My father began, "Well, it was nice to talk to you."
"Waiting!" I said. "You haven't spoken to me yet!"
"We'll talk when we meet," he said. "We don't have to make the phone company rich." He'd been on the phone just to get me to hang up.
Then one day I called when my mother wasn't there. My dad answered the phone and couldn't throw me up to my mom, so we started talking. He told me he was thinking of his grandfather and I asked about him. He started telling me. I discovered that if I asked about his past, he would stay on the phone.
The older he got – and he got very old – the more eager my father was to talk about his past, especially his childhood in Warsaw, where he was born into a Hasidic family in 1908 and lived until he went to New York with him his mother and sister when he was 12 years old. His father died of tuberculosis when he was very young. He described the apartment he lived in, the neighborhood, his grandparents and his mother's many siblings in such detail that I felt like he was recreating the world of his childhood and inviting me. The stories he told became a world where we lived together. He introduced me to the people he knew there and the child he was.
One of his stories was about his mother's sister, Eva, who left Warsaw when she was 5 years old. He remembered a time when he was climbing a freestanding closet: "I must have been 4 years old," he said. “Eva was sitting at the table there and I wanted her to take note of this great thing I had done and climb on that closet, so I made a noise and she looked up and saw me and started screaming, 'Go down from there! “She made me cry. I expected to be praised! "
My dad is 87 when he tells me this story, but when he talks to me about his childhood, he's timeless. He becomes the little boy in his story and then laughs at how the little boy saw the world – at the humor he can see now. As he laughs, he shrugs his shoulders and frowns disarmingly. I see in this gesture the affection he feels for his child, along with the indulgence of an adult who knows better.
After my mother died when my father was 95 years old, I would often visit him in the assisted living apartment that he had moved into. We could talk all day and often did, although sometimes he fell asleep and sometimes sang instead. Although by then I knew the stories of his childhood, I often heard new details or asked new questions or reminded him of details that he had forgotten.
One day, after one of our conversations, he said, "I'm going to take some wonderful memories with me."
I said, "You're going to leave some here with me too."