Four score and ten has a Biblical ring to it, although not many people in those days made it to 90. Even by today’s long-lived standards, it’s a big number.
Next week, my father will stand before a very large cake surrounded by four generations of family and blow out 90 candles. When he turned 70, he wrote me that he struggled with the concept of such an advanced age. Inside, he said, there was still this 30-year-old with a new idea a minute.
At his 80th birthday party, he quoted someone—Henny Youngman, maybe?—who said “I’m delighted to be here. At my age, I’m delighted to be anywhere.”
I don’t know what he will say at this landmark gathering. After the speeches and toasts, after the last teary tribute, he will rise and clear his throat and speak. His voice is fainter now, but there will be no hesitation, no awkward pauses. Words were his business for 40-plus years in book publishing. The remarks will be witty, thoughtful, and brief. Whatever the occasion, my father never fails to edit.
No gifts, the invitation clearly states. Instead, we have prepared a book of remembrances. It has fallen to me to compile these, to dun my brothers and sister and cousins and sons for their contributions and chide them for missed deadlines. We’re down to the wire, and finally, the entries are in. All but one. Mine.
I have written about my father before. I have chronicled his love of reading, his reverence for education, his insistence on clarity in thought and speech. I have told the truth about his exacting standards and the fact that he does not suffer fools gladly. I have told of his generosity and keen sense of humor. I wonder if I have said it all.
And then, from some distant, forgotten place, a picture forms in my mind. I am 8 years old, dressed in my Sunday coat and white gloves. I am sitting on the plush seat of a New York Central train, watching Harlem rush past in the gray winter light. Across from me sits my father, his paper folded beside him. We are going to the city, just the two of us. For this whole day, he belongs only to me.
Three times a year, my father would plan these outings. We would arrive at Grand Central, and he would float an idea: the Museum of Natural History, followed by lunch at the Automat. Or maybe the Metropolitan, with tuna rolls and chocolate sodas afterwards at Schrafft’s. Sometimes he pulled out all the stops. I remember a lunch at Barbetta, a famous Italian restaurant, where I was served a Shirley Temple in a champagne glass and for dessert, a swirled tortoni almost too beautiful to eat.
Later, we would wander through the Doubleday Bookstore on Fifth Avenue. My father would scan the shelves in the children’s section, pulling likely books from the stacks. Now here’s one I think is just right for you, he would say, handing me Black Beauty or Little Women. Riding home on the train, I would open the package carefully. It wasn’t just a book. It was a book my father chose for me.
Love, I once read, means seeing and being seen. In our family of four children, life swirled past in a hectic rush of carpools and piano lessons and schoolwork. No one was ignored, but undivided attention was a rare commodity. Three times a year, I sat with my father on a train and walked with him through the city and felt his unwavering gaze. We shared our impressions of dinosaurs or knights in armor; we talked about books and plays and the way New York looked when he was a boy.
Of all the gifts he has given in his fourscore and ten years on earth, this is the one that endures for me: the inestimable gift of time.