On his 75th birthday my father walked into the kitchen freshly shaved and dressed in a pair of tan gabardine slacks and a white dress shirt open at the neck. After taking his usual place at the breakfast table and pouring himself a cup of coffee, he said to my mother, "After breakfast I'm going out to buy a new suit."
"You have a suit," she said.
"I'd like to get a new one."
Mom put a hot pad on the table and set a casserole dish on top of it.
"I just want a new suit." He looked at me. My father's face was long and lean, but the years had softened his chin and loosened the flesh at the top of his neck. His blue eyes were bright. He raised his eyebrows as though inviting me to make a comment.
Mom took her seat and looked at Dad as he sipped his coffee. "Are you all right?" "You mean because I want to buy a new suit? Does that have to be a symptom of something?"
Mom shrugged. "Maybe."
This was a recurring form of conversation. I stopped at their house for breakfast once a week and had heard similar squabbles before, though the suit was a fresh topic.
Years ago, these breakfasts doubled as business meetings with my father, allowing us to discuss matters that were difficult to deal with in the pressured environment of the office or on the plant floor. On those days my father and I drove to work together. Since he retired, the meetings no longer took place, but the breakfasts continued. My mother enjoyed them and I'm pretty sure my father did as well, although it would not be his way to make a fuss about it. Sara, my wife, said our home routines ran better with me out of the way which was her means of saying that it was fine with her that I spent a morning each week at my parents' breakfast table.
"I need you to take me to Wallinger's," Dad said to me.
"You're not driving?"
He made a face. "Not this week." He tapped his glasses.
"What does that mean?" I said, mimicking his gesture.
"I need them adjusted. Can you take me?"
"Sure," I said. "Saturday."
He shook his head. "Saturday is okay, but I want to take your mother out tonight to a nice restaurant for my birthday, maybe Landauer's. We can go after breakfast."
"Dad, I have to get to work."
"It's my birthday."
"Your birthday isn't a holiday."
"Sam," my mother said softly, cautioning my father, but he didn't take his eyes from me.
"An hour won't kill me," I said.
"It's just a new suit," my father said as we drove to Wallinger's Department Store.
I didn't say anything. He was just warming up. In his own time, he would take the conversation where he wanted it to go and it would not be about his new suit.
"I'm fine." He slapped his flat belly. "Fit as a fiddle. Your mother worries too much."
"Well, that's your fault. If you'd be more open with her, she wouldn't have to
be a detective."
I kept my eyes on the road and waited. Traffic was heavy. We moved slowly along Lowell Street. My father looked at the empty storefronts, his head shaking slowly.
"Over there," he said, pointing across the street. "You remember? That's where Zimmerman had his store. We built that fancy office in back for him."
A strip mall anchored by a drug store stood now on the corner of Lowell and Harding.
"He sure took his time paying us."
Traffic thinned and we moved a little faster.
"Business is good?" he said.
"Business is fine, Dad."
"You like what you're doing?"
: It was just a simple question, asked in a casual way, my father's eyes still watching the passing scene. But he had never asked before, and my father never made idle conversation or got distracted from the point. He might be asking because he wanted to know, but why choose to ask that question now?
Maybe this was where we were going. Wallinger's was a side trip.
"What else would I want to do?" I said.
"That's no answer."
"You know I like what I do."
There was a pause before my father replied. "No, I didn't know that," he said mildly. "I don't think we've ever talked about it." Another pause. "I wonder if I believe you."
Believe me? He was right. We had never spoken about this before. I tried to remember something I might have said lately that would provoke such a comment. I was tempted to ask why he was questioning me now about the business, but thought better of it. Anyway, if this was his intent for this discussion I would not be able to deflect him.
His next comment only added to my uncertainty. "You're my son," he said. Perhaps I read too much into those few words, but his tone suggested he expected me to understand what he was telling me and this was his explanation for our awkward conversation.
I often gave titles to conversations with my father. My mother had started it. "We had the 'We Have to Be Careful About Household Expenses' talk last week" she might remind him or she might ask me, '"Did you have the 'Don't Leave Your Bike in the Driveway' talk with your dad?"
