As I thought about the Father’s Day prompt, What My Father Told Me, I realized that, to be honest, he hadn’t told me much. My father was very successful in his work, very funny, and a provider both to his immediate family and to the less successful members of his and my mother’s extended families. He was wonderful with very young children. I always felt he should have been a pediatrician rather than a radiologist. As I watched him tell stories, sing, and play simple games with my nieces, nephews, and my own children, I could vaguely recall him doing that with me when I was little. But he was always something of a mystery to me, especially as I grew older. What I know about him came from my mother and older cousins. He never liked to talk about himself and as my siblings and I moved beyond childhood he never liked to talk much to us about anything.
A few years ago I wrote this scenario, an imagined conversation that could have transpired between my father and any one of his grandchildren. I wrote it as a chronicle of his story and a way of reminding his grandchildren who he was. I sent it to my older niece who said it was spot on and made her tear up. Even though I am a writer who prefers to make readers laugh, I felt it was a successful piece.
“Poppa, tell me a story”
Okay. What kind of story?
“A happy story.”
A story now or a story long ago?
Okay, let me see. Once upon a time….
“No, not Once upon a time. That’s silly.”
I cannot tell a story that does not begin with Once upon a time.
Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, there was a little boy who lived in a tiny village far, far away. He lived with his Mama, Papa, and baby sister. The family was very poor but very happy. The Papa built things like chairs and tables and the Mama made wonderful food to put on their table and she milked the cow and made everyone’s clothes.
“The Mama did a lot more than the Papa.”
Maybe but the Papa read great books and thought great thoughts and that takes time. He also shared what he learned with the Mama and the little boy. But not the baby sister yet.
“Of course not. That would be silly to share with the baby.”
Yes, it would be silly. But one day the Papa came home and said that they had to leave the village. Although they had many friends and family in the village, there were also people who did not like them. The Papa was afraid these people would hurt his family.
“Why didn’t they like the family? They sound nice.”
Some people do not like people who look a different from them and do things a little differently than they do. The little boy’s family looked a little different, ate different foods, said different prayers, and celebrated different holidays.
“That’s a stupid reason not to like someone. This is NOT a happy story, Poppa”
Just wait, little one. Yes, it is stupid. But the Papa was frightened for his family so they came to America, to New York City.
“I went to New York City once. Do you think I saw the little boy and his family?”
No, remember. This was long, long ago. In the old country the little boy had long, curly hair, short pants, and a toy wooden rifle his father carved. In America, the little boy’s Mama cut his curls, made him long pants, and his Papa gave him books to read. The family was happy again because no one wanted to hurt them. The little boy went to school, lots and lots of school, and became a doctor. That made his family very happy.
“That was a happy story. Do you think Bubbe would tell me a story?”
I think so, if you ask her.
“I don’t know. Bubbe tells me sad stories about two brothers who died. Then she cries.”
Yes. Those stories make us all sad. Does she ever tell happy stories?
“Yes, she tells a story about a little girl who smoked corn silk behind the barn and about a bigger girl – I think she was 12 – who learned to drive by driving her Papa’s car through the cotton fields. Those stories make me laugh and laugh. When I am 12 I will smoke corn silk and drive my Papa’s car through the cotton fields.”
Yes, perhaps you will.
“Poppa, do you have a favorite song?”
Yes, I do. Do you?
“Yes, it goes ‘Twinkle, twinkle, Rabbi Finkel…’ “
Okay, little one. I know that song. You mustn’t sing that around your Mama or Papa.
“Sing me your favorite song, Poppa.”
Okay. It goes ‘Leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again. Oh, babe I hate to go. My bags are packed, I’m ready to go, taxi’s waiting it’s blowing its horn hmmmumum, hmmmumum, hmmmumum I hate to wake you up to say goodbye, hmmmumum, hmmmumum’
“Poppa! You always hmmmumum when you can’t remember the words. That’s a sad song. Why is it your favorite?”
When your Mama was little I had to travel a lot and I was always sad to leave her. The song reminds me of when she was little. When I came home she was always so happy to see me. So it reminds me of being happy with her, too.
“Do you know a happy song?”
Okay, let me see. How about ‘Mama’s taking us to the zoo tomorrow, zoo tomorrow, zoo tomorrow. Mama’s taking us to the zoo tomorrow and we can stay all day hmmmumum, hmmmumum, hmmmumum We’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo, how about you, you, you, you can come too, too, too. We’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo, hmmmumum, hmmmumum, hmmmumum’
“Oh, Poppa, can we go to the zoo tomorrow?”
Yes, perhaps we can.
“Poppa, do you like painted pictures?”
Yes, I do.
“Do you have a favorite painted picture?”
Let me see. Yes, I do.
“What does it look like?”
It is a painting of a sky filled with hundreds and hundreds of stars. It is a beautiful picture of a dark blue sky with so many stars.
“Why is it your favorite?”
I guess because when I was growing up in the city I didn’t see many stars so when I saw a sky with so many stars I couldn’t believe it. It was wonderful. That painting reminds me of the first time I saw so many stars.
“Maybe some day you will take me to see that painted picture and it will be my favorite, too.”
Yes, perhaps we will.
“Poppa, my eyes keep shutting, even when I don’t want them to.”
Yes, little one. It’s time to sleep.
“Poppa, I love you”
Sleep tight, little one.