My father was an eccentric who loved discussing topics that no one else seemed to know about. Not a classroom learner, he dabbled at college but didn’t finish, apparently conceiving a philosophy out of it: academic achievement was the sign of a small mind.
The trouble was, I liked academic achievement.
As a child, I went about the business of school under the radar, probably hoping that if I quietly excelled, my parents would stop fighting. But after their divorce when I was a young teen, I became more provocative toward my father. In an attempt to get back at him for his relentless attention-seeking—and because I was starting to notice he wasn’t always as well-informed as he seemed—I began to ignore his intellectual meanderings.
Dad would retaliate by telling me I lacked imagination, or that I wasn’t a voracious enough reader. Or he’d say I was “rigid” for wanting to cut short a visit so I could study for an upcoming exam.
I was sixteen when my father won custody. It was October of my senior year at Berkeley High, and a few weeks after moving in with Dad, I began filling out the application to Cal. I asked him to handle the financial aid forms.
Dad took one look at the paperwork and started hyperventilating. “If you were a real intellectual, you wouldn’t need college,” he remarked.
I got my way, was awarded scholarships and grants, and took advantage of my college experience in spite of him. But my inner landscape was another story. When I did well in school, I worried I’d soon be exposed as a fraud. And any subject or book I found difficult seemed to validate my father’s skepticism of my intellect.
Was Dad insecure? Of course—deeply, exhaustingly. Did he feel humiliated by my ability to succeed in college and get along without him financially? Probably. Was he hurt that I couldn’t bring myself even to feign interest when he’d pontificate? No question.
But these are explanations. And explanations don’t show you how to live.
I like getting older, because sometimes insights come my way for no reason other than that time has passed. A couple of months ago, a lovely cousin of mine e-mailed me about some letters she’d found from Dad’s father. She mentioned something I never knew: that before my grandfather immigrated to New York and became a shopkeeper, he’d been admitted into the top yeshiva in his village in Ukraine, and that in a very scholarly family, he was considered the most brilliant brother.
I didn’t know Grandpa well and had no personal sense of his academic prowess. But I suddenly felt a strong kinship with him, a fatherly presence one generation removed.
I also realized at a new level how ashamed of himself my father must have felt at the time I was applying to Cal. Sure, he’d fought for custody and won, arguably a heroic act, but he’d also recently lost his retail store and livelihood and was barely making ends meet. And he wasn’t as accomplished as his own father, who’d fallen short of the rabbinate only because of life circumstances, not because of a lack of ability or focus.
I wish I could say that as I come to understand my father more fully, his condemning voice naturally ebbs from my consciousness. But it’s not so simple. In one way or another, I do battle with that voice every time I sit down to read or write.
What I am starting to grasp is that really, it was nothing personal.
Published in The Piedmont Post, June 16, 2010