Funerals stink. But obituaries? My Dad (Hertzel Aron) loved reading obits.
When I was growing up, the (Houston) Chronicle arrived in our driveway shortly before he arrived home from work.
After dinner, he’d read the main section — back to front.
One day, I asked about this peculiar habit … particularly the fact that the first thing he read was the obits.
He said, “I just want to make sure I’m not in there.”
It was a good line, of course. But there had to be more to it. Because he always did it.
Even when visiting us in Dallas, he’d read the newspaper back to front, starting with the obits.
Another Hertzel-ism was talking to himself.
Some of those conversations became quite animated. He’d gesture with his hands as if he was swatting flies.
Snippets of dialogue went from inaudible … to a whisper … to a few octaves higher.
Then, just as suddenly, he’d give a dismissive wave and that was that.
So one day I asked him, what did that waving gesture mean?
F’em he said.
Only this was one of the rare occasions when he used more than the letter F.
Speaking of letters, one day in my youth, I heard someone use the expression “Jesus H. Christ.”
Being a curious kid, I asked my wise father about that phrase.
Specifically, what did the H stand for?
He immediately said, “Hertzel.”
My Dad liked a good story. Especially about people. Best of all, people he didn’t know.
They didn’t have to be true stories. His favorites stories were the ones he made up.
He’d see a couple walking out of an ice cream store and notice they had one bowl and two spoons. Newlyweds maybe?
He’d see a young person rushing through an airport or an old person shuffling through a mall and he’d compose a tale of who they were, where they were going and why.
We only talked about this a few times. But I could always tell when he was crafting stories in his mind.
Whenever we talked about my work, my Dad often sprinkled into conversation the phrase “creative writing.”
I usually bristled at that because — as a journalist — I dealt in facts, not fiction.
It wasn’t until writing this speech that everything clicked.
I now believe that reading obits connected to these stories he dreamed up. Maybe reading obits counted as research.
I also began thinking about whether telling stories for a living — like I’m so fortunate to do — is something he wished he could’ve done.
The way his life played out, such a career was never an option.
He was born during the Great Depression and his Dad died when he was 10. A sense of responsibility compelled him. He became a salesman then owned his own business.
I have to smile because — framing it that way — my Dad sounds like a character in one of the tales he’d make up.
Anyway, I wish I had asked him more about all this. Because writing stories about people is what I think I do best.
It makes me wonder whether I inherited some sort of storytelling gene.
My Dad appreciated good jewelry. Especially rings.
Wherever he traveled, he hunted down antique stores. And he always asked about a particular kind of ring that I came to believe was his Holy Grail. It was some sort of stone in a filigree setting.
Writing this, I began to wonder whether Holy Grail is the wrong term. Perhaps it was more like his MacGuffin. That’s a trick creative writers use. It’s basically a fake quest.
So here’s my revised interpretation: He asked for something he knew they likely didn’t have. It’s even possible it didn’t exist — like a left-handed hammer. It’s a brilliant negotiating ploy because it puts the seller on their heels. They don’t have what the customer wants and need to find another way to make him happy. In turn, this allowed him to appear disappointed and maybe willing to consider buying something else — if he could get a good price.
Whether this version of the story is fact or fiction, we’ll never know. But we do know he wound up with a nice collection of rings.
He loved giving rings as gifts. Raise your hand if you ever got one from him.
Keep your hand up if you’re wearing it today.
In his final weeks, he took great pleasure in giving away his remaining rings.
The amazing thing was, he remembered when and where he bought each one. If you were among those recipients, I hope you also got the backstory.
A few days ago, I learned something that completely changes my understanding of his ring collecting.
When my Dad was 9, he and (his brother) Sidney went to some sort of carnival. Their Mom bought each of them a ring. As I mentioned, their Dad died a short time later.
Standing at their father’s grave, Sidney said, “Let’s put our rings in there.” So they did.
It may sound like pop psychology analysis to say that my Dad spent the rest of his life trying to replace that ring.
Except, that’s exactly what he told me.
Now that I’ve dipped into my Dad’s childhood, let’s delve into the narrative of his life.
In 8th grade, he got bullied at school. Kids beat him up for being Jewish. One thing led to another, and (his mother) Orina moved the family from Goose Creek (now Baytown) to Houston.
After high school, he went to UT. In his words, “it was wonderful.” (Read in the singsong way he used that word.)
