Zibby Owens: Thanks for coming on my show. I’m excited to talk about your latest book. Would you mind telling listeners what Finding My Father is about? Although, I’ll just read the subtitle, and that gives a clue. His Century-Long Journey from World War I Warsaw and My Quest to Follow. Tell us more about the book. What inspired you to write it? Although, you include that in there, so just tell everybody else.

Deborah Tannen: My father was born in a Hasidic household in Warsaw in 1908 and came to the United States when he was twelve. He lived to be ninety-eight. He died two weeks before his ninety-eighth birthday. He, after he retired, was almost obsessed with talking about his past, especially his childhood in Warsaw which he remembered in astonishing detail, but his entire life, really. I would trace two things about this to my wanting to write this book. One is the very personal reason. The other is the broader perspective. The personal reason is that when I was a child, I adored my father. He was the parent that I felt connected to. I felt he understood me. I could ask him anything. He would answer with patience and precision. He loved words and language, as I did. I felt like if I said something to him, he would understand it the way I meant it, whereas my mother I felt often didn’t or might get annoyed by what I was saying. But he was absent more than he was present. The way I put it in the introduction is the strongest presence that I felt in the house was his absence. I felt like I was spending my days with my mother missing my father. That really went on pretty much into adulthood. We can talk later about his work life, which is a saga in itself. He was gone far more than he was there. I think that was often true of parents at the time. It was mostly fathers. Now it could be fathers and mothers.

After he retired, his wanting to spend all this time talking about his past meant that if I talked to him about his past, I could spend time with him. I’m kind of a workaholic. Once I decided that I was going to write a book about him, I could spend hours talking to him during the day which I otherwise would never do. I recorded our conversations. Once he realized that I was doing this, he encouraged it. In fact, I found notes in which — I should say, he saved every piece of paper that came into his life. He left me many, many, many different kinds of documents and letters and notes and memories that he wrote for me. Once he began doing that, I had more and more material that I felt gave me a perspective on the entire century. His life really is like a walking tour through history. He lived in this World War I Jewish community of Warsaw, Hasidic community, before, during, and after World War I. He really captured that community. In the beginning, my thought about the book — and his too because I have a copy of a letter he wrote to someone back in the early eighties, “Deborah is going to write a book about the Jewish community of Warsaw based on my memories.” I was thinking of it that way. Then I realized his entire life reflected these different cataclysmic events of that century.

The Bolshevik Revolution, which had a tremendous effect on his mother’s siblings, especially her younger siblings whom he lived with because he had no father — he was living in his mother’s nuclear family, which was grandfather, grandmother, and many, many aunts and uncles, nine that were living there when he was there. I can name fourteen of them and what happened to them, tell you their life stories. A few of them, I do tell in the book. The younger ones were caught up in the Bolshevik Revolution and became passionate communists. The one who influenced him the most, the youngest of all those aunts and uncles, was only six years older than my father was and more like an older sister that he admired. By the time he came to the United States, he told me years later, he already was identified as a communist and an atheist, which he says happened to him, he converted, when he was six following his aunt around. Then his whole experience of work just captures one Jewish immigrant experience. He quit high school at fourteen, went to work in the garment district in New York as so many immigrants did, and yet managed to go to law school at night, become a lawyer. Then it was the Depression, that other cataclysmic event. There’s something almost ironic or maybe appropriate, this book coming out in a pandemic, because the fact that he finished law school in the Depression made it impossible for him to then support — he was the sole support of his mother and sister, having no father. Because of the Depression, he could not work as a lawyer.

When he was fifty, when I was in junior high, he did start to work as a lawyer and established a workmen’s compensation firm — at the time, we said workmen’s; now we say workers — which actually ended up being the largest workers’ compensation firm in New York City, which means, he liked to point out, the largest in the world. He did so many different things before he could do that because of the Depression. I think many people today are suffering similar consequences. Their future is so changed and so much more challenging because of the economic situation. I’ll make one last comment here. It’s so much helped me understand the contrast between his way of looking at the world and his life and relationships between women and men. There’s also drama about who he married and why he married my mother and not another woman he might have married. When my father sat down to write about his life, he began by listing all the jobs he had held. To him, that really captured his life. That was the summary of his life, the work that he did. When I thought about his life and when I think about my life, I begin with relationships: who was important in my life, who influenced me, who I loved, how those relationships developed. For him, it was work. I came to understand that, really, family and work were inextricably intertwined in his mind. Family meant obligation to support the people you loved. How you went about doing that was both a summary of his life and also proof of his devotion to the family. It was because of that love that he couldn’t go to work as a lawyer and let his family starve or have a difficult time while he built up a practice.

Zibby: Wow. It’s amazing because I feel like people in their fifties think it’s too late. Somebody in their forties the other day said to me, “I got started. I thought it was too late to write a book.” I’m thinking, no, no, no. Look at this. Your dad, even back then, launched a whole new career so late in life. Yet it was only half his life. He still had half to go. It’s very encouraging and empowering to think that at any moment, just start following your dream. It’s not too late.

