Of Time, and a Father’s First Century

My father understands unwinnable conflicts. He has been fighting a personal war against time since 1911.  “Where does the time go?” he is likely even now to be wondering out loud to a stack of magazines and mail he has yet to get to, but will.

He’s not one for birthdays, his own at least. God willing, his next one is Saturday. One hundred. He’s not going to want a fuss. Chances are, he’ll spend the week as he does every other, fuming at time. Chances are, he’s at it at this very moment.

“Why is there never enough of it?” he will ask, glancing at his watch and the tree-filtered sunlight on his garden. “How can it possibly go this fast?”

It’s only natural to think of time as a threat, an enemy. Impossible to ignore, impossible to defeat, relentless. Then again, there’s the case of my father. After a century of taking its best shots, time has failed to wreck him.

In his case, it is time which has found this war unwinnable. At some point in the last couple of decades, worn down by his perseverance and his emotional armor, time sued for peace.  A rare case of justice. In his working life, which ended relatively recently, my father had been hugely generous with his time in the act of healing others. Time, in the end, was generous with my father, somehow causing him to heal.

You expect aging to close minds and harden hearts, to be something that shrinks us, that turns us rigid, that takes us away, memory by memory, strength by strength. You fear that aging will cause us to become caricatures of some of our less attractive traits. In my father’s case, though, it has been the best parts of him which, in the fullness of these many years, have grown to take him over.

Like many of his generation, people shaped by war and want and uprooting, my father was for much of his life reserved, in many respects a private man, shielded by work and a quiet, at times harsh wit, disinclined to express feelings in word or gesture.

Who’d have guessed that time, of all things, would let the warm, loving, joyous, wounded man inside – the man he’d allowed the world to meet only in unguarded moments – win.

Born in the tiny town of Antopol in what is now Belarus, he lost his father while still a toddler. When he was four, he watched as part of Antopol itself was lost, set ablaze in the midst of World War I. At 10, malnourished, without English, schooled only in the sacred studies, the rich Yiddish, and the corporal punishment of the cheder, he landed with his family in America, where an aunt and uncle had pioneered a move to an unpronounceable place called Los Angeles.

No one ever loved the city better. Or more knowingly. This is a man who to this day relishes discovery, who reads the newspaper every morning, without glasses.

This is a man who can still tell you what blueberries tasted like to a child in Antopol in 1914, the ecstasy of what butter tasted like after a kid’s prison-like stretch in

Ellis Island, the feel of the snow underfoot in Arrowhead when my cousins were small, what it was like to take my mother and sister (in gloves) and me for ice cream in swank, late-‘50s San Francisco on the night train. And this is a man who, in a new century, will tell you that he is closer than ever to his wife of 69 years, and who breaks out with childlike revelry when a grandchild materializes on Skype.

“This is a historic moment,” he announces with his half-frowning smile of surprised delight, speaking live and in color with the other side of the world, with the branch of the family whose roots in the shtetl of Antopol led them to Israel. 

What’s his secret? I don’t believe it was the daily exercise and the drinking in moderation and the no egg yolks and the no smoking and the no salt. 

I believe it was the ice cream. Every night, so late that they were off the nutritional clock, he and my mother would secretly steal into the kitchen, dish up ice cream and stop time.

He would place a spoonful of ice cream in his mouth for, say, half a minute, savoring it, and then take it out, apparently untouched, unmelted, eternal. 

Sages tell us that there is no such thing as coincidence. Sure enough, my dad’s 100th birthday happens to fall on International Ice Cream for Breakfast Day. Creature of routine that he is, my dad may well not eat ice cream for breakfast on Saturday. But I intend to.

I lift this spoon to you, dad. The sage of Studio City. For teaching me that it is the loves of one’s life that, in the end, defeat time. And if, at the end of the day, you decide to sneak into the kitchen for some of your own, I promise not to tell anyone.

Bradley Burston, a columnist for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper and Senior Editor of Haaretz.com, is the son of Dr. Herschel Burston.