In my job I speak with, and provide service to people of all walks of life and all levels of income. My job as a loan officer in a bank is simple. Listen to what the customer is saying and provide them with the mortgage product that they need. (P.S. This is not an advertisement.) Several of these people have left a lasting impression on me.
BB is 72 years old and he wants to move to Florida and retire. The weather in the Delaware Valley had been brutal in the last few weeks and he was sitting in front of me wearing a aged, worn overcoat with a an old sweater. His face was not necessarily elderly looking, but I could tell that life had registered its toll on his face with wrinkles around his eyes and on his forehead. From time to time during the interview he leaned forward placing his elbows on my desk and his head in his hand. His knuckles were out of proportion to his hands. Maybe due to arthritis. His fingers angled off to one side. I saw concern and stress in his face. But it’s self imposed. Financially he is OK. Not great, but OK and better than many. Helping him to get to Florida poses some challenges, but they can be overcome. Helping him to realize that he is OK …. That’s another story. BB has a thick accent. I asked him where he originally lived. He said Lebanon. He came here in 1986 to escape the civil war in his country. He lost everything. His clothing business. His possessions. He came here by boat with his son and his wife because he couldn’t afford the airfare. Now 21 years later, after having become a US citizen and purchased his home, he is financially able to retire. Generally as a rule I have to keep politics and religion out of my business conversations. So I gently move the conversation back to his financial affairs and helping him attain his goal of moving to Florida. BB lives around the corner from my office, and in the days that follow this initial interview, he comes into the bank to make a deposit and say hello and find out about the progress of his application. One day he asks me if my last name is Russian. “Yes. It has Russian roots. My grandparents came here from Russia. I’m Jewish” I respond, holding my breath. There seems to be a pregnant pause, but it’s in my mind as I wait for him to respond. He says “Jewish people are honest and fair. The man I am selling my home to is Jewish.” I let my breath out. I tell him that I know that during the civil war in Lebanon, Israel was passing medical supplies through fences at the boarder to Lebanese people. Our eyes meet and he blurts out “And doctors, too” as if he had first hand knowledge of this. Not wanting to get too emotional and stuck on this subject, we move back on point to help him retire to Florida. This man, who lost everything at age 51, whose story I now see in the wrinkles on his face, who rebuilt his life in a new country, is now retiring in America as a US citizen.
GV came to this country 25 years ago from an island country with $19 in his pocket at the age of 20. He finished 9th grade in his country. He’s been working full time as a bartender for 20 years and part time in construction. He’s putting his daughter through college. After I finish conducting my interview and gathering his financial information and listening to his goals, GV tells me that he is sad and depressed. Why? He feels that he can’t get a break. He feels that in this great country, he should be able to accomplish more. GV owns 7 investment properties and has mortgages on all of them!! His net worth is 7 figures! Yet he feels that here in America he should have been able to accomplish more at his age. How can I tell him that his ‘old school’ work ethic is what built this country?
ET came here from a small country on the east coast of Africa 16 years ago with very little in his pocket. He works 7 days a week. Full time in the maintenance department for a local college and part time as a cashier on the weekends. ET has 2 investment properties and is buying a home for his family in a neighborhood that will enable his son go to a good school. His son is 8 years old.
I began this essay three years ago as I sat at my father’s gravesite on the eve of what would have been his 83rd birthday. At that time the next Yahrzeit candle that I lit would mark the 25th anniversary of his passing. Now, it has been 28 years since I was able to look into his eyes, kiss him on the cheek, give him a hug and say “I love you, dad”. Compared to the customers I see, my family’s story in America goes back a long way. My grandparents came here a little over 100 years ago. They fled war and civil strife to make a new life for themselves. They worked hard, sometimes holding two jobs at once. My grandmother had to take in a boarder to help pay for food and rent for her family. They lived through the Great Depression. Both of my grandfathers managed to get the equivalent of a high school diploma and both became US citizens. This was a great accomplishment for them. While they didn’t harp on the past with stories of life in the old country, my parents and my aunts and uncles had instilled in them how great this country was. And how this new beginning had to be cherished. It wasn’t an easy life. It was a life that gave them a chance, and an opportunity.
My father left college to enlist in the Army to fight in World War II. There was never a question about if he would go. It was a question of Army or Navy. My father knew that the fight to preserve freedom had to be stopped over there, not over here. My grandparents’ America became my father’s America. All 4 of my uncles joined the fight as well. And thankfully all 4 returned home physically unharmed. After the war was over my father married and started his own business. Many, many, many months he worked 7 days a week. Many, many nights my mother would bring him food and fresh clothes because he didn’t have time to come home to rest. He had his opportunity and his chance to succeed and he grabbed it and he didn’t let go. Thanks to his efforts and the struggles of my grandparents, my family has a better life. That’s what this part of the world is about. America is a chance. America is an opportunity. It’s a land where you can practice your religion and speak your mind. America is a melting pot. As long as we respect our neighbors, this country works. My father’s America is still the greatest country in the world. A land of opportunity and a chance to succeed. My father’s America is now my America and the America of my enterprising customers from many lands.
I honor my father this day on his 28th Yahrzeit by re-dedicating myself to practicing those values that he exemplified and those values that I have been able to practice here in My Fathers America. Providing for my family both fiscally and physically and with leadership, especially during times of strife. Helping to fix the world by helping those less fortunate than me. Perhaps this is a good place to stop listing resolutions and go back to work!!