Eventually, I realized my mother used this game to distance herself from my father's intensity. The gently mocking titles shielded her. My father's version of a conversation usually involved speeches or short lectures rather than the give and take of a normal discussion. To his credit, when my mother or I spoke, he gave us all his attention. But talking with him often had the feel of a formal debate with each party setting out their case, then listening attentively to an opponent's rebuttal.
The practice of naming conversations stuck with me as a habit that probably served the same purposes for me that it had for my mother.
My father dismissed our titles as nonsense, usually with a trace of good humor, but occasionally his face would darken and he would make a sharp comment. On such occasions, I was pretty sure he apologized to my mother later, but he did not apologize to me.
I could tell that the formality of our discussions allowed my father to control the depth and emotional content. He expressed his love for us readily and he did not hide his anger, but beyond that he had little patience for any talk about how anyone felt. I gave it little thought. Even looking back as an adult, I doubted my friends had been having conversations of any depth with their fathers either.
This current discussion was tentatively labeled, "The New Suit," but that might change. Once we arrived at the real subject I could change the name.
I now owned my father's small manufacturing plant where we made cabinets, tables and chairs, and built-in furniture for professional and executive offices. We had 40 employees and were set up to do everything from rough carpentry to the polished finishes that completed the job. My father had started the business 55 years before.
When he was 60 he turned the entire business over to me, although I had been the plant manager for a dozen years before that. My dad had stepped back from the business in a way that I never thought would be possible. He simply walked out one day, saying that was it. And he meant it.
He surprised me. For most of 40 years, except for the days of our meetings, he got up before sunrise, ate breakfast at the diner down the street with his cronies, and was in the shop by seven a.m., six days a week, and home by noon on Saturday. I could not imagine him giving that up.
"It's a business," he had said, "not a life."
"Have you talked to your brother lately?"
"Not lately." I glanced at my father. "Why?" He'd surprised me again.
"Just wondering if you talked to him."
"He's a busy doctor."
"You're too busy to call each other?"
"I could call more. I should."
"He could pick up the phone once in awhile too."
I don't know if he planned it that way, but he was quiet for a few minutes giving me time to think.
"I always loved the wood," my father said.
I felt my face relax into a smile. "Yesterday, they were building a large desk and credenza using cocobolo hardwood and I could smell the flowers all the way up in my office."
"That's a fancy desk."
"I have four men working on it."
Our easy conversation about the wood and a routine job at the shop were pleasurable, but I felt anxiety build as I waited to see if he was going to ask more about the business side of things.
I had always worked in the business, even when I was in high school, and I liked it well enough in the beginning, but I never knew to what extent that was my motivation or, as the youngest son, it was my duty to keep alive the business that my father had started.
We used a lot of cherry, maple, and walnut in our manufacturing, but we also custom built single pieces of furniture from exotic woods such as East Indian rosewood and mahogany from Honduras. We bought our exotic wood from an online broker now, but when I first started with my father, we made several buying trips a year to Central America or South Asia.
My father may have been eager to put the business behind him, but when he retired he built a workshop behind the house where he made chairs and tables and other small pieces that he sold to art galleries in Chicago and Minneapolis. He also made knife handles from Australian myrtle and pool cues from amboynas burl from Myanmar and Laos.
My father did not have to ask about whether I enjoyed working with wood. But he had never asked and I had never said anything about the business. I didn't want to think about what degree of betrayal my father might have felt if I told him I did not like the business end of it.
"I've been thinking about Grandpa Yudel lately. Do you remember much about him?"
I figured this might be my father's introduction to the real reason for our shopping trip.
"He died when I was pretty young, but I remember all those stories about being in the Czar's army. It must have been during the Russian-Japanese war."
"Yes, 1904 or 1905, something like that."
"He said he just walked out of the barracks one night and eventually made his way to Canada."
"That took a lot of courage," my father said.
"Or desperation." As soon as I said that, I sensed my father's disappointment..
