When I was thirteen I knew everything. Everything. There wasn’t a subject that I couldn’t hold forth on with the utmost confidence. The arts, politics, Literature—it didn’t matter—regardless of what question you posed or commentary you sought I had the spot-on, 100% guaranteed correct answer. Except for the niggling, unavoidable fact that I didn’t. But I thought I did. I mean, I really, really thought I did. Why do you think I would always turn down the volume on whatever my parents were saying, in particular my dad? Every time he would try to impart some hard-earned wisdom to me, my tendency was to nod vigorously, while my mind was occupied with much more important thoughts, like how to get my parents to buy me a pair of Earth shoes or rearranging the KISS posters on my bedroom wall. Wisdom, shmisdom, I had everything under control.
In hindsight, I blew off my dad more than he deserved. And isn’t that the great irony? You don’t realize you blew off your dad when you were thirteen until you have a thirteen-year old who blows you off while she’s busy being, well, thirteen. And on those occasions when I see my daughter’s eyes begin to glaze over as I try to explain to her the importance of studying hard and treating people well and the value of a dollar, I cut her a considerable amount of slack because I cut my dad hardly any. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to listen.
Shortly after my dad died in 1981, my brother Adam found a cassette that was a recording of a family gathering at my Uncle Bill’s house in California. We had recently moved there in an attempt by my parents to offer their three sons a better life, only to have that life fall apart when my dad passed away just six months after we unpacked. My brothers and I crowded around a tape recorder as we began to hear the sound of voices talking over other voices, the scrape of forks on china and the squeak of weight being shifted on wooden folding chairs—the soundtrack of a family gathering. But we were listening for something specific: our father’s voice. There it was! Clear as a bell, unmistakable, its Brooklyn accent tattooed on my brain. For a moment he was right there – loud, confident, funny. So there. And then his voice faded, once again cloaked by the sound of a good meal.
I don’t know what happened to that tape—I wish I did. Because I can’t remember what my father sounded like. It’s been thirty-three years since I last heard it. I feel like I should still be able to hear it in my mind, it feels so wrong that I don’t, but thirty-three years is a long time. And like everything else—over time—memories fade, images yellow.
As Father’s Day approaches I’m thinking about how smart I was when I was young, how I knew absolutely everything. And how I knew absolutely nothing.
I can no longer hear my father’s voice. I hope he knows how sorry I am about that. I hope he can hear that – and this:
Happy Father’s Day, dad.