Transcript

132:

Father's Day '99
Transcript

Originally aired 06.18.1999

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/132

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Alex was seven. He had a Teddy bear named Tony. Tony had been with him forever. Tony was with him back when he had all sorts of surgery and nobody was sure if he was going to pull through. But Alex did pull through. And afterwards, when the nerves of the family were still jangling, Alex continued to carry around Tony for years, sleep with Tony.

When he was seven, he took Tony with him to Disneyland. And, when the family got back home to San Francisco from Disneyland, Alex's parents unpacked the bags and looked for Tony. And Tony was not there. Alex's dad, Jon, tells the story.

Jon Holtzman

So Alex was in the room and we told him it appears that Tony isn't here. And it took him about a minute to really realize that Tony was gone. And, at that point, he said two things. The first thing is he said that he couldn't imagine life without Tony, and the other is he said, "I feel like I've lost my spirit."

Ira Glass

At that point, what's a parent to do? You know, what do you do? So they call the hotel, and the hotel says over the phone they have not found this Teddy bear. And so Jon flew down there the next morning. He tried to be a good dad, rented a car, retraced the family's path, made his way to the hotel.

Jon Holtzman

After waiting for a few minutes in the lobby, a security guard came and said, "Well, Mr. Holtzman, we have bad news for you. We know what happened to the bear." And they explained that a maid had seen the bear, apparently, in the garbage and that he'd been thrown away.

And so my immediate reaction was well, that's great. That's not bad news. That's good news because at least we know where he is. And he said, "Well, no. You've got to see the problem here." And we went around to the back. And there was this huge sealed dumpster with a compacter on the front, literally, the size of a semi trailer and 25, 30 feet long, at least.

Ira Glass

They looked at it and there was, literally, no way into this dumpster. Jon started to despair.

Jon Holtzman

And I started asking, "Well, when is the next garbage pickup?" And they said, "Well, it's a day from now." And I'm thinking what am I going to do? And, just as we were having this discussion, the truck arrives to pick up this giant dumpster a day early. And this was kind of an amazing thing because, if I had gotten there 15 minutes later, or 20 minutes later, the garbage truck would've been gone.

Ira Glass

A squad of hotel employees was deployed to travel with Jon and the garbage truck to the recycling plant to search for the Teddy bear. And, you know, there are only two possible attitudes that adults would have towards this particular mission. One, they would be into it, or, two, they would think that Jon's a nut. And, incredibly, none of them thought that he was a nut. But why? Because almost all of them were parents. And, at some point or another, almost all of them had been in the same or a similar situation.

Jon Holtzman

I mean, you couldn't be a parent without having dealt with your kids dealing with loss, you know? And it's so horrible. And, yeah. I mean, I think everybody rallied to exactly that cause.

Ira Glass

It's interesting because I think that a lot of parents get to points, at different points in their child's lives, where they want to intervene, and they feel like they will not allow fate to hurt their child.

Jon Holtzman

Absolutely.

Ira Glass

And they will simply do whatever they can to stop fate.

Jon Holtzman

There's no question. And, you know, if you've ever had a child who almost dies, it means a lot, in a way, to be able to protect your kids from that kind of thing.

Ira Glass

Well, on this Father's Day, we bring you stories of dads trying to protect their kids and kids trying to protect their dads. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Today on our program, the protection racket that is parenthood. Our program today in three acts. Act One, Paddington's Day at the Dump, the story of a man, a small toy bear, and tens of thousands of pounds of soggy garbage. Act Two, A Trip Down Memory Lane. A son takes his father on one, last road trip to jog his dad's failing memory of his own life. Act Three, Age of Enchantment. Writer Lawrence Weschler and his daughter, Sarah, talk about something that he did intending to be kind, intending to protect her from disappointment, that inadvertently broke her heart, and how she saved the day for the two of them. Stay with us.

Act One. Paddington's Day At The Dump.

Ira Glass

Act One, Paddington's Day at the Dump. So Jon Holtzman and the hotel employees followed the garbage truck that's hauling the dumpster away. In his car, four conscripts. And, at this point, essentially, this story becomes the movie, Saving Private Ryan. And, you know, why don't we have some of the music from the movie just to set the right mood?

[MUSIC PLAYING - "HYMN TO THE FALLEN" FROM SAVING PRIVATE RYAN]

Perfect. Somewhere in Southern California there's a little bear named Tony. And these four recruits are going to get him out to assuage the grief of one American family.

Jon Holtzman

OK, so we're in the car and there is this kind of silence. I made a deal with everybody in the car. I offered each of them $100 for the person who found the bear. And we were kind of plotting strategy of, well, OK, when they open this dumpster, how are we going to find the bear? Where is he going to be in the dumpster? How many days of garbage is there? And, you know.

And so we finally arrive at the recycling plant. And, first of all, the scope of this plant is not at all what I'd imagined. I expected it to be just a garbage dump. But, instead, it's what I imagine to be, essentially, a modern recycling plant. And there were these huge caterpillar trailers and tractors running around the plant. And there were these huge steel floors. And the scope, the scale, of the place was just really awesome.

Ira Glass

It's like acres is what you're trying--

Jon Holtzman

Yeah, it's just huge.

Ira Glass

It takes a long, long time to talk their way into the plant. If they enter, all work at the recycling center has to stop. But, incredibly, finally, they're allowed in under one condition.

Jon Holtzman

We would have 15 minutes to search this pile. But that's all we could have, which put a lot of pressure on us. Although, I'm not sure we understood how much pressure it would put on us until they dumped the garbage out of the trailer.

