Selecting Father’s Day cards was always a challenge. Arnold Rosenberg had nothing in common with the Hallmark version of dads who mow lawns, play golf, and watch endless hours of sports on TV. He was a meticulous dresser, a follower of fashion, a wearer of jewelry, an opera aficionado, and a lover of gourmet food and fine wine. Although not athletic, he was dedicated to maintaining a trim, toned physique, jogging three miles daily long before running became popular.
And, as I gradually came to understand, he was also gay.
In September 1978, the month I started high school, my dad moved from our Center City townhouse to his friend Joel’s Pennsylvania Avenue apartment where Joel lived with his five-year-old daughter Sonya. Although there were two beds in their room, eventually I saw through this fictive setup. Their joint subscription to GQ was the surest tipoff.
The pretense of Joel being just a friend was abandoned within that first year. My dad, known for a bent toward self-aggrandizement, began referring to himself as a folk hero. It’s true that a flurry of other Center City dads left their wives and came out during the late 1970s. But I’m pretty certain that their timing had more to do with their own individual circumstances rather than following my father’s lead.
My dad was a University of Pennsylvania-trained attorney who worked at a small firm where he wrote wills, managed divorces, and spent an inordinate amount of time tending to his office plants. Law was never his passion. Civic engagement interested him far more. He was the longtime chair of the Center City Residents Association’s zoning committee. After Joel, Sonya, and he moved from the Art Museum area to Rittenhouse Square, my dad became the first president of the Dorchester residents’ association when the building was converted into condominiums.
He was active in the Friends of Rittenhouse Square, a public-private partnership between citizens and the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation with a mission “to preserve, protect, and beautify” the city’s verdant jewel. In 1985, my father served as chairman of the first Ball on the Square, a black-tie gala held in a capacious white tent in the center of Rittenhouse Square.
Much to my dad’s delight, his leadership of the event garnered media attention. The Inquirer’s Sunday magazine featured a spread of their Dorchester apartment. A photo shows Joel looking lovingly at my aproned dad as he prepares to carve a roast chicken. Remarkably for the time, there was no effort made to obscure the nature of their relationship.
The ball was covered by The New York Times and included a photo of my dad and two members of his committee. “‘We hope this will be one of the most exciting and fabulous social events the city has ever seen,’ said Arnold H. Rosenberg, the chairman of the ball, who lives on the square in the Dorchester condominium. ‘We want this to be the beginning of a tradition, to raise the kind of money it takes to preserve this incredible urban amenity.’”
My dad may not have been a folk hero, but he launched a tradition that has raised huge sums of money to enhance Philadelphia’s premier park. The annual Ball on the Square is the Friends’ largest fundraiser and has been held on the third Thursday of June every year since the one my dad chaired. Until this year. During the time of COVID-19, the ball was postponed until October.
My dad was no stranger to mysterious plagues. As a gay man during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, he lost many close friends. Shortly after the first Ball on the Square, my father, Joel, and Sonya moved to San Francisco, the epicenter of the new disease. By the late 1980s, my dad and Joel had split up. Dad returned to Philadelphia. Joel stayed in San Francisco. In 1993, Joel died of AIDS.
That year was also when I got married. A cherished recollection is of my dad saying in a solemn voice, right before he walked me down the aisle, “Honey, I just want you to know that there are so many gay men who would long to be in my shoes.”
He continued, “but they’d much rather be in your dress.”
Dad then moved to South Florida. Visiting him in West Palm Beach, I saw a stack of magazines entitled Poz, a publication aimed at readers affected by HIV/AIDS. Once again, a magazine revealed something that I couldn’t quite ask and my dad couldn’t quite tell. He eventually quit the charade and revealed that he was HIV positive and had been for quite some time.
With the help of medication, he was able to control his viral load for two decades. In the summer of 2007, HIV caught up with him. He died of an HIV-related lymphoma that September at age 72.
My father and I long had a close relationship. Fundamental aspects of his life experience, however, are unknowable to me. I never asked when he became aware of his sexual orientation. Nor did I ask him what it was like to live with a disease that transformed from a death sentence to a chronic condition. Those were boundaries I chose not to cross.
Remembering him this Father’s Day, I recognize that he gave me those things which are most important for a child. He was interested in my daily life and proud of my accomplishments. He gave sound advice when asked and was supportive of my choices, even when he had not been consulted. He was a doting grandfather to my daughters and a companionable father-in-law to my husband. The greatest legacy: he loved me unconditionally. I miss him every day.