My Father’s Dream

My father calls me every night, or almost every night, between 9:30 and 10:30 pm, after the show. He is now 82.

I cherish our talks, and often take notes. This summer we talked many evenings about Normandy, and his theory that it should have happened somewhere else, but I’d have to find my notes to recall where. It seems he still sits with maps, searching for a better past, to WW2.

Then there was the war in our family.

We sometimes talk about that. For many years when I was growing up, we, my sister and I, were not permitted to talk to him, to express love for him, or to treat him as anything other than the Enemy.

“This is a war, you are soldiers,” our mother would say. “You’re not children.”

But we were.

Loving our father was our deepest darkest secret. We wouldn’t have revealed it even to one another, or if we did, one of us could easily have turned the other one in on a bad night, been rewarded.

Never mind. It’s a long time ago.

Sometimes I bring it up, to him.

“You know we weren’t allowed to treat you as though we loved you, as our father. Do you know that?”

I want him to say he understands, the way he would understand somebody in a former communist state having to internalize and “express” a maniacal and irrational love of the State, along with a hatred and disdain for the West.

When I use those metaphors, I sense that I can get through to him, that the things we used to say on the crackling phone line between Örebro, Sweden and New York, were not from our own hearts. They were engineered. It was the 70s, and everything was insane. Everything.

“I don’t want to criticize your mother. She did such a great job raising you two–”

“I don’t want to either and that’s not the purpose. The purpose of me stressing this is that you understand now that we were not permitted to express our true feelings.”

“I knew that.”

To this day when I see daughters expressing basic affection for their fathers, I can’t believe they’re permitted, that they’re not “in trouble,” like East Germans I met on trains used to “not believe” people could buy and eat oranges on any day other than Christmas.

I sometimes find myself near tears when I see them, so natural. And I want to go back and express everything that is now stuck somewhere, for my father, in the time it was supposed to be transferred, in childhood. I feel sorrow for him, not only for myself, or my mother. He steeled himself to receive nothing but cold scolding from these squeaky voices on the phone–his daughters. “Why wasn’t the check signed? Do you know how many jobs Mom has to work? We have nothing. Nothing!”

I recall the dread; The nights we had to call, from the red Cobra phone in our kitchen in Sweden. In the 1970s, this was a very major production: You placed a call with a Swedish operator, who then went forth and negotiated the call to the United States, for a Mr. Barry Farber. You waited–in tremendous tension– long waits, sometimes over half an hour, or 45 minutes. It was not certain he would be reachable. There were many intermediaries–producers, staff, various people. With luck he was on the air–on the radio, or on TV, both safe havens from the War. If he came on the line, it meant we had to “fight.” I made a very unconvincing soldier, but I tried, really hard, to sound angry. My sister was better at it, she was older, and somehow tougher.

I can recall trying to work myself into a righteous lather
when I really just wanted to go to bed or somehow not be drafted for this war, these phone calls. My mother had a case too. Of course she did.

But then again, she had kidnapped us to another country, and he had taken it very well, never even fought back. I used to feel pain about that. Didn’t he want us? But now I have studied his character enough to understand he just did not have the self esteem as a father, to fight for himself. Many fathers in the 70s were totally cut off from any notions that they were human, had needs, had rights–anything. There was such paranoia in the air about them, about how evil they were.

The men were powerful and charismatic and the women were livid, just
furious. That’s how I remember it. I remember my mother teasing her hair and leaving it half way through because she got so angry talking about our father that she left pieces of hair just teased straight up on her head. My mother’s hair was one of the ways I understood where we stood, how bad things were.

I loved my mother, comprehensively, no matter what she was doing. I felt that, raging or laughing or smashing plates or setting a lovely Swedish table with small pink plastic elephants just to un-Swedish it– she was “life.” Everything else was darkness, more or less. Maybe less difficult, but meaningless.

Recently my father told me about a dream he had had the night before.

