December 12, 2018

Three Lessons From My Father

I learned three important lessons from my father, Roger Selya. 

He is a geographer who retired after 37 years of teaching at the University of Cincinnati. He is a master at giving directions by foot and by car, and so the first lesson I learned early on was that all directions should start with, “Let me draw you a map,” complete with hand-drawn landmarks and arrows indicating which way to turn. On those maps, north is not necessarily at the top, because, as he would constantly remind us, north is not up. 

The second lesson is to share the work. My grandfather Saul Selya swore that no daughter-in-law would complain about his son’s ability to do housework, and so he taught my father to cook, clean and do laundry. After 48 years of marriage, my mother, Barbara, is grateful that the rule in our house is “whoever cooks doesn’t have to clean up.” Some of our best heart-to-heart conversations have been while we do the dishes after the seder, and the next generation of Selya daughters-in-law appreciates the strength of my grandfather’s commitment to equality back in the 1950s. 

The third and most profound lesson I have learned from my father is the value of a personal letter, written on paper and mailed in an envelope. There was no Jewish high school in Cincinnati when I was growing up, so my parents made a huge sacrifice on behalf of my Jewish education and sent me to the Frisch School, in Paramus, N.J. Long-distance phone calls were still expensive in the 1980s, so we didn’t talk very often. Instead, he would write me a letter every Thursday. And 30-plus years later, he still writes me a weekly letter, even though we now speak on the phone multiple times a week. He has terrible handwriting, so he types it on the computer and signs it “Love, Ab.” He writes to my brothers, too, using the same template but personalizing the letters to include our entire families, including pets. 

During the week, he saves cartoons and coupons from the newspaper, and book reviews that I might have missed, and he puts it all in the mail with a note. He used to update me on his students and his research, and the latest debates on campus. Now that he is retired, he tells me about his volunteer work at the blood bank, the music he is practicing on the piano and cello, the books he is reading, what he is planting in the garden, my brothers, community news and the weather.  

30-plus years later, he still writes me a weekly letter, even though we now speak on the phone multiple times a week. 

I have most of these letters, and now we have a chronicle of the Selya family over the past 30 years. Scattered among the regular weather reports and shul updates are the treasures: the excitement about our graduations, engagements, weddings, pregnancies, births; sorrow about the deaths of friends and family; conversations about health; plans for the future and stories about the past. I am grateful that my daughters will be able to reread the letters he wrote after he met them for the first time or after he celebrated their bat mitzvahs and graduations. I will admit that I do most of my communication via email, but when it really matters, when a friend has a baby or loses a parent, I get out the stationary and write a letter by hand. 

The only time my father misses a letter is if we are together, and then he will apologetically say, “No letter this week.” Even if we saw each other only the week before, he will still write, just to say how big the kids are getting and how quiet the house is now that we have gone. 

No matter how long or short the letter is, what he is really saying is, “I’m thinking about you” and “I miss you.” When we open his letter every week, my daughters take the time to read it, to laugh at the corny cartoons and connect with their saba. In this age of instant, ephemeral digital communication, his letters are a tangible expression of love across the miles. Abba, I got the message.

Rena Selya Cohen has taught the history of science at UCLA and Santa Monica College. She is on the board of B’nai David-Judea.