My Father’s Gifts

Joe and Nancy Friedman

My father, Joe Friedman and my mother, Nancy Salter, in the summer of 2005.

My father died on Thursday morning.

I comforted myself by listening to Gabriel Fauré and reading Jacques Derrida. On the surface, that might seem like an odd choice, but music and philosophy have always been where I find the most comfort. The gentleness of Fauré’s Requiem – which simultaneously evokes the finality of death and the beauty of life – and the wisdom of the laughing rabbi helped to reconcile me with the world.

Derrida wrote extensively about mourning, about how we choose to mourn, how we mourn successfully and ethically. Our first impulse is to deny death in mourning by interiorizing the deceased; making his “spectre” part of ourselves, and saying that he will always live on within us. There is comfort in that, of course. It endows the deceased with immortality and seems to cheat death by denying its finality.

But Derrida writes it is neither a successful nor an ethical way to mourn, for this denial of death is a denial of the otherness, the uniqueness, the specificity and singularity of the deceased. We can only mourn for the loss of another, not for ourselves. Rather, to mourn successfully, we must recognize and embrace the other’s mortality and accept the signification of his absence.

To do otherwise is to repudiate the conversation that we had and to deny all that passed between us. And this, Derrida writes, is why we mourn: To recognize that the conversation is at an end, and that nothing more will pass between us.

I find comfort in this because it forces me to reflect on everything that passed between my father and me; all of the things that were not part of him, but were gifts from him. When I was very young, I auditioned for the lead role in the Jan Kadar film Lies My Father Told Me. I didn’t get the part, of course, and that is just as well because my father told me no lies. He told me stories and he told me truths.

My father gave me history. He was a voracious reader, and I grew up surrounded by the books he acquired as a student and throughout his life. They were the works of the Grand Narrative – George Macaulay Trevelyan’s History of England, Bernard Pares’s History of Russia and Herbert Fisher’s Napoleon. My father had a soft spot for the French emperor, and chose to overlook his more tyrannical impulses to see him as a modernizing reformer who legally emancipated Europe’s Jews.

My father believed that to be a Jew was to be part of history. He told me this on the evening of my Bar Mitzvah as a way of calming my 13-year-old nerves. “In reading the Torah,” he told me, “your Torah portion, you are linking yourself to our history.” Needless to say, it did not have the desired effect, and I stepped up to the bimah in a state of abject terror that I was going to somehow let down four thousand years of Jewish history.

I also grew up seeing the photographs of my father cutting a dashing figure in his Royal Canadian Air Force uniform during the Second World War. He didn’t talk much about his experiences during my childhood – only that he had been very young, that he joined up seeking adventure and that he had been shot down and held as a prisoner of war by the Germans during the last months of the war. I had to fill in the rest from the journals he kept as a POW, obsessed with food – because they had so little – and dreaming about returning home to Park Avenue, his family… and to the coconut cream pie at Laurier Barbecue.

Only later, when he and I participated on a CBC radio broadcast marking the 50th anniversary of V-E Day, did I learn the details: How his mother refused to sign the consent form for her 17-year-old son’s enlistment until he threatened to join the Merchant Navy; how he very nearly bailed out at 20,000 feet without a parachute before he had the presence of mind to go back into the burning Lancaster bomber to retrieve it; how on that day he lost very close friends, Mark Goldwater, a schoolmate from the neighbourhood, and the skipper Taite Roth, the “old man,” who was only 22.

In his photos, and in his memories, I learned something very important from my father: History is embodied in people. The Grand Narratives are all well and good, but at the end of the day history, real history, was embodied in a terrified teenager from Montreal, bleeding from shrapnel wounds, standing at an escape hatch, surrounded by a blazing inferno, about to leap into the unknown.

My father gave me music. If he loved anything more than his books, it was music. It is a curious fact, however that he never learned to play an instrument. The only times I heard him do anything musical was when he would quietly sing along with the cantor at schul in his untrained but resonant baritone. Once, when I was taking violin lessons as a child, he confided, “if I could play any instrument, it would be the violin.” But “I could never be as good as Jascha Heifetz or Itzhak Perlman, so what’s the point?” That is the same reason why I eventually gave up the violin.

He listened to music and, despite a lack of formal training, he was one of the most knowledgeable music scholars I have ever known. He carefully explained counterpoint to me while we listened to Bach’s Art of Fugue and made clear the transition from classical to romantic styles using his bicentennial edition boxed set of Beethoven’s symphonies.

