A Letter to Dad
I know it must seem a little weird to get a letter from me, but I thought it would be good to catch up a bit, since we’ve been out of touch for so long. It’s gotta be at least . . . fifty years, right?
You know, now that I think of it (and I don’t, very often), I’m not sure I actually caught why you left. Did you . . . tell me? I don’t remember your explanation, but I was two at the time. I’ve probably forgotten a lot that happened back then. It was a pretty crazy time, what with learning to eat with a fork and all that drama.
It’s not a big deal. The guy who filled in for you did a great job, really first-rate. And obviously, if you weren’t around because you died when I was two, I forgive you. But I think that would have come up at some point. To be fair, though, Mom never gave me any clues, and I never asked.
I’m more annoyed than anything else. Annoyed that I know so little about you. Annoyed that I know so little about what you might have passed down to me when you gave me half of my DNA.
Don’t get me wrong. I totally own what I’ve done with the DNA you gave me, and knowing what I was ‘in for’ as your progeny might not have changed anything about my life, but it still would have been cool to know what I might have inherited. A sort of heads up, genetically speaking?
Did I get my ‘reckless bohemian’ streak from you? You know what I’m talking about—that period in my life that I call ‘my thirties,’ when I kept trying to find geographic solutions to my emotional problems?
Maybe that’s why you left—did you one day decide you needed to ‘follow your bliss?’ Did you shake off the bonds of fatherhood for a life on the stage, following a dream? If so, I get that.
Did you know I ended up in show business for a while? Maybe you went to comedy clubs in the eighties? I was the guy who didn’t have any jokes about his dad, because I didn’t know him.
Hell, maybe you were a comic in the eighties—I worked with plenty of forty-something guys on the road. I might have been on a bill with you at the Funny Bone in Pittsburgh, or the Westward Ho in Grand Forks! That would have been cool. Awkward, but cool.
Or what about that tendency I have to be judgmental and controlling? The oversensitive part of me? My quick temper? Are those from you? Because they have never helped me, thank you very much.
Speaking of help, it would have helped to know about your medical history. I don’t know about you, pal—sorry, Dad—but I’d like to know if I should be prepared for anything scary down the road, health-wise.
Do you have prostate issues? I don’t mean to pry, but I know I didn’t get those from Mom. How about arthritis, Dad? Did you know that when I was younger, I thought I would become a doctor? Of course, you don’t know that, what with the leaving when I was (say it with me) two years old.
There are so many things about me that might make more sense if I knew I got them from you. I’m not trying to place blame—in some cases, I might be looking for who to thank.
For instance, I’ve always wondered why I felt so drawn to Judaism, ultimately becoming Jewish myself. Are you Jewish, Dad? Is spirituality hereditary? Maybe I’m genetically predisposed toward music in minor keys? Were you a musician?
Now this next question is probably pushing it, but I have to ask. Are you gay? I’m only asking because I’m bisexual, and if you were gay . . . maybe things went further than you wanted with my mom, then you freaked out because you knew you were gay, then you disappeared . . . I’m just saying, if you were a gay man in 1960 . . . I understand if things got complicated.
It’s not like I’m expecting a Hallmark Movie Channel reunion (though I like to think that you would be played by Wilford Brimley). I just don’t think I can really know myself if I don’t know what you brought to the table when you and Mom met at the old Double Helix.
Mom passed in 1984 (I’m sure you weren’t sure where to send a card), and I’m an only child (as far as I know, right Dad?). But for most of my adult life, I’ve been OK with creating an ad hoc family out of my eccentric collection of friends.
Lately though, and more intensely every year, I feel envious of people with that old-fashioned blood connection. Funny—it’s like I’m nostalgic for something I never actually had.
I realize I’ve hit you with a lot of questions out of left field, and it occurs to me that I’m approaching this the wrong way. Instead of chasing down these missing pieces, I can just fill in the blanks myself. I’m a writer, for chrissake! I should just write who I want you to be!
I think I’d like to control the narrative here, and I’m going to give you a back story. So consider yourself off the hook. I don’t know what your ‘real’ story is, and frankly, a lot of ‘real stories’ bore the fuck out of me. Give me a compelling story any day. I don’t need it to be real.
Here’s the way I want to believe it went down:
It’s New Year’s Eve, 1961, global tensions are on the rise, and nuclear war seems imminent. You’re leading a double life as a Soviet spy. You meet my mother in a bar, and after a few vodka stingers (Mom only drank on New Year’s Eve, and only vodka stingers), things got a little out of hand. A few months later, you find out you’re having a child, and the only way you can protect my mom and me is to disappear behind deep cover in the Ural Mountains.
I don’t know. Not sure that one resonates for me. Maybe this is your story:
You were an actor. A good, but unknown actor. Sang a bit, too. You were touring in a musical, and due to an ill-timed pratfall, you ended up in a hospital. Where my mom worked as a nurse.
She thought you were cute—too much of a wiseass, but cute. She invites you over for dinner (stuffed bell peppers), and she sent you off with a box of homemade cookies. You dated for a while, during which time you were a perfect gentleman and treated my mother like a queen.
Inevitably, you crazy kids hooked up (I don’t need to write that part of the story). For a couple years, you tried to do the right thing—straight job, the whole trip.
But there was always an inner conflict between settling down and chasing your dreams. Eventually, the dreams won. You convinced yourself that you could get that big break at any moment, and when you did, you would make amends.
You told my mom that you‘d be back when you had enough money to treat us like we deserve. She didn’t buy it. Mom was smart. She probably said, “There’s the goddamn door,” or something similarly nurturing.
You went on to a have a brief and marginal career in the theater. One day, in your fifties, you had something of a nervous breakdown. You reconnected with your Jewish roots (in my version of your story, you were born Jewish—Mazel tov!).
After selling all of your belongings, you moved to a kibbutz near Jerualem, where you still live today. You harvest dates. Your evenings are devoted to learning Hebrew, studying Torah, and painting.
What do you think, Dad? Are you good with me making this your story? When friends are talking about family at the holidays, can I chime in with “I hope I can get to Israel next year to see my Dad!”
Look, I’m winging it here, dad. You haven’t given me much to work with. There may have been a damned good reason you weren’t a part of my life. I still have a crazy hope that someday you’ll explain it all to me in person. That would be a story. Until it happens, Happy Father’s Day, whoever you are.