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Finding My Father

In a new memoir, discovering generations of forgiveness

Susan Shapiro
January 05, 2021
Courtesy the author
The author with her father, 1960sCourtesy the author
Courtesy the author
The author with her father, 1960sCourtesy the author

In my Santa Monica hotel room, I opened the sliding doors to the balcony. Staring at the ocean at 3 a.m., I couldn’t stop thinking of the sad exile saga a friend told me earlier that night, about how his mother had left him in their homeland with his grandparents for six years as a kid, before he joined her in America. I suddenly realized why it stayed with me. I’d heard the story before, in my own family. My Grandfather Harry had a similar immigrant narrative. His mother came to the United States, leaving him behind in Eastern Europe with his grandmother. Harry grew up to be a bitter old man. I’d spent decades outraged at how mean he was to my father.

Curious and lonely, I picked up the landline on the desk, dialing my childhood house in Michigan. Dad, my fellow night owl, picked up. “How old was Grandpa when his mom left him in Russia?” I blurted out.

“He was about 6 when she took off,” Dad said, unsurprised that I’d phoned him at midnight his time with this odd question, as if he’d been waiting all these years for me to ask.

“What really happened with Harry and his mom?” I needed to know.

“Well, Pauline married and had two kids, an infant girl who died, and my father,” Dad said. “In World War I, men were drafted into the Russian army for 20-year stretches. Not wanting to go, her husband cut off two fingers, which a lot of men did. But he bled to death.”

“That’s horrific.” I sat on the wicker chair, half outside, pulling the phone cord.

Typical of my physician dad—who’d dissected calves’ esophagi with my brothers in the kitchen sink before dinner—to share gruesome details. If you caught him in the right mood, he was a great storyteller, with an Isaac B. Singer eye for the dark Jewish twist.

When I was growing up, he was always busy working. During my college and grad school years, he’d hand the telephone to Mom when I called. Since he’d retired, he could get downright chatty. Now was my chance to keep him talking, to excavate the reason for our emotional distance.

“So what did your Grandma Pauline do after she lost her husband and daughter?” I asked.

“She left my father with her mother in Russia to go to New York,” Dad continued in his telling-a-Yiddish-yarn voice. “There she met a man named Shapiro, remarried, and had another kid. But she never told her new husband about her first son. When he learned the truth, he sent money to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to get Harry and his grandmother out of Russia. The pair ended up in Amsterdam, where a rabbi took Harry in and gave him an early bar mitzvah at 12. But then the rabbi fell sick and died.”

Hearing Shapiro family folklore was like a twisted lullaby. “Tell me more,” I begged.

“At Ellis Island, the immigration officer asked Harry’s name. He said ‘Harry Serota,’” Dad said. “They wrote it down as his last name. The word sierota meant ‘orphan’ in Polish. He was mad at his mom for leaving him. I think Harry was making a statement, declaring he had no family. He slept on the subway and streets.”

Was that why my grandpa stayed sour? He’d wanted his son to go into business with him, so they would be partners in Shapiro’s Window Shades on Delancey Street. He was the only Jewish parent in history unhappy when his kid became a doctor.

One Hanukkah, when he was visiting, my brothers and I shopped at the mall for hours to find him a special tape of “My Yiddishe Mama.” Harry sang along with the whole song, then looked at his grandkids and said, “Nu. The other version was better.” When my dad saved his life at his Midwest hospital, Harry growled, “You’re no good. You’re trying to kill me.”

Enraged at the way he’d treated my father, I’d skipped Harry’s funeral. In graduate school in Manhattan at the time, it was my way of making a statement.

“Did Grandpa hate his mother for abandoning him in Poland?” I asked, assuming the resentment stayed with him, making him unpleasant and snarly for the rest of his life.

“It was love/hate,” Dad said. “Harry wound up working for two brothers who taught him carpentry. They liked him and introduced them to their sister Yetta.”

From right, the author's mother,  father, Grandma Yetta, Aunt Shirley, and Grandpa Harry, New York, 1954
From right, the author’s mother, father, Grandma Yetta, Aunt Shirley, and Grandpa Harry, New York, 1954Courtesy the author

“Grandma Yetta,” I smiled. This part of our family tree I knew. “And they fell in love and eloped.”

“Yeah, but they lied and told Harry that Yetta was 18, like he was. She was really 27,” Dad added.

I’d forgotten the rumors she was older, focusing on the regal Lower East Side picture I’d had scanned of my late aunt, my dad, and their parents, who’d stayed married until Yetta died.

“Did Grandpa ever forgive his mother?”

“Yeah. Pauline lived to be 99, just enough time to reconcile,” he chuckled. “When I was little, every week Dad would take my sister and me to visit his mother. We invited her for Passover and Hanukkah.”

I was captivated that Grandpa forgave his mom and stayed close until the end. It gave me hope, proving that what you did in the present could atone for the past.