So they dumped the garbage out of the trailer. And, even though the trailer was large, I guess I'd kind of underestimated how much garbage can go in a trailer that size. And so they dumped this out on the floor. And, of course, it spread out, so it occupied this really massive space on the floor. And it was full of this brown sludge, and liquid, and just tens of thousands of plastic bags floating, essentially. Not really floating, but oozing in this--

Ira Glass

This soggy sort of--

Jon Holtzman

--soggy mess. Exactly. And I took one look at this pile and my heart truly sank because I just thought I don't even know where to begin.

A number of the people who came with me jumped in and immediately started ripping open bags trying to find the bear. And so, after 30 seconds or so of taking in the enormity of the thing, I just plunged into this pile along with them. And, watching us do it, these garbage men, the folks who were running the recycling plant, at least four or five of them put on their gloves and started doing the same thing with us. So, at this point, there were a group of maybe eight or nine of us pulling apart bags and frantically looking for this bear.

Seven or eight minutes into it I just despaired of ever finding the bear. And I couldn't believe it, you know? We'd come this far, you know? And it just seemed that it ought to work out, but I didn't see how it would. It was just too big. And I remember saying to myself, "Tony, if you're here, you're really just going to have to appear on the surface because there's just no way. I mean, the only way this is going to happen is if you make yourself appear." And the next thing I knew I was holding the bear.

Ira Glass

Wait a second. What do you mean? Do you mean you picked up a plastic bag and you shook--

Jon Holtzman

I picked up a plastic bag, and there he was. And he was in a plastic bag, so he was completely dry and unscathed.

Ira Glass

How do you explain that?

Jon Holtzman

Oh, I don't. You know, I'm a rationalist. I'm not religious. I'm not really spiritual in any way. I'm a labor negotiator. I don't explain it. You know, the thing that's strange to me is not just the way I found him, but we had eight or nine people looking, you know? And why was I the one who found him?

Ira Glass

Because you were touched by an angel that wanted to save you $100?

Jon Holtzman

Yeah. [LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

Jon Holtzman is an attorney in San Francisco. The hotel that deployed its forces to get the bear back, I feel like we should give them credit. Let's say their name on the air. It's the Sheraton Anaheim.

But one last note. Here is the thing about being a father, being a parent. Jon gets the bear. His whole squad is giddy, completely giddy, on the drive back to the hotel. And there, he calls his son to give him the news.

Jon Holtzman

He was really, really happy. But there was also a slightly of-course-ish response to the thing, which is, "Well, good. I'm glad you got the bear."

Ira Glass

He doesn't quite understand it for the heroic gesture that it is.

Jon Holtzman

I think that's true.

Ira Glass

He's like, oh, yeah. Dad went down and got the bear.

Jon Holtzman

That's completely true.

Ira Glass

The theme to Star Wars is not playing in his head as that happens.

Jon Holtzman

[LAUGHTER]

Act Two. A Trip Down Memory Lane.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Trip Down Memory Lane. Joel Meyerowitz is a photographer. He grew up in New York City. In the 1970's, his parents moved to Florida. Joel would visit for a few days at a time. As time passed, his father, Hy, developed Alzheimer's.

Before he retired, Hy was a salesman for 40 years. He did a few years as a comic in a vaudeville act before that. He was a boxer. He won his weight class in the first Golden Gloves competition. But now that he had Alzheimer's, the doctor said that he should stay inside, avoid a lot of stimulation.

His son, Joel, thought, what if we tried, for a brief time, something different? He wanted to have one last adventure with his father, one last road trip before the Alzheimer's made it impossible to have more adventures. Joel also hoped that, maybe, being on the road, visiting places that he'd been, going back to the old neighborhood one more time, might spark some memories that had been gone for his dad, that had been long, long vanished. It was a gift to his dad.

So they got a camera. They went on a three-week trip driving from Fort Lauderdale back to New York City. Joel Meyerowitz's son, Sasha, filmed lots of the trip. You actually hear his voice only a few times in this footage I'm about to play you. When they set out on the trip, Sasha was 27, Joel was 57, Hy was 87.

Joel Meyerowitz

Do you know what ocean this is?

Hy Meyerowitz

Well, I'll be honest with you, Joel, I don't know remember. Not the Catskills ocean?

Joel Meyerowitz

Catskills are mountains.

Hy Meyerowitz

Yeah.

Joel Meyerowitz

This is an ocean.

Hy Meyerowitz

Uh-huh.

Joel Meyerowitz

Which one?

Hy Meyerowitz

Well, I don't know.

Joel Meyerowitz

Is it the Pacific or the Atlantic?

Hy Meyerowitz

I would take it as the Pacific.

Joel Meyerowitz

[UNINTELLIGIBLE]

Hy Meyerowitz

Wrong.

[LAUGHTER]

Hy Meyerowitz

Yeah, wrong.

Joel Meyerowitz

So, which one is it then?

Hy Meyerowitz

Either the Permissia? or the--

Joel Meyerowitz

The Permissic. Right.

Hy Meyerowitz

The Permissic?

Joel Meyerowitz

The Pershimmoth. The Pershimmoth ocean.

Hy Meyerowitz

I am at the Pershimmoth. What are you asking me so early in the morning a question like that?

Joel Meyerowitz

Where were you born?

Hy Meyerowitz

1092-- 109207-- no. 159059 East--

Joel Meyerowitz

Well, it was East 100th Street, right? Yeah?

Hy Meyerowitz

Yeah. Yeah.

Joel Meyerowitz

He taught me all the street smart things. He set up a punching bag for me. And he taught me how to fight, how to take my stance, how to throw a punch, how to put your body behind it. He had me work out on a light bag too. Like this, you know?

He always felt that, if you got into a scrape in a neighborhood, that you shouldn't run away. His motto was, "Step in and deliver the first blow." And he said, "Take the biggest guy down." And that was his attitude. He wouldn't stop and run away from anything.

