My father was quite a private man, but he was quite a man of action. He never spent any time stating his philosophy, but he was convinced that with his two hands, he could heal any person, make any food, solve any problem.
He was an international man. He was born in Seafordtown in the Caribbean island of Jamaica in 1939, and spent his youth in Falmouth, working in a grocery store and as a baker. His grandmother sent him to Hong Kong for high school, where his favorite thing was to tend the school’s pineapple fields.
He worked for a few years in London as a Chinese cook before coming to New York, where he continued to cook. His sister was here studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology and my father loved Italian cooking and a good New York beef steak or three, so he decided that this was where he wanted to stay.
He was so sure that by 1965, with the help of his friend Ann Nurse, an Italian cooking teacher who was the godmother of all of the Chinese in his apartment building, he had become a US citizen. His sister had become friends with a German couple, the Eichhorns, who ran a “mom and pop” orthopedics making shop in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Hubert “Pop” Eichhorn agreed to take him on as an apprentice and it became his life’s work for the next 30 years.
As an “orthodist” – an orthopedic technician — or a “braceman”, as they were called in those days, my father specialized in the Milwaukee (CTLSO) Brace, which is used to correct scoliosis, or severe curves of the spine. He studied orthopedics at the source, Marquette University School of Medicine in Wisconsin and at New York University School of Medicine. A Milwaukee Brace is much like a custom suit of armor, requiring plaster body models, shaping of leather, riveting of steel, sewing of linings, clanking on anvils, polishing and fitting. He was one of the very few in New York that could do it all from scratch.
In 1982 he went out on his own, starting Al Orthopedics Supplies, where he helped to heal thousands of patients from around the world with his back and knee braces. He collaborated with Dr. Jacob Graham to invent two lower profile versions of the Milwaukee Brace which would be as effective, but not be visible when worn. At the Hospital for Joint Diseases, he taught medical students about how to diagnose scoliosis and how braces are used in its treatment. He was very proud of helping to set up the certification program for becoming an orthodist, and displayed the letters C.O. — Certified Orthodist – as a badge of honor. In this litigious age, the fact that he was never sued for his medical work should mean a lot.
Meantime at home, my father was introduced to my mother, and married her in 1970. I arrived 11 months later, followed quickly by my brother, and followed much later by my sister. We maintained a blend of Chinese, Caribbean and American values in our household. We had a three family house where we lived on the second floor, his sister’s family lived on the first floor, and his grandmother and aunt lived in the basement apartment.
He did everything he could to keep from us from worry. He never let us know how hard he had to work to make ends meet. He let us enjoy the simpler pleasures of life.
My father loved food; he did all of the cooking. He never knew how to cook small – he would cook for 10 people even though we were only five. One night would be Jamaican curried beef, the next Hakka stuffed bitter melon, and stewed pork with preserved vegetables, and the next spaghetti and meat sauce. Of course, all of these would be served with steamed white rice, even with the spaghetti. His neighborhood friends were at the local bagel store, where I learnt more about Jewish appetizing foods than any Chinese person could know about. He was so impressed with the omelets that were served on a flight that he spent the next month perfecting his own version. He would bring German delicatessen home from his old boss – his personal New Year celebration would not be complete without little cocktail sausages and cheeses.
We had a 2 storey peach tree in our back yard. Every fall he would climb the tree with an improvised tool made of a 2 by 4, the hook of a coat hanger and a canvas bag to harvest the ripe peaches. There would always be enough to hand out to family and friends.
Every Christmas, he would go back to baking, making pound cakes to give to friends and family. He would hand make each batch, churning out upwards of 60 cakes out of a small kitchen oven.
He would be quick to come up with a Chinese remedy for a flu, a cut, or a bruise. He would find the right combination from the collection he kept in his closet, and soothe it with his hands.
Whatever his personal indignities he suffered during his long illness due to diabetes, he always tried to be a perfect Jamaican gentleman and a man of medicine, keeping his pain away as much as possible, joking with the doctors and nurses, and occasionally offering his professional opinion. He always offered what he had, often handing people the sugarless candies he liked to have had on hand, and allowed another generation of medical students to learn about what he liked to call his “textbook case”.
Towards the end, my brother and I carried him up to the apartment because he couldn’t walk up the stairs. Even then, his hands and arms were still strong, and even afterwards he managed to try to massage our backs after the long haul.
He was a man of few words, but he did believe in his hands, changing, cooking, healing, joining. Let us give our hands to him today.