Hey Dad, Listen to This
My father was a kid from Brooklyn’s mean streets, or so I thought. He played stickball and nicked bubble gum from the corner candy store. He never finished high school. He pronounced diner like “dinah” and tuna like “tuner.” My mother fell in love with him because he was a good dancer. Rippled with muscles, my father worked on his hands and knees laying carpets, carried a gun for protection, and changed his name informally from Dave to Tony so people would take him for a mob-connected Italian, not a Jew. He wasn’t one to tell many stories about his childhood except for tales of his German Shepherd, Rex. His sage-green eyes watered when he reminisced about that dog.
When I was in my mid-twenties my father mentioned he spent the first seven years of his life living on a farm in Colchester, Connecticut, before moving to Brooklyn. “No, you didn’t!” I protested, thinking he was yanking my chain, as he often did. “You’re a Brooklyn kid,” I insisted.
“Well, not really,” he said with a straight face. When he was a toddler, his mother, a swarthy Russian who couldn’t speak English, took him, her youngest child, to a farm where she snapped chickens’ necks in exchange for room and board. There was no money to feed another mouth in Brooklyn. Her husband, a tailor, and six older children remained behind in a two-room apartment.
He and his mother were ill-treated migrant farmers. Still, catching frogs and skipping stones was not the worst way to wile away a day as a Depression-era child.
When I asked my father why he had never mentioned this before, he shrugged and said, “Didn’t think you’d be interested.”
I begged him to share memories about growing up on that farm. The stories began to tumble forward like pre-schoolers on a gym mat. First, he talked about a boy drowning in the local swimming hole. Then, recollections of fresh baked bread at the bakery on the green. “Did I tell you about the haystack where I napped on summer afternoons?”
When my father was around an animal, like the dogs in our Brooklyn neighborhood, he’d animate in a way that he never did around people. He was at liberty to show affection, never missing a chance for a slobber and a head pat. He knew exactly how to touch a dog, even the meanest junkyard mutt.
My mother was afraid of animals but dad always wanted a dog. Eventually she gave in. We bought a pedigree Llasa Apso. He was a golden mop with a squashed-in face, a protruding bottom jaw that made his lower set of teeth look like a shovel on an earth-mover, and a tea-cup tail. We named him Chin-Chin. My sister and I competed for his attention but he was my father’s dog from the moment my father lifted his wriggly body out of a straw-filled carrier, put him to his lips, breathed in deeply, and told him how delicious he was. The dog followed my father everywhere he went, even to the bathroom. All day he waited for my father at the front door. He snarled at strangers who came too close. My mother blamed the dog’s churlish nature on my father. “You’re turning him into a German shepherd every time you say ‘go get em.” My incorrigible father kept urging the dog to “go get em” when the doorbell rang. “That’s my boy,” he’d add, as though he were teaching a son to catch a baseball.
When my father came through the door at night, sweaty and grimy from tacking carpets onto wood floors and driving airless vans around the city, he would pause at the foot of small staircase, press his muscular arms against the landing and give Chin-Chin his face to lick. In the kitchen, he’d squeeze himself into a corner around the table where my sister, mother, grandmother and I were already eating.
“Boy,” my mother would moan under her breath. “I wish he’d kiss me like that when he comes home.”
Leaving home at 17 opened my world to new relationships. Being my father’s daughter, I had learned I could get a man’s attention if I was charming, breezy, and ethereal. From being my mother’s daughter, I knew how to pick distant, unavailable men who perpetually disappointed me. I married such a man when I was 26. When the marriage collapsed seven years later, I looked to my mother for comfort and came up empty. She couldn’t understand why I was unhappy with a man who was just like my father.
For the first time in my life I consciously yearned for my father’s attention. Somewhere in his quiet fortress were the secrets of my choice in men and in the demise of my awful marriage.
My father worked six days a week. He was tied up with my mother and her constantly-filled date book of social arrangements. I would have loved for him to walk with me in Central Park, but he wasn’t available. So I tried something else. I started to tell him stories. Stories about animals. Animals had become my retreat from human hurt.
I’d call my father and say, “Hey Dad. You’ll never guess what story I covered today for the newspaper. A goose was found with an arrow through its wing. I rode with the animal control guy down to a hawk rehabilitator, where they performed surgery. I think the goose will survive.”
