It’s ironic that most of my childhood memories of my father involve conversation, yet the big family joke is that he never really talked.
What we mean by the tease is that he was never one to open up and share his thoughts and feelings. If we wanted to know how his day of teaching went, or what he liked to do in his spare time, or how he felt when he lost his mother at the age of 14, or whether he believed in God, we would have to pry it out of him.
Yet, I was always talking with my father. A philosopher through and through, he challenged my thinking at every turn.
Sometimes it was with silly jokes. I torture my own children the way he tortured me, when they announce, “I’m hungry!” I respond, “Nice to meet you, Hungry. I’m Ima!”
I remember how pleased I was when I first saw the spark in my daughter’s eye that indicated she got it–because I made her stop, think, and understand. Just for a moment. Like my father did for me.
Sometimes it was with philosophy riddles. There was the barber in Seville, who “shaves everybody in the town who doesn’t shave himself”–and I was supposed to figure out whether the barber shaved himself.
On occasion, the ideas went over my head–like that time when I was in fourth grade and asked for help with my math homework, and my father began with, “Well, if we let X equal…” I don’t remember anything he said beyond that, but I do remember being amused several years later, when I finally got to algebra and the sort of abstract thought he had tried to teach me.
I felt like a real daddy’s girl when I took philosophy in college, and could call him and ask questions or simply share what I was learning, or to work with him on my analysis of Descartes.
But in all this father-daughter intellectual bonding, there was something missing.
My first year as a high school teacher, I had a great group of students who liked to get me on tangents into what we called “Philosophy 101.” (Who am I kidding? I was equally responsible for those tangents!) I told them about my father and several latched onto the idea that if they could only speak to him, he would solve all their existential dilemmas. I explained that my father wasn’t like that: he enjoyed ideas, but didn’t take his philosophy seriously in that kind of personal sense. I didn’t think of him as someone who had struggled with faith and reached a happy point of certainty and truth; on the contrary, I was fairly sure he didn’t really accept “proof” or “truth” at all.
What I forgot was that my father, too, was once an adolescent boy. And he was one who had somehow taken his upbringing with little Jewish observance and grown into a man who kept Shabbat and kosher, prayed three times a day, and wore a kippah. Who sent his three daughters to an Orthodox day school through 12th grade (and beyond, as we all attended Stern College at least for part of our college years). Who studied Talmud and seemed to know everything about Torah, along with everything else there was to know.
And he did all this with titles like “Judaism Without Supernaturalism” on his bookshelves.
And I had the gall to think he hadn’t struggled with faith and truth, and arrived at some sort of personal conclusions?
I had the tragic blindness to never ask him what he, personally, believed about anything? To waste the opportunity of years with this brilliant individual, and miss my chance to know what he thought and why?
My father is still with us, yet I find myself speaking of him in past tense because I can’t talk to him anymore. Over 20 years of a progressive, nameless, debilitating neurological condition, and we have passed the threshold of even pretending there is a coherent conversation to be had. He will occasionally burst out with an audible line that is so classically my Abba I can’t help but laugh and cry. I laugh because he always made me laugh, and because I am happy to know he is indeed still there. But I cry because those occasional lines are all we get. And I cry because I don’t know if he is still fully there but unable to break through the fog of his condition, or if he is simply not all there anymore; and because I don’t know which would be worse. I cry because I missed my chance.
Recently, my aunt sent my sister a package of old letters and items. The ultimate treasure in there is the eight-page letter my father wrote his sister when he was a senior in high school. Topics range from a detailed account of his exploits, skipping school (MY father?!) to visit friends and to attend a USY convention; to references to conversations in which he and his sister apparently shared deep ideological disagreements along with profound love and respect; to allusions to his own beliefs and idealistic ambitions for his future. The letter is quintessentially my Abba, right down to the part where he claims to be 100 percent sure of something and quickly acknowledges in parentheses that of course, he is never 100 percent sure of anything. I see him in it, I hear his unique voice, and I also am introduced to a young man I never got to know, who took his philosophical quests as seriously and personally as my students that year, and who was committed to identifying and living the closest approximation to truth he could find. I read it with tears, and laughter. Maybe I didn’t completely miss my chance, but there is so much more I want to know.
In honor of Father’s Day, I want to thank my aunt for saving and sharing that letter. I want to thank my father, at his age of 16, for having written at such length and with such honesty. I want to kick myself for missing the chances I missed, in all those years that I could and did talk to my father. And I want to resolve to talk with my own children as openly and honestly as possible. I want to resolve to save my own adolescent writings, so that even if I find it difficult to be open and honest with them, they can have the chance one day to find those journals and letters, and get a window into their mother’s heart like I finally got into my father’s.