I am carrying a glass of hot tea, taking small, careful steps across the kitchen to where he sits. The steam from the glass warms my chin. I watch the color turn from pale to dark, smell the reddish broth both bitter and comforting. When I place the glass in front of him, I dip the tea bag three more times, wrap the string around and squeeze it dry. Later, he will reheat the kettle and we will listen while it changes from a steady hiss to a train-loud screech.
“Turn that thing off” my mother yells from somewhere in another room. But he lets the kettle screech until the sound hurts my ears. When I can’t stand it any longer I run up and turn the flame off but he tells me “wait, it’s not ready yet. It has to be hot, very hot.” He tells me this every single time and so I have to turn the flame back up, wait while the screeching sound returns, high but distant this time, like a train that has already passed. At last he nods, satisfied it is hot enough. Again he dips the soggy sack, it has life in it still.
I curl my feet under me on the chair beside his and watch my father sip his tea through a sugar cube that he holds between his teeth. We are playing a game of checkers, and sometimes he lets me win. And sometimes he gets quiet, studying the board long and hard, lifting and lowering his tea bag while he charts his next move, as I get up to boil more water when his glass cools.
It is Sunday afternoon. No one is with us. Not my mother, not my sister. They are glad that for the time being he is involved, active, not asking impossible unanswerable questions. I am too young to know the reasons for their anger. “Get it yourself” my mother screams at him. “I don’t know” my sister screams at him. They are on another team, the team of women who know that men are difficult, maddening, disappointing companions. I am still too young to know this and relieved they do not want to join us, that it is only him and me sitting serious, silent, almost secretive.
This, too, I remember about my father. We are sitting in the den, the room that holds his books, and he gives me his special pipe tool and lets me tamp the sweet tobacco leaves down into the bowl of his pipe. The leaves disappear into the bottom of the bowl and he lets me fill it again with the sweet brown shreds. The smell sticks to my hands and I lick my fingers when he isn’t looking.
My father has rows of pipes in wooden stands, and some so large they cannot fit and lay loose and awkward in a brown cigar box. He teaches me distinctions, the subtlety of feel. He lets me hold them, feel their grips, the white wood, black wood, carved and sturdy, and his favorite from Denmark, almost weightless. My favorite is creamy smooth and made of bone. I tip the pipes out of their wooden holders and rearrange them by size, by color, by feel in my hand. My father trusts me. I am so careful, so careful, that’s how I earn his trust. I wriggle in close when he lights his pipes and breathe in the smell of comfort burning off his lips. This is as close to kisses as we come.
Sometimes when he smokes his pipe, he tilts his head backwards, eyes softly opened, and starts to hum a quiet melody, a melody from a thousand muffled dreams, a melody much older than he. While he hums, he taps his fingers lightly at the edge of his chair, humming, tapping, as if this alone might lift him to another place, high above where any of us could ever reach.
My father was a gentle man, too gentle for the shrill world of an unsatisfied wife and two very American daughters. He came to this country a frightened child, and that child stayed with him. He came looking for justice, and he strained to hear the certainty of its sounds. He tried, he faltered, he groped to understand a new world that moved too swiftly, with too much self-assurance. He could not hear his children as they called to their father who was just beyond their reach. In my memory’s eye he was either looking away, or deep inside the folds of his books, or somewhere else I could not know.
My father was a learned man. A scholar, said my mother, but between her teeth the word formed a bitter shape that she spat out and let fall at his feet. “I had to marry a scholar, buried in his books all day.” I watched her and learned from her, and by the time I grew older I too absorbed and mastered her acid tones of callousness and dissatisfaction.
The books my father read had no pictures. I saw him underline whole pages sometimes, watched his thin veined hand write in thin blue lines that wove around the margins in esoteric strands. He traced and transcribed anything that might possibly answer his constant, desperate question: was there or was there not a God? And if there was, what was this God made of that would allow for such suffering?
I knew not to disturb him when he read his thick, frayed books. His was a quiet that even a child recognized. It silenced my mundane, fleeting questions. Sometimes he did put his book down, satisfied for the moment, and came to where I sat, took my head softly in his hands, called me his “ketzele” (little kitten). His eyes welled up with a wetness that seemed less like tears, more like the washing away of stale crusts of pain. I would ask him “Why are you crying, daddy” and he answered “I am crying tears of happiness.” A strange kind of happiness, I thought. Like the warm rush of black tea, a brief and bitter pleasure.
The gray dimmed eyes of his childhood photographs already showed the face of age. He was a child lost in the forests of Europe. He watched his house burn, his village burn, his foundation burn. He and his sister were the only two of nine children to survive childhood, what childhood there was. They made their way to Ellis Island, clasping each other close, waiting for a promised uncle who sent their passage. Ship captains took bets, he told me, to see which ship would make it to harbor first. Only a certain number of Jews could be admitted on any given day and so for a chance race of two captains having a good time in the New York Harbor, my father might have been on the boat forced to returned to whatever hellish past it came from. My father told me that people jumped overboard when their ships were turned back. I wanted to ask him if he would have jumped. I wanted to imagine his bravery.
I never asked my father about his childhood. Hints and flavors seeped through but they were so bitter, so dark, it was not the kind of thing a child would want to know. By the time my aunt was dead and my father’s mind gone, it occurred to me to ask a thousand questions. What kind of work did my grandfather do? Was my grandmother a good cook? What made her laugh? Could she play checkers? So many questions, dead and lost. He did not speak of his parents or his past. Whatever world he left behind lived only in the misted gray light of his eyes.
At the end, the gentle mind that searched tirelessly for God dissolved altogether. It may have been Alzheimer’s but more likely a desire to escape from his torment. In those long final years he had nothing left to read, nothing left to seek. Despite the blankness of his consciousness, I remember thinking, sitting with him in those last few hollow visits, that he seemed at peace, almost happy. Maybe, in that silent, shrunken state, he had finally found his beloved God.
I have told my children few stories about their grandfather. They don’t remember the man who hummed off-key in their sleeping ears, who tickled them and chortled like a baby to see in them the perfect continuation of life. My children did not inherit their grandfather’s sadness, or his pain. They were born into a world of plenty, green playing fields and sunshine. Had he lived to know them, he would still not have known them.
But he does live on in the pale shadows of my memory—dipping tea bags at the kitchen table, the stale comfort of dusty books and warm tobacco, the shallow distant humming of melodies in minor keys.