On Morrison Avenue, the block we lived on, he was considered the mayor of the block. Any time there was a dispute that had to be settled, they would actually come and ask him, "What do you think, Hy?" Or, if there were strangers coming through the neighborhood and they needed to be told to get out of there, they'd get him.

The scenes I remember are that people would gather in front of our window and they'd yell, "Hymie. Hey, Hymie." And he'd come to the window. And he would adjudicate from the window. He would say, "No. No, you shouldn't do that." And, "He should do this. And, "You get that. Let him alone." It was like the judge.

Hy Meyerowitz

Here they come, baby. Yeah, watch him now. Hey, ya.

[BIRD SCREECH]

Hy Meyerowitz

Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello.

Joel Meyerowitz

Hey, Pop.

Hy Meyerowitz

What?

Joel Meyerowitz

Do you know what this reminds me of?

Hy Meyerowitz

No.

Joel Meyerowitz

Does that remind you of Melvin?

Hy Meyerowitz

Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Joel Meyerowitz

That's what I was thinking.

Hy Meyerowitz

Yeah. You didn't think of the neighbor that time.

Joel Meyerowitz

Do you remember Melvin?

Hy Meyerowitz

Yeah, sure, I remember him.

Joel Meyerowitz

What was Melvin?

Hy Meyerowitz

It was a little Chinese-- a little bird.

Joel Meyerowitz

A parakeet.

Hy Meyerowitz

Parakeet, right. I didn't think of the--

Joel Meyerowitz

Do you remember the things that Melvin said?

Hy Meyerowitz

He called to us. He spoke to us, and he also called his name out a lot.

Joel Meyerowitz

How did he say it? Do you remember?

Hy Meyerowitz

Hi, I'm Melvin. Hi, Melvin. Isn't it, "Hi Melvin?"

Joel Meyerowitz

No. He said I'm Melvin, what?

Hy Meyerowitz

Melvin Belvin?

Joel Meyerowitz

I'm Melvin Meyerowitz.

Hy Meyerowitz

Oh, yeah. [LAUGHS]

Joel Meyerowitz

Can you tell me the story of the time he--

Hy Meyerowitz

I can't tell you about it. Look at this. I can't tell you about it. And look at this. Another one coming. Hi, boys. Hello. Hello. We know you. We know your grandfather.

Joel Meyerowitz

Pop, remember how he used to say my name is Melvin Meyerowitz, I'm a Jewish bird?

Hy Meyerowitz

Yes. Yes.

Joel Meyerowitz

That comes back to you?

Hy Meyerowitz

I know it. It didn't. But that--

Joel Meyerowitz

Good morning, Doctor Goldberg?

Hy Meyerowitz

Oh, yeah.

Joel Meyerowitz

Remember Dr. Goldberg came to visit Mom when she was sick?

Hy Meyerowitz

Yeah.

Joel Meyerowitz

Do you remember the time the bird flew away across the Bronx? He went out the door on Mom's shoulder and he flew away? And we were all so heartbroken that the bird was gone.

And then some woman called up. Do you remember? She called Mom and she said, "Do you have a bird named Melvin?" My mother said, "Yeah, we have a bird. It was a green and yellow parakeet." And the woman said, "Well, the bird landed on my window and said, 'My name is Melvin Meyerowitz. I'm a Jewish bird.' And I looked you up in the phone book. And I called a Meyerowitz, and they said, 'Oh, no, that's my brother Hy's bird." We went and we got the bird back. Do you remember that?

Hy Meyerowitz

No.

Joel Meyerowitz

I'm surprised.

Hy Meyerowitz

Come on. You want to go? You want to go-- don't fall. Take it easy.

[BIRD SCREECH]

Hy Meyerowitz

Take it easy.

[BIRD SCREECH]

Hy Meyerowitz

Do you want to go?

Joel Meyerowitz

With the onset of memory loss, it's not only his memories that are fading away, but it's the memories that I shared with him that are fading away. So I could no longer say to him, "Hey, Pop. Remember, we did this," and have him say, "Yes, that was fantastic," remember it. So I found myself progressively left alone with my memories.

And then you look at your own memories and you realize, I've got this handful of really insignificant things, and I've made them my world, my world of memory. And it's astonishing how the few things that I recall to share with him are minor notes, you know, the bird or the handful of things that I ask him. So, that was a lesson, for me, about what it is that rises up out of our experience that we hold onto.

Joel Meyerowitz

Pop?

Hy Meyerowitz

Yes.

Joel Meyerowitz

I want to ask you a few questions about the family.

Hy Meyerowitz

About our family?

Joel Meyerowitz

About our family.

Hy Meyerowitz

Yes.

Joel Meyerowitz

You've got three sons.

Hy Meyerowitz

Yes.

Joel Meyerowitz

What are their names?

Hy Meyerowitz

Joel, Ricky--

Joel Meyerowitz

And who's your youngest son?

Hy Meyerowitz

The youngest one is-- I think it's David but I don't remember his name any more.

Joel Meyerowitz

Joel, Rick, and--

Hy Meyerowitz

Joel, Ricky, and-- yeah.

Joel Meyerowitz

Stevie.

Hy Meyerowitz

Stevie, oh, yeah.

Joel Meyerowitz

Do you know what Rick does to make a living, what his career is?

Hy Meyerowitz

Well, he tries to do a lot of stuff. If he were following me, he'd be doing it on the crook, but--

Joel Meyerowitz

What's he famous for?

Hy Meyerowitz

Ricky?

Joel Meyerowitz

Yeah.

Hy Meyerowitz

Well, in the first place, he's my kid. You are also. And because that alone will get you enough fame.

Joel Meyerowitz

So you don't know what Rick does?

