Leora Skolkin-Smith: Inside my Father’s Lost World

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This weekend I went down to Washington, DC to be with my mother-in-law Peggy Smith, who had taken a fall and broken her leg, forcing her into unrelenting pain and the hospital. I love her very much, probably more as a daughter than a daughter-in-law, and it became interesting (and sometimes painful) to explore parental loss. My intellect came to the rescue, and my writing, allowing me not to break down into pre-mourning, as she is now 92. She wrote the definitive books of proofreading for more than thirty years and my husband is in the process of publishing her two novels, which she is currently finishing. This on top of more than 500 poems. She writes haikus as they perform operations and procedures on her, along with the rest of the exhausting tasks her failing age demands. She never stops writing. This time she asked me to bring two things to her hospital bed: her toothbrush and her iPad. The wife of a diplomat, she had to travel and live in many foreign countries, Panama and Thailand predominantly, before settling down in Canada, as her husband’s career included being Deputy Assistant Secretary of State under Lyndon Johnson. Then, lastly, as her husband finally retired she and her family lived permanently in Washington.

Since I lost my father at seventeen, my husband’s family meant new parents. And especially since no one else in my family besides my father was literary, she occupied an essential place in my heart. We talked about writing and books. My mother didn’t read much or understand my addiction and/or passion for writing; she was born and raised in Palestine and didn’t quite understand what all this “writing” was about. And it wasn’t in her native language, Hebrew. The tragedy that took my father’s life fractured my family in too many ways to describe; that would be another essay entirely. But it was hard to find lost stability and cohesiveness again after my father’s fatal accident. My mother had trouble with American ways; though she immigrated here in 1947, she was always still attached to the lands of Israel and Palestine, which also became for her children a second home after my father passed away. All this long background is to say that I knew my father more through a kind of mythology he left and through the long talks about writing, literature and theater that Peggy brought to me again. Actual contact was gone, except from what memories still lived in my brain. Watching my mother-in-law in the hospital, failing, now made me reflect on my father’s mythic presence in my unconscious, in my dreams, and sometimes in my writing. I had expected this to be a tearful, painstaking journey back…in all the books I’ve written, including my first novel Edges, the father has been absent, dying in a car accident early in my character’s life, or, in my new book, drowning in the sea on vacation. I envied in college those who spoke of what their father’s did for a living, how he was paying for their education, and I even envied the closeness of their “bad” fathers.Even negative attention meant closeness to me then.

Oddly, perhaps because of Peggy’s warm embraces, her empathy for my writing world, I had a sort of cushion on which to rest as more vividly than ever my father came back to me. I therefore managed to avoid falling into an abyss of sorrow. What looms most in my mind was my father’s library. My mother’s first language was Hebrew and she didn’t live in books, as my father did. She read very little and was impatient with intellectualism in general. Having lived the early life of a Palestinian Jewish woman, through many wars in her homeland she was a woman of hard pragmatism and often, steeped in strange Judaic mysticism. Edges tells the story of a daughter taken back to her mother’s native country, Jerusalem, after losing her father.

The myth of him was romantic, almost fantastical. The son of Russian immigrants, my father was self-taught and entered Columbia University and Columbia Law School when the quota for Jews was tiny. He was a man of tremendous intelligence and Broadway charisma. He had many theater and movie stars as clients, including Marlon Brando, Carol Channing, and Federico Fellini. He told stories of how Brando exposed himself to the neighbors and was arrested, forcing my father to plead for him in court hearings and of the wild Fellini who my father loved and with whom he went all over Rome in much joy, feasting, and being part of the director’s famous entourage. The Fellini film my father helped with, 81/2, was banned from the Academy Awards. My sister, brother, and I were so young when 81/2 was produced that my mother had to hide the things said about Fellini’s film because there were so many naked women in the movie. She even had to check the postcards from Rome in my father’s handwriting to make sure there was no mention of all those voluptuous female bodies. I was fifteen when I heard my father had traveled to Ireland to get a reclusive writer out of his attic to sign a contract. The writer’s name was Samuel Beckett. His job there was to get Beckett to leave his attic, and Becket was terrified of America where none of his plays were accepted. Beckett’s work, like Fellini’s, took years to be produced here. My father was one of the earliest supporters of producers of Waiting for Godot. I know I became a writer because these people and some very famous others in my father’s world all had a huger impact on my imagination than my parent’s circle of Westchester people. I thought, they were living dramatic and oh so colorful lives—sometimes being with my father was like visiting a circus. And then there was his library: Proust, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf. My father lived with hand-bound copies of these writers whom he read to me and often quizzed me about, much to my fears that I would disappoint him, In short, he taught me to live with both imaginary and real illuminations, either from his books or his famous clients. I repeat his long ago stories to friends now, not to brag or namedrop, though they do indulge me, but because they give me back my father’s presence in a lighter way than remembering him.

I was thinking beside my mother-in-law’s bed that we come to our parents’ lives and deaths in a kind of sublime unknowingness even if we see them live on to old age. By this, I mean that their own lives will always carry some enchantment perhaps, a power I have constantly tried to capture in words and so far have failed to do. Who was she or he as a woman or man? What were their experiences? Those might seem so literal and uninteresting compared to the alluring charms they seemed to have had in their pockets. Even bad parents when people write about them come out larger than life–– “evil” more than damaged.

The reissue of Edges has also brought me back to the years I lost my father. I have no doubt my mother-in-law, when she passes, will become able to revisit me in the same mysterious ways. Just some thoughts about losing people—rather, losing parents, as if one is on some unstoppable train, taking us to different destinations, sometimes surprising and alluring, before leaving us to the final stop.

Leora Skolkin
in its re-published form, is out today. Visit our website to learn more about the book and Leora.

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On September 23, 2014
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