My friend, Ruth, whom I have known for almost 40 years, texted me this morning, saying she is sad for her father who died this week, and sad for herself for no longer having a living father.
And I am up against the quandary again, of having felt no sorrow when my own father died 3 years ago, no tears for the person who was the center, the shining light, of my first years.
I wonder about this over and over. Once, my father wrote to me during his last few years, asking to be more in touch. “We used to be such good friends,” he wrote.
This was only true when I was a little child. It was true until the time he and I were out on a walk, a common thing we did together. Since I was a little kid riding on his shoulders, my father had taken me with him on long weekend walks, walks that always felt much too long, my feet hurting.
My father always talked on these walks – telling me the history of Napolean, or how the Germans and then the Russians came through Budapest, about the bombs, or about how when you went to visit someone in Budapest before the war and they were not home, you left your card with one corner bent over.
There were certain things my father loved, and bending the corner of a visiting card was one. The visiting card itself was another. The things he loved usually involved other people, or Hungary, or Switzerland. They were customs and habits from other places or things other people had said. They were never things here at home.
On this day he was talking about the Pope and my father asked me a question. Not an unusual question, but I did not like the feeling it gave me. I didn’t like that I knew I had to answer it in a right way, that my father was waiting to assess my response. So I just shrugged.
“Come on,” said my father with restrained irritation. I was letting him down.
I was about 12 for this conversation and it never went back to the way it had been.
It was always a mix after that, a mix I did not know what to do with except to pretend it was not there.
Suddenly I noticed I did not like my father coming home on weekends, his arrival an unwelcome interruption, the way he poked his head in at the door of my mother’s room where I was watching my weekly show. No, I did not want to talk to him right then, did not think it was funny when he made fun of what I was watching as if anything I was doing just for fun proved I was stupid.
I did not like him coming into my room to look over the pictures from magazines that I’d cut out and pinned to a big piece of burlap, the way he scrutinized them, making some flat joke about the women being prettier than the men while I knew he thought the whole thing incomprehensibly silly.
He asks me to help him clear the woods on the weekend. It is a few years later, a different house, and my father likes to clear all the woods behind the house – to “make a park” he says with excitement. I don’t want to turn our woods into a park. I want to listen to Bob Dylan, but I must go out and labor beside him or pull weeds from the path of pure white gravel that leads to our front door before the guests arrive.
And though I know I am still his favorite company over my mother, over my sisters, and though I still look forward to our Saturday evening trips to Lincoln Center, dressed up, as soon as we are in the car alone I feel the wall rise up, the way it rose up when he asked me a question on that walk when I was twelve, and I don’t trust him, cannot speak to him beyond monosyllables because I know he wants more from me, always more, and it makes me feel like not giving him anything. It is the only way I can give voice, or at least a little voice, to this anger that is not allowed.
Anger, especially around my father, is not allowed. It’s one thing -- one of several things -- my mother gets wrong. She gets mad at him, at us, she yells, she loses it. We tiptoe around her so she won’t explode. So I must not explode. That’s for sure. At least I can please my father that much. It’s one thing I can master to his satisfaction: to smile when I am furious.