My father’s mood was so unpredictable, we never knew what to expect. As complex as the volumes of The Great Books of the Western World which he revered, he was a multi-faceted man whom I loved, respected, feared, admired, felt anger toward, was embarrassed by, and with whom I shared a sense of humor that is matched by none other. When my father died, my older sister went into my father’s barber shop and told the woman who cut his hair the news. A Russian woman, she lay down her scissors and cried. Every time my dad sat down in her chair he’d say to her, “Make me look like Paul Newman.”
My father was born in New York City in 1916. He tried escaping his Jewish heritage by running away from home when he was 16 years old and promptly changed his last name from Weissfeld to Landor, after the British poet Walter Savage Landor. Later in life, he regretted denying his Judaism and went to Israel to become a nationalized citizen. He remained, for the rest of his life, estranged from his mother and his family.
My father may be the most self-assured man I ever knew. Self-educated, he’d read just about everything. In the opening of the first of two books he wrote on education, he describes himself as an “uneducated man” because he didn’t receive the kind of education – a liberal education – which he held in the highest esteem. In fact, he had three degrees, had his own television show broadcast out of Berkeley in the 1950s (a sort of political talk show), and was in charge of adult education in the county library in Cleveland. He was smart, witty, and in control. At an interview once, he was asked: Do you feel comfortable talking about what’s happening in the world today? His response: Ask me anything.
He was 18 years older than my mother, his second wife. “Another generation” was the excuse my mom always used for his proclivity to being unjust and unkind. He rarely practiced what he preached, like the quote he liked so well: Come, let us reason together. How I want to rewind the clock, stop for a moment mid-argument in the kitchen where he is unreasonably scolding my mother for giving in to my sister, or for telling her that the children should be seen and not heard at the dinner table, or telling her that there’s a “right way” and a “wrong way” for doing everything, and remind him of this quote. He’s “of another generation” my mother would say at bedtime, her eyes red from crying. I now know this was her way of excusing his emotional detachment.
As a new wife, she wanted more than anything to please him, and finding the perfect recipe for rice pudding, his favorite dessert, was one such way. My older, half-sister remembers how she poured over recipe books looking for the right one, how she would make it, present it to him, and he’d send it away, as if he were a king on a thrown waving away his lady-in-waiting. She couldn’t get it right. Trying not to disappoint Daddy was a theme from the very beginning. Finally she did find exactly what he wanted. It became a family favorite, but it’s served with a history that, when recalled, leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
What my father did to hurt those he loved most was to turn off. He could ignore his entire family for days. If my mom slipped, said something that he would disagree with, or found something funny that he disapproved of, that would set in motion some of the most painful memories I have as a child. He would not come down to dinner. Or, if he did appear, a hush would fall on the room. The tense silence could sound like a million eggshells breaking all at once.
Thankfully, I do remember times when he was very loving. One of my earliest memories is of being a little girl, curled up on his lap, his smoking a cigar, and telling me a story. We hugged often and I remember how, when he stood with his back to the heater in the living room I came up to his belly and could rest my head on him, standing there in that circle of safety, his arms around me. I remember he once surprised my brother, sister and me by picking us up at a friend’s house and driving us to an amusement park – a spontaneous outing where he packed tuna sandwiches and used butter instead of mayo, but we forgave him and probably didn’t even mention it because we were so surprised by the adventure.
It’s possible that I was a favorite child. In a household of constant unfulfilled expectations, I was the peacemaker, the dove who would come home from school, make a batch of cookies, and bring a plate of them and a glass of milk up to the attic, my dad’s study, where he sat “scribbling.” That was the word he used to explain the hundreds of poems he wrote in his lifetime. We wrote letters to each other weekly when I moved away from home and his support of me throughout my life was a constant source of comfort. We had an understanding with each other. We shared a need for order. The same things made us laugh. We made each other laugh. There was so much safety in the laughter, so much fear in the absence of it.
My father was not a happy man and did not have many friends. He pushed others away by being all intellect, and little heart. I can hear him tell me that he loves his six children more than anything in the world. And I believe that he did. But I wish that in his disputes with my mother and his children – disagreeing with my older brother’s PhD dissertation, for example, instead of just being proud of him – that he could have shown more heart. I know that he knew, in his heart of hearts, that being loving and kind was more important than proving a point or needing to be right. I just wish he could have acted on that more often.