AP Photo/Steven Senne
AP Photo/Steven Senne
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A Life in Poems

Lesléa Newman paints a poetic portrait of her father—the man he was, and the man he became

Carol Rosenfeld
March 02, 2021
AP Photo/Steven Senne
AP Photo/Steven Senne

Lesléa Newman wrote most of I Wish My Father—a collection of poems chronicling her father’s life—after he died. Newman said writing the book “was a way of keeping him alive in my mind a little while longer” and she liked seeing “what remains in my heart; what has stayed.”

Yet many of the poems read as if they were written the same day as the visit to the doctor or the diner; there is an immediacy that draws the reader in. Newman wanted to “invite the reader to experience the moment,” and in doing so, she paints a vivid portrait of Edward Newman with her words, enabling the reader to see both the man as he was and the man he became at the end.

Newman has written many books in a variety of genres, including the children’s classic Heather Has Two Mommies. And she brings her background in other genres to bear on her new book. “In these poems, I drew on my experience as a fiction writer to bring my father to life,” Newman told me. “As Jack Kerouac so famously said, ‘Details are the life of the novel.’ When a writer includes very specific details, the character (in this case my father) becomes human and therefore someone a reader can relate to, regardless of that reader’s experience.”

I Wish My Father opens with the 2012 death of Newman’s mother—the subject of Newman’s 2015 book I Carry My Mother—and concludes with the 2017 death of her father. Elements of what happens in the five years between those two events will resonate with any reader who has or had aging parents or caretaking responsibilities: retirement, giving up driving, moving out of the family home, visits to the doctor. The diminishment of the mind and the senses, the failures of the body, and the anguish of witnessing all of it, as part of the role reversal where the child becomes the parent and the parent becomes the child.

Newman spoke of having to “keep him physically safe in the world” and “be the authority.” But, she added, it was “an honor and a privilege to care for someone at the end of their life.”

In “For As Long As I Can” Newman imagines her father’s bewilderment at the changes in his life; he

thought this routine would last
forever—why wouldn’t it?—
and cannot for the life of him
fathom how quickly he went
from husband to widower
attorney to retiree
tennis partner to spectator
driver to passenger
healthy to diabetic

There are also physical details that give the reader a clear picture of what Newman wants them to see. In “My Handsome Elegant Father,” Newman contrasts her father’s appearance leaving for work in the morning for over 50 years with the man

now dragging an IV pole
through the hospital hallway
barefoot, grizzly-chinned
hair like Albert Einstein
sweaty and stinky
wearing a sky blue johnny
dotted with tiny tumbling teddy
bears, the back flapping open
every string untied

Newman does not spare the reader the details of her father’s mental deterioration: an unseen chorus singing a song no one else can hear; a little boy who appears at the foot of the bed every night; the parking lot he’d been using for 50 years that just disappeared, replaced by an apartment building; the visit from a client who died 30 years earlier; the nonexistent people next door who fight every night.

The poems are often rich in details that immediately place the reader in a specific time. For example, in “My Father is Moving Out,” four years after her mother’s death Newman and her father finally open the door of her mother’s closet, and are “assaulted by her smell”

a mixture of Chesterfield Kings,
Noxzema, Aqua Net, and
Chanel No. 5 still clinging to a lifetime
of dresses, blouses, skirts, shirts,
slacks, slips, shoes, scarves, gloves,
hats, pocketbooks and pantyhose.

Many of the poems have strong endings, which are always a challenge to write. “Did You Go to City College” portrays an encounter in a diner between Newman and her father and an elderly man and his son. The elderly man calls across the aisle, “Did you go to City College?” and Newman tugs her father’s sleeve to get his attention and tells him what the man has asked. The man points at the class ring on Edward Newman’s finger, then displays his own. Each man shares the year he graduated. Later, Newman’s father is about to ask the man a question, but abruptly stops

at the sight of the man’s son
fastening a bib around his father’s
scrawny neck. Out of respect
my father turns away to give
the alterkocker his privacy, but not
before I see a look of pity and disgust
travel across his face. Our food arrives,
we eat in silence, as does the other

Newman describes finishing their meal, then concludes with:

…And for the first time
I can remember, my father
does not order dessert.

Several poems touch on Jewish themes. “My father was very proud of being Jewish,” said Newman. “We were not religious Jews. We were more secular.We celebrated the Big Four: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, and Passover. Yet, I always knew who I was and where I came from and the importance of that.”

In “Without Warning My Father,” Newman’s father is released from the hospital early on a Friday evening. Driving him home, Newman stops at a red light and, seeing a family of five crossing the street, all dressed up, realizes it is Yom Kippur. At home, while her father naps, Newman recalls sitting

in synagogue with my father when I was
a little girl. How I loved braiding the tzit-tzit
of his tallis, the white fringe so smooth
and cool beneath my fingers, while the men
all around me swayed and prayed, their deep
voices wringing as much sweetness
and sadness out of those ancient words
as they could, that heartrending Hebrew
comforting me like a soft shawl wrapped

At the end of the poem, Newman wonders if God

will forgive me for not knowing
what’s best: to pray or not to pray
for the Book of Life to be inscribed
at the start of the new year
with my father’s holy name
underneath my own

“My dad never had a bar mitzvah,” Newman said. “When I asked him why, he said, ‘We were too poor,’ meaning that he had to work to help support the family (he started working when he was 12 years old and never stopped until he was 88). He was so proud of me when I had a bat mitzvah at age 48. And I will never forget the look on his face as he sat in shul watching his grandson up on the bimah reading from the Torah during his bar mitzvah. The expression was a look of pride, wonder, amazement, and sorrow because my mother did not live to see that day.”

Yiddish words and phrases—and Jewish humor—are sprinkled throughout Newman’s poems. “My dad and I … shared a self-deprecating humor that is very Jewish. And a love of Jewish food. And music,” Newman said. “No one danced the hora with more joy than my father during a wedding. And no one felt more sorrow than my father when saying Kaddish at a funeral. The Jewish gene runs deep in our blood. It was definitely something that knit us together.”

The next to the last poem in the book is “My Father Was Never.” After giving examples of her father’s habit of always arriving early for events, Newman concludes with:

I wonder just how early he was
and how on earth he would feel
to learn that from this day forth
for all time he will always
and forever be known
as the late Mr. Newman.

Carol Rosenfeld is the author of The One That Got Away.