“Good for you,” he’d say. “How can people be so cruel to animals? Did they catch the sons-of-bitches who did this?”
Every animal story became an opportunity to inch closer to my father. Like a parent reading to a child—- only in reverse. My stories – our conversations – were catch-up.
I told him about the Osprey. “They’re making a big comeback along the Hudson River,” I said. “Yup,” he said. “It’s because the water’s cleaner.” I accompanied wildlife officials to the top of the George Washington Bridge via an elevator shaft inside the steel girder. They took me to a hidden perch where they’d been tracking Osprey chicks. “Here,” the wildlife official had said, “hold this one.” Then he noticed how distended the bird’s belly was. “Um, doesn’t look too good.” Five minutes later, the bird died in my hands.
I paused to regain my composure. I heard my father snuffle too.
One night I got a hysterical call from my mother. My father was ashen and bent over in pain. When I got to the hospital, my mother was patiently waiting in the emergency room, knitting. My father sat next to her, tears in his eyes. I flew to the front desk and made a fuss. Two men in scrubs put my father on a stretcher. About 30 minutes later, he was lying on a bed, an IV plugged into his arm. He was still pale as elementary school chalk but the morphine was kicking in. I sat down next to him and held his hand.
“Hey Dad,” I said. “Did I ever tell you about the time I stopped traffic on Route 80 so I could shoo a great white Egret off the road?” He urged me on with a nod. “Oh, Dad you should have seen me. It was crazy. I was on my way to hike in the Delaware Gap. All of a sudden I see this enormous white thing standing on the highway. At first I thought it was a piece of furniture but as we got closer I realized it was a bird. A great white Egret. I realized it had lost its way. It was disorientated. I got out of the car, stopped traffic with my hand and got as close to the bird as I could to shoo it off the highway. Eventually it took flight.”
My father squeezed my hand. He was in-and-out of consciousness. He looked shrunken in that paper robe.
Not long after that, there was something he had to tell me. In the presence of a psychologist and my mother, my father told me he was sexually abused as a child. I don’t remember what else he said because the room spun like a grotesque amusement ride. In later conversations he told me the psychologist believed his early trauma explained his distance from people. He had learned people can be very unsafe. I now understood why my father loved animals so much. Animals never intentionally hurt us.
In 2005, at 43, I left city life. I moved with my second husband, young daughter and thus-far two rescued cats (we now have five cats and six chickens) to an old farmhouse in the suburbs. It has a wildness that belies its proximity to the city. Dad begged for stories about the wild turkeys, fox, raccoon, coyotes.
Not long ago he and my mother were at our house for my vegetarian Thanksgiving. We were sitting around with bloated bellies, a lull before pie.
“Hey Dad,” I said. “You’ll never guess what happened.”
“You’ve rescued a sixth cat?” he asked, his green eyes flickering with humor.
“No, much nuttier. You know, I feed the deer crab apples,” I said. “I worry they’re not going to make it through winter.” I’d been buying crates of rotten apples from an orchard.
“One day I was at the window and noticed a deer in distress,” I said. “It was jerking its head back and forth, and its mouth was foaming.”
For a moment I thought about telling my father I administered the Heimlich maneuver to the deer. Who can blame me for wanting to embellish the story? His rapt attention had become an elixir.
“I ran outside. Just then the deer spit up a piece of apple and pranced into the woods.”
“Well, maybe it’s better to leave the deer to fend for themselves,” he said.
“Or maybe I should cut up the apples in smaller bite sizes?” I offered.
“You’re crazy,” he said.
“Thanks to you,” I said.
On his way out that night, he hobbled down the steps of my porch slowly, dragging his left leg, which has lost most of its nerve endings. Then he glanced back and noticed a half-filled crate of apples. With a little smirk, he doddered back up the steps, swept his hand into the crate and grabbed an apple. “Here you go, Bambi,” he hollered and hauled that apple into the woods like the first pitch of an opening round at Yankee Stadium.
“Like father, like daughter,” I said to my husband and daughter.
“Goodnight,” my father said and blew me a kiss before he ambled down the stone path.
– Tina Traster is the author of Burb Appeal: The Collection, which is based on her New York Post column. Her work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, literary journals and on NPR. Her essays have appeared in Living Lessons and Mammas and Pappas. She is working on a memoir about adopting a Russian child.