A lifetime of waiting for my father to be proud
“What’s a six-letter word for arm bone?” I asked my dad.
“Radius,” he mumbled, finishing breakfast as I fill in the tiny boxes.
“That’s cheating,” said my oldest brother Brian, who’d been pre-med since second grade.
“I’m not competing with anyone,” I protested. “As an English major, I’ll need to learn new terms...”
“Study law,” Dad cut me off. “We could use a lawyer in the family.”
Higher education had been my father’s getaway. A poor street kid from New York’s Lower East Side, which he called “a dirty, terrible place,” he proposed to Mom by saying, “Got into medical school in the Midwest. Ya coming or not?” Supporting his wife and kids as a physician was his American dream. In Shapiro lore, achievement was redemption. But only his kind of achievement.
Growing up, I felt switched at birth, longing to be a literary New Yorker. Luckily my parents’ bagels, bialys and newspaper rituals continued in Michigan. Each morning in our airy pastel kitchen, I bypassed their Detroit Jewish News to grab The Wall Street Journal and New York Times , getting hooked on crosswords.
“Who was the first surgeon?” I asked Dad.
“Try Sushruta,” jumped in Eric, an engineer and technology ace.
“1200 to 600 B.C. I believe,” added Mike, a history and geography buff.
At meals, they preferred “The Disease Game,” with Dad calling out symptoms his three sons diagnosed, leaving me out. Memorizing sonnets and Bob Dylan lyrics, I’d myopically missed half the world: sports, math, medicine. Asking for clues was a way to fill in my blanks — and connect without arguing.
After U of M (which Dad called “the People’s Republic of Ann Arbor”) and a creative writing degree from NYU, his alma mater, I stayed in New York, collecting rejections. He hated anything I wrote mentioning him, our family or therapy, where I tried to quit the cigarettes, pot and alcohol I used to quell anxiety. “I’ll still pay for law or med school,” was his refrain.
Luckily, he and my mother, a party planner, were charmed by my scriptwriter fiancé who filled in the comedy and TV trivia I’d lacked. They flew to their former city for our wedding when I was 35. But instead of “Mazel tov,” Dad said “Hallelujah.” My parents came to the SoHo party for the debut memoir I finally launched at 43. Yet they huddled with our staid New Jersey relatives who asked in Yiddish, “How are you holding up?” as if they were sitting shiva.
My brothers took normal jobs, wed, and brought home grandchildren. Dad liked when I hosted my nieces and nephews in the big city though he was disappointed I stayed, making books not babies.
Over the years, I flew back each August for his birthday. During one trip I found their Times puzzle finished. What elf had trespassed on my turf?
“Your Dad and I do it every day now,” Mom said.
That Sunday, I went out to get my own paper, sitting down in the kitchen with my puzzle and pen. Dad walked in holding his magazine, turning to the last page. Noticing mine, he yelled, “Don’t waste money when we subscribe!”
“Chill out. You two already finished the puzzle,” I explained. “Don’t worry, I won’t go broke. I’ll write it off as a business expense.”
“If you call running naked through the streets business,” Dad mumbled.
I didn’t tell him he’d inspired the adage I shared with my students: “The first piece you write that your family hates means you’ve found your voice.”
“I have a double career freelancing and teaching,” I defended myself.
“Finally, a real job,” he teased.
“He’s always proud of me for the wrong thing,” I’d complained to my shrink. “For being a part-time professor and a nice aunt to his grandkids.”
“Just be happy he’s proud of you for something,” my shrink had replied.
Dad led me to a new mini-printer in my brother Mike’s now-empty room and made me a copy. In the decades since I’d left, my parents had taken to xeroxing the puzzle daily, doing it separately, then conferring on clues until they jointly finished. This rite began after Dad left his busy hospital job, Mom retired from her party company, and their kids went to college. Even then, I felt like an eternal outsider. When it came to pleasing my father, I remained clueless.
Meanwhile, as I struggled to stay sober, smoke-free and make a living, magical thinking weaved into my crossing words ritual. On Sundays, I decided, if I solved the entire puzzle myself, wishes would come true. I’d write down my desires on the page’s bottom to lock it in: I’d get the new teaching job (Nailed it.) My new small press book would win a Pulitzer. (Not quite.) Dad’s heart surgery at 70 would save him. (Miraculously, it did.)
Since Manhattanites got the Sunday magazine on Saturday morning, I subscribed. Mom would call to see if it was a figure-out-able theme. My brother Mike, now a Chicago cardiologist, got into the act, emailing me: “Easy puzzle or hard?” A Shapiro smoke signal was sent around the country, masking other disconnections. Dad, a fellow night-owl, was up for clue consultations at midnight. It was easier to ask for the synonym for patella than why nothing I did ever pleased him.
“We used to get the Times on Saturday night with bialys, before you were even a twinkle in our eye,” he recalled. I melted when he praised a war survivor’s book I’d co-authored. Then I realized he was just relieved it was about someone else’s family, not ours.
Visiting him in his own hospital when his heart was failing at 85, I was surprised when his physician stopped me in the hallway. “Your father said you’re a prolific author and professor who could help me publish my project.”
Later I asked Dad, “You told your doctor about me?”
“Yes. I told him you stuck to your guns and became a big success.” He added, “I love showing off about you.”
Suddenly all was forgiven, his six words worth waiting half a century for.
Delirious on meds, Dad recited Poe’s The Raven to the nurses, my brother later told me. I recalled he was the first to teach me poetry, reciting Yeats in lieu of lullabies. Once, drunk on White Russians at a relative’s wedding, he whispered, “You’re doing what I was afraid to.” Despite disliking my city and creative ambitions, he’d covered my tuition for subjects he loathed so I’d find fulfilling work without being broke in his old city like he’d been. My life and career were made possible because of him.
Bereft after his funeral in Michigan three years ago, Mom handed me the Sunday magazine turned to the puzzle.
“Are you using the copy?” I said, recalling their system.
“I’m not into it anymore,” she said, adrift without her partner of 64 years.
During the pandemic I called her twice daily, sharing small talk. Last Sunday I admitted, “I can’t even figure out the trick to the darn puzzle.”
“Oh, it’s this weird word play, switching W’s and R’s,” she jumped in. “But it’s not the same without him.”
“Nothing is,” I agreed. “I need Dad for the 5-letter hip bone.”
As if summoning him back to help us, she said, “Try Iliac ,” which fit.
Susan Shapiro, a Manhattan writing professor, is the bestselling author of several books her family hates, including “Unhooked,” “The Byline Bible” and “ The Forgiveness Tour .” Follow her on Instagram