What My Father and I Never Said to Each Other
"As I was growing up, the notion of my someday joining the family business hung in the air..."
My father owns a textile business. It was his father's once. And because I am the first son, it could have been mine. But I've chosen to do something else for a living, and I think about that more and more as my father nears retirement. I think about it because I fear he's thinking about it, too, that he's thinking how much easier it would be to wind things up, how much nicer, if he had someone to carry on for him, if it were clear the business would survive without him.
We never talked about it much, my father and 1, but as I grew up, the notion of my someday joining the family business hung in the air as a distinct possibility. There was a silent expectation that the business would survive all of us — my father, his children, our children.
And yet my father never issued to me any sort of formal invitation to join him in what he does. Business was discussed only in broad strokes — things were busy or not busy, good or bad, fast or slow. Even my father's place of business — an office and a factory where he makes novelty braids and fabrics — became couched in euphemism as "the place," as though the very idea of work was too much for his kids to deal with over dinner.
Oh, I knew where my father went when he left the house each morning, but I wasn't entirely sure what he did when he got there. Perhaps he took his cue from Ozzie Nelson and the other reigning television fathers of the day. Everything had its place, and the place for work was, well, the place. Father knew best, and that was that.
Sometimes there were problems at the place, and, once in a while, we'd hear that one of the workers in the back lost a finger to one of the knitting machines. These were stories I cherished hearing and telling. There were times — school vacations, weekends — when I'd accompany him to the place, and he'd be all proud and beaming when one of the men in the back would call me something like "Little Boss." His pride rubbed off on me. It made me feel in charge, or at least sort of in charge. But then I'd be put to work in manual tasks that made little sense to me. I performed routine chores with no grasp of how what I was doing fit in with what everyone else was doing, with what my father was doing. When we'd return home, my mother would ask what I did all day, and I'd tell her as much as I knew: "I put things on things."
What I remember most clearly is that my father never seemed to enjoy what he did, and he almost never talked about any fulfillment or any of the personal perquisites I'd been taught to expect from a career. What may have been right and good and enough for my father was not quite right and good and enough for me. I wanted no part of a dreary factory that operated to its own beat, a place where men lost their fingers putting things on things. I decided to become a writer.
My father has a tough time understanding how I earn my living, but no tougher than I have had understanding what he has been up to all these years. Maybe he'd have an easier time if I'd become a doctor, or lawyer, or investment banker, something that would fit more traditionally into his world. Although he has never said so, I sense he's proud of me, of the choices I've made, but I also know he must wonder what leaves me uninterested in a life at the place, what leads me to struggle in a career that offers nothing like the guarantees of the family business. Money is a big part of it, I'm sure. I can't shake the feeling, when I pass along details of a new writing assignment, that my father does some quiet figuring to see how what I'm earning holds up against what I'd make in a real job, in his job.
I recently found myself in my father's neighborhood on some business of my own, and I stopped by the place for a visit. He wasn't in, so I sat down at his desk to use the phone, catching up on my own day's work. Sitting there, it slowly occurred to me that I have no real notion of what my father's life would have been like had it not been for his own father's business, what his dreams were, where his special talents lay, what he has missed, or if he thinks he has missed anything, if he even thinks that way. There I was, at the very desk that, most likely, his father used, and I thought for the first time what I'd put my father through, what we've put each other through in our year long dance of not saying anything, of looking away from a big issue in both of our lives.
My father, coming in finally, must have been thinking some of the same thoughts, for I could see in his eyes, in his enthusiasm for finding me there, the would-be or what-might-have been visions of our someday working together. I felt oddly, and suddenly, out of place.
We didn't say anything, though, as has become our custom. I avoid the subject because part of me is certain my father harbors a secret hope that I'll come around. When asked, my father will say he has never wanted to pressure me, that he's happy to see me off on my own and doing well, but it is clear to me he's holding something back. I'm afraid that our not talking about his business serves only as mask and bandage to a very real disappointment. I worry that I have let him down.
When I was 10 or 12, my father and I had one of our few genuine talks about what he did for a living, what I'd someday do. He mentioned the possibility of my taking over his business.
"Oh, I don't think you'd want that," I said.
"Why not?" my father asked. "What could you possibly do with the business that would upset me?"
And here, with a kid's insight, I got closer to the differences between us than I probably ever will again. "I'd sell it," I said.
I don't know why, but my father loves this story. He tells it all the time.
Daniel Paisner has written a novel, Obit, and several other books. He collaborated with Ed Koch on the former New York Mayor's forthcoming autobiography, Citizen Koch (St. Martin's Press). This column originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine. Copyright 1986 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted by permission.