When my mother’s father died, she was only two years old. She had a few early memories of him, and in her last days she told me again how her father had given her a ball with red stripes on it, and how she remembered him smoking and coughing, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. She remembered that he was a gentle man with a low voice. She wasn’t sure whether she could trust her memories or whether they were stories her sisters and mother had told her, but she kept a photograph of her father on her bedside table, and would talk to his image every night before she slept.
When I was growing up, my mother, having never really known her father, made sure that I knew mine. She made me greet him every afternoon when he came home from teaching high school English, and again at night when he returned from teaching his adult ESL class. Sometimes I wouldn’t greet him right away. “Resa, you don’t know what it is like not to have a father. Go spend time with him. Ask him about his day. It’ll make him happy.”
My father spoke with joy about the present. But his past was a mystery to me.
My father spoke with joy about the present. But his past was a mystery to me. He would share only the same few stories. “I didn’t speak English until the first grade. At home we spoke Ladino. Your grandparents worked at the Indianapolis farmer’s market. Your grandmother was called Pepper, because she sold green and red peppers, and your grandfather was called Shabbat because he was a religious man and read his Bible every day. We had a swayback horse. What a wonderful horse he was.”
When my father died, we held his funeral in Indianapolis, and the Sephardic Jewish community came to pay their respects. One man told me a story. “I remember your grandfather, he was a religious man, but once I saw him punch a horse in the face.” A less peaceful image of my father’s childhood unfolded before my eyes. After the service, a woman came up to talk with me. “What was my father like?” I asked her. She got silent for a moment. It was lush breezy early autumn and, as if in honor of my father’s death, it was a cicada year. “Your father, well…” and then her face opened into a huge grin and her eyes sparkled. “He was a devil, Resa. A total devil!”
That night in the hotel my husband, John, and I couldn’t sleep. A cicada had somehow gotten into the room and taken up residence in the potted green plant. Its song kept us awake. How was my father a devil? I wanted to hear the whole story. And if my grandfather could punch a horse in the face, what kind of childhood had my father really had? It was nearly 4 a.m. The cicada kept on singing.
“Your father would have loved this,” John said to me.
And I knew he was right. My father would have loved this irony—that on the night of his funeral a cicada was keeping us all awake. I didn’t know much about my father, but at least I knew that.