Saturday, September 15, 2007

My Embarrassing Father

There were so many things my father did that embarrassed me. Wherever he went, he talked to everyone. Sometimes the comments were chatty and engaging, sometimes angry, sometimes tactless—but always in his foghorn of a voice, mortifyingly loud. At his worst, he could be a lunatic. I remember once another driver cut him off in traffic. He took off in hot pursuit, swearing he would corner the offender and give him a piece of his mind. Only the tearful pleas of his children in the back seat persuaded him to abandon the chase.

Another time at a hotel pool in Key West, he struck up a conversation with a young German couple. They were from Heidelberg, it turned out, a place my father had recently revisited, three decades after the war. He shared with the German tourists his dismay at finding so many of the beautiful parks no longer there, ceded to developers. "Hell," he said, "We might as well have bombed the place!" I was so appalled overhearing this that I pretended I didn't know him. Amazingly, though, the Germans did not seem to mind. In fact, they warmed to Dad, and the three chatted away all afternoon.

I couldn't imagine how he'd gotten away with it. Again. Even when Dad was rebuffed, though, it never stopped him. Talking to strangers is what he did. He also brought them home now and again. I have an excruciating memory of a New Year's Eve when I was 16. We were living in Germany and had gone to Vienna for the holiday. It was snowing, I was already sulking at having to spend the occasion with my parents, and the evening's entertainment, a trip to the opera, had not improved my mood. During the taxi ride back to the hotel, Dad got into a conversation with the driver, a hulking Austrian whose most prominent feature was a menacing scar along one side of his face.

The man fascinated Dad, and at the end of the ride he invited him to join us at our hotel. As always when we traveled, there was a bottle of something in the room. And, conveniently, there were three chairs arranged around a table in the corner. My parents and the driver settled down to talk. As the snow muffled the sounds of revelers outside, Gem├╝tlichkeit suffused the room. This German word, beloved of my father, has no exact English translation but means something like coziness and fellow feeling.

They all had a great time. I was beyond aggravated. This was New Year's Eve and I was spending it with not only my parents but also some stranger (the taxi driver!) my dad had randomly recruited from the street. I did my best to tune out the conversation, scribbling angrily in my journal and trying not to listen.

When I think back on that night, I recognize that something significant took place in our snug hotel room – though at the time I was too much the callow adolescent to let myself feel it. Sitting at the table, Dad and the taxi driver began to open up about their experiences as young soldiers. They had been enemy combatants once, on opposite sides of the same war. Now, as the bottle emptied and midnight neared, they raised their glasses in toast after toast. All were variations on a single theme: zum Frieden; to peace. This was way too heartfelt for me—and it never would have happened without my father's keenness to engage with everybody he met. So now, many years later, I would belatedly like to join in the toast: "Happy Father's Day, Dad. Here's to peace."

1 comment:

Jane Banks said...

I remember that New Year's Eve in Vienna. I had already been put to bed, but there was no sleeping through the bourbon-fueled Gemutlichkeit. On that same trip, Dad befriended a musician in a restaurant. He played that most Austrian of instruments, the zither (think of the music in The Thin Man). I was embarrassed by Dad's overly effusive praise, but it got a serenade just for me.