Deborah: Yes. In his case, it was opportunity. The brief summary of how it all happened, he did all these different things during the Depression. Then there was a civil service exam he was taking, he said many, many civil service exams. There would be thousands of people taking an exam for a few jobs. Late in the Depression, things were starting to open up. He got the offer to be a prison guard in the federal penitentiary in Danbury, Connecticut, not the kind of job he thought he was going to consider, but he went, tried it out. He was very happy there. He loved the lifestyle that went along with it. He had always lived in cities, in Warsaw and then in New York City, always in apartments. For the first time, he lived in a house. There was a beautiful yard. Everybody who talked about it, talked about it with such longing when they were no longer there. Everyone in family — that is, my father, my mother, my sister who was alive at the time, my oldest sister was a little girl at the time — talked about the beautiful weeping willow tree in the backyard. He was doing very well at it. He was promoted to parole officer very quickly. Then he got an offer based on another exam he had taken, civil service exam, to be an alcohol tax inspector with the treasury department chasing bootleggers. It offered a bit more money. He felt he had to take it because it was all about doing what you had to do to support your family. When he told the warden that he was making this change, the warden was beside himself. “You are doing so well here. You are going to be a warden very soon, in a year.” He thought that was ridiculous. He said, “No, there’s no way that a Jew will be a warden. There are no Jewish wardens.” The warden said, “That’s because there were no Jews in the system. Now that there are, of course you’ll be promoted.”

He didn’t believe it. He did not believe it was possible. He made the switch. It turned out that the person who was given his job as parole officer became a warden in a year. That person was Jewish. That realization that he could’ve had that comfortable life became especially upsetting to him because the job as alcohol tax inspector, the job was okay. He didn’t love it. It was all right. The family had moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where nobody was happy. They had no communities they had had in Danbury. That word, Danbury, was like a garden of Eden I heard about my whole life, the wonderful life they had in Danbury, the miserable life they had in Providence. My mother became pregnant with me, so of course I always felt guilty about this, and they moved back to New York. She wanted to have the baby in New York. As a stopgap measure, he took a job in a factory as a cutter. It was supposed to be just a brief time while he became very active in politics. He was no longer a communist. He became disillusioned with communism in 1939 when Stalin made a pact with Hitler. He became active in New York Liberal Party, a party somewhat left of the democrats. He was promised a political appointment within a year. It took thirteen years. Each year was, next year, next election, after the election, wait for the election. That contrast of these thirteen years working in a factory when he could’ve been a warden and have a comfortable life and his family would’ve been happier, that always was a shadow over his life and over the family, though he did not give me the sense how much he disliked working in a factory. I did not sense that. He never allowed us to see how unhappy he was. He certainly talked about it after when we had all these conversations.

Zibby: How did it make you feel to hear about how he had been feeling and hiding all that time?

Deborah: I’m grateful to him for that. There was one anecdote he wrote about. He started writing his memories for me as well. There was one he described in something that he wrote. I guess he wrote it in his eighties, but then he retold it in his nineties when we talked face to face. After my mother died, he moved to an assisted living facility where we talked many, many, many hours. He remembered — this is before he passed the exam and got the job in Danbury, so it was during the Depression — having no job. He was, every day, looking for work. He always worked, but it would be temporary jobs trying to find something that would work out. He passed his mother sitting outside her apartment. He had supported his mother from the age of fourteen until he got married at the age of twenty-four, so ten years he was sole support. It turned out that she was putting money away all those years. He would keep out a small amount for himself for car fares. She would go through his pockets, if she found it, and take it. She was a piece of work. He passed his mother and asked her if she would lend him five dollars. She not only refused, but began berating him that he was a spendthrift, that he was irresponsible.

He wrote, “Even now when I think about it, I feel like crying.” He felt so humiliated by this. I don’t think it was so specifically about his mother. I’m sure that was part of it, but that having sacrificed so much to get a law degree, pass the bar — he was lawyer. He should’ve been working as a lawyer. Here he was penniless. Then he wrote that he did manage to get a job the next day. He was able to borrow a small amount of money from the bank, which apparently was part of the way he kept things going, he said, “where I had an unblemished record.” The thing about the way he wrote about it that really was so fascinating to me and so enlightening, he said he felt so terrible because his situation was financially so bad and he said, “the need to hide it from my family, that I felt that way.” I realized, yeah, that’s what he did. My first thirteen years of my life when he was working in a factory, he completely hid the negative feelings he had about that. I was shocked when I asked him in one of our conversations when he was ninety-seven. He was alert until the end. “How did you feel about working as a cutter?” He said, “I hated every minute of it.” I had no suspicion.

Zibby: I wonder if this has informed all of your work on communication. That’s such a central part of what you investigate, is how to ease that communication between all different types of people. Do you think it has something to do with that?

