A Chip off the Old Rock

How did my father form my character?

On first thought I would say not at all.

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.
—Linda Collins

Next: Discovering her dad through poetry


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