Calvin Trillin's Warm Recollections Of His Father.
By Mari Wadsworth
RARER AND RARER, it seems, is parenthood recalled by children as a subject of inspiration rather than affliction. Societal discourse prattles on about the rising rate of divorce, the disappearance of community, the isolation of the individual in a society in which a liberal-minded person must have a knee-jerk reaction to the phrase "family values."
Perhaps it was no surprise, then, that when prolific writer Calvin Trillin first published a memoir of his father in the pages of The New Yorker a few years ago, it reportedly drew more reader response than anything the author had ever written. And when published in hardcover in 1996 (by Farrar, Straus and Giroux), it became a national bestseller. It's recently hit the shelves in paperback.
The assumption of writers and publishers (which comes first, who knows) seems always to err toward our fascination with being horrified rather than honored, as evidenced by the plethora of revenge books, like Kissed, which aim to expose parents as flawed, even deviant, beings that need to be knocked resolutely from their pedestals if we are to grow up and lead happy adult lives. (See Margaret Regan's review, above.) Surely, there's something to be gained from the public display of suffering...something, say, more exalted than discovering your own sorry life isn't nearly as sick and twisted as the latest addition to the bestseller list. We can only hope.
But what a treat, and a relief, to sit down to Trillin's slim volume of lightly edited remembrances of his Jewish, Midwestern dad, a Russian immigrant who settled in Kansas City and became a grocer primarily "so his children wouldn't have to." A man who owned five stores though he didn't like being a grocer, who got up at four in the morning, six days a week to go to the city market for all his produce. "When people heard of his schedule, they almost always said something to him like, 'Well, I suppose you get used to it after a while, don't you?' He always said, 'No.' " Chapter after chapter recounts with fond detail the quirky phrases, stubborn pledges and wry humor which formed the "code" Abe Trillin employed to pass along his message to his son: a lifelong dialogue Trillin sums up in the oft-heard fatherly observation, "You might as well be a mensch," (Yiddish for a person who always does the right thing in matters large or small).
"It has always interested me," writes Trillin, "that he did not say, 'You must always be a mensch,' or 'The honor of this family demands that you be a mensch' but 'You might as well be a mensch,' as if he had given some consideration to the alternatives." A masterpiece of understatement, each chapter offers a gentle, honest glimpse into a man who, for all the impact he had on his family, made very little impact on the world...until now.
Calvin Trillin is a skilled interpreter, and much of this deceivingly light-hearted personal memoir resonates with universal appeal. It's not only an affecting homage to his own father, it's an inspired account of fatherhood in general, and the importance of what we say--because you never know what people are going to remember. For example, had Abe Trillin known he might be remembered as the man who asked every foreign language student he ever met for a translation of the sentence, "The left-handed lizard climbed up the eucalyptus tree and ate a persimmon," he might have chosen his words more carefully. Fortunately for us, he didn't.
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