The first time I spoke to my father after Luca, his first grandchild, was born, I was just out of the hospital. I called my parents, who live in Crown Heights, a Hassidic neighborhood in New York, via Skype. My father’s handsome, bearded face with its high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes appeared on the screen. He looked dazed, but that was his usual look when he answered my calls. A scientist, he understood communication technology, yet human communication baffled him.
‘Oh, hello, Lubochka,’ my father smiled shyly, as if I were a stranger, anxiously moving his yarmulke around his head. ‘Mama is in the kitchen. I’ll call her.’ He went to get my mother and never came back.
And yet, I’m not talking here about an indifferent, unloving father. I knew that later, my father would ask my mother all about my, and Luca’s, wellbeing. But to receive the information he desired, he needed my mother to act as the go-between between him and the rest of the world, even when that world was his child. The thing is, I am the daughter of an odd man. This is just how it is. Or rather, how I have come to think of myself.
By the standards of the Soviet Union of the 1970s and 80s, where I grew up, my father was a treasure. He didn’t drink, didn’t swear, didn’t hit my mother. Most heroically, in emergencies, like whenever my mother went into the hospital to push out yet another baby, my father could make an edible omelet for those of us kids in his care - a feat no other man in our neighbourhood was able to perform.
Compared to my mother, too, my father held his own. She was overweight; he was slim and handsome, with full, cherry-coloured lips that concealed his rotting teeth. My mother was often anxious, while my father usually appeared calm (I noticed little at the time of the hurricanes his external quietness concealed). Even his lack of friends wasn’t obvious to me then.
In those years, when practising Judaism was forbidden by the state, my parents turned religious. Our house became a hub of dissident activity. With all those other, secretly pious, Jews always in our apartment, studying Hebrew and plotting protests, my father’s oddness was obscured.
My father began his fall off the pedestal I had erected for him once the Soviet authorities, fed up with my parents’ rebellion, released us into Israel. There, as often happens with dreams coming true, life wasn’t much easier. For my parents, fear of imprisonment and other persecution was now replaced by a more ordinary, yet no less stressful, anxiety about just getting by.
Making ends meet raising four kids in a relatively poor country was in some ways more distressing than withstanding interrogations. Being demoted at work for dissident activities was more glamorous than managing the ordinary office politics my parents now had to navigate, and in a new language. My father, who once had endured KGB beatings and wouldn’t recant his ways, was defeated.
It didn’t help that just months after we left the Soviet empire it began its collapse. In that once-dull place, newspapers now exposed corruption in the Kremlin, the ban on overseas travel was lifted and cinemas showed bare breasts. And in Israel, my father soon migrated again – to the land of nostalgia. After his long workdays in Israel’s nuclear research centre, he’d let the television, always tuned to Russian channels, howl on his behalf.
Having just hit my puberty, I watched my father’s sad metamorphosis with a far more critical eye. In the country of other Jewish fathers who didn’t drink as much as Russian ones did, and who were often capable of cooking more than an omelet, my father lost points. I was particularly revolted by his hygiene habits. In this land, where the desert breathes its scorching air through every crack, he still washed Russian style: once a week. Our toilet floor was always sticky, stinking of urine.
My father’s writing desk, the centrepiece of our living room, and his bedside table, were piled high with yellowing Russian newspapers which made our house smell musty. Whenever I was home, I’d retreat to my bedroom.
Anyway, there was no point staying in our living room, which permanently shook with loud Russian broadcasts. During our shared meals, sometimes my father switched off the television, but even this wouldn’t improve our family’s chances of having a conversation. If anyone dared to disrupt the silence, my father would say: zhuya zhuy (when chewing, you just chew).
Perhaps his abhorrence of combining food with talk was born out of his disgust for the contents of human mouths (he had always covered his mouth when he spoke or smiled, even when he wasn’t eating). Or perhaps my father didn’t allow meals to be spoiled by chatter, because having grown up during the post-war years of hunger in Odessa, he worshipped food.
He ate in moderation yet liked choice, and my mother, always indulging him, served a variety of dishes at every meal. My father would then sit back with an absorbed expression, similar to the one he wore while writing his papers, his long pianist’s fingers floating between the plates with artistic virtuosity - choosing a pickle, a spoonful of salad, a piece of fish. He chewed his food slowly, contentedly. How could we disrupt his pleasure?
Guests were another shadow in my father’s Israeli life. Whenever our doorbell sounded, he’d grow visibly pale and leave the living room, re-emerging only when the territory was clear again. Away from the urgency and spontaneity of their underground life in Odessa, it was such hard work to convince him to welcome visitors that my mother soon gave up on socialising.
But once I accumulated friends, my father faced a new challenge. The initially steady stream of my guests, though, diminished his phobia. He’d remain on the couch with the television’s volume extra high and ask me non-discreetly when I’d be greeting someone: ‘Lubochka, how long are they going to stay?’
Gradually our home acquired a secretive, almost magical, air of insular existence with its Russian howls, tense meals and musty clatter. And I began running, running away as often and as far as I could, until eventually I reached another continent. Perhaps it is my father whom I should thank for my life in Australia.