Hy Meyerowitz

Ricky? Rick is a half-time, a part-time-- that book, I don't know the trade name.

Joel Meyerowitz

OK, you're getting closer, Pop. Just try. Try to think about what Rick does.

Hy Meyerowitz

Rick? Rick is an artist.

Joel Meyerowitz

Right. You got it.

Hy Meyerowitz

Not?

Joel Meyerowitz

You got it. You got it right. And I'm Joel. What do I do?

Hy Meyerowitz

Ah, you're a doll. You're my best number one for--

Joel Meyerowitz

Come on, get serious, Pop. Do you remember what it is I do? What do I do?

Hy Meyerowitz

You make money. [LAUGHS] I'll tell you what. I'll give it to you straight off the street.

Joel Meyerowitz

What's my profession?

Hy Meyerowitz

What's, what?

Joel Meyerowitz

What's my profession?

Hy Meyerowitz

What's your most attachment?

Joel Meyerowitz

What's my profession?

Hy Meyerowitz

Your profession? Now I've got it figured out. I don't know, a crook, or a thief, or whatever. You're known as an artist, serious artist, in the art field.

Joel Meyerowitz

OK. What about Stevie? What's Stevie's business?

Hy Meyerowitz

Judy?

Joel Meyerowitz

Stevie.

Hy Meyerowitz

Stevie? I don't know.

Joel Meyerowitz

Does it bother you that you can't remember your kid's names sometimes? And you can't remember what they do?

Hy Meyerowitz

Well, I tell you, yeah. I see them. Hello. Goodbye. And that's it. I'm not complaining.

Sasha Meyerowitz

Is it hard to see him like this? Does it feel painful?

Joel Meyerowitz

Honestly, It's sad. I mean, I have a feeling of sadness. But I also have a feeling of acceptance. We've been apart for 20 years in the mutual prime of our lives. When I was raising my children and he was a grandparent, we weren't together. And so, I guess, I'm just accepting of where he is.

If we had been together for 20 years, and I had seen the decline, and I had been relating to him emotionally and lovingly all that time, I might feel a deeper sadness. But, even though he's my father, the distance that we've been apart all these years has put some kind of a buffer in there. So this is the guy that I know now. We have a much closer relationship in the way we see each other and talk to each other and have continuity.

Sasha Meyerowitz

I just know, at one point, you said to him he was your hero. Actually, I thought it was so sweet. And I thought it must be hard to see--

Joel Meyerowitz

--your hero fall.

Sasha Meyerowitz

Yeah, right.

Joel Meyerowitz

Well, he was my hero, my childhood hero, you know? But that's so far away. I can't relate to the sadness of that. I mean, I love him in that unequivocal way that a child loves a parent. And I feel, when I care for him, a kind of, I guess, a renewal or a rebirth of feeling in this period.

I know, when I take him after a shower and I rub him down and I actually feel his head in my hand and I feel his flesh in my hands, it's been many years since I had that kind of contact with my father. And it was a little strange at first. I thought, what's it like to rub this other person's body, touch this other person's body? There's a slight deference. And then I realize it's my pop, you know? And he's in need. He can't take care of himself this way.

Joel Meyerowitz

Mom? OK, here's Papa, Mom. Hold on. OK. Here comes Dad.

Hy Meyerowitz

Joel? Is it my Joel? Don't you know who I am? Who? What do you mean how come I'm on the phone? Don't get mad at me. Don't get mad at me. It's very important because I've been traveling.

Joel Meyerowitz

I think my father had a classic marriage of his generation. He loved my mother. She was beautiful and hot-tempered, an exciting person to be with. But he wanted something from her that either he didn't know how to get or she couldn't give. And that was a kind of mother love that he, himself, hadn't experienced.

Hy Meyerowitz

Oh, yes. I'm OK. No, I'm not having a good time. Are you having a good time? You are, really? OK. I want you to be healthy and strong and smile, Sally.

Joel Meyerowitz

You know, his mother had been bedridden after his birth. And then she died soon after, so he never really knew her. And that's the deepest groove in his memory, which is, I think, unrequited love.

Hy Meyerowitz

Don't get down to judge this because, right now, I'm beginning to face one of Joel's tests. And I will be back home, maybe, who knows, a couple of months from now. I don't know, Sally. Would you go with me the next trip? Would you go with me the next trip? OK. All right, babe. Take care, sweetheart. Be careful, will you? Be careful. Bye-bye.

Joel Meyerowitz

And I think that, from my point of view now, that, if he had really just loved my mother without demanding something from her or needing something from her, which was that childhood need, that she probably would have just loved him back for the kind, warm, funny man that he was. But, because there was something that he was demanding, she couldn't give it to him. A kind of perverse logic of relationship occurred.

Hy Meyerowitz

She's mad. She's mad about something. She's mad about me. I didn't do nothing.

Joel Meyerowitz

Why is she mad?

Hy Meyerowitz

She's mad that's all. She sounded very, very bad. She sounded like she didn't care.

Joel Meyerowitz

Well, she probably was caring a lot.

Hy Meyerowitz

Oh, sure.

Joel Meyerowitz

Which is why she was mad that you didn't call.

Hy Meyerowitz

I waver also, when I think of her being by herself. And I would rather be there than be here.

Joel Meyerowitz

But you're having such a good time here.

Hy Meyerowitz

Yeah. I'm, to my limits, I'm having what I like. And I would love to be involved with [INAUDIBLE]. But the idea is that I always have to include Mama.

Joel Meyerowitz

Throughout the trip he asked for Sally every single day. "Where's Sally?" "Where's Mom," thinking that she should have been in the car next to him.

Hy Meyerowitz

Sally. Did you leave Sally upstairs there?

