“Moe” was born in London – in Whitechapel – in 1904. His father had hiked across Europe, a “foot-goer” among a generation of migrating scouts in quest of work and fresh footholds for households. They often served as stevedores to cross the channel and get to the center of the British Empire. “The Old Gent’s” first job was making saddles for the Boer War!
That’s how my dad, “Moses,” shortened to “Moe” so the Angel of Death couldn’t find him, became an Englishman. The family then made its way across the North Sea to Canada, but Moe’s mom died during the trip. The Old Gent then married again and founded a new family across the border in the United States.
So Moe was raised by a relative in New York while his dad transformed the saddle business into the New England Furniture and Upholstery factory, right here in Providence, across from Women & Infants Hospital on Eddy Street. It was forthrightly named Fink Brothers and gave work to immigrants from Portugal, Quebec, Romania, the ports of the seven seas.
Moe worked at Fink Brothers, using the skills he had learned at a New York high school for commerce to help keep the books.
I was the youngest of the three Fink boys. We lived a short stroll from Roger Williams Park before we bought a piece of farmland on the East Side of Providence and built a little mock-Tudor house with a fireplace and a cobblestone driveway.
In the cellar of our house was a basket of cat-o’-nine-tails that I lived in fear of. Moe never whipped us, but the very thought of it kept us in line. Oh yes, I was afraid of my father in those days. If he was upset, he might shout “damnation!” – and I thought he was cursing the country, the nation!
I was named for Moe’s late mother, Mira, who had died en route to Canada after giving birth to her third child.
My dad was too young to fight in World War I and too old for World War II, but his brothers were drafted and fought for the Allies in WWII, with daring, distinction and courage, against Germany, Italy and Japan. They came home laden with honors, medals ... and wounds.
I guess I got to know Moe best upon the death of my mom. She was born on Aug. 2, gave birth on Aug. 2, and died on Aug. 2, on her 60th birthday. She left a love letter for Moe and a thank you note for the nurse who took care of her in her sudden, final illness. And she instructed me how to wash, clean and generally take care of Moe after her passing. Wow! I grew up on that one dramatic day!
Moe and I were housemates for almost a full decade. Then, one day after I had served his supper and built a fire on the hearth, I asked for one of his Camel cigarettes and for him to join me for a moment.
“I am getting married! Can we have the ceremony right here by this fireplace?” I asked, fearful of his response.
His reaction amazed me. He proceeded to arrange the house carefully and with determination, and the ceremony went off perfectly, but with a touch of melancholy about the absence of our beloved late lady of the house.
My bride and I, and soon our firstborn daughter, entertained Moe at dinners in our nearby apartment until, several seasons later, he too died. But he returns to me on occasions such as Father’s Day.
Somehow, maybe due to the reigning king at the time of the translation of the Bible into English, we often picture God as, vaguely, a kind of man, a father, even a version of Santa Claus. But not so much nowadays, when we sometimes even say “Goddess” instead of “God.”
But I like to think that, in a strange way, God needs us the way Moe needed me when we lost my beautiful, talented, kindly mother. She was my Eden. But Moe lives on with me partly because it was up to me to keep his keepsakes.
I have his high school diploma and a few of the arrowheads and Indian Head nickels he saved as tokens of American history. And the ancient, gorgeous camera he purchased from a pawn shop in 1918. And his radio set from the same era. A few sepia portraits of him with buddies from his ports of call. A moth-eaten scarf. Even a pair of framed portraits of the reigning monarchs of the London of his earliest boyhood, in Edwardian England.
These things bring him back to me in my studio garage, my school office, my thoughts and dreams.
Recently, I came across a case holding a ruined, worthless violin. I hope to get it repaired as a souvenir of his hopes for us three boys. He bought each of us boxing gloves as a teaching lesson in self-defense to guard against bullies. But also – as in the plots of post-war and Great Depression movies – a violin or an upright piano, to mix strength with spirituality, boldness with beauty.
We need our Mother’s Day and we need our Father’s Day. And Creation and the Creator depend on each of us to “keep the faith,” to “keep the home fires burning,” the music of the spheres and the prayers, like Noah in his Ark, for some sort of return to Eden. Like a Renaissance depiction of peace on Earth where all things are sacred, holy, kindly and as merciful as possible here-below – where we are partners bound together, now as ever.
MIKE FINK (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design.