A Childhood Story
I used to beg my dad Stephen to tell me “childhood stories,” anecdotes from his growing up in Brooklyn, New York — because his upbringing fascinated me and it gave me a window into his very private life. Both my mother Wendy and Dad are the kind of people that hold the hand of cards they’ve been dealt low and close to their chests. When I was a kid, Dad joked he didn’t know my mother even had a brother until a few years into their marriage; but his little digs towards mom could be shot right back at him. He was just as guilty of keeping things to himself. He didn’t tell me or my sister about the origins of our heritage, despite my constant calls for information. I ultimately found out that I was of Russian and Hungarian descent at the age of 19, when I sat down with my second cousin twice removed, whom I call Aunt Sherida. I never met my grandma Mae or my grandpa Harry, because they both passed away before I was born. We weren’t close with the New York side of the family, due to a mysterious falling out between my father and his eldest brother over business. Or an estate that was bequeathed to a member of the family that dad didn’t agree with. Or something.
I was curious to know Dad beyond his being my father; I wanted to see him as a real person, in efforts to understand his somewhat erratic but endearing behavior. A swaggering, loud and talkative New Yorker, Dad didn’t care much what people thought of him. He unabashedly would honk the horn of the car while driving wildly, weaving in and out of lanes. He’d make completely inappropriate jokes with my teenage friends. And on Sundays, when our neighbors wanted nothing more than peace and quiet, Dad would throw open all the windows and doors of our craftsman-style house in Oakland and blast Boz Scaggs’ greatest hits from the speakers in the living room. Sometimes I wondered if he felt like an outsider in the liberal enclave of Berkeley, California. But I never found out.
Part of the reason dad held back from telling us anything personal was, I think, to protect his emotions. He didn’t want to be criticized for the things he did in private, because people already gave him such a hard time for his public persona. Sometimes he’d go out at night, and as he reached for the knob on our heavy wooden front door, I’d ask him where he was headed.
Without fail, he responded every time: “I’m going to see the queen, to tell her the sky is falling,” and step out, carefully and quietly turning the lock behind him.
I’d go through his drawers to find answers to the questions lurking in the halls of my mind. I hoped the drawers could give insight into my father that he refused to reveal. I shuffled through the hanging file folders of his mahogany desk, rummaged around the small silver boxes he used to separate pens from spare razors, erasers from salt packets he pocketed when we went out to eat. All I found that could be construed as contraband was a flask wedged into a Manila envelope.
But there was one time of day that dad felt especially open, when he’d perch himself on a chair bedside and speak to me about his memories, his ideas on life. That time of day was bedtime, when dad tucked me in to read me a story. I constantly pleaded with him to choose a narrative from his own life.
“Will you pppllllleeeeaaaassse tell me a childhood story, Pops?”
And if he felt like it, he would. He’d cross his thin legs, a leather slipper hanging off his suspended foot, and rack his brain for one of about 20 rotating anecdotes he deemed appropriate for me to hear. Like the one about the TV getting thrown out the window.
“Grandpa Harry frequently went on business trips,” he’d say. “He wasn’t around all the time. And one day when he came home from a particularly long time away, he entered the house with open arms. ‘I’m home!’ But the three of us — myself, your uncle Joseph and uncle Harold — we were glued to the television set. We didn’t even look up when he came in the room. So Grandpa Harry tried again. ‘Kids?’ No response. Without a word, he walked over to the television. And this was in the dinosaur age, so we had a small TV with a glass tube, a vacuum tube. He walked over to the TV, unplugged it — without a word — and went to the window. He threw it out the window and it fell seven stories into the alley. I’ll never forget the BANG! that I heard. It was like a bomb going off. It was the sound of the glass tube bursting on the pavement.”
“Did you ever get another TV?” I asked, wide-eyed.
“That, my dear, is where we’ll leave off for tonight,” he said. “It’s time to hit the hay.”