Fine times: Leonard Heller, with Jack and Linda Joy.

Ironically, Mother’s Day always makes me think of my dad, Leonard Heller, because, 37 years ago, he died on Mother’s Day.

Lilacs were blooming in our backyard on the day of the funeral, and the smell of coffee permeated the house. My father’s death at 62 had come as a surprise to no one. A chain-smoker since he was 14, he had blown out his lungs and seriously damaged his heart by the time he was 50.

I’d barely cried when my uncle called me in Boston to give me the news so I could arrange for the flight back home to Illinois.  I had been waiting for that call for years, it seemed. My father had been sick for so long, I could barely remember a time when he was healthy and happy.  But when I look back at certain family photographs, as I often do on Father’s Day, I can recall some fine times with my dad.

First, an old black-and-white photo taken with an old Brownie camera shows my dad sitting on a chair with our little dog, Pixie, in his lap, a hamster crawling out of his pocket and our white parakeet perched on his bald head. Pixie was a fearful, shaky pooch, fond of hiding under furniture, and she would allow only our father and our grandfather to hold her. Animals simply loved my father. Years later, when my cat had kittens, she ignored the comfortable bed we’d made in our kitchen; she insisted on carrying each kitten by the scruff of the neck up two flights of stairs, placing it in the bed beside my father, then climbing aboard herself.

I believe animals loved my dad because he was quiet, gentle, and extremely kind. A simple man who had never graduated from college, he rarely traveled outside of the town where he was born and where he raised us—Peoria, Illinois. He loved his hometown. Whenever we would drive over the Murray Baker bridge into town, my dad would smile and say, “look at that skyline—isn’t it beautiful!”

Proud of his family: Leonard Heller with his daughter, Linda, and his wife, Zelda.

He was also fiercely proud of his family, a fact that is quite apparent when you look at our pictures.  In many of them, my two brothers and I are staring straight into the camera, but my dad is instead looking down at us with a big grin, as if to say, “Look what I produced—aren’t they something?” When I was born, my father was so happy to have a daughter that he insisted on giving me the middle name, “Joy.”

The wallet picture.

After he died and my mom looked through his wallet, she gave me a photograph that he had kept in it for 20 years. It shows me, at age 6, dressed in a tutu and standing in a ballet pose. Of course I had given him many other photos of myself over the years—older, more dignified shots—but he always preferred this old one.

My dad adamantly believed that women did not need to learn how to drive, or to have a career, or even go to college.  When I pointed out that my mother, a popular kindergarten teacher, seemed to enjoy her work and that I certainly hoped to have a career as a writer, he laughed and told me to marry a rich doctor instead—and he wasn’t kidding.  He was extremely proud of my oldest brother, who had received a full scholarship from the Navy to go to medical school.  But he was not happy when I left home to go to college, and my goals and ambitions always seemed to mean a lot more to my mother than to him.

For years I felt resentful that my dad seemed to relate better to the little 6-year-old in the tutu than to his grown-up daughter with opinions and dreams he obviously considered ridiculous and out of reach. But given his personal history, I think that I now understand.

Dad  worked for years in the family business, a tin compress corporation, which was the family euphemism for a junkyard.  Although he rarely found pleasure in his job, sometimes he would bring home treasures—an old brass spittoon that my mother polished and used to hold a bouquet of artificial lilies, and a pewter pitcher that would keep water ice-cold even on hot days.

“I believe animals loved my dad because he was quiet, gentle, and extremely kind. A simple man who had never graduated from college, he rarely traveled outside of the town where he was born and where he raised us…”

But more often than not, he would come home from work exhausted and defeated. I have an old Polaroid picture which my brother took one afternoon, just as my dad had walked through the door of our house after a particularly bad day of work.  He looks completely downtrodden.  He considered the work filthy and demeaning, and he couldn’t wait to start his own business. The opportunity came when I was 13 and my two brothers were away in college. My dad decided to open a small Laundromat, but one with a distinctive twist—he would only have a few washers and dryers.  Most of his machines would be the newly invented and extremely expensive self-service dry-cleaning machines, which a salesman had convinced him were the wave of the future. Unfortunately, few people in Peoria in the 1960s dry-cleaned their clothes. Furthermore, his Laundromat was located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in town, because that was the only location where he could afford the rent, and my maternal grandfather, who owned the property, gave him a good deal.

When the business failed, my father blamed himself. The fact that his sister owned a successful men’s clothing store in Pekin, Illinois, didn’t improve my father’s disposition. He frequently said, “She should have been born the man instead of me.”

Dad returned to the junkyard a broken man in both spirit and health, and he never recovered. The last photograph I have of him shows him seated at our dining room table, looking withered and hunched over. He is not smiling or looking at us.  He is looking down at his thin, speckled hands.

When he died, my father left a mound of debt; it took my mother years to pay it off.  But now that they’re both gone and I look back through my pile of photographs, I realize that he left us with a lot more than unpaid bills. He gave us unqualified love and a great start in life. He taught us to be kind and gentle and honest.  When I look at a recent photograph of my husband looking down at our handsome son, I know my dad would approve. He would have admired my husband for his intelligence and confidence, and for the successful business he built. But most of all, I believe he would have been proud of me and of our little family.