The chockablock old drugstore was the center of his father’s too-short life. That’s what
thinks about now. The drugstore, and his family, were what mattered to
And although Gary never got to say a proper farewell to his dad, the memories from that drugstore are what have sustained him for more than 50 years.
It was called the Grant Medical Pharmacy. It wasn’t part of a chain; Alfred Bender had started it on his own in Franklin County, Ohio, in 1949. He was the proprietor, the pharmacist, the bookkeeper. Gary, beginning when he was in his early teens, worked there every Saturday.
“I was in charge of the cash register at the cigar counter,” Gary, now 74, told me. His job was to ring up merchandise for the customers, including their bills from the long soda fountain. He still can describe, in detail, every aisle of that pharmacy: the shelves of cosmetics, the racks where newspapers and magazines were displayed, the lists of inventory that had to be kept in stock: pocket combs, matchbooks, shoelaces, toothpaste, comic books, perfume, lollipops, flyswatters, shaving cream, Kodak film. Just talking about it puts him right back there on a Saturday afternoon.
What Gary saw in his father was a scrupulously honest and caring man who often hand-delivered prescriptions to the infirm and elderly, and whose customers trusted him and, with affection, called him “Doc.” Because Alfred Bender regularly worked well into the evenings, there were many weeknights when he didn’t make it home for dinner with his wife, Sylvia, and the five Bender children. That’s one of the reasons Gary liked the Saturday job—it meant uninterrupted time with his dad, even though Gary would be at the register and his dad would be across the way filling prescriptions.
Saturday, March 2, 1963, was going to be a big day for Gary—both father and son knew it. Mr. and Mrs. Bender would be attending a wedding in Chicago, and Gary would be working the register alone. At 15, for that one day, he was going to be the proprietor of his father’s pharmacy. He did his best, thinking the whole time that he wanted to make his dad proud.
At closing time, he took the bus home. The telephone call came later that evening. At the wedding, Alfred Bender had collapsed after having a heart attack. He died instantly. He was 47. Gary’s last sight of him had been in a long tweed black-and-gray overcoat, heading for the airport and Chicago.
The drugstore was sold soon after. Gary never set foot in it again, which was just as well with him; he didn’t think he could take walking in there after that Saturday. He became an accountant and worked in finance his entire adult life. He is now retired, living in Irvine, Calif.
From time to time he thinks of what might have been, had his father come home from Chicago. Would Gary have eventually taken over the family store? Would he have become the man behind the pharmacy counter, knowing every customer’s face? When he closes his eyes, he sees his dad across the aisles, meticulously checking and double-checking the contents of each prescription. In those moments Gary is still the kid at the cash register, silently happy that his father knows he can always count on him.
Mr. Greene’s books include “Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War.”
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Appeared in the June 18, 2021, print edition.