A while ago, I decided to try to collect paternal experiences and collate them on a website. The idea came to me because it’s a subject that intensifies any conversation. When you ask someone to describe his or her dad you receive an immediate jolt of emotional honesty and you always learn something that’s meaningful, no matter how secure the bond. It’s a direct route to the soul.
I thought I should go first, just to get things started, and so I started to reminisce, in the words of Kevin Rowland, I started to reflect. And as I began to consider my old man, I realized that I couldn’t help but run parallels constantly with myself. After all, I am a father now too, nearly nine years older than my dad was when he had me. Here’s what I realised about aging as I thought about that.
When we’re young, and if we’re lucky, our idiosyncrasies add nuance and mysterious shape to our selves. They give us edge. But as time progresses, those quirks fossilize and warp our personalities into a permanently awkward shape. What may have seemed unique, hip even to a younger entourage curdles over time. By the time middle age is standing in the hallway hysterically ringing its bell, those characteristics are ending marriages and making weekly appointments with a counselor. If we survive long enough to become a question mark for our children, our nearest and dearest acknowledge those same USP’s by rolling their eyes and making cuckoo signals behind our backs. It’s the cycle of life. Your must-have value just diminishes.
My father Felix recently turned eighty and we all gathered in a neutral location, Paris, to celebrate. On the way I thought of the intense, brooding man I mainly saw only in charismatic glimpses growing up – head wrapped in bandages after a car crash in Egypt; standing knee deep in sea water, reading, for hours; breaking 100 MPH during explosive in-car rows with my mother; inventing complex bedtime stories about the mystically gifted Squeaky The Mouse; typing furiously through the night at the living room table, shaping my DNA – and the gently eccentric old moose of today, the guy who insists he must spend six months out of New York each year because the state tax is too high. Which period of his existence does he feel best represented by?
On the night of his birthday I wanted to fast forward through the chit-chat and get right into it with him. And as usual, the opposite happened. It’s the reverse of our conversations when I was a teenager (“Teddy, I need to explain to you about your mother and me…” “Oh God, no, it’s fine, please…”). I’d hoped to tell him once more about my idea for a story based on him, but I couldn’t find the space to pin him down. It may have been that I simply choked on the pathos as we all sat in a darkened bistro, cupping our ears and chinking our glasses.
The pitch is simple. It’s the story of an obituary writer who is a retired foreign correspondent and a decorated newspaper reporter. A bit – exactly – like my dad. Despite his enviable CV our hero, I project, is nagged by a sense that his true potential hangs unfulfilled, acknowledging to himself that he was hijacked by failing political instinct and personal indiscipline at crucial moments. Like you, like me, he’s outflanked from time to time by thoughts of “if only” and questions of “what if”. Except that he is in his twilight years, and his part-time gig on the obituary desk of a benevolent former employer forces him to not only spread bet on who will die next, but also regularly evaluate the lives of others without fear of libel. He’s knee deep in measuring up.
When he’s not writing obits, the guy bumbles along in – oh I don’t know – New York doing mundane but somehow vital chores, and hurtles between distracted, sporadically vengeful relatives around the globe on one long farewell tour that never quite turns out to be the final show. It reads like I’ve a stolen a character from a late-period John Updike tale. In fact he’s carved entirely in my dad’s image – as is so much that I increasingly am. He could take it as compliment, but I fear he’d see it as something more sinister.
A couple of years ago, I sat alone with my old man in a Pizza Express and attempted to do some exploratory research for the story. It was the same Pizza Express in Notting Hill that my brother Mark was almost born in in 1971. Back then, my dad was the London correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, a native New Yorker billeted in what he felt was a miserable city from the olde world, a place full of grey skies, brown food and broken grammar. (And before you indignantly romanticize London, check out the now prohibitively swanky West London scenery in any early Sweeney episode: it’s one big post-war bombsite punctuated by rows of drab terraces and pub fights. He’d left the New York of Annie Hall behind). Felix plugged his homesickness up with the only decent pizza he could find in the UK at that time.
Four decades later, when stuck for places to meet when he’s visiting, we hit Pizza Express, Notting Hill, “the one where your brother was nearly born”. This particular lunchtime, we talked about his early life growing up in Vienna and about the day that the Nazis marched into the courtyard of his parents’ apartment block for the first time.
He remembers it clearly, his mother calling out to his father to step back from the window in case the soldiers see him, a Jew, watching them, the armed anti-semites. And he recalls, too, the Germans issuing his family with yellow stars with the word “Jude” inscribed to wear whenever they were out so that they could be recognized for what they were. That’s when my grandfather said it was time to leave. They packed everything into suitcases and ran, first to Switzerland and then to Ellis Island. My dad still has his yellow star in a shoebox somewhere, along with various documents belonging to his father, Joseph, who started a new life as a bookbinder in Forest Hills, Queens. Few of the families of his parents’ friends from Vienna have those yellow stars in shoeboxes because they didn’t panic when the Nazis entered Vienna like silly old Joseph. They knew that when the Nazis spoke about the Jewish problem, they meant different Jews, poorer Jews, not them…
This is good stuff, I thought, as my dad told me his story, and I reached for my phone. I’d never heard him speak about this in such detail. Would he mind if I interviewed him about it?
“I absolutely do mind!” He looked at me as if he’d just caught me stealing from his wallet. “You can’t have this! I know what you are doing.” He gave me a not-so-fast-buddy smile that I’ve never seen before or since. “This is my story to tell.”
And so we await his version of events, keenly, because he is the best equipped to tell it both as a verifiable witness and as the finest writer I know of. And also because he knows more than anyone how unforgiving a final deadline can be. When the story’s gone, the story is gone.
Yesterday, I received an email from my youngest brother. It began: “Had a fifteen minute conversation with your father about his shampoo today…” Time marches on. Tick tock.
Ted Kessler is a writer and editor who’s spent the last twenty years destroying music magazines. He lives in London but he’d rather be in a nice villa in Ibiza.