A Parental Legacy (of Sorts)

As he lay dying, my father uttered these words to his four children, hovering around his hospital bed: “To thine own self be true.”

Shakespeare said it first, of course. But the words were no less powerful for having been borrowed.

My father was always his own person. No one, not even his beloved wife of 60+ years, could tell him how to think. And while on some level the regard of others was important to him — he wasn’t above boasting of his accomplishments — he believed in himself utterly; those who disagreed with him were easily dismissed. No one else could ever ultimately give him value, or take it away. His accomplishments and fierce sense of self were his for life. And that sense of self led to a kind of joy. A natural curiosity about the world around him.

None of his children inherited that unshakeable sense of self-worth, or that joy. Each of us has had to fight with tooth and claw to quell the naysayers.

But we are all, in our way, still fighting. Still trying to preserve a bit of his legacy, to find a bit of that joy.

 

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Eagle Man

He was there again today, on his bench at the tip of the pier. Arms spread out like wings bunched high at the shoulders. His two gym bags were spread out in front him, casually marking his territory. There was a neatly folded white towel draped over one of the canvas bags.

He was tanner than the last time, if that were possible, his skin like a tawny leather stretched taut from the top of his forehead to the tips of his toes. His eyes were closed.

I imagine him having once been in the merchant marines. The head of a small fleet of boats. Or maybe a solitary sailor who’s made his way through dangerous channels and lived to tell the tale.

Now this bench at the tip of this pier is as close as he comes to freedom from man’s laws — a freedom I associate with the open seas.

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Green Bananas

He said that he didn’t want any artificial life-prolonging measures. When his time came, that would be it. He was adamant about it. The way he was adamant about everything. I nodded as if I were listening. As if that made perfect sense. But I wasn’t listening. I couldn’t begin to think about a day when he would be gone. He was 92 and had, until the age of 91, been in seemingly perfect health.

From time to time, he’d make jokes about not even buying green bananas. But I didn’t listen to those either. I had no doubt he would live to be 100. Which would put me at 68. I’d deal with things then. Or maybe I’d never have to. Maybe he would outlive me.

Then one day his doctor was on the phone telling me that my father was a very sick man. He’d sent him in an ambulance to the hospital. I took the train up there and waited while they ran tests, but even before the tests were confirmed they were saying cancer. Without a new liver they couldn’t treat the cancer. And they weren’t going to be looking for a liver for him.

The whole thing took a month. The day I thought we (my siblings and I) were moving him into a residence, a day I thought was six months from the end, was the day his doctor said he was too sick to move anywhere. And then a week later he was gone.

One day before that fateful doctor’s appointment, he’d taken the train into the city where he’d visited the federal reserve bank in lower Manhattan and then lunched at Bobby Van’s. He’d had a great day, he said.

It was an astonishment to him that he could have been out and about one day, and looking at his imminent demise the next. And because of how skilled he’d been at hiding his ailments, never complaining, it came as an astonishment to me as well.

I would have done anything to delay his death, except to face the reality that he was dying.

Though it’s going on two years now, I still feel robbed of something nameless and absurd. As if he’d broken some implicit agreement we had. We won’t talk about death. And then it won’t happen.

 

 

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Hoarding

She doesn’t think of it as hoarding, really, more like planning ahead. But what began as a strategy to keep the chaos at bay is something else now, something holding her in its grip like an animal that can’t be satiated.

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Family Stuff

I come from a family where being smart was nearly everything.

My mother, who by certain measures was the smartest of us all, offered lots of bits of advice over the years. But her most recurring theme with me was about keeping my mouth shut. “No one will ever marry you with that mouth,” she once said. I was probably 22 or so at the time. Her words were, need I say, prophetic.

But it began much earlier than that. The lesson she kept trying to teach, which I kept failing to learn, was that it was perfectly fine to have thoughts that you didn’t share. Maybe they were called “white lies” at that time. Good lies. Lies that were designed to make someone feel better not worse. For example, she said, “You don’t have to tell Rochelle that the brand new dress she’s wearing is unflattering. You could tell her what a beautiful fabric the dress is made of, or what stunning colors.”

Rochelle was one of the tough girls in my junior high, bordering on what in those days passed for a “hoodlum, but at the time she meant everything to me. She had a big warm personality and went after what she wanted. And maybe I envied her her talent for being “bad”: to brazenly come to class with some lame excuse for not having done her homework, because she’d spent the day before hanging out with friends rather than working on it, or to talk back to her teachers when the spirit moved her.

At some point Rochelle and I went our separate ways. There were no hard feelings. It was just one of those things. And under my mother’s strict tutelage, I did manage to keep my mouth shut. But that lesson, about not saying what you think, never really stuck. I’ve had to keep relearning it, over and over again.

For a time, I think, I prided myself on my ability to say what I truly thought, the consequences be damned. The rest of the world might be hypocrites and liars, but at least I was not.

But these days, there’s cold comfort in that. I can no longer even count on two hands the number of former friends I’ve alienated in one way or the other over the years. I’m well into my toes.

Soon those will be used up as well.

 

 

 

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Mother’s Day

Dear Diary,

I remember the last year my father was alive for Mother’s Day. He didn’t have a sentimental bone in his body — marking holidays really wasn’t his thing — though he loved nearly indiscriminately and believed fiercely in family.

I called him on Mother’s Day, to acknowledge the day, and the absence it represented for each of us.

For a moment, there was a puzzled silence at the other end. Had I lost my mind? Forgotten who he was?

And then an instant later, in falsetto, he replied, “Why thank you, dear.”

He was never one to miss an opportunity for a joke.

 

 

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Dear Diary

Dear Diary,

To even write those words is odd, taking me back to a time when every little girl of a certain generation was presented with a little white or pink diary trimmed with gold with a tiny padlock and a matching key.  Privacy was packaged in gilt. Even then it may have been an illusion. Parents’ prying eyes could find the key as easily as a child at a Passover seder could find the afikomen. But still, it was well before the time of the web, and Facebook, and photos of here’s-what-I-made-for-dinner-last-night, interspersed with ritual beheadings and murders in malls that go viral in an instant.

But I digress.

Dear Diary,

It’s been months, actually years now, since I’ve had the impulse to write whether for me, an audience of one, or for you, whoever you might be.

And it’s not that there haven’t been things to write about. But what could I say about those things? I thought that my father would live to be 100. And he didn’t. More precisely, I thought that I would always have the benefit of his kind, loving, all-knowing presence. And now I don’t. I thought he was in fine health. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. I thought that there would be some relief from the constant anxiety of worrying when I couldn’t reach him by phone. But there isn’t. I thought I would feel free to pursue my own life, but I haven’t.

The urge to write, to make something of myself, seems to have been displaced by the urge to make pottery. There it’s so easy to see how we repeat ourselves endlessly, until we stop. And perhaps a computer program could be devised to see how our pens (or fingers tapping keyboards) trace the same grooves and delineate the same contours as well. And those programs would throw some faint light on the brain that traced those grooves. But for now, the writing process is more opaque, and its meaning more controversial. I have never written to incite, for example, and to the extent that you could say that I’ve done so to soothe myself, to smooth away the wrinkles on an otherwise fine day, I have failed utterly. Writing has never soothed anything. But there is, even now, when the hope of becoming a successful writer has faded, an urge to talk to myself. To keep a record of the dialogue, or monologue as the case may be, to be able to refer to it later perhaps, to trace the journey.

This, then, is Day 1 in a new journey: Life after Dad.

Dear Diary,

I have survived the worst.

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