Asking the Right Questions by
(319 Stories)

Prompted By Regrets

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With Dad

My dad was a genuinely nice guy. He worked a lot when I was young, but we became very close when I went off to Brandeis and he left the auto industry. Ironically, we had more time to talk then. As many in my family knew, there was nothing one couldn’t say to him. He was a great listener, kept secrets, gave good, fatherly advice, even if I didn’t always follow it. He was a man of simple pleasures. He loved his family, a drink (Seagram’s 7 or Crown Royal) when he came home from work, to watch his favorite sports teams on TV, to play as much golf as possible, and a good card game (poker and bridge). He (along with oldest brother Art) was the family photographer. Therefore, there aren’t many photographs of him. He was always behind the camera. And he was so good at listening, that I didn’t think to ask questions of him.

He was the youngest of eight children. He went into the Army Air Corps in January, 1941, eleven months before the outbreak of war. I have a letter from his oldest sister, Pauline, chastising him for that move – what happens if the U.S. doesn’t enter the war? What then? He loved his time in the military. It simulated a family unit for him. He stayed in touch with his commanding officer until the day he died. My brother and I found his Christmas card list on his desk when we cleaned out his condo. I took up that correspondence as a form of devotion.

Dad was born on November 23, 1913. His mother was bipolar. There was no medication for the disorder then. My grandmother Lizzie had her last two children to “cure” her. It was observed that her mood swings were less severe with the pregnancy hormones onboard.

Six month old Kenny

I used to tell a feeble joke that I’d be crazy too if I had eight children. But it wasn’t funny. The family tried to soothe her. I’ve heard stories that she came after my grandfather with various implements. One cousin told me it was the pestle from a mortar and pestle that Aunt Pauline later owned. Another cousin told of Lizzie coming at Sam with a kitchen knife. I gather my grandfather liked the women.

Lizzie was first institutionalized when my dad was eight years old and permanently when he was twelve. Another sister was called home from college to tend to the household and the boys who were still at home. Lizzie outlived Sam by four years. My parents were newlyweds when his mother died. My mother told me that Dad sobbed in her arms. He was a sentimental man, but that image haunted me.

It never occurred to me to ask my father what that felt like; how had he coped with the loss of his mother at such a young age. Yet she wasn’t dead. Indeed, there is a family photo from 1926 of all of them together. She lived twenty more years.

Sarason family, 1926

But she was no longer a presence in his life. And if she was, it must have been confusing. One out-of-town cousin told me she visited Lizzie in the sanatorium. Lizzie demanded her granddaughter pull up her dress to prove her underwear was clean. Such irrational behavior must have been bewildering for a little boy who craved his mother’s love. I even have two letters written by a doctor from the sanatorium, passed from one sibling to the next; an update on their mother’s condition. I never thought to ask my father how that affected him. I’m not sure he processed it.

Dad died, suddenly, on January 3, 1990. I was the last person to speak with him. His oldest sister Pauline had been buried that day. The family was in shock. How could they lose the oldest and the youngest just days apart. There was so much left unsaid between us. I was bereft.

I couldn’t let more time pass. His death prompted me to contact his surviving siblings, his surviving first cousins and my own close cousins to try to piece together a family history. It took me two years (I had very young children at home and when I began the project, I didn’t even have access to any form of word processing. At first, it was all done by hand). The last person I wrote about was my own father, putting together the comments from all my cousins. Though no one would answer my questions about growing up with or without their mother, I realize that I had written Dad’s eulogy and could finally let him rest in peace.


Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    Just an incredibly poignant story, Betsy. Though I think some readers may wonder if we compared notes in writing our respective stories since they both relate to our regrets for not asking our parents questions we wanted to know the answers to before it was too late. We didn’t, as you know.
    Rather, this is the likely result of our great minds thinking alike. Plus, I suspect that this is a broadly held regret of many grown children.

    That said, I am so very happy that, through your two year project, you were able to get some answers to your questions, albeit indirectly. And how perfect to make it into a eulogy for your dear father.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, John. I do see similarities between our stories (as I comment to you). But of course, I lost my father long before you lost your parents, and my father’s childhood was not usual, so there was more left unsaid.

      I, too, am glad that I investigated family history when I did (and I’ve shared many of those stories with my Retro friends). At least I learned more about my family while I could.

