Remembering My Father

My father, George, would have turned 100 years old later this month, on April 25. He died in July of 2003, at age 82, in Florida, where my parents had lived since 1978. We are still unsure about the true cause of his death; in fact, until early spring of 2003, he was healthy and vibrant. In early May of that year, my parents came to visit us in New Jersey. My dad, not given to complaining, remarked that he couldn’t shake the feeling of being cold. We turned up the thermostat and gave him a warmer jacket. Since Floridians are often cold when they come North, we didn’t think more about it. But, when my parents returned to Florida, the symptoms did not abate, and new, more serious ones emerged. A precipitous decline in his health had begun, and a month later he was gone.

But this is April, and in April I always think about having celebrated my dad's birthdays. So, on this April day, I'd like to share a nice memory about him. Most of my blogs center around my work as a writer, but this story is about my father's brief foray into writing.

When I was in high school, I took an English class that focused on developing writing skills. Full disclosure: the class was required and I probably would not otherwise have taken it. Anyway, one assignment called for us to write a short autobiography. I don’t recall what I wrote, but I do remember that my teacher offered some encouraging comments along with a decent grade. At the time, I was unaccustomed to such confidence-boosting feedback for my writing and, frankly, it never occurred to me to even hope for that. But the supportive words from the teacher motivated me. For the first time, writing didn’t seem like a chore, but possibly a fun thing that I could actually do.

Armed with my (apparently) praiseworthy two-page essay, now adorned with glowing feedback which, in retrospect, was probably something like, “Nicely written story and no glaring grammatical errors,” I was now well onto the no-turning-back trajectory of becoming the next Hemingway. Swelling with pride from the teacher’s evidently charitable endorsement of my literary prowess, I shared the joy with my parents, then beseeched my dad to write about a moment in his life. Any aspect of his life. It could be about something from his past or present, a brief autobiography (my newfound area of expertise, of which I now had two pages of proof). His response was, well, let’s just say, unenthusiastic.

My father, George, in Amsterdam, in 2001

I should note here that my father was an avid reader. He had a first-rate intellect. I like to think he was the smartest person I ever knew. He was curious about the world and seemed to have at least a little knowledge about everything and a wealth of knowledge about a wide variety of subjects. We had wonderful conversations, lively, enriching. We talked a lot about politics. He was a bit slower than I to arrive at progressive positions on issues of the day, but he ultimately got there. (I suppose my children might say the same of me.) Better to get there reflectively than reflexively, but that’s another discussion.

Over the course of that week, my requests that he write and his resistance to my requests fell into a pattern. I would nag, he would resist. Each of our positions would harden, the rhythm of our interactions on his writing becoming quite predictable. He was like the kid who had to be coaxed into practicing the piano, and I was the hounding parent, hovering over him, insisting that writing the little essay was for his own good. Oh sure, I could try the punishment route. But where would that get me? What could I do, forbid him from watching his favorite show? Withhold allowance? Take the car keys? Finally, whether from exhaustion or because we got sidetracked, I stopped pestering. The issue went away.

About a week later, I was doing my homework at the kitchen table when in walked my dad. In his hand were three pieces of loose-leaf paper, which he placed in front of me.

My heart skipped a beat! I was caught completely off guard, mostly by seeing a pageful of his writing. At that very moment, I realized that I had no idea what his handwriting even looked like. I knew his signature, and I knew how some of his written words appeared, like words on a shopping list. In such a format, the words are independent, not linked by an overall aesthetic or flow. But, here, on these three pages, was a picture of his handwriting. I had never even thought of him as having handwriting. The very concept didn’t apply.

I held the pages in my hands. My father had written a short autobiographical essay!

Sadly, I have only a hazy recollection of what he wrote and, regrettably, I don’t know where, or even if, I kept his essay. How could I have known it would have become a precious keepsake someday? The few paragraphs were more fact-oriented than they were reminiscences, more like a timeline of events in his life rather than how he felt about them or how they influenced him.

And as I read his essay, I began to understand some things about writing and how that relates to other ways we express ourselves. My father could comfortably speak about things he did, like playing stickball as a kid on a busy street in the Bronx, having had to frequently dash between parked cars to dodge oncoming traffic and even the occasional horse and buggy. He could speak about the wonderfully tantalizing aromas of breads and pastries emanating from local bakeries. And he could speak about what it was like to sit in a sweltering junior high school classroom in late June, baking in the intense afternoon sun while wearing the requisite long-sleeved shirt and tie. He was a wonderful storyteller, bringing life to his experiences, often injecting humor, even laughing at himself and his foibles.

But none of this came through in his writing. It was void of description. There was no imagery. Just the facts, ma’am, the plot points of his life. “I grew up in the Bronx… My parents spoke little English… My best friend’s name was Bernie…” Writing requires time, patience, and practice. He couldn’t easily translate his memories into this different medium of expression. It had simply never been part of his experience.

I could have followed up with him, encouraging him to develop an idea or two more fully for the next “assignment.” I could have tried to cajole him into adding some flavor and color. What did the bread smell like? What did it remind him of? Did he ever experience that identical smell as an adult? If so, did it bring back thoughts of his childhood? What did he talk about with Bernie? What did they do? What did he like about him?

I was shocked that my dad had actually made the effort to write something. But more, I was grateful. Above all, it was a loving, confirming gesture. I could tell it wasn’t his first draft: there were no cross-outs, each new paragraph was indented. He had taken his time. I think he wanted me to be proud of him. His apprehension, I came to recognize, was rooted in his worry that I might not be.

I didn’t ask him to write any more. There was no need. I did, however, ask him to speak more about the events in his essay and he happily obliged. If he ever wanted to pursue writing, it would be because he wanted to. Of course, I knew he never would. And that was perfectly fine. I treasured that moment. I treasured it because, more important than the writing, he stepped outside of his comfort zone to make me feel good. Asking him to write more would have transformed a beautiful moment into an expectation that would ultimately serve no purpose other than to diminish that one.

I didn’t fully understand this at the time, but I had a vague sensation that sometimes it’s best to end something on a good note. And even though you may want more, nothing will ever approach the sweetness of that good note.