Joel Meyerowitz

Yeah, Pop. We said goodbye to Mom.

Hy Meyerowitz

No kidding? Right? Because I noticed, right here, that there's no Sally. I thought this was Sally all bundled up, and I see it's not bundled up.

Joel Meyerowitz

It's your pillow. That bed pillow's going to have to be your Sally for the next two weeks, though.

Hy Meyerowitz

Yeah, yeah, the pillow. Oh, you guys are starting to pull tricks on me now. I know. I know. I know. Well, is she--was she here?

Joel Meyerowitz

Nope. That's your pillow, Pop.

Hy Meyerowitz

Jesus Christ, almighty. I know she's not in the trunk. You wouldn't do that to her. I'm not even going to come through this Joel. You know, I'm not the smartest or the cutest in the service. If my mommy don't come up, and then don't come down in five minutes, I want to know where she is. This is my wife.

Joel Meyerowitz

So we'd better check the trunk.

Hy Meyerowitz

Yeah, or the bed is in the trunk. I wouldn't be surprised.

Joel Meyerowitz

There was a time, when we were driving with her in Florida before we made the film, and she was sitting right next to him. And he leaned over to me and he said, "Where's Mom?" And I said, "Well, who's sitting next to you?" And he looked over at this person sitting next to him and he said, "Where's Sally? That's not Sally."

When my father was young, he was a wonderful dancer and athlete and a natural comic. And I guess Charlie Chaplin was the rage. And, just as there were Elvis imitators, there were Chaplin imitators. And, my father, he became a Chaplin imitator. And he had that act that, I guess, he took on the road or around the vaudeville circuit in New York.

Hy Meyerowitz

I was trying to fit in myself too, all the years, with the joking. I was trying to be a Chaplin. I didn't know if I was doing that right or wrong. But I saw that poor little guy that he'd bend down, pick something up, everybody'd give him a kick in the ass. That was what I used to see. That is what I didn't want to happen to me.

Joel Meyerowitz

What was it that you liked about Charlie Chaplin, that made you want to do the Charlie Chaplin act?

Hy Meyerowitz

He was a giant in the height of a little midget. He was a little guy righting all the wrongs, helping others. As he'd pass by, we'd pat him on the top of the head. He was remembered out there.

And I just meditate, look at the little party. And the little person had no money or no nothing. And he was going-- on the inside. He'd come out here, like this, like shake his shoulders and then traveled on. And that was what I loved, the goodness, the goodness. And not everybody understood him. But those that understood him, they would put their arm around him, and he would do the same. But it was a beautiful deed for the day.

Joel Meyerowitz

Did you feel connected to him in that way?

Hy Meyerowitz

Always. Always. Always.

Joel Meyerowitz

Aw.

With Alzeimer's disease, most memory finally dissolves. And, even though he was a man who was easily lovable, I think he forgot that these were his qualities. And that he was, in fact, loved by people faded from his memory. And, at the end of his life, he remembers a few of the more painful things-- that he's a motherless child, that he was not loved the way he wanted to be loved. And it's amazing that, with the murkiness of Alzheimer's clouding everything, that something as primal as being an unloved child stayed with him.

Hy Meyerowitz

Well, everybody would show a little bit of something to me that I was accepted. And they would talk to me. And they'd pat me on the top of the head or they'd put their hands around me. I'm home.

I loved everybody. I loved everybody, but nobody saw me. Nobody remembered me. Nobody knew me and nobody saw me, but I was there. And, to this very day, I have the same thing. I have poor Mommy and she doesn't see me. She doesn't see me.

Joel Meyerowitz

Aw, Pop. Well, your boys saw you. We all saw you. I loved when you were the strong man in the neighborhood, but I loved when you were the Chaplin figure and the comic. I loved the way you drove the car. You were such a great driver.

I loved the way you talked to people. You could talk to the big guys or the little guys, and you made them all the same, Pop. I used to think of you as the great equalizer. You could take a guy who was a doctor, or a principal of the school, or a business man, and you can take another guy, who was just an ordinary worker, and you would treat them the same. And you would bring them all to the same level, and that would be the level of laughter.

Hy Meyerowitz

You saw me. You saw Papa.

Joel Meyerowitz

That's right.

Ira Glass

Joel Meyerowitz; his father, Hy; his son, Sasha. In the year since they recorded that footage, Hy has died. Joel and Sasha cut their footage into a film. It's called, Pop. It aired on the PBS show, Frontline. This September, Joel is putting out a book, called Aftermath, with his large-format photos from the Ground Zero site in New York City. Coming up, can a dad try too hard? That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Age Of Enchantment.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and performers to tackle that theme. Today's program, for Father's Day, we bring you stories of kids trying to care for and protect their dads and dads trying to protect and care for their kids.

We've arrived at Act Three of our show. Act Three, Age of Enchantment. Lawrence Weschler is an author and journalist. He used to write a lot for The New Yorker magazine. This story is about his attempt to protect his daughter, Sarah, from disappointment and to thrill her. And how, with the best of intentions, all of this went awry and led to an odd breach of trust between father and child. He and Sarah went into a studio in New York City to tell us this story. At the time, Sarah was 11 years old. The story begins simply enough.

Lawrence Weschler

She would get into very active conversations with the characters in the books while we were reading. So, for example, when we were reading Little House on the Prairie there would be these moments where she would interrupt my reading and say, "Wait a second. I want to talk to the Indian." And we'd have to go look for a picture of the Indian.

And she'd say to the Indian, "Now look, Indian, in a few pages you're going to meet Laura, but you've got to understand. I know she's taking your land, but it's not her fault. She's just a kid. Now, let me talk to Laura." And we'd go back and we'd talk to Laura. And in these things I would take on the role of the Indian, and I'd say things like, "Who's that talking," and so forth. And we would have these incredibly elaborate conversations. Do you remember that, Sarah?