How do we understand fathers? They are supposed to be protectors. Advisors. Spoiling men. Stern, disciplining men. Jokers. Abusers. Friends. For their daughters, they are often their most ardent, and jealous, lovers.
My father was none of these. In retrospect, I think he has always remained a child. A precocious child, a brilliant physicist who won an international award and a green card for his scientific achievements, but who proved utterly incapable when faced with daily tasks of slicing cheese or putting the kettle on, or with seriously considering the happiness of others. A child who accidentally spawned four children, while all he ever wanted was Mama. (His. And ours).
A spoiled child of a single mother. His older sister still feels hurt about those hungry Odessa years, when their Mama gave him the lion’s share of their limited supplies. He was the boy, the gifted boy, the apple of my grandmother’s discriminatory eye. And my father, returning her adoration, married her substitute. My mother, too, puts his needs before her own.
A spoiled child - perhaps this is the name of my father’s affliction, a more accurate diagnosis than blaming his oddness on migration, which probably only exacerbated them. After all, my father’s troubles run way back to before I was even born, when he’d had a brief stint in a psychiatric facility. My mother told me that, and of times during my childhood, of which I was then blissfully unaware, when - once faced with challenges, such as the need to find a new job – my father would retreat to his bed for days, leaving it to her to deal with the world.
Where my father didn’t fail in adhering to fatherly protocol was in becoming the blueprint for my romantic choices. Or rather, he was the negative. Facial hair in men repulsed me. So did theoretical pursuits. I liked businessmen, and other such men with steady feet. I liked men who were accomplished drivers, since my father, who got his licence in his forties, never took red lights at face value. Perhaps he was a dissident even on the road. Even his cars grew so fearful of his driving that they died soon after he purchased them. Eventually his driving habit died too.
On reflection, since my teens I have yearned for a stereotypically dependable and involved father and, not having had one, sought lovers who could shield me from life’s difficulties. And I wanted a man who could slice cheese. With such romantic aspirations, no wonder it took me three marriages until I got lucky in love.
During my parents’ visit the summer before Luca was born, Melbourne was burning. On one particularly fierce day, I asked my father to join my husband and me for a dip on St Kilda beach. He appeared unnerved by my invitation. ‘Ask Mama,’ he finally offered his standard reply which applied to any conundrum, from whether to drink tea or to move countries. But Mama was asleep and eventually my father dared leave the house without her.
As we neared the sand, I saw my father hesitate and understood why. ‘Why don’t you take off your sandals and socks?’ I suggested. He wore them together, Russian fashion, even in this heat. My father looked at me with wonder, as if I’d just cracked the DNA code. ‘This is a very good idea, Lubochka,’ he eventually said. Then, barefoot, he waddled toddler-like into the sea.
Fathers and seas. My father and the sea. Together, they have a long history. When recently I asked my father to tell me about his childhood in Odessa, his fondest memories were of his mother picking him up from kindergarten in summertime. They’d take a crowded, rattling tram to cool themselves in the Black Sea. My father still vividly remembers the salty crust on his skin, the vigorous flapping of seagulls, the sea’s siren call…
On St Kilda’s beach he, too, spread his wings, and they didn’t appear that clipped. In the water, my father was finally in his element, confident, fierce, as he was never anywhere else.
Once, a decade ago, in Israel, my father and I went to the beach alone. We lay there on the soft, pale sand, side by side, discussing the state of the world, taking turns to dip in the Mediterranean. It was the most normal thing we’d ever done together. It gave me the taste for more. But never since has my father been that relaxed in my company. Perhaps he is really a marine creature, the male equivalent of a mermaid. Perhaps that is why he is such an oddity whenever he happens to be on land…
As I get older, it becomes harder to ignore that I am more my father than I like to admit. Most obviously, I have his looks: the good skin, the high cheekbones, the long nose. But I also have his bookishness and his aversion to open windows. I, too, sometimes cover my mouth when I speak. Even under my veneer of social ease lurks my father’s horror of small talk and his hunger for solitude. Sometimes it feels as if he holds the key to my own incongruities, but how to retrieve this key?
Despite that psychiatric hospitalisation in my father’s youth, he was never formally diagnosed with anything. And in our family we used to dismiss his unusual behaviour as an otherworldly scientist’s demeanour, ignoring the differences between my father and his colleagues. While many of them were reticent and not at ease with practicalities, none retreated elsewhere in the middle of conversation, or launched into sudden lengthy speeches. In adulthood, after running out of other ways to understand the man whose genes I share, I began yearning for a label.
Six years ago, on a visit to New York to introduce my (third) husband-to-be, Daryl, to my parents, I asked for his help. For some time I had suspected my father was a highly functioning case of Asperger syndrome. I was hoping Daryl, a paediatrician specialising in developmental disorders, would confirm my guess or spot something else. For two weeks he observed my father with interest. ‘So,’ I eventually couldn’t hold back, ‘what’s your diagnosis?’
Daryl reflected, then expressed his professional opinion: ‘I think he’s… just odd.’
Lee Kofman is the author of 'The Dangerous Bride: Memoir of Love, Gods & Geography' (MUP) and 3 fiction books, Writing Teacher & Mentor, Eternal Student, Intellectual Dilettante.