  2. Khati Hendry says:

    Your story was very moving, and I loved the picture with you and your dad. For someone who was such a good listener, and apparently easy-going, he clearly had a lot he must have kept inside. It is so easy to be self-centred when we are young, and a gift to be able to eventually know our parents better in their own rights—even if only through piecing together old mementoes and information. You can add your thoughtful and loving post as part of your dad’s eulogy.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I agree, when we are young, we are caught up in our lives and don’t think to ask about parents’. Thank you, Khati; I hope to continue to remember my father in as many ways as I can, even as the years pass. It is nice to think of this as an addition to his eulogy.

  3. Suzy says:

    We have heard so much about your wonderful father in earlier stories. I know you regret all the things that were left unsaid. You have done an incredible job of researching his life, as well as that of other family members, and that was the best that anyone could do.

  4. Marian says:

    What a wonderful tribute to your father to do the hard work of collecting the family history, Betsy. It’s so hard when you are young to imagine your parents as people with their own feelings and ways of seeing the world. By the time you realize what questions you want to ask them, it can be too late. I, too, wish I could ask some really difficult questions to my dad, whom I adored and still miss.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I guess there is a common thread for many of us now that we are older and have lived longer that we’d like to know more about our parents, but it’s too late for us now, Mare. I hope you’ll tell us more about your father in the future.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    What a beautiful story about your father, Betsy. I’m so glad you looked for those stories from other relatives to piece together the gaps in understanding of his early life. My husband’s father had a very similar story but never shared it. After he died, my mother-in-law shared some of it but not the whole story. After she died, we pieced it together and found the grave of his mother, who was also institutionalized and had died much more recently than he claimed. Too long for a comment, but I will email it to you if you are interested. We never do know what to ask our parents until we are much older and they are gone.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Laurie. It does seem to be true that we don’t think to ask questions when we are busy raising our own children. It is only when we are older that we want to know and by then it can be too late.

      Thank you for the offer of your husband’s father’s story. Yes, please email it to me. I find family history quite interesting.

  6. Oh, Betsy…such a tender tribute to your father. Don’t you find that you relate to your parents more as human beings the older you get? When we only see them as parents, we’re often blind to who they really are beyond the label. Then they die and it’s too late to go deeper with them.

    My step-dad, the man who raised me and who I called Daddy, lost his mother to pneumonia when he was an infant. He was raised haphazardly by his father and other relatives. He married and had a son, both of whom he loved but left and never saw again after he met my mother. He never talked about his feelings about any of that, and he became an alcoholic. How I wish I had talked to him about all of it.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      You are absolutely correct, Barb. The older we get, the more we think of and relate to our parents as human beings, as opposed to just those people who raise us, pay for stuff for us, train us, etc. But by the time we think to ask them about their own upbringing it is usually too late. My mother spoke a lot about all sorts of things (her mother was the oldest of 9 children – all made it to this country from Russia, though there was some family feud and some members didn’t speak to others. No one alive knows what that was about and I broke through that more than 25 years ago and reached out to that side of the family, as I have a cousin who lives close by). But the youngest of those 9 was a clarinet player who was with the Navy band that accompanied Woodrow Wilson to the peace-signing conference that ended WWI. That uncle brought my mother back a doll from Paris which I now have, so that’s special. But when she was old and I asked her about her family, I barely got her to list them and their spouses. Nothing at all about my grandfather. She just couldn’t remember or understand what I meant by the time I asked.

      I understand your wish that you had spoken to your step-dad about his childhood trauma and the results. But we just don’t think to do it until it is too late, do we? Thank you for this thoughtful reflection.

  7. Thanx Betsy for sharing what was – however painful – a labor of love as you tried to understand your father’s family’s trials.

    I hope it brought you a sense of closure. And it’s obvious that your father knew he had a loving and caring daughter.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Dana. It was interesting to investigate my family saga. You can read about the diverse group in the story The Sarason Clan. There were some real characters among them. And I did enjoy learning more about my own father from a more contemporaneous point of view. There was no doubt about the love we shared we for each other.

  8. This is a wonderful narrative, full of so many riveting details. It doesn’t strike me as a story about “regret,” but that’s the good thing about the prompts: you let them take you where you choose to go.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I suppose I just wanted to know about my father’s early life, but had lost the opportunity to that, Dale. Contacting all the remaining family members not only brought us closer, but gave me the chance to learn some (though not all) that I sought. As the youngest in that large generation of cousins, so much had happened before I was even born! So there’s the regret, but I was able to work out some of it.

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