How I Finally Got to Know My Father by Asking About His Past

My father began, “Well, it was nice talking to you.”

“Wait!” I said. “You haven’t talked to me yet!”

“We’ll talk when we see each other,” he said. “We don’t have to make the phone company rich.” He’d gotten on the phone just to get me to hang up.

Then one day, I called when my mother was out. My father answered the phone, and he couldn’t hand me over to my mother, so we started to talk. He told me he’d been thinking about his grandfather, and I asked about him. He began telling me. I discovered that if I asked him about his past, he would stay on the phone.

The older he got — and he lived to be very old — the more eager my father was to talk about his past, especially his childhood in Warsaw, where he was born into a Hasidic family in 1908 and lived until he left for New York with his mother and sister when he was 12. His father died of tuberculosis when he was very young. He described the apartment he lived in, the neighborhood, his grandparents and his mother’s many siblings, in such detail, I felt he was recreating the world of his childhood, and inviting me in. The stories he told became a world we inhabited together. He introduced me to the people he knew there, and to the child he was.

One of his stories involved his mother’s sister, Eva, who left Warsaw when he was 5. He recalled a time when he climbed up on top of a free-standing wardrobe: “I must have been 4 years old,” he said. “Eva was sitting there at the table and I wanted her to take note of this great thing I’d done, climbing up on top of that wardrobe, so I made some noise and she looked up and saw me and started yelling, ‘Get down from there!’ She made me cry. I had expected to be praised!”

My father is 87 when he’s telling me this story, but when he talks to me about his childhood, he’s ageless. He becomes the little boy in his story, then laughs at the way the little boy saw the world — at the humor he now can see. As he laughs, he hunches his shoulders and crinkles his eyes in a disarming way. I see in that gesture the affection he feels for his child self, together with the indulgence of an adult who knows better.

After my mother died, when my father was 95, I visited him often in the assisted living apartment he moved to. We could talk all day, and often did, though sometimes he’d fall asleep and sometimes we’d sing instead. Though by then I knew the stories of his childhood, I often heard new details, or asked new questions, or reminded him of details he’d forgotten.

One day, after one of our conversations, he said, “I’ll take some wonderful memories with me.”

I said, “You’ll leave some here with me, too.”

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