"Hold on, I'll get Mother," my father says when he hears my voice on the phone. "She'll be so glad it's you."
"Wait, wait!" I say. "I want to talk to you first." I know that my conversation with my father will begin to fade when my mother picks up the extension. At the start he'll contribute a thought here and a phrase there, but before long, as my mother and I exchange news about family and friends, I will realize I haven't heard my father's voice in a while. "Daddy?" I'll call vainly into the telephone. "I guess he hung up," my mother will say. "You know him."
Yes, I know him. But now I know him in a different way. Until he retired at the age of 70, what I knew was that my father didn't like to talk on the phone, especially long distance. If I called and my mother answered, we'd invariably get into a long conversation. Eventually, my father would interrupt and ask to talk to me. "It was nice talking to you," he'd begin. "But you haven't talked to me yet," I'd object. He would reply, "We don't need to make the phone company rich." That's the spirit in which my mother says, "You know him."
But in the 23 years since his retirement, I have come to know my father in a deeper sense of "You know him" -- the knowledge that comes from leisurely, introspective, self-revealing conversations -- the kind of conversations I used to want but couldn't have with him. One reason I can have them now is technological; my father learned to use e-mail at 90, and over the three years since, has become a devotee of the medium. The other reason is longevity: My father old has time for me as my father young did not.
I've always regarded my parents as inspirations for my research on how people communicate with each other -- especially my early work comparing spoken and written language. Whereas my mother is comfortable talking on the telephone, my father is most comfortable writing, because then he can collect his thoughts and choose just the right words. While still in elementary school, I spent hours at our old manual typewriter composing letters to my father. My parents still have many of them, but there are no responding letters from him. He probably had no time to write. But now my files are bulging with letters, postcards and e-mail printouts that my father has written to me in the past two decades. So when he chooses to leave my mother and me alone on the phone, I know I can engage him electronically later -- and receive a reply that sparkles with his wry wit and ironic humor.
I talk with my mother about people; I talk with my father about ideas -- politics, social justice, the death penalty. It was from him that I learned my love of words: the pleasure of finding just the right one to express a thought, even if (to my mother's consternation) it was unusual or polysyllabic; the habit of dashing to the dictionary in the midst of a conversation if a definition or spelling was called into question; the devotion to reading ("You can never be bored if you have a book to read," he'd say); and the power of words marshaled together in an intellectual argument.
My sister Naomi, the first-born and eight years older than I, has similar memories of our father, but in her recollection, he's often home. "When I was nine or ten," she recalls, "he used to toss ideas back and forth to me the way other fathers play ball. We would have debates where he would pick an issue and take the hard-to-defend side that he obviously didn't believe in so I could take the position I believed in and learn to argue for it."
During this time, I was only a toddler. But when I hear this story, I feel cheated, as if I'd been deliberately left out. I can't imagine my father having time to sit and talk to me when I was a child. In my memory our political discussions take place at the dinner table, where I'm sharing him with the whole family. This is partly because I was the youngest of three; he couldn't be alone with me or my sister Mimi, as he had been with Naomi when she was the only child old enough to debate with.
But there's another reason, too. Naomi was born during the Depression, when my father patched together a series of jobs until his high score on a civil service exam landed him a secure position as a prison guard at the federal penitentiary in Danbury, Conn. So when Naomi was a child, he either was underemployed or held jobs that gave him evenings and weekends at home. When I was born and Mimi was 2, my family had just moved back to New York City. In what he assumed would be a temporary stopgap measure, my father had taken factory work in New York's garment district. Whatever time wasn't spent cutting fabric for ladies' coats was gobbled up by what we called his "being active" in politics, urged on by the promise that he would soon be rewarded with a political appointment to a position for which his law degrees qualified him. The 13 years that it took for this to happen were the first 13 years of my life.
I recently confessed to my father that I envied Naomi because he had had so much time at home during her childhood, and so little during Mimi's and mine. I expected him to express his own regret, but instead he said, "It's a good thing. I was earning better." What I saw as the opportunity for Naomi to have time with him, he saw as the Depression's cruel lack of employment opportunity. The bedrock of my father's relationship to his family is his responsibility to support and protect them. But I have always seen the bedrock of my relationship with him as verbal communication: I could ask him anything, and he would answer with patience and precision; I could tell him anything, and he would understand what I was getting at, whether or not he agreed.
I can still ask my father anything -- even what it feels like to know you are approaching the end of life. In answer to my e-mail query, he writes, "Re my forthcoming demise; overall I'm against it. Why not live forever. Other times I feel too much is enough. The time to go is when the family all well, and progeny are in good health and circumstances. The real question is 'how to go.' I dread the suffering that oft precedes the process. I love the idea of a heart attack although that's harder on the family. When we meet we can explore it further. I am not sensitive about it at all."
The reminder that I will one day lose my father breaks my heart, but the tenderness of his words, the trust implied by his offering them to me, fill my heart with gratitude. And because his words come to me in written form, I can read them over and keep them forever (as well as recount them here).
Some of the most difficult times in the past half-dozen years have found my father in the hospital, recovering and rising Lazarus-like from surgery or a life-threatening illness. But these times are also among the most precious. I cherish the days when I pulled a chair close to his hospital bed or walked with him along the hospital hall, and we had hours and hours -- alone -- to talk. I cherish these times all the more because they contrast so poignantly with the long-ago time when every day was Not Enough of Father's Day.