JUNE 7, 2018 – Most of us don’t need a designated day to remember our loved ones who have passed on. Father’s Day, however, does make us think of the male role models who influenced our lives and perhaps in memory still do. My late father-in-law, Benjamin Fearer, was just such a person.
I first met Ben when my husband-to-be brought me to his Cambridge senior housing apartment in the late fall of 1960. Nate had decided I could now be introduced to his family. Ben answered to many names: Pa to his three sons, Dad to his daughters-in-law, and of course, Grandpa Benny to the next generation, probably the proudest name of all.
Like any good host, Benny made dinner for us: pan-fried blade steaks. He did a good job; after all he had been chief cook and bottle washer for his family since the loss of his wife, Blanche, at the age of 39. My husband, the youngest, was only 11.
Grandpa Benny loved coming to our house. He even liked my cooking, always telling me that I was pretty good for a beginner. When I told him about a recent dinner party at our house, he gave me a puzzled look. “Were they Jewish?” he asked.
“What difference does it make?” I said.
“Well, I wasn’t sure goyishe people liked Jewish food.”
“I don’t think it was a problem,’’ I said, “since I served eggplant parmigiana and chicken cacciatore.”
Since Ben didn’t drive, I would pick him up in Cambridge for a weekend, but only when he didn’t have a job, and that took a long time to happen. When we first met, my father-in-law was working in a family-owned and very successful market in Cambridge, but he didn’t start out that way. Ben was born in Latvia, or as my brother-in-law Dave said, “You might just as well say he was born in Russia.” In fact, one of Dad’s brothers was actually kidnapped off the street never to be heard from again. It was one way to get soldiers for the Russian army.
For the Jews, one village, or rather shtetl, was like another: very poor. Every so often, Benny would share a glimpse of his early life. He once told me that his Hebrew school was the local shul where he helped sweep the floors and did chores to be in the learned, holy environment. His bed was the shul’s benches.
Though the older Benny wasn’t a regular shul-goer, a portion of each day was spent reading and studying prayer books in Hebrew. He was also an avid fan of the Forverts, the Yiddish daily newspaper. Benny was a very charitable man. I don’t know how many lists he was on, but he answered every request from many different places. A few even included a little gift hoping for money in return. Thanks to Benny, I didn’t have to buy Hanukkah candles for years.
Ben and his brother, Abe, and their families occupied two different apartments in the same house in Malden. Somehow, the guys got into the shoe business. They opened a store in Melrose and one in Stoneham. Then came the Depression. The business could only support one family and Ben let his brother take over. The Ben Fearers left Malden for Roxbury from which all three sons – Butch, Dave, and Nate – were drafted during World War II.
“My father was very proud of that,” Dave recently told me. “He had a Blue Star Banner hanging in the window.” The official banner had three blue stars on a white background with a red border representing the three fighting Fearer brothers.
After the failed shoe business, Ben held many jobs including catering, but the supermarket, with its Jewish owners, was a favorite. That is, until the store’s insurers said that at 75, my father-in-law was a liability and they had to let him go.
The following weekend, Grandpa Benny was at my house. As soon as the Sunday Globe arrived, he grabbed the want ads. A half-hour later, Ben announced he had to leave that afternoon. The next morning, he applied for a candy-making job at the NECCO Company and was hired immediately. I was shocked. “Did you tell them how old you were?” I incredulously asked.
He answered, “57.”
“Didn’t you reverse the digits?” I asked.
“Why?” he said. “I look only 57.”
Now in his 90s, Ben’s next job was at 10 Post Office Square in the Financial District, where he did everything from cleaning the elevator to washing the door windows to making the tuna fish salad for the owner of the food kiosk. It was to be his last job. One afternoon, when he left the building, he slipped on ice and broke his hip. After surgery and a hospital stay, he knew he could not live alone, but the alternative, a nursing home, was not acceptable. It was time to say goodbye.
Hopefully, Ben’s spirit still lives on in all those whose lives he touched.
Myrna Fearer writes from Danvers.