I adored my father. He’s the parent I felt an affinity with, the one I thought understood me. But when I was growing up in Brooklyn in the late ’40s and early ’50s, he was rarely home. He worked overtime as a cutter in the garment district, late into the evening during the week and all day Saturday. Most Sundays he was busy “being active,” as we called it, in New York’s Liberal Party, in recompense for which he was promised a political appointment that would allow him to escape the factory.
The strongest presence I felt in our house was my father’s absence.
Even if he was home, and wasn’t building something or working at his desk, I had to share him, because I was one of three daughters — and the youngest one at that. My sister Naomi, the oldest, had him all to herself for six whole years before Mimi was born, two years before me.
“He used to toss ideas back and forth to me the way other fathers play ball,” Naomi recalls. “He used to have debates with me where he would pick an issue and take the hard-to-defend side that he obviously didn’t believe in. For example, we once discussed slavery, and he took the side that slavery was good so I could take the other position, the right one. He was teaching me to think and to argue.”
If my sister’s memories include basking in our father’s attention, mine include scenes of yearning for it — and trying to get it.
One day my father is working at his desk on the second floor of our house. I approach him there and stand beside the desk. Absorbed in his writing, he doesn’t notice me. To let him know I’m there, I lift my plastic water gun and squirt him in the face. He erupts with a great shudder of fright, and roars like a tiger. I dart out of the room and down the stairs to the first landing, where I stop, ready to run the rest of the way down if he’s angry with me. I’m scared because I’ve never before seen him angry.
He appears at the top of the stairs, spreads his arms wide and laughs; his laugh and his outspread arms invite me to run back up the stairs and into his huge hug. Reassuring me with his hug and his laugh, he apologizes for scaring me.
My sense that I couldn’t reach my father stayed with me even when I was grown. A dream I had in my 30s is typical: I’m having a birthday party. My father is there, but he’s suspended about two feet off the floor, with his head near the ceiling. He doesn’t seem to hear or see me. I desperately try to make contact with him, but he’s stuck up there, and I can’t get him to come down.
Well into adulthood, I felt that I could never make up for the father-time I’d missed as a child. But it turned out that I could. And I did.
The change started when my father retired at 70. I was in graduate school in California, and I called home often, but my mother was the one I’d talk to. Once my mother said, after we’d been talking for a long time, “Your father wants to talk to you.” I felt a rush of excitement and anticipation.
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.”
When he was 97 and nearing the end of his life, my father and I were talking about how long he’d lived, and then about how long I’m going to live — and how I’ll like living that long.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I won’t know till it happens.”
“I’ll have to talk to you from upstairs,” he said. “I’ll be watching over you from up there.”
When I think of how I yearned for time with my father when I was a child, and then of the countless hours of conversation we had as he aged, I feel as if I changed the ending of my dream where my father is floating with his head near the ceiling. I call to him that I want to hear his stories, and he comes back down, sits beside me, and starts telling me about Warsaw. When I reread the notes and transcripts from the conversations we had about his past, he’s spending time with me still, 14 years after he died. And I sense him watching over me from up there, happy to remember those conversations, too.
Deborah Tannen is the author, most recently, of the memoir “Finding My Father,” from which parts of this essay are adapted.