Reflections on that cozy, complicated, heartwarming, wondrous, one-of-a-kind relationship—in pictures and words.
Walking to Temple
Each Saturday morning of my childhood, I walked to our New Jersey synagogue with my father. He wore a dark suit, and I dressed in my Sabbath finery, and together we made our way up Revere Drive, across Nottingham Way, and down Westminster Avenue to Temple Shomrei Torah. The walk took no more than 15 minutes. Now I do the calculation: 15 minutes there, 15 minutes back—a half hour, once a week, multiplied by months, years. We walked for hundreds of hours, my father and I.
Picture us: a tall, balding man, his head covered by a yarmulke; a small, blond girl who felt safe and beloved in his shadow. Although he was a religious Jew and would have preferred to attend services where men and women sat in separate parts of the synagogue, I curled up on the bench next to him, bored by the prayers but enlivened and fascinated by his relationship to them. He stood, shuffled, swayed, wrapped in his tallith, a ceremonial shawl—the same one I recently draped around the still-narrow shoulders of my own 13-year-old at his Bar Mitzvah. Sunrise, sunset.
By the time I was a teenager, I declined to join my father on our walks, preferring to sulk in my room. Would I have stopped if I could have known what would soon happen? He died in a car accident when I was 23. Sometimes now, when I want to feel him close to me, I find a synagogue. If I sit quietly and listen, I can hear his voice, singing loud and off-key, rising above the rest. I can see his hands as he turns the pages of his worn prayer book. Most of all, I feel his love surrounding me in the echo of those long-ago hours when I was a girl safe in her father’s embrace.
Dani Shapiro’s latest book is Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life.
Art and Empathy
On weekends and vacations, my father loved to take our family to art museums. But because he was a dedicated physician—a doctor, a research scientist, and later a hospital administrator—his approach to art was, let’s say, somewhat unusual. He was especially drawn to Old Master paintings in which the subjects suffered from some illness or malformation, or to works done by artists with widely known medical problems. Standing in front of a canvas by El Greco, we would learn about the effects of severe astigmatism; van Gogh’s sunflowers would prompt a brief lecture on the mental illness of the Dutch genius; and we knew more than was probably appropriate for children to know about the diseases that Gauguin suffered in the South Seas. The Gothic and Renaissance galleries were my father’s idea of heaven—all those saints healing the blind, the lepers, the halt and the lame; all those gruesome visions of the symptoms of bubonic plague and Saint Anthony’s fire. I don’t know why I wasn’t horrified or even upset. In fact, I loved it. Perhaps that was because, even as a small child, I intuited the compassion, the understanding, and the proud knowledge that my father was bringing to these representations of the body’s betrayal. He felt deeply for the wounded and the sick, the men and women who had lived and died centuries before our own. Like the Renaissance saints, I knew, he would have cured them if he could.
Francine Prose’s new novel, Mister Monkey, will be published in October.
When I was in ninth grade, I transferred to a private school where my father taught. It felt like a terrible idea, but it meant free tuition. I tried to blend in to the sea of beautiful, preppy people and walked right by my sweet dad in the hallway, hoping he wouldn’t notice I was disavowing him. At first, I slipped under the mean girls’ radar, but then came the Sadie Hawkins dance. I asked a popular senior, and amazingly he said yes. Then he called back and said no. Cue laughter and “Who does she think she is?” whispers. I fled to my dad’s office, where he shared his lunch with me and assured me that one day I wouldn’t even remember these girls’ names. And he was right. I don’t. What I do remember is spinning around in his chair, eating a cookie, and feeling like maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t the end of the world.
Jenny Offill is the author of the novel Department of Speculation.
My father drove a hatchback Nissan Z, a two-seater, for nearly a decade. From the beginning, there were too many of us—him, my sister, and me—then there was one more, my half-brother. Our weekends were too booked with extracurricular activities to accommodate the typical divorced-dad visits, so he picked all of us up on Wednesdays. I remember folding my limbs just so in the hatch of the car, the sun warm on my face.
We’d pull up to whatever chain restaurant one of us craved that week and have the closest we could get to a culinary experience in that suburb at that time. I’d usually sit next to my dad, very close, and try to get some of his smell to work into my sweater. Leather, motor oil, and cocoa butter. We’d spread our homework out on the table and stay in the restaurant until it was time for our movie to start. Name a G-rated, PG-13, or even a less racy R-rated movie released between 1995 and 2003 and odds are I saw it with my father.
These were my first dates. Never delayed, rarely canceled. My father showed up for them no matter what else might not be going great in his life. He valued our decisions and never questioned our taste, even if it meant seeing the same coming-of-age movie two Wednesdays in a row. Most of all, he made us feel worthy of his time and attention during those delicate years when who pays attention to you and how matters so much.
Now, when my calendar is crammed and it seems impossible to spend time with the people I love, I remember these Wednesdays. I can always make time for dinner and a movie.
Angela Flournoy is the author of the novel The Turner House, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.
I didn’t discover my father’s gift for giving counsel until my early 20s, when my mother died. My long-term boyfriend and I were falling apart; I remained desperately in love but was equally desperate to experience the world on my own. My father, sensing an internal storm, asked if I’d like to stretch my legs, and for the next two hours, we walked the dirt paths of the local state park, where I spilled all my doubts and confusion. Like my mother, he listened very closely and without judgment. But he had something she didn’t: a lawyerly ability to see every side of the story. (He is, after all, an attorney.) It was as if I’d dropped a box of buttons on the ground, and rather than simply scoop them back into the box, together we sorted them into piles, like to like, so that in the end I had a much clearer sense of how I felt and what I should do. That boyfriend and I broke up, of course, and over the 20 years since, my father has remained my go-to, the first person I call when I can’t puzzle out a problem on my own. The instant he answers the phone, I feel better. By the time we hang up, he’s calmed me so thoroughly that I’m able to see my predicament anew and start to find my way to a solution.
Kate Bolick is the author of the New York Times best seller Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, just out in paperback.