He played oboe in the marching band. His freshman year, the Longhorns capped the season by playing in the Orange Bowl so he got a trip to Miami. He also joined the Tau Delta Phi fraternity.
Then he left Austin. To quote him again, “After two years of having a really good time, I thought I was overdoing it. So I went back to Houston and stayed home.”
He took classes at UH at night, and spent his days working at Altman’s Furniture store.
He lived with his mother in the upstairs apartment of a triplex she owned at 1721 Wichita. I’m using the exact address because of how much he enjoyed using it when talking about those days.
He soon made enough money to treat himself to a car — a canary yellow Studebaker convertible. Again, he remembered that car as “wonderful.”
A year later, he sold it to pay for a six-week study abroad program offered by UH. The trip included a week in Paris “studying” at the Sorbonne.
The lectures were brief and in English. There probably wasn’t even a test. Still, he flew home with a certificate that looked a lot like a diploma from the Sorbonne.
At some point after I moved out of their house on South Braeswood, that document resurfaced. It hung in a frame outside my parents’ bedroom.
As I mentioned, my Dad was quite driven as a businessman.
He and Sidney once had a cleaning-and-pressing business. Then my Dad started a TV business — in the early 1950s, just as TVs were becoming must-have items. He did so well that he bought a furniture store.
Sidney joined him in that business and, of course, that became their livelihood for nearly 40 years.
In some ways, the furniture store gave my Dad the cash flow to dabble in other areas.
Real estate was his favorite. He also liked taking some calculated risks. Two are fun to mention.
The first comes from the 1970s. Seeing how much (my siblings) Jenny and Jacky, and their friends, enjoyed playing pinball, he started buying machines. Like the TVs, he recognized a trend and rode it. He always smiled when talking about that.
Then, in the 1980s, a good friend of mine had a brother with a booming business. The company was going public, so my Dad bought some stock.
At worst, he was supporting a good Jewish boy. Yet it definitely turned out for the best. That company was Dell Computers.
Whenever anyone dies, there are conversations that never happened, questions that were never answered.
Such as asking my father how to handle certain aspects of this speech.
The biggest involves the three children he had with his first wife — and the fact he lost contact with those kids more than 50 years ago.
We discussed them more often in his final five weeks than we had in all the previous years combined.
Then again, we’d only discussed them a handful of times in all those previous years.
Because of how rarely he brought it up, I rarely thought about them. That lulled me into a big mistake. I never considered how often he thought about them.
In the hospital last month, he told me he thought of them every day. And that he always had.
I felt so sad for him.
I also felt embarrassed. As the father of three kids myself, I should’ve snapped to this sooner.
When he came home from the hospital, I noticed that on his bedside nightstand there was a framed picture of him and those three kids.
It probably had been there for years, and only now was I seeing it through clearer eyes.
Driving back to Dallas, I thought a lot about how much losing touch with those kids shaped my Dad. I tried to imagine all the hours he’d spent thinking about them.
How many stories he’d probably invented about how their lives turned out.
How often those animated conversations with himself involved them.
How he might’ve been looking for their names — or some way of finding them — in those obits he studied. Including in Dallas, their mother’s hometown.
Earlier this week, when we were going over the funeral plans that he so methodically mapped out — all the way down to the yellow spider mums on his casket — I asked if he wanted to be buried with anything.
In fact, that was the question that prompted the tale about the rings.
He said yes, he did want to be buried with one thing.
That framed picture on his nightstand.
The flip side of my Dad being 10 when his Dad died is that his Dad only lived to 46.
So when my Dad approached 50, the milestone was a big deal to him.
He celebrated by buying himself a diamond ring. And a fur coat — one with big, fuzzy lapels. Maybe it was stylish then, but now it looks like something from a Mafia movie.
One day — and I’d like to think it was on his actual birthday — he put on the ring and the coat, and slapped on a black fedora. Then he went to a photographer and had a portrait made.
Like the faux diploma from the Sorbonne, he proudly hung this picture in the Braeswood house.
When Hurricane Harvey destroyed the house, both frames made the move to their condo.
He hung the 50th birthday portrait on the wall between his bedroom and his bathroom so he could look at it every day.
When I moved to Dallas, my Dad had some advice regarding my love life.
His two-point plan for me to meet a nice Jewish woman was asking friends if they had sisters and attending services.
