My Father’s Stories
“Once upon a time, there were two brave princesses…”
When we were little, right before bedtime, my dad would sit my sister and me in her room overlooking that suburban block in Northern California and begin these tall tales. Those nights I would gaze wide-eyed at this giant of a man as he told stories about these princesses and their loved ones being trapped, followed by them journeying over deserts and seas to save the day.
He stood high at 6’2, although he’s slightly shorter now due to age; when I stand next to him today at 5’11, he’ll try to stand up straighter to prove a point. He has walked with a cane my whole life, struggling with chronic pain yet adding to a persona of wisdom. His once stark black hair is now wispy white and thinning, both he attributes to raising children, particularly those who tease about his bald spot (that would be me). His moustache is so distinctive that, when he shaved it off on his 50th birthday, as a 10-year-old I began to cry and scream, “You’re not my daddy!”
He loves Shakespeare and the theater, a former flower child who used his talents for activism in the 1960s. He’s thoughtful and intellectual but can be a goofball, particularly when he’s shuffling around with a deck of cards. He’s not religious, but is passionate about Jewish life and dreams of visiting Israel; this is despite the fact he has traveled the world for work. And he always loves a good story. Having worked in the entertainment industry most of his life, he can you tell tales of hanging out with Alice Cooper and being buddies with Sidney Lumet to a two-hour conversation he had with George C. Scott. Alan Alda once made him a spaghetti dinner and Stanley Kubrick and him worked on editing pieces for Full Metal Jacket.
The greatest pride my father has is having two daughters (he would tell you, “There is only one letter difference between ‘daughter’ and ‘laughter’”). All throughout my life, whether it was trying to shoot a basketball into a hoop or doing my Spanish homework, he would always say to me, “You can do it.” He would watch me sit at the computer for hours writing, and told me that if I was smart and worked hard enough, I could do anything.
Until I was 12, he traveled almost nonstop, to the point where I was convinced from a young age dad lived at the airport. He was untouchable — but not always in a good way. He missed hospital visits, speech therapy, choir concerts and other events while he was supporting us. In many ways my mother was a single mom looking out for us due to this nomadic nature. For years I would hear him say how painful that was for him and what a cause of strife that was not only for him, but also for his relationship with my mom.
His passion for work made him an amazing teacher, his actions and words talking loudly. He once said to me, “Reina, if I were willing to take advantage of people and screw people over, I could have made so much more money. But I would have gotten a lot less sleep.” His sharp laugh and wit endeared him to janitors and CEOs alike. I helped proofread projects he dreamed would be big; a few were, many weren’t. But he moved on when it didn’t work, embracing creativity and believing in impossibly large yet beautiful things. My father’s nickname, Pragmatic Sage, seems only right yet doesn’t fit. This quiet but loud, strong yet weak man was someone I always sensed was an anomaly. But he’s dad.
I thought every dad with girls was like mine, but as I grew up I found my friends’ fathers were rather stark contrasts. Some were domineering, seeking his daughters to fill certain cultural roles. Others were more interested in other things or absent and left their daughters behind. And some were just plain mean. I would never forget the night one of my friends disowned her father due to his negligent behavior, and then turned to mine and said, “You’re my dad now.”
I am no longer a child. Dad is different and so am I. He is no longer that entertainment industry guy rushing off to his industry networking events or various lunches and dinners with associates. Instead he is a caretaker to my ailing mother who struggles with cancer, repairing old wounds and doing what he needs to do to make things right. He was invited to work, but refused to leave her side. In these times of strife I’m left dreaming that I’m one of those strong princesses in my dad’s stories: His tales where women can save the day just as well as anyone, where we are tough and competent.
I recently journeyed to Israel without him and walked through the Old City of Jerusalem. One night I saw a small stone right in the middle of my path; an unusual sight if you know the city. But my father’s face floated to my mind and I knew it was meant for him. I picked it up from the ground and hid it in my bag, carrying it from there all the way back to Los Angeles. Sitting in dad’s car after I got off the plane, I now told him a story. It was a parable I once heard:
Once upon a time, two men arrived in Israel to spend two weeks each. One was in a rush to see the entire country, journeying everywhere and buying little trinkets and souvenirs along the way. The other, so in awe, journeyed to Jerusalem and stayed there, exploring the city and understanding spirituality. But as he left, he realized he forgot gifts for his family. He stuffed his pockets with dirt, and when he got home, he emptied them. He told them that he brought back Israel itself for them.
“Until you get there, dad,” I said, slipping the stone in into his fingers, “I brought Jerusalem to you.”
His arthritic hands moved around its edges as the tears streamed from his cheeks as divine prayer and in utter gratitude as he turned out from LAX. My heart swelled in joy for him; his princess traveled the world, and somehow, she had found a way to save the king.