My father and I played Scrabble together for forty years.
I never lost a game. He consoled himself by saying it proved that my education had “not been a complete waste of money” or, since I was a professional writer, I “knew all the words”.
I recognized it as his way of saying he was proud of me. In our family, feelings were carefully encoded.
When we played a few years ago, I noticed his shaking hand would occasionally knock a tile from its space. So I sent him a new improved deluxe model with turntable and a board of plastic indentations. But the next time we played, out came the old beat-up set. Why? He said he wanted to “use it until it wears out”.
Does that tell you something about my father? That he was stubborn, frugal, reluctant to exchange the tried and true for the new and modern. His favorite phrase was “makes sense”. A former accountant, when he retired from his last job as a hotel manager, the staff presented him with a plaque that read “It’s the bottom line that counts”.
Above all, he prized family. A close second was “security”, the financial kind. Also, having grown up poor, he believed in self-help to an alarming degree. (In his 93rd year, when he lapsed into a depression serious enough to require electroshock therapy, he berated himself for not being able to “snap out of it”.
With his deep sense of responsibility, he was tormented that he was leaving some of his loved ones financially secure but emotionally dependent. But by then he was helpless to change. For a bottom line guy, he admitted that when it came to his family”I thought with my heart, not my head”.
During our time together, we argued a lot but rarely fought. He believed primarily what his experience had taught him. When I was young, his classic position was: “It’s for your own good”. Later it became: “You still haven’t learned, have you?” – a reference to my earlier choices in marriage, investments and foreign cars.
For my part, I favored psychology, astrology, spirituality, whatever seemed true to me at the time. Though I had my instinct, intelligence and contemporary thought on my side, at the end he had the most potent weapon, five little words: “Believe me, I know better”. How could I – without wounding the man I loved most in he world – ever dispute that?
His certainty in his own judgment was such that five years after my move from Los Angeles to Ashland, he still insisted it was “the worst mistake you ever made”. “But, Dad, “I said, my voice at such times rising to the timbre of a thirteen year old, I’ve never been happier.” “That,” he said, “is your opinion.”
In the last years, we had no difficulty saying “I love you” but the rest of our conversation was again encoded to avoid the painful reality.
Me: “How you doing?” (I’m really concerned about you.)
He: “The accounts are all balled up.” (I can’t remember things. I’m frightened.)
Me: “The accounts are not that important.” (Can’t we talk about what’s happening?)
He: “You don’t understand.” (I don’t know what to say.)
He passed away on December 10, 1997, at age 94. I was blessed to be at his bedside, reading the last confession. (May death a tone for my sins) and, finally, the Sh’ma. For once, there was no argument.