I’ve written about my father before, and as is so often true when writing about someone who is gone, he has taken on a mythic quality. I try not to overdo that; to be fair, my father had some of that while he was alive, too, at least with his children. I’ve written about that, also. I know this is my own youngest-child-only-girl perspective, so if my brothers disagree, that’s entirely fair. It is certainly true that the four of us had each our different relationships with Dad.
My father loved to play with me by rattling off made-up Latin names of flowers and weeds along dirt roads in eastern Long Island, explaining their origin in such detail that it always took me a while to realize that I had fallen for it again. When I began learning Latin in seventh grade, he’d give me phrases to repeat out loud until I noticed “what a goose I am.” One
“He’d give me phrases to repeat”
subject my father really did know was Shakespeare. This wasn’t like the pretend play he did for his own amusement and mine; this was true learned (pronounce that “learn-Ed”) passion for the Elizabethan bard. He earned his PhD and taught for close to thirty years, and his first published novel centered around the production of a play by elderly Jews at a retirement home on New York’s Upper West Side.
You might then imagine his disappointment when, the first time I had to read a Shakespeare play for school, I complained like any other school kid that the text was boring and impossible to decipher. It wasn’t me he was disappointed in, though; it was my teacher. Of course it was boring. It was about 1980. How was some 20th-century kid supposed to sit down with the text of Macbeth and read it cold? And actually get something out of it? She needed to approach the play differently.
My parents listened to operas on the record player in our living room, and I thought it was terrible.
Why not listen to Donna Summer? Or Queen? So my father took me to the opera, where the sets, costumes, and gigantic voices held me in thrall. My mother took me the ballet. My parents talked about court cases in the news and other issues that did not interest me. So my father took me out of school, and we rode the subway downtown to the courthouse to watch a trial. These experiences offered me the most important aspects of my lessons that had been missing—the appeals to the senses that make experiences lived experiences. I have never forgotten the judge asking the man who said his gold chain was stolen why he was eating rice and beans on his stoop at 2 am.
His honor was laughing.
The same was true of Shakespeare plays. What I learned from Dad and eventually from an excellent professor at Hunter College, CUNY, was that these plays were written to be seen. Sure, I had to learn about iambic pentameter. But my favorite lessons in William Shakespeare had to do with who his audiences were, what they did while the plays were being performed, what sort of show they expected, and who was on stage. And what a surprise it was to find that I could follow the action of the play when I was watching and listening to actors!
My parents always drew me in. If I was watching my mother cook or bake, I soon found myself stirring or chopping. I wanted to sew like her, too. And when I went to work with her, I wanted to use all her office supplies, and the ginormous copier that had its own room, and sit behind a desk and look important the way she did. If my father was grading student assignments and needed me to be quiet, he would give me the same assignment to “see what [I] could do with it.”
It’s easy to think about parenting mistakes, flaws, and wish-they-hadn’ts. Lord knows my own kids will be able to list quite a few.
The more time I spend as a teacher of teenagers, though, the more I see how much my mother and father did to make sure I was a well-rounded, functional adult.
I have tried to repeat these lessons in my own home, with my own kids, but it is a different time, in different circumstances, with quite different kids.
I keep trying.