He was probably your first pair of male arms, and, like it or not, the most influential man you'll ever meet. These daughters reflect on the subtle and not-so-subtle ways their fathers shaped them.
"He Helped Me Find What It Was I Loved"
What I remember of my father are the dark suits he wore and the tired way he came home in the evening. He seemed beaten down by something, something large and sharp, and I wasn't sure what that was. My mother used to say, "He comes home late because he gets very tied up at the office," and, in the literal-minded way that small children think, I pictured him roped and cuffed to his swivel seat, and this seemed terrible to me. He was frail and pale and needed protection. I used to bring him offerings: a pale green shoot, a clear cup of water, a serrated shell from the beach.
When I turned 10, I fell in love with horses. I fell in love with their dry, velvety noses, their thick pink tongues, and the way a canter felt when I sat deep in the saddle. My mother, a strict woman, forbad me lessons: Jewish people, she said, did not ride horses; they played tennis or golf. I pined and pined. I read Black Beauty again and again. And while my mother forbad me my passion, my father welcomed it, aided it, perhaps because he sensed that through passion we find our freedom, the highest expression of self. He was all tied up, but for his daughter, he wanted room to run.
He was a frail pale man and wouldn't cross my mother's mandates in any direct way, but whenever she left town he would sneak me out to the stables. I remember him coming to my room in the earliest part of the dawn: I remember the whisper of wheels on the wet road as we drove from suburb to country; I remember the sweet smell of dung, the hot blasts of a horse's breath. I remember how he stood by the fenced-in field and watched me, my father, still in a dark, serious suit, the sleeves too big, brass buttons winking in the dawn. Month after month, year after year, he helped me find what it was I loved: He drove me there; he watched me take the four-foot fences, the horse surging forward, me hunched high up on the neck as I entered the air.
He was a driven and hard-driving man. Born in Jewish Lithuania, he came to this country at the age of 4 with his mother, brother, and baby sister. His father had come the year before to scope out the lay of the land. It was a common story: They were poor immigrants struggling to make good. My father excelled in school; that was to be his way out.
He studied math and science, won scholarships to Columbia, where he was the college chess champion, and later the champion of the Manhattan Chess Club. He took no interest in literature or art. He became a mining engineer; worked in Cuba and Jamaica; in time went into business, a business where he was essentially the only Jew, fought to keep his head above water, relished conflict, mocked his adversaries to my mother, calling them pink-cheeked Yale boys and pitiful cases of arrested development. He prospered. His success took stubbornness, toughness, endurance, a thick skin, features I would have said I do not share.
I grew up passionate about literature, writing stories and poems that my mother saved, diaries that I hid away. I loved to draw, humming as I leaned over the table. I was lazy in school, worked on what I liked and not on what I didn't like. I played the piano dreamily but didn't practice. I would have said I inherited my mother's nature, not his.
In time I began to have boyfriends. He paid little attention to them. Maybe he didn't know about them; he was at the office. But when I brought home Artie, then working as a soda jerk, he laid down the law. "No," he said. He was enraged. I wasn't to see Artie anymore. When I wouldn't agree, he said he wanted me out of the house. He didn't say forever, but certainly for a while, a long while, unless I agreed to give up this scruffy young man. "A boy with no future," he said.
With an excitedly beating heart, I refused. My will stiffened. I refused to give in. I felt heroic. I was David with my slingshot. I was Joan of Arc, defying the English. A war between us began, which only ended ten years later when he came sheepishly to the hospital to see his newborn grandson. The scruffy young man had gotten his PhD and was a professor at Columbia. We've now been married for 50 years.
Where did I get this power of resistance, this stubbornness? From him, of course. How did I learn to say no? His genes taught me, and his behavior showed me how.
My dad wasn't the kind of guy who looked into his own depths. He was too busy moonlighting—days for the electric company and nights at a gas station. Men like my father keep our lives together without our even knowing it. And they hardly know it, either.
As a little girl, I suspected there was a whole world inside my dad, but how could I find out where he really lived? When I first heard a poem, I felt as though I were diving deep into a pool. I thought that if my dad would read one, he might dive deep, too—and join me on another shore where I would learn who he really was. But his reality was work boots and a hard hat and too many beers between shifts. I was often either in school or in bed when he came home.
But even if a daughter doesn't have a thing in common with her father, his DNA swims in her life.
After my dad died, I found I'd become a moonlighter. By day I taught seventh grade, and by night I worked like a demon to write poetry and to start "Poetry in Motion," which posts poems on the nation's subways and buses. I never asked why. I just kept busy.
One morning as I stood on the rush-hour subway going to my job, I saw a man in a work shirt, lunch pail crushed against him, callused hand on the steel strap, lurching as the subway car lurched—but searching, too.
What was he doing? He was reading the poem I helped to put up—diving into that pool of understanding I'd hoped my dad would swim across to meet me. And I met my father through that man on the subway car that morning.
