Song for My Father

Tomorrow would have been my father’s 92nd birthday. He’s been gone ten years now.

Sharing a laugh on Father’s Day
My dad always told me that I was a writer. He said this with admiration, I think. He encouraged me to write and would often help me when I got stuck.  When I was taking an upper division English class as a freshman at Cal, he introduced me to the concept of an oxymoron—way before the meaning got attached to phrases like “military intelligence.” It was a tough class, but I knocked myself out to do well in it, and I still think fondly of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”


I think it broke my dad’s heart when I declared a major in criminology.  He asked, “What will you do? Wear a lab coat? You’re a writer. You should write!” Naturally, I resisted his interference.  “I’m writing!” I protested, but I knew what he meant.

So, I wrote — but not because of him. I just couldn’t help it. When I was a telephone operator, right out of high school, I wrote poems inspired by the more melodic names of customers. “Ode to a Hunsucker” was a real favorite (and I can still recite it lo these many years later!).  I wrote couplets for my kids’ lunch boxes and funny party invitations for their birthdays. I wrote copy for the kids’ elementary school auction catalogs. (My favorite was “Portrait by the Artist of a Young Dog: your pet’s portrait, opening bid $25.00.”)  A colleague and I created personal birthday cards for our friends at work; I wrote the doggerel and she did the graphics. I can write limericks at the drop of a hat. Sometimes my family will get special silly poems from me on holidays or birthdays. You can’t stop me. And I think it’s genetic; I have a collection of clever, silly birthday and Mother’s Day poems from my kids.



         For my 49th birthday, my dad  gave me a copy of Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon. I confess that I flipped through the pages, thinking there might be a check tucked inside. But no, it was just the book: a book about Paris, since my dad knew I was planning my first trip there the following summer. It was my first trip to Europe and he was excited for me.
         So he gave me that book, which I tried to read. I didn’t have any context for it, and got lost trying to figure out which arrondissement was which.
         My father passed away in April 2001; my trip was scheduled for that July. He didn’t have the chance to wish me bon voyage. On our last evening in Paris, our leaders arranged for us to have dinner aboard one of the boats that sail slowly up and down the Seine. And under the full moon that night, I thanked him for giving me Paris.


Glasses raised on the bateau mouche


This is something I wrote a few years ago, but it feels right to post it today.




Checking my rear view mirror at a red light on my way to work one morning, I noticed that the guy in the car behind me was shaving. Glancing in his rear view mirror, he buzzed the electric razor around his chin and neck, feeling for missed whiskers with his other hand.

When I was a little girl, my dad used to shave with a mug full of soap, a short stubby brush, and a safety razor. I positioned myself next to him beside the bathroom sink, looking up and watching, mesmerized, as he brushed on a soapy beard and moustache, then methodically scraped it all off until he was Dad again. My close inspection would occasionally earn me a little foam goatee or sideburns. When he finished shaving, pink-cheeked and smooth, he sometimes splashed on a bit of the Old Spice aftershave my sister and I had given him for Father’s Day. My dad was always particular about the way he looked; it was a rare day when he chose not to shave. He liked to dress sharp and always kept his shoes shined. He did not learn these things from his father, my Grampa Mike , a Russian immigrant who once absentmindedly stuck a sock, instead of a handkerchief, into his breast pocket.

Grampa Mike stories never failed to crack us up
I remember standing by myself on a step stool in front of the mirror, soaping up my own little girl face and using a corner of a washcloth to scrape it off the way I’d seen him do it: downward stokes, left to right.

Even when my dad’s body started falling apart at age 81, grooming was important to him. With a close shave and combed hair, he felt a little like his old self, even though he knew the old self was never coming back.


From winter to spring during the last year of his life, Dad was in and out of hospitals. He suffered many indignities, experienced a lot of pain, and wept easily. One sunny day, sitting outside for the first time in weeks, he folded over, sobbing and keening, with the intense anguish of a man aware of his loosening grasp on a life he loved. During those months, he often spoke wistfully about his days as a young father with two little girls who called him Daddy, back when he shaved in front of an adoring and mystified audience.


At the end, my dad was cared for at home by a thoughtful attendant who kept him bathed, combed, and shaved. There was a great deal of love and care in these simple, touching acts—the only things that allowed him to keep his dignity. I have one final memory: the feel of my dad’s smooth cheek as I gave him a last goodbye kiss.



There is a small picture of my father on my desk. Every time I get inspired and click the keys for hours, I look over at him and think: “Hey Dad—Look, I’m a writer!”
He’s still bugging me to do more! Thanks, Dad

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