He said he dreamed that “money” was a system of white rectangular notes, on which nothing had been written. The blank notes were the only ones that had value. The money lost value if you expressed yourself, and we were broke. In the family, I was, apparently, the most worried. The worst thing you could do was sing–that would destroy your currency even worse than writing on it would. In the dream my father found some notes that were blank. Overjoyed, he came running to me with some blank pieces of paper calling out, “Celia, Celia, look! they’re blank. I didn’t sing. I didn’t write anything either.”

He wanted to convince me we would not be evicted from our apartment in The Apthorp.

As he told me the dream I said: “Do you realize what a dream that is? It’s a science fiction novel, already written. Expression is counter-currency, and the people live in dread of expressing anything because it destroys the value of money? Wow.”

“You’re right, it’s pretty interesting,” he said.

It could have been about us. Or it could have been about the world outside, the one we have now. But sooner or later, love will be the only government.

Or better to say, love survives fear.

One of the last things my mother said before she died–she was setting her hair in rollers in her apartment in Karlstad, Sweden, in 1999, and holding pins between her teeth, and tossing them into the metal tray as she spoke: “The only things I really regret in my life are the times when I did not express enough love.”

Outside her window, the train carrying timber rattled by. She always looked away when it came by. “I don’t like it,” she said, “I don’t want to see it.”

When she died, my father said he got a visit from her, shortly after, and she said in her most ebullient voice: “Barry, you can’t imagine how fantastic it is here. You will see, it is just spectacular.” In this dream, they were inside the shopping mall at Columbus Circle, which used to be the Collisseum, where my mother had once worked as a Dutch Cheese Girl, and my father went to meet her every day after work when they were first dating, in 1958. He picked her up outside the Collisseum.

In the 1990s, first then, I came to realize that he had been passing that building every Monday and Thursday since 1958, to seal in a prayer of thanks. He either had to pass it in a cab, or a bus, or walk past it and touch it. Twice a week for half a century. How did I find this out? By chance I went for a walk with him down Broadway when he was on his way. It was raining and I asked if we should turn back, but he kept walking, and said he would explain another time. We got to the Collisseum and he placed the palm of his hand against it and closed his eyes.

Barry and Ulla, in 1960

“Now we can go back,” he said. We walked home in the rain and said almost nothing.

“This is not a measure of my love for your mother,” he said. “It’s different. Something else.”

“I understand,” I said.

I called my mother in Sweden the next day and told her.

She snarled, sounded like she had a hairball in her throat.

“Ach.”

“I’m just telling you,” I said.

I never gave up on them. Never. I know perfectly well that their war was false and their love was real.

But Lord Jesus, did they put us through the ringer, those two.

It turned out to be a ritual, actually a walking prayer of my father’s. Life was really good in that moment, and he wanted to make a twice weekly sacrifice to God, to go out of his way to thank God for it.

Why couldn’t my mother ever accept that my father loved her, at all, in any way?

Well, despite her beauty and charm, she had no self esteem.

She had no father.

About Celia Farber

Celia Farber is a journalist, author, and editor based in New York City, who grew up in Sweden and New York City. Farber has written on a variety of subjects for SPIN, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Harper’s, Salon, New York Press, and many more. In 2008, Celia Farber won the Semmelweis International Society’s Clean Hands Award For Investigative Journalism.

Comments

  1. Clark Baker says:

    Thank you for this glimpse into your life and parents. I was honored to meet Barry and lament not having the chance to meet Ulla. Regardless of their faults, they teach us much about life.

  2. Beautiful. So Faith, Hope and Love remains, but the greatest of these is Love

  3. R. A. Davis says:

    Somehow the particulars, the details of this piece provide a “local habitation and a name” to something universal that touches us all. I ended up thinking about my own father and me, the lost chances we had to express our love.
    Thank you, Celia, so much for writing this.

  4. upz says:

    Celia,

    This is so beautiful. From now on, every time I pass by Columbus Circle I will think of Barry and Ulla, the “Dutch Cheese Girl.” And you.

  5. Karl says:

    BRAVO!

    Your premise that eventually the only government will be love is
    well worth deep consideration, Celia. May it be so.

    In my life I have met four true gentlemen. Barry is, of the four, the
    most accomplished. He has shown me nothing but kindness.

    How rare, that prayer, that ritual. How very, very rare. Thank you

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