"Grandpa made one big decision," my father said. "He came to America. After that, he just did what he had to do. The rest of his life he played out the consequences of the choice, but coming to this country took courage that has never been required of me. Now and then I wonder if I would have it in me."
For a few minutes my father was silent and I began to wonder if this talk of my grandfather was just a brief side trip after all. Then he said, "I think about grandpa sometimes when I read a book or see a good movie. In the early chapters the characters make choices from an array of opportunities, but the choices narrow and usually fade away and the final scenes of the story don't allow many choices. The consequences of earlier choices play out. That's the way our lives go. You don't get many choices when you're older. I don't think grandpa got any, not ones that counted anyway."
He paused again, lost in thought. Maybe my first impression had been wrong; this could be his valedictory. We might be headed to Wallinger's to pick up his funeral suit after all.
I waited to see where he was going to take these musings, but he must have thought that he was headed too deep into something and chose to lighten the conversation. When he spoke again, he said, "When grandpa got to America he spoke five languages and he could say a few words in a couple more, but none of them was English." He laughed.
My grandfather learned to speak English and taught himself to read at a passable level, but when he died at 93 his English remained heavily accented.
When my father continued, his voice was wistful. "One time when we were living on Coolidge Avenue, Grandpa decided to reseed the front yard. I remember I drove so I must have been at the junior college because the first car in our family was that Auburn sedan I bought.
"For half an hour, maybe longer, Grandpa directed me along twists and turns on the unmarked dirt roads north of town until, finally, we pulled up in the yard of a small farm house set against an ancient apple orchard. It was spring and the gnarled, stunted old trees were half dead with more naked branches than healthy ones, but along the living branches were clouds of pale pink and white blossoms and their smell filled the air. Smells stick in your mind somehow, you know, and, though I had smelled apple blossoms all my life, I remember the smells of that day better than any other.
"A tall thin man came out of the house, looking at us cautiously, but his expression softened when grandpa and I got out of the car and he saw who it was. I can't say that I remember him as man who smiled or offered any expression when he greeted us, but it was a long time ago and I have to make allowances for that. He and grandpa shook hands. I heard him say "Yudel."
"The man shook my hand, too. I hadn't noticed till I clasped his hand, but that fellow was missing the thumb on his right hand. I could feel some sort of rough stump there. Later I realized that if I had pushed my hand forward to shake with a little muscle behind it like I learned to do when I was older, my hand probably would have slid right up that man's arm with no thumb there to catch hold of my hand." My father looked at me and chuckled. "What do you think of that?"
"The man gave Grandpa a bag of seeds. Their short conversation was in a language that I didn't recognize. When we were back in the car, Grandpa told me they were speaking Polish. Grandpa said the man was an old friend and that they had done each other favors over the years.
"Even at the time, but more so later on--in fact, I still think about it--I played in my mind with the fact that I hadn't known Grandpa spoke Polish, I hadn't known that he had a friend out in the woods who raised apples and grass seed and tended dying trees on the edge of the forest. I certainly hadn't given any thought to the idea that he might have had a life filled with people that I never saw or heard about."
My father shifted his weight in the seat next to me and I could tell he was looking at me. "That's the way of passing generations, don't you think? It's probably the same with you and me," he said.
We were stopped at a red light. I glanced at him.
This was another possibility; the topic now was "Sons Never Understand Their Fathers." What did my father have to feel misunderstood about? But that was the point, wasn't it? If it was true, I wouldn't be aware of it.
I knew that people expect to be understood and count on others to react to them in a way that reflects that understanding. They are often are hurt when that awareness is absent. "I know you pretty well, Dad."
He settled back and turned his eyes to the road. I heard him sigh.
"Sure you do," he said. "Of course."
But my father was right. I didn't even know what we doing in the car together.
"Did you know that Grandpa never drove a car?"
"I did," I said.
I heard a note of satisfaction in my father's voice when he then asked, "Do you have any idea how he knew the directions to that farm on those unmarked roads then?"
