Category Archives: Family

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.



Leave a comment

Filed under Family

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.



Leave a comment

Filed under Family

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.




Leave a comment

Filed under Family


It is 12 midnight and I am screaming at the top of my lungs in a way that reminds me of childhood – that halcyon time when you could still scream like a banshee if you wanted to, because you were a child, not an adult, and different rules applied.

I am screaming and reveling in it, and the sound of my own voice, raised and hysterical, feeds on itself, making me want to scream louder, and longer, and harder.

I am screaming because for the last 48 hours, I had no idea where my 88-year-old father was, and now I do. He is on the phone with me, wondering why I didn’t know where he was.

I am screaming and imagining a knock on the door from the co-op manager who probably should have become a cop, but instead became the president of the board, so he could make random decisions with  other people’s money.

I am screaming and expecting a knock on the door from an actual cop who has been tipped off by one of the neighbors that a bloodbath might be unfurling in apartment 3F.

“I don’t want to have to hang up on you,” my father says. And I scream even louder. If anyone were about to hang up on anyone, it should be me, who spent a sleepless night and the morning following it waiting for an email that hadn’t come the day before when it should have, and didn’t come the next day either.

“We’re just going around in circles,” he says in a voice as calm as mine is maniacal.

And it’s true we are.

He is adamant that the fault is mine. He wouldn’t leave town without telling me. Since he did leave town, then clearly he told me he was doing so. So why didn’t I know that?

This is sophistry 101. Plain and simple. But my father is a lawyer, trained to talk fast and find the escape hatch. Trained to believe that you can argue your way out of anything.

“Why would I have expected to hear from you, if I knew that?” I say. (I like to argue as much as he does.)

In the old days, before cell phones and Blackberries, you could tell yourself that you’d probably misdialed, and dial again, because otherwise there wasn’t anything to do except wait.

I am screaming that he needs to take his Blackberry with him when he travels, and he is insisting that he wouldn’t think of it. It’s a nuisance and a bother and he doesn’t want to have to worry about it falling out of his pocket.

What he means is that using it unnerves him. “If it falls out of your pocket, which is, of course, highly unlikely, you will get a new one,” I say. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Watch your mouth,” he says, exactly as if I were 12 and just finding the nerve to use bad words with my parents.

I say “fuck” again working it into every sentence I can, until I tire of that.

And then a thought occurs to him. The thought is that we’d had a whole conversation about his taking the Blackberry  — or not taking it, since he was sure he didn’t want to. “Don’t you remember that?” he asks, all solicitous now.

I concede that I do. Because I do, and whatever else I am not, I am a truth-teller.

“So, doesn’t it seem likely to you that if we had that conversation, then I must have told you I was going to DC.”

“I’m not the one losing my mind,” I say, wondering if perhaps I am. “Don’t you dare accuse me of memory loss.” In our family, memory loss is no joke. He didn’t get those bad genes. But I might have.

“Don’t you ‘don’t you dare me,'” he counters.

I ignore that comment, taking a break to light a cigarette. Perhaps he hears the little inhalation of breath and perhaps he doesn’t, but he tells me that he will make a deal with me. “I will carry my Blackberry, if you agree to stop smoking.”

I’m so agitated that it takes me a while to think of it, but when I do I accuse him of the basest kind of bait and switch. “What does my smoking have to do with this? It has nothing to do with it. What the fuck are you talking about?”

He ignores that instance of “fuck,” suggesting that William Burroughs or whoever it was who first noted it publicly is right. You can use a word like “fuck” so many times that it just doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s neutered. Stripped of all force. “What you are doing to yourself is far worse than anything that could happen to me.”

“I’m an addict,” I say.

“Everyone else in the world can stop smoking, but you can’t?”

“Everyone else in the world is also married with kids,” I say.

“That’s different,” he says.

And I wonder how.


It takes a night of sleep and a morning of brooding before the thought comes to me. We did have a conversation about the Blackberry, in which he’d said he wouldn’t dream of bringing it with him. But it was a conversation about the trip to Chicago, the one he never took because of the torrential downpour. It wasn’t about the trip to Washington I never knew he was taking.

Via email, I tell him that. And via email he denies it. We each have the good sense to avoid the telephone.

In his email, he elaborates. “Not only did I tell you I was going to DC,”  he says. “I told you what hotel I’d be staying at. Just as I always do. Go on. Think very hard. I know you’ll remember the name of it. I remember telling you that I wasn’t sure if it had three words in it or two, but I was sure of the first two.”

I ignore that email, even though that is out of character for me. And then for days we let things settle. And I remember how in childhood when my mother was exasperated, and had already used every other expletive she could think of — words I would never even have believed she knew — she would call him a Farber. “Farber” was our last name. Her married name. His name name.

“You, you, you,” she’d splutter in her rage, still searching for le mot juste, “You Farber you.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Family

The Reprieve

For my 30th birthday, my mother gave me a reprieve. Often, on past birthdays, we’d been given pictures of things that we might later receive. The pictures were placeholders. But what could you draw that would stand for an allowance of more time? Maybe a clock dated into the as-yet-to-be-written future.

But she just said it outright, as neither of us were really children anymore. A year’s reprieve was the time she was allotting. A meagerly gift, in one way. Just one more year to write the thing I kept talking about wanting to write. The  story that would change my life, open some doors, and close others.

She had no idea then how much longer I would need. I myself had no idea. But the real gift, of course, was permission. Permission to be great, or mediocre, or anything in between. Permission to just be, without keeping score.

What she didn’t say then, because I was too young to understand it anyway, is that what we have — all we have — is time, and our memories of it.

Within another decade or so, she would begin to lose her memories. Time would change its shape for her in monstrous ways. And I would try to write about that. But never adequately.

What I wanted most then was to give her a reprieve. To bring her back. To have a fabulously smart mother with red-painted fingernails forever.


1 Comment

Filed under Family