Saturday, March 17, 2012

My Heart Father

Yitzhak Yoffe & Talia
[Note: Today, St Patrick's Day, is actually the 21st anniversary of my father's passing. As I light the "yortzeit" candle, I share with you our story.]

          My friend blew out the candles on her birthday cake. She was about to blow the ninth, the good luck one for next year, when someone tapped my shoulder and said that my mother was outside. I wanted to see the last candle blown out, because not blowing the good-luck one was bad luck, but I rushed out. My mother must have found a ride to the village outside Tel-Aviv where, since the divorce last year, I lived with a family that wasn't mine.
          It was a warm Saturday morning, one of those winter days when the woolen plaid pants and bright red sweater—my party outfit until I would outgrow all possible alterations—itched. But in winter you wore wool or caught pneumonia.
          In the bright sun, my mother stood next to a black Rover and a hatted man. She wore a flowing new skirt and was laughing, not like before, when my father had made her cry a lot. I hated him because he beat me if I forgot to brush my teeth. It was so much better not to be frightened any more.
          I buried my face in my mother’s skirt. Everything about her smelled like warm flowers.
          Frogs croaked in the scattered puddles and water holes. If we weren't dressed in our Sabbath best my mother would have suggested we chase the frogs or count their babies.
          I lifted my head. The man with the hat looked at me with interest. His smile created twin crescent-shaped creases that reached his gray eyes. He handed me a wooden box and I thanked him politely. My mother was shopping for a new husband, and I wanted him to know that the deal included a good kid.
          His smile widened. He had the largest, kindest eyes.
          "Open it." He pointed to the box.
          It was filled with an assortment of pencils, coloring pens, an eraser and a pencil-sharpener—each tucked in its own little pocket. No one in school owned a collection like this. And it wasn't even my birthday!
          I hated hugging people. I had to pretend to like hugging my birth father, a man I addressed only by his first name. Yet, wrapping my arms around this stranger's waist was easy. I breathed his lemon after-shave mingled with the smell of mothball in his tweed jacket.
          When I pulled away, he continued to examine my face. "I told your mother I must meet you."
          She giggled. "He had me climb up to the attic to bring down the photo albums."
          I no longer wanted to go back to the birthday party. I sat on the car hood and was careful not to swing my legs and chip the paint. I must have been difficult to talk to because in those post-divorce months I stuttered. I also wet my bed and had low grades in school.
          From across the field, the muffled hum of cars and trucks on the Tel-Aviv-Haifa Road reached us. It did not drown the calm, rich voice of this man who addressed me as though I were an adult. We started talking, and it was years before we stopped. He knew a lot of interesting things, like how Coca Cola was concocted by a pharmacist, and how a pearl was created inside an oyster. And I had lots of questions to ask.
          How could my mother resist this man's proposal of marriage? This forty-year-old bachelor must have fallen in love with her, but I was certain he wanted me for a daughter. He was a genie who popped into my life to save me.
          It was common knowledge that genies masked themselves as ordinary humans, so it was no surprise that mine was disguised as a Dad. But he was the real thing, I was certain, with baby blue chiffon dress and a magic wand with sparkling stars twittering around its top. It was all a matter of catching my genie at a moment she'd be dropping her guard. So I began spying on my new father during my weekend visits in their new home. I peeked at him in his sleep, spied on him when he got the morning paper, watched him while he sorted his stamp collection, and stood riveted while he clipped his toenails. All I caught was an ordinary man with eyes bathed in love.
          I wanted to come home. Permanently, not wait until the end of the school year.
          "Only four months," my mother said. "By then, your room will be ready."
          After the tenant evacuated the extra bedroom in my new father’s apartment, it was painted in every shade of pastel. The historical Tel-Aviv building was located on a divided, wide boulevard, shaded by huge sycamore trees bent with age and disease and flanked by two thoroughfares in which five bus lines made noise and puffed clouds of gray gas. The place looked cheerless and dark in the unrelenting rain the first time I went to visit. But I didn't care. It was home and that was where I wished to be. Summer was too far away.
          One day after school, instead of taking the bus back to the family that gave me food and shelter, I climbed onto the bus heading in the other direction. I had saved my allowance to pay for the ticket. It did not occur to me to be afraid; I was going to see my new father at his law office.