I thought about it for a moment and considered the possibility that he had learned the route riding with others, but that answer would not be worthy of my father's question and certainly not the sound of triumph that accompanied it.
"You're going to have to tell me," I said.
"You could make a few guesses," my father said.
I laughed. "Oh, no, you'd like that too much," I said.
I glanced at my father and saw him smile.
"That's a fact," he said. "He knew those roads because he had walked them dozens of times when he first came to this country. That's probably how he knew the apple farmer. Hell, that's probably why he knew everybody,"
"Your grandfather earned a living as a peddler when he first came to this country. He loaded a backpack with kitchen utensils, cloth, sewing supplies, and a few pretty doodads that might appeal to the younger women on his route, and walked 20 miles a day knocking on farm house doors. Many times he would sleep on the ground at night."
"Yeah, I remember we told each other crazy stories about the military. I came home from boot camp and told him about ten mile runs with a 60 pound pack on our backs. He laughed and said that in the Russian army, they went out in the morning with empty packs, came back to the barracks at night with them full of chickens they'd stolen."
My father laughed and I felt some easing of the tension inside me.
Then, in a later chapter of his life, after my father and his brother and sister were born, Grandpa worked as a lumber grader at a sawmill. Worked there the rest of his life. Occasionally, loggers delivered walnut and even apple wood. Here my grandfather, and then my father, learned about wood and learned to enjoy working with it and took that interest and turned it into our family business.
Later, my father realized the future of a specialty furniture business demanded that he relocate to a larger city, but my grandfather and grandmother stayed in Ironwood when my father moved the business and our small family south.
"Park around back," my father said as we approached Wallinger's Department Store. "We can go right into the men's department."
It was early. The parking lot was nearly empty. I pulled up beside the building.
"Come in with me," my father said. "I'll buy you a new tie for my birthday."
"I don't need a tie," I said. I wore jeans and a denim shirt at work. I put on a sport coat and tie maybe a half dozen times a year. "Are you afraid I'll drive away while you're in there?"
My father smiled. "You never know," he said.
I got out and locked the car, then followed my father into the store. In the suit department he was greeted by name by one of the salesmen.
"I'll get your suit," the salesman said.
"I thought you were here to buy a new suit," I said.
He shrugged as if to suggest his small lie was unimportant. "I bought the suit last week. It had to be tailored. I'm just picking it up today."
"Are we ever going to get to the point of all this?" I asked.
My father looked at me for a long moment. "Maybe you should give our conversation a title to help you understand what we've been talking about"
"I've given it a half dozen titles. I'm not sure which one fits."
"Your grandfather did what he had to do after he came to this country; he had no choice. I had more choices than he did and I think I chose pretty well." He laughed and rubbed his hand over his bald head. "I got out of that damn factory of yours as soon as I could." He looked toward the salesman who was carrying his suit to him in a plastic bag. "I bought a new suit."
The salesman handed Dad his new suit, shook his hand and thanked him and we returned to the car.
"I was on the wrong track," I said. "I thought we were talking about you. You know, the suit, the fact that you're 75 today."
"Maybe you jumped to some conclusions that kept you from listening."
"You're right, but I was listening. I realize this is about me."
"It's about all of us. You have a title now?"
"The talk about making wise choices." I thought for a moment. That wasn't quite right. "Just 'Making Choices,' I think."
My father was silent, but he nodded his head slightly.
I started the engine.
"Do you want to go home?" I asked.
"Sure. You have to go to work don't you?"
I thought about that for a while. "I could sell the business," I said.
"You have something you want to do instead?"
"I've had some thoughts."
"What will Sara say?"
I thought about that for a moment too. "She'll understand." I hesitated for a moment, but then was a little surprised when I found that the words came easily. "I've been a lot more worried about your reaction when I told you."
"I started that business and built it from nothing."
"You want it back?"
He smiled and shook his head. "No, thank you."
My father looked at me for a time, the smile still on his face. He ran his hand over the plastic bag that held his new suit.
I felt good.
"How about that?" my father said.