainy May week but we still managed to get a visit to Fernbank in before my parents headed back to Cleveland.
In retirement, Dad pulled some hours at Rite-Aid and CVS before completely leaving the business and slowing down. His health declined which put him in an area nursing home. Dad passed away on December 31. While I can say that I was prepared for the news, I truly couldn't be prepared. It's a mélange of feelings from sadness to relief and back there again. I hustled up from Atlanta where I have been living for the past 25 years to attend the funeral and “shivas.” Despite nasty weather, all went calm for Dad's service at the graveside. The sun served as a beautiful backdrop on that cold Ohio January day.
While it is sad to see a parent pass away, I'm reminded that Dad was a vital member of the community - both Jewish and secular. There's no doubt that Dad lived his life as a true "mensch" – good person. I was about 10 years-old when my dad taped a newspaper clipping of an editorial titled, "What is Class?" to the side of one of our kitchen cabinets. The clipping remained there for quite some time, yellowing through the years. That op-ed obviously hit a cord with my dad because showing "class" meant everything to him throughout his life. "Class" to Dad meant being chivalrous - work hard, be good to everyone around you and humble about your accomplishments. Bernie Nebel (pronounced nee-bel) was dedicated to those concepts and truly exhibited "class."