          Tel-Aviv central station was a ten-block area crammed with shops, warehouses and small factories. The streets teemed with buses, vendors' carts, beggars and shoppers—many people to ask for directions. I began to walk. I did not get lost, and some hours after I had left school, my father's secretary showed me in.
          I fell into his arms. "I want to stay with you," I sobbed.
          He did not scold me. Nor did he tell me that the police had been searching for me. Not until years later did he reveal that he had sat at his desk, staring at the phone, waiting for news of me.
          Instead, he took my hand. "Let's go home. Don't you want to see Mommy?"
          "She'll send me back. Will you talk to her?"
          He nodded. We became one front.
          One evening, several months after I had moved in, I hung about in the living room, observing my father on a ladder as he changed light bulbs in the chandelier. It was a chance to peek under the hem of his gabardine pants. Maybe this time I'd see the genie’s ballerina legs.
          I gathered the courage to say the magic word. "May I call you 'Daddy’?” I finally blurted.
          "Of course." From his height, his face lit up with an inner glow. "You're my daughter, aren't you?"
          "Abba." I rolled the word off my tongue. "Daddy." Then I skipped around his ladder, letting this sweet word scatter all around us, like marbles. "Abba. Abba. Abba." A genie could be anything she wanted to be. Even a Daddy.
          We developed little rituals, ours alone. In the mornings we walked together—I to my new school and he to his office. When we parted in the corner closest to school, I kissed him good-bye, hoping other kids would notice. In the evenings, he tucked me in bed and sat down for our "Question Corner." I loved listening to his rich, educated language when he told me how, as a child in Leningrad, his mother had bought him one section of an orange for his birthday. I loved hearing how his two older sisters got rid of their pestering baby brother by kissing him until he escaped. Were there families where people kissed instead of yelled?
          I stopped stuttering and I no longer wet my bed. Even though the city school was more demanding than the rural one I had left, I soon climbed close to the top of my class. My father rarely praised my high grades—he had expected nothing less, and soon, neither did I.
          My sister—his first natural child—was born when I was fourteen. He must have been delighted, but by then I was oblivious to my home life. Boys, the telephone, and Elvis Presley vied for my attention. Yet, my father and I continued our "Question Corner" with talks about distant planets or the unique pregnancy of the male seahorse.
          That was the time he showed me his poetry notebooks—two full volumes he had written when he had been young. The poems, in his small, neat handwriting, were beautiful, and he let me keep the notebooks for a while.
          I was sixteen when he tried to adopt me, but my birth father whom I rarely saw, refused to sign the papers.
          "Bureaucracy," my heart father said. "It doesn't matter."
          "It matters to me." Forever I cringe when asked for my maiden name. I lie.
          It’s decades later. My sister hands me a piece of paper. Section, lot, aisle, row, and finally, a grave number.
          The marble slab squeezed between thousands of similar impersonal ones, represents the small, unimportant life people live—except when they figure as large as my father had in mine. I am about to place the flowers on the white stone, when I know that this is not the place to mourn him.
          I drive to the prosperous suburb, once a village, where decades ago I left a classmate’s birthday party. The eight-lane highway has long claimed the field where I once sat on the hood of the Rover.
          It is here, in the second lane of the highway, at the spot where my little legs in itchy wool pants tried not to swing while talking to the hatted man with kind, gray eyes, that I raise my arm to spread the flowers. With trucks and cars speeding by, the grave for my memories of my father, for our shared life, lies under the asphalt.
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Author Talia Carner’s latest novel, JERUSALEM MAIDEN— inspired by her grandmother’s untapped artistic genius—is the story of a young woman’s struggle between passion and faith. .


  1. This is a beautiful memoir. I kept waiting for something bad to happen with your new father - and the tragic thing was that he died...I loved your descriptions, especially about his memory of getting an orange slice for his birthday. Thank you for sharing!
    diana bletter

  2. My relationship with my father was not good. In fact, I used to pray my[parents would get divorced. This touched my heart and I rejoiced in your good fortune.

    1. Thanks! Yes, divorce is often so much better for the children involved....