Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Thank You, Abba

On the morning of my father's funeral, my mother approached me to ask whether I would like to say some words at the ceremony. I was caught off guard: previous Jewish funerals I have been to did not include speeches, so I never even considered the option to exist. Now there was hardly enough time for me to cook something worth serving. Besides, the stuff I could come up with proved way too personal and thus unsuitable, given the crowd of mostly unfamiliar people.
I thought my blog was a much better place for what I had to say.

I have a son whom I dearly love, probably more than anything else in the world. Yet with all of the effort I have been making towards becoming a good father, I still keep hearing him telling me he doesn't love me, he doesn't enjoy doing things with me, he never enjoys spending time with me, and other gems of appreciation. I hear it on an almost daily basis.
It is easy for me to love my son, but it is hard to persevere when I have to listen to those words as they come despite all of the efforts and all of the sacrifices I have been making. I have to remind myself that I was no better than my son. I, too, failed to appreciate what my father had done for me till decades later. Only when I became a father myself did I realise the full extent of his efforts. Only now can I see how his actions have helped to shape me into the person I am today.

Nowadays I am familiar to many as the gadget person, the computer man, the guy that knows everything about every gadget that's out there. One of my first ever big time gadgets was my Atari 2600, the games console that started it out for video gaming at home. I had one; you see, my father bought me one. But he bought me more than that: at an age where game cartridges were prohibitively expensive and hard to get, I had the distinct pleasure of owning the largest number of Atari games in my group of friends. [The exception were friends who owned pirate cartridges; and yes, the irony does not escape me.]
Clearly, my father recognised his son's love for computers. A couple of years later, when the Atari's light faded and the very first personal computers came out, it became clear that one such computer has to be acquired for the benefit of this child. But which?
Those were the pre Internet days; my father and I had to do our research the hard way, by collecting information from books and magazines and by visiting shops. We've been to the lot during those months: we investigated the Apple II, the Commodores (both the VIC 20 and the 64), the Radio Shack TRS-80, the Texas Instrument (I forgot the model's name), the Atari 400 and 800, the Sinclair (ZX-81 and Spectrum), the BBC, the Lynx, the Amstrad, and probably a few more. We were often just on the verge of buying one but then didn't. In retrospect, our time together, running these investigations and haggling over prices, was probably the best quality time I have ever had with my father.
Eventually we chose a model my father could afford, the Dragon 32. Other than price, the main reason for this particular and seemingly eccentric choice was the advanced version of the then new Microsoft Basic that came built in. It made the Dragon the ideal partner to learn programming with. And program it I did, quite a lot, if only because the Dragon lacked the games that the then dominant Commodore 64 had so many of. I did lots of Basic programming, and I even taught myself to program in Assembler for the Motorola 6809 CPU that the Dragon used to have.
My father had a dominant role in turning me into the computer Inspector Gadget I am today.

Computers were not my only love. As a child, I loved reading; I was probably the only member of my family that did. Science fiction was my first love at the time, but as every native Hebrew speaker in love with the genre would know, there is that much science fiction to be read in Hebrew.
Thus, at around the age of 12, I asked my father for a special gift. I asked him to get me my very first proper book in English. I could not think of any particular title, so I asked him to get me the book of the film that revolutionised this child's life: The Empire Strikes Back.
My father was working and residing in Manhattan's midtown at the time. I remember his account: he went looking for the book here and there but could not find it. Book sellers kept telling him to try this speciality book shop at the World Trade Center (aka the Twin Towers). One day, after work, he made his way there on foot, after which he called - an international call, a rare and expensive achievement those days - to inform me of the acquisition.
The Empire Strikes Back turned out to be a lesser book than I expected. However, it also turned out to be my first proper English book read. I remembered how I struggled reading through a book where I failed to understand a word per sentence on a good run and much more on most runs. But I persevered. Nowadays, virtually all of my reading is in English. I read a lot, too. I live at an English speaking country, I speak English in my household, and I make my living reading and writing in English. But it was my father who helped me with that initial push that made all the rest possible.