“What was your grandma like?” I asked, watching the foamy waves smash against the Pacific Ocean’s shoreline. I flashed to playing in the ocean in Florida as a kid when we’d visited Harry. My brothers had Mom’s red hair and pale skin so they avoided the sun. I’d lucked out with Dad’s olive coloring; we were the only Shapiros splashing around the water for hours. Swimming every summer recalled those rare moments of joy with my father.

“Pauline was nice to me. She outlived four husbands. I knew her as a heavy old Jewish lady. A little gruff,” said the Prince of Gruff, who’d passed his bluntness down to me. My mom called the Shapiro personality “Tuchos oyfn tish”—literally “rear end on the table.”

“It’s amazing that Grandpa and his mother ultimately made up,” I said, overjoyed to picture my Great-Grandma Pauline reconnecting with the son she’d left.

“Well, it wasn’t perfect. When she was really old, she moved in with my father. But by then my mother was sick, too,” Dad said. “Your grandpa tried to take care of them both.”

How unfair that she expected Harry to be her caretaker at the end, when she hadn’t been there for him. Yet I guessed that a true reconciliation with a negligent parent, however rocky, was worth the struggle.

“I heard Pauline was a beauty in her day, like my sister.” Dad added, “And you.”

That melted me. My father had been so career-driven he was emotionally elsewhere, as if achievement were redemption, washing away everything else. But he’d never respected what I’d accomplished, and had criticized my work in hurtful ways, insisting I stop humiliating him by “spilling my guts in public.” If he apologized, I might be able to tell him how much I’d hated knowing that doing what I loved had disappointed him. That was why I’d become an escape artist who’d fled his home and insults at 16.

In my 20s, visiting my parents when Harry moved into their house, I’d seen how antagonistic he was. I blamed him for my father’s nastiness. That was why I’d missed Harry’s funeral, to secretly protest the awful way Harry had treated him, which gave Dad permission to emulate that behavior with me. Since he had my mother and brothers nearby, I didn’t think Dad needed me. Yet in retrospect, I should have been there. It was on my growing list of regrets.

Before I could say anything else, Dad yelled, “Don’t write about this!” knowing I would.

I laughed, feeling inspired and less alone, as if it were possible to heal my heart sideways.

“I’m sorry I didn’t fly in for Grandpa’s funeral,” I said quietly. “I was so pissed off at him for how he treated you. But I should have come to Michigan. For you.”

“Your grandpa never really forgave me for leaving New York,” Dad said. “He expected me to stay around and care for him and my mother as they aged, like they did in the old country.”

Was he ignoring my apology? Or connecting his father’s hurt with this own, when I’d moved east, away from him?

“He refused welfare and food stamps. He’d rather work two or three jobs at the same time. He didn’t have much, but he supported me until I could make a living. He gave me my work ethic.”

“The workaholic gene I inherited came from Grandpa?”

“You remember him at the end, when he was 83 and came to live with us for six months. With kidney failure, his world collapsed,” he recalled. “He was thrown into an unfamiliar scary environment, dependent on me because he was ill. He struck out at everyone around him. Finally he refused to go on dialysis and died 24 hours later. It made me very sad. He was a great father to me when I was little. I loved him.”

He’d never told me any of this. At 80, with inherited heart and kidney problems, my dad was revising his assessment of his father. Hearing his emotional tone choked me up. Then I remembered how shocked I was to learn Grandpa’s will left all his money and possessions to my mother, not to his only son. Harry obviously knew my parents shared everything, but he had to get in one last zinger from the grave. I didn’t mention that now. I suspected our talk had little to do with Harry, who’d been in the ground almost 30 years. I was just grateful my father’s husky voice was still echoing through the long-distance receiver I held to my ear.

“Love you, Daddy,” I told him, regressing, voice cracking.

“Me too,” he said quickly before getting off the phone.

Staring at the pull of the slow waves in the water below, I was struck by what apologizing to my father had uncovered. I’d always wanted him to tell me he was sorry, but now I regretted that I hadn’t been the one to say it sooner.

A few years later, when I lost him, I saw my old therapist, telling him about the eulogy I’d read at the memorial, sharing my dad’s hilarious emails, like his advice on my bunion: “Cure is worse than the disease. So your toe ain’t going to Hollywood.”

“I’m afraid nothing will ever be the same without him,” I said, sobbing.

“It won’t ever be,” my therapist conceded. “But after the grief subsides, you’ll be wiser and more powerful, with all the strength he gave you.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Because you forgave each other.”

Excerpted from The Forgiveness Tour: How to Find the Perfect Apology. Copyright 2021 Skyhorse Press

Susan Shapiro, a Manhattan writing professor, is author of several books her family hates like Barbie: Sixty Years of Inspiration, Five Men Who Broke My Heart, The Forgiveness Tour, and her writing guide, The Book Bible. Follow her on Twitter at @Susanshapironet and Instagram at @profsue123.

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