Reading the newspaper recently about the latest Trumpism, I had the urge to call my father, a longtime Republican, to talk about it. The only problem is that my dad died 35 years ago.
Moments like this keep the wound of loss fresh. What makes it worse is that my father died in September, so the anniversary usually coincides with the High Holidays, a time when I’m already balancing my ambivalence about religion with my desire to hear the Kol Nidre.
This ongoing hurt is a constant surprise because my dad wasn’t the ideal father. Even before my parents separated, when I was 5, he wasn’t home a lot. In fact, I asked my mother if he was in the Army, because I saw him so rarely.
He’d worked his way through school to become an accountant and then worked as a CPA to become a lawyer—and money was all he seemed to know.
As a teenager, I once confronted him. “Love isn’t only about paying for things,” I zapped. “It’s about spending time together and sharing experiences.” Maybe I pained him, but he didn’t understand. He showed he cared the only way he could — by funding the ballet and piano lessons I wanted, and then NYU, rather than insisting I go to a less expensive public university.
I didn’t try to understand him then. Growing up, waiting endlessly for him on Sundays, there was no warm connection.
Our conversations were awkward. I always felt trapped, needing some big “news” to make him proud of me. He never told me he was. I did look forward to our conversations about politics, though. He was rigidly Republican, and I could measure my position by how distant it would be from his.
And at least when we talked politics we had something to say to each other. Republican or not, he must have respected Franklin Roosevelt, because I dimly recall him taking me to Hyde Park some years after the president died. But as a professional with his own small business, my dad had no patience for unions or other supporters of the Democratic platforms.
He was a Barry Goldwater backer, which I found absurd. When the 1964 Republican nominee for president said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice,” that was enough to disqualify him in my eyes.
My dad’s sudden fatal heart attack when he was 74 crushed me with a power that astonished. My world turned to ashes. Nothing seemed to matter.
Going through his mahogany dresser, I was intrigued to find he’d saved just about every gift I ever gave him: a Tiffany gold tie clip, a powder blue cashmere sweater neatly wrapped in tissue paper, several scarves.
In every drawer, I was startled to find mementos of me—photos and clips of my published articles and appearances, and the short newspaper report of my appointment as WINS-AM theater critic. There was also a tiny rolled parchment document, tied with a ribbon. It was the “diploma” I gave him when I was in kindergarten, the one saying he was a good father.
Then I remembered how he’d taught me to move the chess pieces when I was a child, how to balance my checkbook, and how to track stocks in the newspaper. How he’d traveled to wherever I performed, whether on Broadway, or in Boston, Canada or Mexico.
I had to lose my father to realize that he loved me.
I also found a copy of Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon on the table next to his bed. The book’s pages were worn, the spine broken. Theodore White’s devastating account of the president who believed he was above the law had no doubt shaken my father deeply.
We faced off about Ronald Reagan’s supply-side economics, but my father died before Reagan’s controversial visit to the German military cemetery in Bitburg, and I can’t believe he’d have defended it.
In retrospect, I think he liked the arguments. Liked to see me get excited and try to persuade him. In his business dealings, he was nothing like the extreme Republicans he defended. I found out at his funeral that he’d vouched for countless clients who wouldn’t have been able to get loans without his backing. And, almost unheard of in his generation, he brought a woman in as his law partner.
I think Nixon broke my father’s heart and shredded his relationship with the Republican party. I imagine him recoiling at the latest Donald Trump outrage.
I wonder, though, if he would have pretended otherwise to me, in order to continue our conversations on the one subject that fascinated both of us — politics. I imagine him trying to rationalize Trump’s nasty, racist, or misogynistic statements, and I can’t help laughing. He would, of course, point out Hillary’s faults, but I’d like to think that I’d win that argument and that my father would vote for the qualified, if flawed, woman and not for the childish, dangerous bully.