The Morning My Father Met Ernest Hemingway on the Way to the Promised Land

The Haggadah tells us that five second-century rabbis stayed up all night retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt. They must have been fine, natural-born storytellers because when my father, a taciturn man, finally told me the story of his own exodus from Fort Dodge, Iowa, it took only twelve minutes.

“Tell me about Iowa.” I dared to say.

We were sitting at the dining room table in his Cleveland apartment on a nippy October morning in 1991. It was Sukkot, when my people remember (once again) our wanderings in the desert. I had wandered from my home in Jerusalem to fulfill the commandment of visiting the sick. Dad, eighty-eight and failing, wore a gray and white seersucker bathrobe. His right hand was paralyzed from a stroke, so I had to feed him his oatmeal. With one beady eye, he followed the spoon from bowl to mouth as if tracking a golf ball on the green. His other eye was glued to the TV screen, tracking the fluctuations of AT&T on his favorite channel.

“Tell me about Iowa ” I repeated.

Nobody else was home this particular morning, so the background sounds a house makes resonated clearly around my released words. I used to call these sounds Silence—Home during the years I lived in Cleveland and my father never talked to me. Only when I was seventeen did my father begin looking in my direction. Then he spewed simple statements, truisms like “Long-haired boys who demonstrate against the Vietnam War should be castrated,” or “Poets can’t pay rent.”

Asking Dad to speak while eating and watching something he loved was a technique I learned from my sister. After she decided to go to graduate school, she forced herself to endure a Cleveland Browns football game in ten below temperatures. While Dad chomped a hot dog and counted yards, she popped the question: “Will you pay the tuition?” Of course he agreed with no discussion. Jim Brown was four yards from a touchdown.

“What do you want to know about Iowa for?” he snapped, darting both eyes now from the stocks to the spoon and then back again to Wall Street.

“I just do, Dad. I need a story.”

Until this morning our conversations were four-sentence interchanges, reliable as a tennis volley: “How are you? Fine. Everything under control? Yep.” We had learned to settle for little interaction, so he was probably as surprised as I by my request.

“Ah hell. There was no Jewish community out there. Only seven poor families. Once I saw Annie Oakley. We had the seder at our house. Never built a Sukkah. Left when I was twenty-five. Before the Crash. Took a train to New York with my brother, your uncle. Worked in a grocery store for five months. Knew the business cause my father, your grandfather, had a store in Fort Dodge.”

For the first time, I understood the meaning of in media res. Each half sentence raised more questions than it answered, but his telling was so novel and rare that I feared any request for clarification, embellishment, or interpretation might stop the flow. He’d say, “Whaddya mean, who led the seder?” or “What kinda idiotic question is that—’What was Annie Oakley like?'” or “How the hell should I know why I left at twenty-five.”

So I listened as a thirsty traveler in the desert might do, her ear pressed to the earth for underground springs. The sounds a house makes became fainter, now overpowered by an old man recalling his journey.

“Needed to improve my selling ability so took a Dale Carnegie course. Then I bought a furniture store. Wasn’t cut out for that so moved to Chicago. Sold butter and eggs door to door.”

My listening pulsated because I wanted to be sure each word stuck to that inner sanctuary where stories lodge. Even though my father’s exodus sounded more like the last chapter of the Book of Numbers, in which the biblical storyteller lists the watering holes used by the Children of Israel on their way to the Promised Land, they were words. And they were being offered to me.

“Didn’t do well in Chicago so tried Detroit. Met a man there who convinced me to go to Cuba with him for a vacation. We’re in this elevator in Havana and who walks in but Ernest Hemingway. You once read a book of his, didn’t you?”

The spoon full of oatmeal is suspended in mid-air between us. He is feeding me and I him, an old man struggling with the forces of nature.

“He was smoking a cigar. Handsome man. Big fellow.”

I put the spoon in his mouth and he swallows.

My father likes history, not literature, specifically the history of the Civil War. He thinks Abraham Lincoln was the best president and said so religiously during the nightly newscasts of Huntley-Brinkley, when I was in high school. Abe’s walking miles to school every day, even in snow, impressed my father because, like Abe, Dad believed in the curative power of suffering and hard work. If I suffered more, I thought during the news, maybe I could be President and gain my father’s attention.

“Butter and egg business in Detroit wasn’t any good so I came down here to Cleveland. Your uncle and I opened a creamery on the West Side. Then I met your mom. Did everything late.”

