About two years ago, my father started writing a memoir. Being an action-oriented man, it’s a straightforward autobiography, filled with dates, locations and people, laid out in a chronological order. Memories of the significant events that shaped his life.
My father isn’t a reflective sort of person, so there aren’t many philosophical insights or fanciful observations to be found there. It’s a simple telling of his path in this world, from his first memories as a 3-year-old on the last evacuation train out of Kiev, bombed by the Nazi planes, through his hungry, wartime childhood, premature adulthood in the absence of father (who was sent to a work camp, after returning from war), army service in Kamchatka, life as a penniless engineering student, work as a geologist in Russia’s far north, then as a coal miner in Ukraine, his marriage and his first son, divorce, settling in Ekaterinburg and work in Ural’s gold mines, short second marriage, third marriage and second son, work as renovation worker during the last years of Perestroika and finally immigration to Israel, and work as a serviceman in a school in Haifa.
He has always been a man of duty. He alone, out of three brothers, took care of his ailing father during his last years of life. He never really had friends or let alone drinking buddies – a family has been the center of his life. I remember him spending his vacations renovating our flat. During our last summer in the USSR, while me and my mother visited relatives near Moscow, he laid out new parquet floors in our flat. A flat which we soon left and passed to his first son, after moving to Israel. After my grandmother (my mother’s mother) has passed away, he has been tending her grave, every six months or so catching a bus to Haifa’s Neve David graveyard, with a bag of gardening tools on his shoulder, and his usual focus on a job that needs to be done.
At the same time, he was far from being a meek family man, or a clock puncher at the same desktop job for years. He had a license to work with explosives, and during oil exploration expeditions he often used this skill. He also has a diver’s license. One of his biggest regrets in life is that he wasn’t allowed to a take up paratrooper training in the army because of his short-sightedness. He was never afraid of change. He changed jobs, professions, cities, countries and wives. Never choosing comfort over change, he wasn’t afraid of leaving everything and starting fresh.
And did they get you to trade
Cold comfort for change?
And did you exchange
A walk on part in the war
For a leading role in a cage?
Here is a man who was never in a cage. Can such a man’s life be called ordinary, conventional? Hardly. And yet, no one will read his memoirs.
Not unique to him, this is a destiny shared by all people, whose lives didn’t have a cultural significance.
No one will get to know his wins and his losses. No one will traverse his life story with a lasting interest and attention. No one will be deeply touched by it.
No one, except maybe just one person in the whole world.
I’m a completely different person from my father – with a different internal structure, different aspirations and different values. And yet, by being present in my life for all these years, he influenced me in multiple different ways.
His parenting skills were mediocre at best. His idea of influence was through lecturing and moralizing. And his abilities as a patient educator were non-existent. If not for the harmonizing effect of my mother, I would probably grow up hating him. And yet, by being who he is – an honest and straightforward person, reliable and loving (if not sensitive) family man, enthusiastic craftsperson and optimistic soul, he deeply influenced my sense of the world, as a place where ideals matter, moral behaviour has a concrete reality and objective truth exists.
So why will I read his memoir? Out of duty? No. I will read it because I love him, and because his story has a direct relevance to my life. Because it allows me to trace the source of things that shaped the person, whose presence shaped my childhood and affected my personality. His footmarks in this world may not have cultural permanence, but they have permanence in my being.
But also because a good book deserves a reader. And a good story deserves a listener. And a worthwhile life deserves a witness.
Not every father deserves his life to be remembered by his children. But some do. People of my generation tend to view critically any hint of expectation parents may have towards children. After all, children come into this world without anyone asking their opinion in the matter, and tending to their needs is parents’ obligation, not a favor that needs to be returned. So do parents have any right to expect anything from their children? Well in my case, it’s not for the gift of life that I’m thankful for. Rather for the gift of love. In the great lottery of life, it’s extremely lucky to draw loving, mature people for parents, who love life, and carve a special place in it for you.
My father is a man of self-confidence and little doubt. He is one of those people who value their own opinion more than anyone else’s. But even he is secretly insecure and easy to hurt. People are that way. Especially when they get older.
So if it is upon me to witness his life, so be it. I’ll read his memoir. I’ll take care of his legacy. After all, I don’t think it’s such a heavy burden to carry.
Do I want my son to do the same for me? I hope I’ll deserve it.