Year after year, my father took me to the concerts by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the McGill Chamber Orchestra and recitals by soloists like Lynn Harrell, Jean-Pierre Rampal and Vladimir Ashkenazy. We would always go out for a nosh after the concert to discuss the music. He took me to these concerts because I was always so eager to go, but also because it gave him the excuse to go himself. My mother found concerts boring; my siblings couldn’t have cared less about music. But with me – eager to listen and learn – my father could justify the expense of a season subscription.

We didn’t always agree, of course, but that wasn’t the point. My father dearly loved the beauty and perfection of Mozart, particularly his late symphonies and piano concertos, while early on I began to cleave increasingly to the abstract and the atonal. But we agreed on Bach and Beethoven.

My father gave me social justice. I brought my partner home to meet my family for the first time two summers ago. As we sat in the sun in the back yard, my father leaned close to Molly and said in a conspiratorial tone, “we’re socialists, you know.” I’m not sure exactly what he meant, whether the “we” was Canadians, or the Friedmans or just he and I. What I do know is that he had a longstanding commitment to a vey personal brand of socialism firmly based on the old dictum of “from each according to their means, to each according to their needs.”

Many years ago my father gave a talk about community activism to a group of CITs (counselors in training) at Camp Wooden Acres, a Jewish community camp that he directed at the time. “And we all know,” he gravely intoned, “that poverty is the root of all evil.” I was a precocious six-year-old, and I was aghast that he had gotten the quote wrong. Even then, I knew that everyone knew that it was the love of money that was the root of all evil! How could he get it so wrong?

I silently carried the embarrassment with me for years. But over time, I realized that he hadn’t got the quote wrong. On that evening so long ago, he imparted an important wisdom – and something that he deeply believed – that far transcended the creaky old aphorism. Poverty, deprivation, economic inequality: these were the causes of evil, causes that could be, and should be eliminated.

My father was passionate about human dignity. I first heard the name Nelson Mandela from his lips, when I told him that I had been assigned South Africa for a grade school United Nations day. “You have the power to do the right thing, will you?” I have an early memory of demonstrating with my father outside the Soviet mission in Montreal in support of refuseniks in 1973. “Any government that denies basic human rights has no right to call itself ‘socialist,'” he said.

We disagreed on a great many things, of course. I don’t think he ever approved of my early flirtation with Québécois nationalism despite his own deep respect for René Lévesque (he had read Option Québec in its first printing!). His socialism always tended more toward reformist social democracy and mine inclines to the anti-authoritarian and revolutionary.

Our arguments on Zionism and Israeli government policy were truly epic. Molly witnessed just such an argument the summer that she met my father for the first time. There was no yelling, just a lot of gesticulating and passionate debate. It ended with my father offering to take us out to his favourite Thai restaurant. “After an argument like that, in my family, you wouldn’t speak to each other for years!” I explained that that’s just how we were: we had our own positions, but we respected each other enough to have some fine political-intellectual sport with them.

When I visited my father in the hospital last month, I told him about Molly’s comment and asked him if he ever wished I would back down in an argument. “Don’t be crazy,” he said. “You should never give in on what you believe in. I didn’t raise you to do that!”

The pain and grief that I feel at my father’s death is both incalculable and inexpressible. He is gone. He doesn’t “live on” in memories, places or artifacts. The conversation is over, and I will never listen to music or argue about politics with him ever again. There is a stark finality to that.

But there is also comfort, for so much passed between us over the decades of that conversation. I no longer have my father, but I will always have his gifts to me.

9 thoughts on “My Father’s Gifts

  1. beautifully said , a brilliant tribute
    ” You should never give in on what you believe in ”
    yup… never
    having lost my own father a few years back for me our conversations are never over….the energy that was him will never be gone….connected forever we are.

    a friend of Charlie’s

  2. Beautiful, Matthew. And you were perfect at your Bar Mitzvah by the way, I would never have thought you were terrified!

  3. So very sorry for your loss — I got such a kick out of the story of his meeting Molly when you told it to me just a few weeks ago, and this is a wonderfully vivid tribute. Wishing you peace and healing to follow the successful mourning.

  4. The gift of death, Derrida calls it, and what is that except the interrogation of Levinas and the validation of Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia”? No accident that “Specters of Marx” haunts the same period of this philosopher’s life. Talk about sublimation. Thanks, Matt, for saying things we wish we could say–in every sense of wishing–about the people who somehow produced us.

  5. Wow! Truly words of inspiration. ” Rather, to mourn successfully, we must recognize and embrace the other’s mortality and accept the signification of his absence.” This sentence alone speaks volumes. Thanks for sharing these moments of vulnerability and intimacy, of love.


  6. Pingback: Autumn Leaves | The Undefended Border

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