I let the spoon drop into the bowl as Dad’s exodus ends in Cleveland, the Cuyahoga his Jordan River. He puts his unparalyzed hand on mine and together we lift the next spoonful to his mouth. Some of the oatmeal falls on his chin, the rest on his bib.

“Doesn’t matter,” he says. “I took your mom skating and then we got married. Then your sister was born and then you. Got married late. Made money late. Had children late.”

He pauses. Both small, red eyes focus on the wall behind me. A black and white family portrait, framed in gold, hangs there. For a moment, he looks like he is trying to peer beyond the sixty-year-old man in the photo and imagine the thirty-six-year-old shy wanderer, seeing my mother for the first time at the ice skating rink. How beautiful she looks, just a young girl of twenty with soft brown hair, gray eyes, perfect skin, a girl full of promise who offers the possibility of finally settling down. Then he asks for a glass of orange juice.

I get up and walk into the kitchen, open the fridge and take out a carton of Tropicana. When I turn around, he is standing unusually close to me in the middle of the kitchen in his seersucker robe. His shaky hand, holding the empty glass, reaches out to me.

“I love you,” he says.

The fridge hums.

His bleary eyes focus on my face, a face that resembles his around the mouth and nose. I am neither a Cleveland Browns quarterback, nor a stock market screen. Nor am I some sort of paper trading guru that’s on the financial page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, behind which he hid during the years I lived with him. I am just his daughter, a forty-six-year-old woman who left home at eighteen and settled down halfway around the world in the original Promised Land. I am only his daughter, who wandered for years, just to avoid his eyes.

The gray and white seersucker robe leans towards me and the frail, paralyzed man inside sets a tight-lipped kiss on my right cheek with the same precision he set golf balls on tees for so many Saturday and Sunday afternoons. The walls purr.

“I love you too. Dad,” I say, and kiss his unshaven, sunken cheek where his dentures no longer fill out his mouth.

The words come out naturally, as if telling this old man I love him is as easy as saying “Pass the butter.”

Then I take the empty glass from his hand and hold it, aware that these fifteen seconds probably constitute the most important moment in my life, its pinnacle, a moment after which my perception of the world may be irrevocably changed, an event as momentous as the splitting of the Red Sea.

But in order to fully absorb what has transpired, I have to freeze the moment, turn it into a still life, full of drama and hope, like the Renaissance renditions of the Exodus. I must release the three words we both said from their particular context so that I can bask in the warmth of being loved by a cold father, not just for one moment in October of 1991 in Cleveland, Ohio, but for years to come and in any place I call Home. I want to subjectively revel in being the object of that idealized sentence, the sentence I longed to hear for forty-plus years. And like my father, I am starting late.

My father smiles coyly after I tell him I love him, as if I have told him his robe is dirty. I pour the juice and carry the full glass back to the dining room table. He takes up his position opposite the TV screen and after taking a sip of juice with his straw, continues.

“We moved back to Iowa but your mom didn’t like it so we moved back to Cleveland and your brother was born and I called it the Promised Land because I started making money with the creamery and I owned a few trucks by then so I shipped butter and eggs from Iowa to Ohio and it became a good business in the ’70s and I’ll never forget the day Annie Oakley came to Fort Dodge I must have been seven or eight and she came with Wild Bill Hickock in a Wild West Show and they shot up the place it was the damnedest thing I ever saw and my father beat me for coming home late because he had a redhead’s temper and once some kid in my class called me a Christ-killer and I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about so I asked my father your grandfather and at the seder he told me we never killed anybody and Abraham I mean Moses led us out of slavery cause we wanted to reach the Promised Land and when I was twenty-five I left home took a train out east took a train to New York because my father your grandfather … because my father … because of my …”

He grabs the edge of the dining room table with his unparalyzed hand as if to steady himself from falling. Suddenly, his eyes close and he bows his head. His face contorts. He looks like the shadow of the old man in Hemingway’s book, trying to keep something buried deep inside him, something overwhelming, from coming up. Then, with eyes closed, he shakes his head from side to side and repeats over and over in a voice which penetrates the generations of wandering Jews, “Because of my father … because of my father.”

Judy Labensohn is a writer and poet in Jerusalem. She works at Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve near Modi’in. Diving Into Mt. Zion, her memoir, is nearing completion.