The last time I saw my father, he was sitting in that huge wing-chair of his with a glass of “the good stuff” in his hand; “the best stuff money can buy,” he said; as usual. Even then, so many years after my coming-of-age trip to Israel, I was still focused on the crystal tumbler and not what was in it. Light from the stained glass of the Tiffany lamp on his desk sent colored rays across his hand, sparkling and refracting from one geometric prism of the deep cuts in the crystal to another. Magic. Those damn glasses still held such power over me, just as they always had.
My father was talking in that careful, measured way of his. No doubt I should have been listening. Had I known I’d never see him again, I would have. But I was distracted and seduced by that gorgeous cut crystal glass winking at me from his hand. How does time get trapped in an object of no particular significance? Israel was supposed to set me free from everything that came before; everything in England and everything at home; in fact, every thing. But apparently I was still held hostage, then just as now, by beauty.
“What the hell do you want to do a damn fool thing like that for, David?” my father grunted when I told him my wonderful plan at the age of twenty. I took no offense. Groaning was often the punctuation of choice associated with my name, if he used it at all.
“Oh I know.”He brushed my words off like an annoying insect. “You have some naïve notion you can save the world. The fact that you know nothing of farming, fighting or deprivation of any kind, in fact, nothing of anything much at all, should be a deterrent.” He sounded so matter of fact I had no doubt he was right.
“I expect a two year stint on a farm in Israel will teach me a lot, and I do hope to be of some service while I’m there.” My father’s expression of disbelief exposed both my Oxford Don’s recycled speech and me at the same time.
“Escape, my boy; escape and adventure. That’s what you’re after, so let’s be honest about your do-gooding abroad. You’ll break your mother’s heart right here,” he added in the same factual tone. “You do know that, don’t you?”
Yes; I wanted to escape the entrapments of wealth and status my claustrophobic country and family had strangled me with. I could feel the ‘O’ ring of class and expectation closing in around my throat with every day I spent in that house and on that soil. “It’ll help you grow up jolly fast,” he said. The sudden shift of direction sent me into emotional whiplash, wondering why he wanted to push me out so fast if I wasn’t grown up yet.
“I’m going to help others,” I told him; “not myself.” He looked at me over his reading glasses, the sharp angle of his eyebrows suggesting extreme skepticism.
“Charity begins at home, David.” The brows were still arched precipetously. “Take care of yourself fist before becoming someone else’s burden.” It was advice I’d heard often growing up and ignored just as often. Contemplating my escape to the kibbutz, I thought he was referring to a complex financial scheme to escape British taxation. He had little interest in swelling the queen’s family coffers, so I assumed the home he referred to as worthy of charity was ours. It didn’t occur to me it was my own soul. The last time I saw my father, I’m sure he was still saying that and I’m just as sure I wasn’t listening.
“I want to get away from things,” I told him; “you don’t understand.”
“No David, you don’t.” And of course, he was right.
But in spite of my mother’s broken heart and my sister’s assurances that I’d end up in a shallow, unmarked grave, I went to Israel and learned; a lot of marginally useful things and one pivotal one that should have changed my life. The lesson didn’t come at the top of a gun tower, in a field of melons or riding look-out around the farm’s 400 mile perimeter. It came with the case of “the good stuff” my father sent when he learned I had little to drink but water. The kibbutz fell in love with me instantly. I was a celebrity with a popularity rating higher than the gun tower within moments of the arrival of the “best Scotch whiskey money could buy”; but how to drink it?
My friend Rebecca produced the only possible solution; that being the plastic cups we used for water. We all drank an earnest toast to my father. But I never put the cup to my mouth. All I could see was his sparkling cut crystal tumbler magnifying the whiskey and making it glow a rich, smoky topaz hew, instead of the muddy sludge cast by the plastic cup. I stared at the horrid thing made of gray petroleum byproducts, and saw only the cut crystal made of sparkling melted sand in its place. I couldn’t drink the whiskey in plastic cups then or any other day, until the case was long gone and only the memory of that elegant tumbler remained.
“Jesus, those glasses are in terrible shape,” my sister laughed. “Just like old people; old things certainly don’t hold their value. Hope you didn’t think you were inheriting something special.” She pushed one of the chipped, dusty tumblers aside as she looked at the things my father left me in his will. She was right. They made a sadly changed collection of mishandled specialty glasses. The pain of that honest appraisal went through me with the stab of an exposed nerve. Why had I never seen them as just glasses before? Why indeed had the beauty on the outside mattered to me so much more than the whiskey they were designed to hold? Why had all my failed relationships, to say nothing of multiple marriages, always been about the outside? I collected the scarred and broken crystal tumblers together, what was left of them, and repacked them in their cardboard carton.
“They’re coming back to The States with me anyway. I can’t part with them,” I told her. She looked at me sideways, shrugged, shook her head and sighed. She’s always had a different vocabulary than mine. Neither one of us is going to change now. But when I get back to my chosen land of the free and home of the brave, I’ll imagine these crystal glasses as they once looked, with the light from my father’s Tiffany lamp shining through them, igniting the amber glow of his “good stuff” inside. I don’t care what they really are, just what they once seemed to be to me.
By Sidney S. Stark