Sarah Weschler

Yes.

Lawrence Weschler

Anyway, this sort of thing would go on all the time. And, at a later point, we began reading The Borrowers series, the series of wonderful books by Mary Noble.

Sarah Weschler

Norton.

Lawrence Weschler

Mary-- excuse me.

Sarah Weschler

Norton.

Lawrence Weschler

By Mary Norton, that's right. And, well, should Sarah describe what the book is about, maybe?

Ira Glass

Sure. Sarah, explain what the borrowers are like.

Sarah Weschler

Well, The Borrowers, it's about these little people who are, I think, like four inches tall. And they live under the floorboards in the house. And what they do is they take things from people, little things, that they can use around their house.

Lawrence Weschler

So what kinds of things do they take?

Sarah Weschler

Well, they take pocket watches, and stamps, or pictures on the wall.

Lawrence Weschler

And part of the point about borrowers is that they're not allowed-- are they allowed to talk to people?

Sarah Weschler

No.

Lawrence Weschler

Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

Sarah Weschler

Well, because they think that people can really hurt them because, according to the book, it's happened before.

Ira Glass

Right.

Lawrence Weschler

So, anyway, we were reading this book. And one day I came home and Sarah was incredibly excited. Her face was just glowing. She said, "Daddy! You won't believe it! We have borrowers here in our own house!"

And my memory is that-- maybe you remember this differently, Sarah, but-- my memory was that she went to a particular place in the basement. And she pointed at this little hole in the wall in the basement near the floor. And she said, "I was coming down the stairs. And there was one of them standing right there, a little girl. And she was wearing a pink taffeta skirt." That's what you said. "And I froze. And she froze. And we looked at each other. And I knew I wasn't supposed to talk to her, that she shouldn't talk to me, but we just looked at each other. And, after about 30 seconds, she kind of waved her hand, just slightly, and she ran away. And it was right there." And Sarah took me to the place where it was.

Ira Glass

And, Sarah, let me just ask you. What do you remember of this?

Sarah Weschler

Well, I remember having seen-- well, you see, it's so strange to say this because I feel like I'm betraying the borrowers, but I still believe in them. And, if I ever actually got to meet one, I'd never tell anyone. And I do remember having seen something. And it wasn't really for 30 seconds. It was for, maybe, 10 seconds, and then it ran away.

Ira Glass

And, even now when you think about it, you can picture? You can picture seeing it?

Sasha Meyerowitz

Yes. Yeah. Yeah. And I didn't imagine it. It was definitely there.

Ira Glass

And it was a little girl?

Sarah Weschler

Yeah, I think.

Ira Glass

OK.

Lawrence Weschler

And then, over the next few days, Sarah began leaving things for this borrower. And the first thing in the morning she would race downstairs to see whether the things had been picked up.

Ira Glass

Do you remember what kind of things you left?

Sarah Weschler

Sometimes I'd leave toothpicks or pieces of food.

Ira Glass

What do they use toothpicks for?

Sarah Weschler

Oh, just to dig with, you know?

Ira Glass

Kind of an all-purpose tool?

Sarah Weschler

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Sarah Weschler

Walking stick.

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Sarah Weschler

Things like that.

Lawrence Weschler

Anyway, so she would leave these things there. And she would be so disappointed, and disappointment verging on desolation, that they weren't picked up. And she'd have long conversations with me. She said, "Why aren't they picking them up? Don't they know that I'm giving it to them?" And I would try to explain that, maybe, they were scared, or nervous, or something, that's how borrowers are.

But she was so sad. And this went on. I figured this would end but, at some point, this went on for a week. And I don't know why I did it because it began a cascade of consequences. But one night I picked up the stuff and put it in my pocket. And, the next morning, she came bounding up the stairs saying, "Daddy! You won't believe it! There are borrowers just like I said! They took the stuff! They took the stuff!" And she was transported with delight. And I figured that would be the end of it, but it wasn't.

Ira Glass

Well, what happened next, Sarah?

Sarah Weschler

I started writing to them. I started writing letters.

Ira Glass

OK. Why don't I ask you to pull out one of those letters, and let's hear what you wrote for the first one.

Sarah Weschler

All right, the first one. OK.

Ira Glass

Now, you were six at the time, right?

Sarah Weschler

Seven.

Ira Glass

Seven.

Sarah Weschler

Dear Borrowers, I have seen you, but I want to meet you. If I do, I will not tell anyone without your permission. Agreed, or not agreed? And then this is the borrower explaining--

Lawrence Weschler

Just one second. So what happened is that, that note on a little yellow Post-it, lay by the hole for several days. And for several mornings Sarah would be completely devastated that it had not been answered. So I went through several days of not quite knowing what to do because she was getting more and more sad about this and more concerned. And so then I figured, well, it won't do any harm to pick up the piece of paper and write a little, tiny message back, which I did.

Ira Glass

Do you have that there as well?

Sarah Weschler

Yeah, it's on the same piece of paper.

Ira Glass

OK. So--

Sarah Weschler

Dear Sarah, gosh, this is strange. Who are you? How do you know about borrowers? I thought no human beings ever knew about us. My dad says it's too dangerous for borrowers to meet a human being. And he even says I mustn't write to you. But maybe, at least, I can write. Will you write back? I hope so. I'll keep it a secret from my dad. Signed, Annabel Lee. PS, I am 11. How about you?

Ira Glass

And so you got this. Do you remember getting this letter?

Sarah Weschler

Mm-hm.

Lawrence Weschler

Do you remember that morning, what you said when you came up the stairs?

Sarah Weschler

No.

Ira Glass

What did she say? Do you remember?

