By Francie Arenson Dickman
My children recount my eighty-four-year-old father’s childhood escapades the same way they do the episodes of Friends. The One Where the Dog Took Pop’s Cookie. The One Where Pops Stole the Truck. And their favorite, The One When Pops Quit Camp Freedom Because They Only Served Bologna Sandwiches. “Breakfast, lunch and dinner, they flung ’em to us out of the back of a truck like we were dogs,” he tells my kids from his kitchen table in Palm Springs, where I take my kids every winter break.
“Do me a favor,” he tells me each year, “stop bringing them here. There’s nothing to do.” If you’ve ever been to Palm Springs in the winter (or any other time of year for that matter) you know that he’s right. There is nothing to do. Which is why my 14-year-old-daughters end up sitting around the breakfast table for hours every morning listening to him tell stories. My father says it’s like putting them in prison, like Camp Freedom itself. There’s no beach. There’s little sun. There are no other kids for miles around and you can’t show up to the table with your smart phone because not everyone at the table has one. My father hasn’t the faintest idea how to work a smart phone. In fact, during our most recent visit, he showed up to the table with a phone book.
“What is that?” My daughter asked after my father dropped perhaps the last remaining Yellow Pages onto the table. We were deciding, as we do every breakfast, where to go for dinner.
“What do you mean, ‘What is this?’ It’s a phonebook.” He opened the book, shoved it in front of my daughters and added, “How else you gonna make a goddamn reservation?”
My girls studied it like it was something out of King Tut’s tomb as my father sat down, took a bite of his bagel and began to impart knowledge on my kids in subjects and in language that they’re not getting in school.
Breakfast, for my father, is a thing. It’s leftover, I suppose, like he is, from a time when folks had nothing better to do on a Sunday morning than sit around the table and tell stories. When I was a kid, he’d get up at the crack of dawn to get the bagels that he and my mother would serve to my grandparents and whichever of my father’s friends came and went during the course of the lazy weekend day. It was the same every winter vacation of my childhood which we spent with my grandparents in Florida. No one had a tee-time or a tennis game to get to. Instead, every morning, we’d sit at a table at the Rascal House Deli where the adults shot-the-shit for hours on end while I watched them chew their bagels and prayed that no one would die.
The same, I’m sure, as my kids do now, as my father huffs and puffs, recovering from the carrying of the phone book. But all the while, they are learning, like I did, despite themselves. From their penance in Palm Springs, they know how to work a dice board, the same way I learned from my time around the table how to smoke a cigar. They know how to drive a car. And we all know how to dance the Charleston.
As my father is the only person they know who doesn’t own a cell phone or have an email address, he is one of the only people my kids know who is 100% present in their presence, 100% of the time. And therefore, so are they in his. They check their phones at the counter, just before the kitchen table where they munch on bacon and fried salami while they listen to his stories, the same ones my brother and I also know by heart. They rely on a regular cast of characters and a predictable plot, that of the underdog overcoming against all odds a series of hardships that tend towards the ridiculous and make his presence at the table nothing shy of a miracle. He is his own serial, a living, breathing situation comedy from which my kids learn (I hope) lessons that I don’t know where they’d learn anywhere else. From the practical—like entertainment need not come from a screen and success need not come from school. To the past—like how FDR ended the depression and the mob created Las Vegas. And for better or worse (there is, after all, The One Where Pops Gets His Mom Out Of Prison), they learn who they are and from where they came, which experts say is important in developing a child’s self esteem and confidence.
So maybe we don’t go zip-lining and we don’t go home with a tan, but in Palm Springs there is no bologna. Only salami and bacon and a perspective that is priceless. Especially now that my kids are teenagers and tend to tune me out. Especially now as their confidence waxes and wanes with the moon, with their identities up for grabs and the pressures of tomorrow upon them. They are, these days, preparing to go to high school, which means making decisions in areas in which they lack the necessary information. What subjects interest them? What activities do they want to do? These decisions domino into bigger ones about where to go to college, and to my anxiety-prone, analytical daughter, they trigger existential ones like, “Will it all turn out okay?” Naturally, they have answers to none of this and their parents’ reassurance carries no weight. But from a survivor of Camp Freedom and everything else, “Take it from me, none of this matters,” is comforting to hear. I can tell from the way they laugh as he talks and they recount throughout the year.
Pops is living proof that there is more than one way to skin a cat, which, in a society ridden with rules and driven by convention and a fear of the road less taken, is a valuable lesson. As valuable as knowing how to use a phonebook. “Just in case those phones or whatever they are stop working,” he explains as he chews his bagel, “you’ll know how to get your hands on a goddamn pizza.”
Author’s Note: I am excited to say that between the time I wrote this piece and now, my father acquired an iPhone. Of course, owning the iPhone and using it are two different things. He is set to start iPhone 101 classes this week. According to my mother, my father says he will attend. However, when asked to comment, he told me only that he is not throwing out his phonebook anytime soon.
Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have appeared in publications including, The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and has just completing her first novel. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.