My father would have turned 90 on June 15. A few months after he died in 2003, I discovered this photograph of him from 1949 or 1950. He’s 19 or 20, posing in a beret, wool coat and tailored pants. His shoes gleam. His wide stance suggests confidence. His sly grin hints that he’d just gotten away with something or experienced some good luck. In my distress at losing him unexpectedly, I likely projected my own feelings onto this image, one of just two that remain from his life in Europe. I couldn’t understand why he was smiling because he’d lost his entire family in the Holocaust a few years before.
When I was eight, our family spent a summer in Switzerland, near the French border, for my father’s work as a physicist. At one point during those months, we visited Paris. I have the blurriest of memories of walking with him one morning, just the two of us. Maybe he showed me where he had lived while waiting for paperwork to come together so he could come to the United States on a student visa, or perhaps he pointed out where he had studied. What he did not tell me then, of course, was whom he had…loved.
Last year my mother mentioned that my father had bedded many women during his Parisian séjour. I don’t remember in what context this tidbit arose, but rather than surprise or disturb me, it shed light on a part of my father’s life that had lurked in the shadows. It might even explain the expression on his face and the existence of the photo itself: had one of his lovers taken it? Having been liberated from the Nazis and, also, freed from communal scrutiny and busybodies, why wouldn’t this handsome young man enjoy sensual pleasures? Whether his adventures could be more accurately described as the escapades of a thrill seeking Lothario or the coping mechanism of a young man compensating for years of severe deprivation is impossible to know.
He married my mother in 1956 and, after 32 years, they divorced. To mark this distressing passage, my father, a professor, ordered a stack of business cards, embossed with his new title: Husband Emeritus. Somehow he’d been able to turn his heartbreak into wry humor. He handed out the cards to his friends, colleagues and family, perhaps even to the women he dated. Long before the Internet came along, dating via print personal ads was still fraught, even if it didn’t involve scrolling or swiping left and right. My father shared with me the dramas, deceptions and disappointments of his search. He didn’t have much of a filter, and I lacked boundaries, so I dutifully listened to details I didn’t need or want to know. Still a romantic at heart, he traveled near and far trying to find, if not true love once again, a true companion. That some women misrepresented themselves by mailing him outdated photos bothered him. What distressed him more was that many women who responded to his personal ads wouldn’t deign to date him for more than a short period (if at all), even if they were compatible, because he taught at a state university and not at an Ivy League institution. It appeared they valued prestige and academic pedigree and a trophy partner more highly than personal traits, even in middle age. Every so often, when we were catching up, he’d proclaim, “I just lost 150 pounds!”
The first time he said this it took me a second to figure out that one of his lady friends had broken things off with him, reducing their combined mass. I couldn’t help but laugh at his liberating interpretation. Eventually he met a woman who accepted him exactly as he was, no small feat. They continued to spend time together right up until his unexpected passing. She and I have been in touch over the years. When difficult memories of that time periodically surface, circle around and land heavily on my heart, she has helped lighten the load. Whether it’s by 150 pounds, or another amount, I cannot say. I’m just glad that, given all that he experienced and endured, my father never gave up on love, in the broadest sense of that word. In these intense, tumultuous and unpredictable times, perhaps love is the only thing we can count on.