I loved my father so much that I couldn't understand how I would be able to survive when he died. And his death seemed to be an ever-present threat: He had had rheumatic fever as a child in the days before doctors knew that the disease could damage the heart, and as a result he had a deteriorating aortic valve. "Anything over 40 is gravy for you," one of his doctors told him. He was nearly 37 when I was born.
For as long as I can remember, on Saturday mornings as soon as the weather turned warm, my father would fling open the doors and windows of our suburban house and fill the spring air with Vivaldi or Beethoven or Haydn quartets at full volume on our living room stereo. The passion in the music pumped through him like life blood; he sang and sometimes whistled along vivaciously, conducting his imaginary orchestra with enormous gusto, flushed and lifted by the gorgeousness of it all. His face full of joy, he'd catch my eye, as I sat, at 5 or 6, cross-legged on the floor in my overalls and saddle shoes, and in his look there was the gift: See?
When my son was about to leave for college two years ago, in the course of a conversation about separating, he asked me how I felt about losing my father, who died when I was 30. It wasn't at all what I thought it would be, I told him. Every time I feel happy, I recognize Grandpa's spirit, I said. I looked at my son; he looked at me. I see, he said. He did.
My second job out of college was designing book jackets for pulp fiction. Seven men and I hunched over drawing boards, lettering Stalker Perv from Hell and Nevada Nut Case on lurid illustrations. Water pipes dangled from the ceiling. Fluorescent lights sizzled, men hawked and wheezed. When I brought in a radio, ambience improved. But a few months later, a better job came along, and after teary goodbyes, I bent down to unplug my radio.
"Whudya think ya doin'?" Eddie, the office manager, said.
"Taking my radio."
"No way, kid." He shook his head.
"Because we got used to it, kid."
That made sense. That was true. So I left without the radio. Then I started brooding. By the time I got home, I was The Maniac from Manhattan.
I dialed Dad.
There's something you should know about my father. He was 9 when his father died. Abandoned, Dad survived by inventing rules that drew a road map for life. The one he thought applicable to my radio was "The Bully on the Block." "A little boy comes out on the street," Dad said. "And a big bully comes along and starts punching him in the face. The little boy has three choices. He can stand there and take it, fight back, or go away. It's his decision to make."
Dad paused, then added the magic words: "Nobody does anything to me. I do it to myself."
I could have left the radio.
I could have taken the radio.
I could have pulverized Eddie, then stomped out with the radio.
Dad was telling me that my response to a bully is my choice. It's exhilarating to know this. Anytime an interaction doesn't feel right, ask yourself: Am I going to stand here and take it, fight back, or walk away? In the end, you have nothing to complain about because you, you thoughtful, clever girl, have made the decision. When you're in charge of your fate, you can't be a victim.
Which brings me to my all-time favorite quote. It's attributed to that goddess of words Maya Angelou. Here's how it goes: When you complain, all you do is broadcast, "There's a victim in the neighborhood."
Alas, there's no shortage of bullies out there. I have a neighbor who thinks might makes right, that he'll always prevail because he's 6'2" and loud. Bob likes to stand over me and snarl. I smile back up at him and hold my ground. Inevitably, he withers like the Wicked Witch of the West. I hope his quivering wife reads this essay.
In a generous mood, you can feel sorry for a bully. Bullies resort to primitivism to make their points. Intimidation is their skill set, that's all they've got. You, on the other hand, have my darling father's philosophy. Dad had no role models. He self-created. He believed his job as father was to protect me. But he went one better. He showed me how I could protect myself. You're armed now too. Bullies beware.
Being a doctor, my father made a bad patient. I guess it's like working in a restaurant where you wouldn't dream of eating. He especially hated being in the hospital, but from time to time he landed there, and then he disobeyed all rules, getting up when he was supposed to lie down, lying down when he was supposed to get up, not to mention the contraband sherry and cigarettes smuggled into his hospital room. Once, after surgery, he was in the intensive care unit at New York Hospital, a bit delirious but very sure he wanted a smoke. "Daddy," I said, feeling like a Goody Two-Shoes, "Look at this oxygen tank. Do you know what would happen if we lit a cigarette in here?" "Boom?" he asked, with a happy smile.
My father was very sick the last few years of his life, and this long illness he bore with a stoicism I didn't inherit. I don't remember ever hearing him complain. The most he allowed himself was, "I'm feeling a bit seedy," and by that we knew he was suffering. When he went into the hospital for what turned out to be the last time, his kidneys were failing. My mother said something breezy about him coming home in a couple of days and turned to leave. She was exhausted, and had grown almost used to his hospital stays. "I just want to warn you"—my father spoke in a gentle voice—"that if this is renal failure, I may not be coming home in a couple of days." He died two days later, surrounded by family.
My father broke our hearts with his courage. I am not going to follow his example. I plan to make a scene, to go kicking and screaming all the way out, my embarrassed children at my side. Death is bad enough without the unbearable memory of grace.