Lawrence Weschler

Oh, she was just, "They are! I told you! I told you! And she answered! She answered! And she wants me to write back!" And she was over the moon. And she wrote back, immediately.

Sarah Weschler

Yeah.

Ira Glass

So, Ren, did you conceive of your borrowers as being descendants of the borrowers in the book?

Lawrence Weschler

Well, it was unclear. I mean, it was a possibility. And it was up to Sarah to keep dredging and find out more. And so a large part of the correspondences is Sarah doing genealogical work on the family and asking all kinds of questions.

Sarah Weschler

Yeah, I would ask, "What was your grandmother's name?" And it turned out that her grandmother was Arrietty, which is the main character.

Ira Glass

The main character in the book?

Sarah Weschler

Yeah. And she says that she calls her dad Pea, as in a pea pod, because, in the book, the dad is Pod.

Ira Glass

Oh.

Sarah Weschler

And then she calls her mom Homie because, in the book, the mother is Homily.

Ira Glass

How long did the letters go back and forth? How many letters were there?

Sarah Weschler

I think there were over 17 because I didn't finish counting, but I counted up to 17.

Ira Glass

And, Ren, during this time, were you frightened about where this was all going to lead, that at some point you would get found out?

Lawrence Weschler

Well, it was getting strange and, actually, kind of nerve-wracking. And I would do things. I kept on figuring that Sarah was going to grow out of this or that Sarah would make the association that this was kind of like what we used to do when I would read about the Indian or about Laura. I kept on thinking that she would just enjoy that, but she was getting more and more into it. And it was becoming more and more involved. And the more involved, the more I could see how invested Sarah was in it.

I mean, it really was the main thing going on in her life during that season. And, as she began telling friends about it and so forth, the stories had to get more and more elaborate to include all the stray bits of details that were seeping into things. And I didn't quite know where it was going to go. I would do things. I would send the borrowers on vacations.

Ira Glass

You would send them on vacations?

Lawrence Weschler

I'd just have them suddenly disappear for a while. And they'd be gone for a while. And I would hope that, by the time it was over, Sarah would have forgotten. If I had said they'd be gone three weeks, there weeks later on that day there'd be a note for them from Sarah.

Ira Glass

And, Sarah, did you suspect at that point?

Sarah Weschler

No. No. The second I suspected it, I was almost sure that it had been him. And I just went up and asked him if it was him.

Ira Glass

Why is it that you started to suspect? Do you remember what happened that made you suspect?

Sarah Weschler

I think it was sort of the fact-- not his handwriting, actually. It was that I would tell my dad, for instance, that I was in the basement and I stuck my finger into this hole, and I felt something sort of silky or something. It was probably just something, an old piece of cloth that was stuck there. But I felt it, and I told my dad. And it sort of slipped away from my finger. And told my dad about it.

And then, in the next letter, Annabel Lee'd be saying, "Oh, was that you who touched me when I was wearing my silk dress? And so I started to think I tell my dad things that, sometimes, I'd exaggerate a little bit. When I was younger, I exaggerated some things. I made things a little bit more exciting than they might have really been.

And then I read the letter, and it had that exaggerated part in it. And so I started to go, that didn't really happen. I was just adding that to my story. And so I got--

Ira Glass

That made you suspicious?

Sarah Weschler

Yeah. And I asked my dad, and--

Lawrence Weschler

So what happened there was we had moved to the new house. We had been there for a couple of months at that point. And I was down in the basement moving some boxes around. And Sarah came down there.

Ira Glass

And, how old?

Lawrence Weschler

She's now eight. Yeah.

Ira Glass

OK. In this story, yeah.

Lawrence Weschler

At this point in the story, yeah. And she began. Her lips were trembling. Her lower lip was trembling. And she looked at me very firmly as she is quite capable of doing. And she said, "Daddy, I'm going to ask you a question now, and you have to tell the truth because it's a sin for daddies to lie to their daughters." And my heart just sank.

And she said, "Daddy, are you the one who's been writing Annabel Lee's notes?" And I looked at her. And she looked at me. And there was silence for five or six seconds. And then I said, "You know, it's kind of complicated. Can we talk--" and she said, "Daddy, it's not complicated. It's simple. Are you the one?" And I said, "Well, can we talk about it later?" She said, "No. Just tell me. Are you the one or not?" And I took a big breath and I said, "Yes, it is me." And she broke into--

Sasha Meyerowitz

I was crying.

Lawrence Weschler

Oh, god. She was sobbing.

Sasha Meyerowitz

I was so sad.

Lawrence Weschler

She started sobbing. It was, easily, the most wrenching thing that had happened in my parenthood up to that point. I mean, I had totally blown it. I just felt total disaster. And I was crying. And she was crying. And, you know, we were both kind of clutching each other and holding each other. And we were really in a trap there. We were down the hole at that point. We were in big trouble.

And, suddenly, this kind of calm came over Sarah's face. It was kind of like the sun rising in the morning. And her forehead stopped being furrowed. It became smooth. And she just looked at me, and she said, "Daddy, don't you realize? You've ruined everything because there are borrowers. And you were taking the letters before they were able to get them." And she had solved everything there because, among other things, that was what she was going to be able to tell her friends. And they could all chortle about what kind of a crazy father she had. And it was amazing. She found a way of getting us out of this disaster that, I suppose, I had fashioned for us.

Sasha Meyerowitz

Because I remember saying that you should have left it there. Maybe they would have really written back. You shouldn't have done it because maybe they would have actually written back to me, finally, at some point.