Those were pretty much the last two things I wanted to do.
Nonetheless, one year, I decided to go to high holiday services at Temple Emanu-El.
I saw a couple I knew from college; both the husband and wife were good friends of mine. There happened to be an open seat at the end of their row, so I joined them.
It turned out that I sat next to the wife’s sister … and we recently celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary.
Never once did my father say, “I told you so.”
Four summers ago, when Lori and I moved (our son) Zac into college, we sent (our younger sons, twins) Jake & Josh to Houston to spend a few days with Grandma and Grandpa.
The four of them were invited to a meal at the Petroleum Club. My Dad said the kids had to get gussied up to eat there. So he bought them fancy threads.
Now that they were all looking spiffy, he again decided it was portrait time.
The photographer took pictures of the four of them. Then my Dad requested pictures of just Jake & Josh. Then of my parents, together and individually.
The picture on the program is the one he took that day.
All summer, my Dad was slowly but surely losing weight and energy. He dismissed it as old age.
On Labor Day, it was clear something changed for the worse. He went to Methodist Hospital by ambulance, and I got there a few hours later.
He thought he was about to die. Shortly after I arrived, he told me to take some notes. He had some final wishes.
The first request was to sell both of their cars and buy my mother a new one; whatever she wanted.
He ended up spending less than a week in the hospital. We left thinking his only problem was congestive heart failure.
A few days later, we learned the real villain was lymphoma.
At his age, he wasn’t up for a fight with cancer. He began hospice care the next day.
With no resistance, the disease kept taking over his body. Yet his mind remained sharp.
About two weeks ago, he decided he wanted to be surrounded by vibrant signs of life. So he asked my mother to get seven pots of chrysanthemums.
As of Wednesday, my Dad had never once used the wheelchair, hospital bed, portable commode or heavy-duty pain medicines provided by hospice. He especially refused to wear an adult diaper.
Sure, the resistance was mostly pride and stubbornness.
But it also speaks to his resolve. He wasn’t giving in.
Thursday morning, he asked for the wheelchair. He got in the hospital bed before noon.
He told me he’d become “feeble.” Still, he remained so alert that he noticed the flowers were missing. It turned out that while he was napping, they were taken onto the patio for water and direct sunlight, and we hadn’t brought them back in yet.
Around 3 p.m., we finalized the plans for my Mom’s new car.
His voice was barely above a whisper at that point, but — again — his mind remained active. He wanted me to tell the salesman to transfer the handicap license plate from his car to the new car.
About 12 hours later, he took his last breath.
There’s one more nugget from those final hours.
The call with the car salesman interrupted our review of his life insurance policies.
Going through them, I got the sense that for someone who grew up during the Depression, these policies had value beyond money. They were security blankets. That’s probably why he had so many.
Yet the real reason I mention this is to note that he began taking out those policies in 1952. When he was 21. And the original beneficiary was his mother.
Of all the anecdotes I’ve shared, that probably sums him up best.
Hertzel Phillip Aron lived a full life.
After all, I’ve talked all this time and haven’t even mentioned how much he enjoyed traveling, attending the opera and symphony, playing the harp and tending his garden.
I haven’t mentioned all the years he spent visiting patients at MD Anderson or his late-in-life career as a mediator — things he did so well for so long that he received awards.
Yet the most remarkable part of his story is the way it ended.
For all the emotional and physical pain he endured — including a broken neck and other maladies (hepatitis, myasthenia gravis, heart bypass surgery, Graves’ disease)— once death came calling, he never suffered.
I think we’d all accept going out the way he did:
· Three months shy of turning 91
· A quick, painless final episode
· In his sleep, surrounded by loved ones.
It’s fun to think that — like so many of his business doings and jewelry purchases — he worked out a heck of a deal.
It’s even better to think the creative writer in him scripted a perfect final chapter.
Yet there’s a postscript.
After all those years of supposedly looking for it in the Chronicle, he didn’t want it published there. Only in the Jewish Herald-Voice.
So I’ll leave you with this small request.
For those of you who get the Herald-Voice, when the next edition arrives, read it from back to front.
My Dad died at 3:25 a.m. on Oct. 8, 2021. I began writing this soon after. Once I knew what I wanted to say, I moved other things into his obit in hopes that they’d complement each other. … Special thanks to my cousin Diane Reich for many of the photos.