Support for my reading did not end there. During my earlier years my father and I established this ritual: every year we would go on our pilgrimage to Tel Aviv's yearly Book Week sales festival. The agenda was well known to the both of us: I would ask my father to buy me every second book that I would see; my father's job was to agree to buy me only those for which my pleas were convincing enough.
We did well, the two of us. On an average Book Week expedition I would end up with around 10 books. Not bad for a one average income family; there could be no doubt I was spoiled.
However, the real fun came later, when the support for my reading habits got a boost. There came the stage when my father would no longer settle for me dragging him about and telling him which books I want; he would make his own recommendations, based on what he read. And it's not like we shared common tastes in reading, but for me he would venture into the realm of science fiction. I got to read some nice books due to my father's recommendations, some - like Roger Zelazny and Fred Saberhagen's Coils - proved to have a lasting effect.

It wasn't all rosy. That average single income I was telling you about meant that often my father was unable to satisfy my whims.
Take driving, for example. Even though I wasn't excited about the prospect of learning to drive myself, my father arranged for me to have lessons and paid for them all. And you know what? I loved it. I probably loved it way too much for my own good (reminder: public roads are not racing circuits).
Problem is, while I was probably the first amongst my group of friends to get their drivers licence, I was also the only one I knew who did not have a car waiting for them to drive.
I remember my frustrations. I remember being annoyed at my parents. I remember trying to satisfy myself by buying a small RC car (probably the closest I will ever get to a Porsche 911). But I also remember not really being able to complain much when my father was driving his old Volkswagen Beetle, and very frugally so. He managed to get exactly 30 years out of that car.
I could never accuse my father of withholding me for his own selfish sake.

How could I complain, really? When the time came for me to study in university, there were no questions about it: my parents supported me all the way. Specifically, my father paid all my university fees (note that although they seemed high at the time, they were significantly lower than the fees charged in Australia, either before of after the Liberals' proposed budget of evil). This allowed me to both focus on my studies, which I found generally quite hard, as well as to spend the money I did earn on the simpler pleasures of life. At the time, and in contrast to the majority expectation of spending money on booze and girls, these came in the shape of hi fi gear, CDs and laserdiscs.
Was I selfish? Sure. But those expenses allowed me to survive through several years devoted almost in their entirety to studying hard.

My father's support did not end there. It continued long after I started working properly for myself, earning much more than he ever did and enjoying perks like company cars.
He fully supported my decision to move to Australia. When other family members were urging me to come back to Israel, he would repeatedly tell me to ignore them and remind me that I have made a wise move ("עשית בשכל"). And it wasn't just morale support that my father was providing: he was the one that took care of all the loose ends I left behind in Israel. Over the first few years following my departure, he collected all the money I had here and there - pension funds, the works. That money later became the money that allowed us to pay for the deposit on the house that we are now living in.

I do not know if my son will ever look back to appreciate all the hard work I have been doing for him. Frankly, I do not think it matters; I do not do what I do in order to gain appreciation, I do it because I love him and because I want him to be a good person. I do, however, try to learn from the mistakes of the past: even though there is much room for improvement, I do spend much more time with my son than my father did with me.
There is always this catch, though: given that my son and I tend to do things that I like doing, simply because I am the one in the position to dictate what we are doing in the first place, I am worried about pushing my son too far towards where I feel safe rather than where he does. In this regard, my own father provides much inspiration.
As anyone who ever stood in a queue together with him would know, my father was no saint. But when it came to supporting me into becoming the person I want to be, the person I am today, there was no one who stood by my side as long and as loyally as my father. And for that, I want to say thanks.

Image by Jake Brewer, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence


Sarah said...

What a beautiful heartfelt tribute.

Moshe Reuveni said...

Thanks for the compliment!