Like I said earlier, I still believe in them. And I know that may sound really baby-ish to some kids who might listen to this, but I still believe in them. And when I told Megan, my friend, when I told Megan that it had been my dad, she stopped believing in them. And she'd just, whenever I'd talk about it from then on, she'd laugh at me and tell me, "Oh, Sarah, stop being a baby." Because she's a year older than me, so she, at that time, she still considered herself really superior to me even though we were best friends. And she said, "Oh, Sarah, stop being a baby. It's not true. It's just not true." And I said, "But I've seen them." And she said, "No, you haven't. You just imagined it. And it's not true. And you can just stop imagining it. And stop telling me about it because it's not true."

Lawrence Weschler

How do you feel about it now when you look at those letters?

Sarah Weschler

I don't know. Sometimes, when I read them, I still can think, "I wonder why this happened to her? I wonder why that happened to her? I wonder why she would say that?" Even though I'd know that it was my dad writing to me, I still, sometimes, think of there being an Annabel Lee somewhere out there.

Lawrence Weschler

When we pulled out the box last night, of letters, did it bring you pleasure to look at those letters?

Sarah Weschler

Well, actually, I look at it a lot.

Lawrence Weschler

You do?

Sarah Weschler

Yeah.

Ira Glass

You look at it a lot?

Sarah Weschler

Yeah.

Ira Glass

And what do you think when you look at it?

Sarah Weschler

Well, now, looking back, it was sort of nice of him to do that. Because I remember, when it was happening and after I had figured out that it was him, I had asked him, "Well, can we still write to each other?" And we never really, actually, wrote to each other after that.

But I just thought, after a while, that it was a nice thing. And that, even though, maybe there was no borrower writing to me, there was, maybe, having my dad make up this whole family was, maybe, just as special. Or maybe almost as special as having actually been writing to a borrower.

Ira Glass

Sarah, can I ask you, what do you think the lesson of this story is? That is, if parents hear you tell this story, you and your dad tell this story on the radio, and, if another parent gets into this kind of situation, what's your advice for them? Should they go along with it? Should they write letters, and should they pick up stuff?

Sarah Weschler

I don't know, because it was really fun for me to have this kind of experience. But, when I found out that it was my dad writing, it was really upsetting. And so I just-- I don't know. I think that I wouldn't. If I were a parent and I had that kind of thing, I would not pick it up.

Ira Glass

You would not?

Sarah Weschler

No. I would keep encouraging my kid and my child to keep on writing to the borrowers and trying to get them to write back, but I wouldn't pick it up.

Lawrence Weschler

What if they keep coming to you so sad every morning, the way you were sad coming to me, and just pleading, "I wish. I wish. I wish they would come?" Can you imagine ever picking it up?

Sarah Weschler

No.

Lawrence Weschler

Really?

Sarah Weschler

I don't think it's fair to lead someone on like that.

Ira Glass

Ren, as far as you're concerned, what's the lesson of this story? If you had this to do again, if you would get into this situation again or if you could go back with the benefit of hindsight, what would you do? Would you have left the letters?

Lawrence Weschler

I mean, I'd like to say that, had I to live it over again, I wouldn't do it this way. But I'm not sure because it started so naturally. And, in the end, by the way, what I'd have to say is probably the most poignant, closest, amazing moment I've had, you know, the moment I'll remember of a particular phase of my life, is the holding onto each other in the basement, both of us crying, but Sarah not running away and Sarah saving us. And that kind of cemented our relationship in a really wonderful way.

Sarah Weschler

It might not end that way for everybody.

Lawrence Weschler

Yeah, it might not end that way for everybody. That's true. I continue to puzzle about it. And it is unresolved for me, as my answer is indicating, I suppose.

Ira Glass

It's interesting, to me that the way that you view the lesson of this story is that Sarah saved the two of you. That, as a parent, you got yourself into a moment where you literally didn't know what to do, and that she finally said the thing that made everything OK.

Lawrence Weschler

I absolutely feel that. Has it affected our relationship, do you think? Do you not trust me in the way you used to trust me?

Sarah Weschler

No. No. No, I still trust you.

Ira Glass

Sarah, do you view this as one of the moments when you were closest to your dad?

Sarah Weschler

Well, I'm very close my dad, so I don't know. It's like, yeah, I guess so. But it's not like much closer than I am usually because I'm probably close to my dad all the time. But, yeah, it is one of the times that I was closest, I guess. Yeah.

Lawrence Weschler

So, my heart is in my throat.

Ira Glass

Lawrence Weschler, he's now the artistic director of the Chicago Humanities Festival. And he's the author of many books, including his latest, Everything That Rises, A Book of Convergences.

Sarah is now 19. This past year, she's been teaching kindergarten in a remote village in Tanzania. She goes off to college in the fall. Back when we recorded this interview, eight years ago, she said that even at the time that we were recording the interview she still believed in the borrowers. In fact, she said she was going to listen to the story, but not in the house. She was going to listen in the car.

Sarah Weschler

I don't want us to listen to it at the house because, if there are still borrowers in our house, I don't want them to hear that and think that they can't trust me. Because, right now, I'm telling their whole story, so I feel like I'm sort of betraying them. And I just wanted to make sure that they knew that, you know? If I actually did meet one, I wouldn't tell anyone. I would never tell a single person in the world.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Julie Snyder and myself with Alex Blumberg, Alix Spiegel, Nancy Updike, and Jorge Just. Contributing editors for this show Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin and Consigliere, Sarah Vowell. Production help from Todd Bachmann, Sylvia Lemus, Sativa January, and Seth Lind.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to all of our programs and our archives for absolutely free, 24 hours a day. Or, you know, you can download today's program and our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia who declares every time someone chooses not to pledge to this radio station--

Jon Holtzman

I feel like I've lost my spirit.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. To my dad, Barry Glass, off in Baltimore, Maryland, happy Father's Day, Dad. And see you soon in New York City, OK? To all the rest of you, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.