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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Touching. By John von Daler

                 "Somebody touch me!" the old man would exclaim when he arrived at our place in Denmark. My wife would give my father a hug and offer to do his nails. This meant holding his hand and dipping it in warm, soapy water; with his wife now in her grave, he needed attention. His clothes were not ironed very well, his always clean-shaven face now showed stubble at various spots, his usually slick hair was fluffed up like a baby chicken. Here with us he could thaw up after those cold weeks alone.

                This kind of nearness seemed unusual to me and it took some doing to break down age-old barriers of silence and separation. Mother had been the one who talked and touched. At my school concerts she would greet me afterwards with a hug and a "on a par with Heifetz!" while he would stand behind her and mutter something about "less could do it." Strangely enough, through the years I learned to value his opinion more and more and hers less and less, not through self-doubt or hatred, but just from a practical vantage point: he was probably telling the truth - and that was what I wanted to hear.
                He had been a well-dressed Viennese dandy, but now, without her to converse, charm, and shock, he had fallen into bad habits. Also he was shriveling; in his expensive woolen suits and sweaters from Harrods he looked like a tiny old junky in stolen clothes.
                Without Mother present he had now begun to talk. We realized after a few days of his unheard of prattle that he had never been able to get a word in with her around. Their visits had always played out like Scarlett and Rhett making the rounds of the poor. We would all sit in silence while she charmed us with little tidbits of coquetry that she often repeated within minutes to the chagrin of our silent company. But now he told stories from his teenage years as a tutor in middle Europe, his mistresses in Vienna, or his visits to the opera.
                This breakthrough came much too late for me; I could have used it forty years earlier. But strangely enough the loss never angered me. I knew of his childhood in Vienna, how his father, the general, greeted him once a day in the children's quarters where his son was tutored by maiden aunts. "Daddy's a rascal," my father would shout and run to hide behind a skirt as the general strode out the door. That was their contact.
                So when we would take the train together in silence for over an hour, he to New York and I to Princeton, as we pulled into Grand Central he would fold his New York Times, look halfway in my direction and say, "Study well. Get some good grades". At the time I found it very awkward. Later, as he arrived at our house wifeless and lonely, I pitied him. These days I look back on him wistfully and with love, thinking of what we both missed.

Tomorrow, Thursday Nov. 7, there will be no blog.
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