Deborah: Yes, absolutely, on two levels. People ask me, why did I write and how did I know how to write for general audiences? I was trained as an academic. And why did I want to? I always say, I wanted to write a book that my mother could read. Really, it’s that I did grow up in that working-class background. My father’s friends who were factory workers as he was, my mother’s many siblings, some were what we would now call middle class. One person owned a small factory. Others worked in factories. I grew up talking to people who did not have a college education and even a high school education and would not have understood the way I talked to my academic colleagues. Also, really from my father, I got this perspective on language. After people left when we’d sit around and talk and gather, he was the one who would say, “Did you see how she said that and how her expression looked when she said it?” He would draw conclusions from the subtle, subtle wording. I had hired somebody before I began interviewing him. Hired someone somebody told me about that interviewed older people about their histories, about their past. I hired someone to interview both my parents. At one point, she asked my father about his grandfather. “How do you like to remember him?” He said, “Like it or not, I remember him as…,” picking up the phrasing that she used. I was amused that he was kind of subtlety questioning it, criticizing it even. He had that sensitivity to language. I think I did pick that up from him.

One last comment about that that I’ll tell you. Because he had been raised in this Hasidic background, he had been sent to what was called , the religious school, from the time he was four, all day until he was old enough to go . Then he had tutors at night and went to secular school during the day. He had this training in Talmud from the time he was studying religious texts from the time he was very small. He hated it. He had so many stories about how much he hated losing his childhood to . The teacher was cruel, as many of those teachers were. The first academic paper I published, I was still a graduate student, I sent it to my parents. My mother wouldn’t read an academic paper, but my father would. He called me. He started by telling me how much he admired it. Then he started how, “The way you pull apart all the meaning of the words and look for the underlying meaning, that reminded me of how I was trained to study Talmud and how we had to look for the meanings.” He started getting worked up remembering how much he hated all that. Finally, he got to one point and he said, “I don’t know how you can stand it.” We burst out laughing. Many linguists, by the way, are Jewish. I think that Talmudic tradition is probably a part of it.

Zibby: Interesting. You included in this book, why you did not write a book about your mother. You kind of poked fun at her gently and how she would talk. Can you speak a little more about your relationship with her?

Deborah: My mother tended to be very unhappy. She would take that out both on my father and on the kids, especially me because I was kind of difficult. I think I inherited some of that tendency to be unhappy, so I was not an easy kid. There was the fact that my mother didn’t want a third child, which I always knew. My father did. Apparently, he talked her into leaving it to fate. After one night, she said, “No, I don’t really want that,” but it was too late. I always knew that. My mother was not contemplative or introspective. She didn’t tend to take a step back and ask questions about the way the world is. She wasn’t interested in talking about her past. Because I was recording all of these conversations, I actually captured it on tape. At that time, it was a cassette tape. Some of the conversations in the book are transcribed from actual conversations we had. She was often envious that I spent all this time talking to my father. She didn’t like it when I was alone with him. She wanted the attention for herself.

One time, she came in and she said, “I’m going to have to think about my past.” I said, “Yeah, I want to know about your past.” I started asking her a question. I think it went something like, “Do you remember the house you grew up in?” “Yeah, sort of. We had a house.” “Do you remember the furniture?” My father gave all these detailed descriptions. “Do you remember dinner?” “Dinner?” “Yeah. Do you remember what dinner was like?” “No. I know there was a table and a chair.” “Did you have friends?” Again, my father had these stories about all the other kids he knew and their life stories. “I know I had friends.” “Do you remember any particular friends?” “No.” Then she would get impatient very quickly. She said, “We came to this country. We always had enough to eat. Really, nothing special. That’s it.”

Clearly, there’s many ways that that’s wonderful that she didn’t get obsessed with the past. She was very impatient with my father being so obsessed with his past. Apparently, she made a rule in the house, no talking about dead people. He always wanted to reminisce about his grandfather and his past. He made fun of himself for it. He said, “She’s interested in the present. To me, it isn’t real until it’s past.” I couldn’t write a book about my mother because she didn’t give me the material. My father gave me these mountains of words, journals that he kept, letters that he kept, notes that he kept, memories he wrote down for me. He learned to use a computer when he was seventy. He learned to use email when he was eighty. He was sending me these long letters that he typed and long emails, so much material to work with, too much in a way. That was part of what took me so long to write it. I do talk about my mother in the book. You’re wearing that about mothers and daughters. I have a lot of anecdotes about her there.

Zibby: How long did this book take you to write?

Deborah: From one perspective, it took me forty years. I did write quite a few other books in between. I got quite serious about writing it in the mid-nineties. I actually proposed it to my publisher at that point. I said that I wanted to write a book about public discourse, The Argument Culture, and this book about my father. They said, “If you want to write The Argument Culture, then the other one has to be about relationships.” They didn’t want the book about my father. I said all right. I wrote The Argument Culture. Then I wrote a book called I Only Say This Because I Love You about adult family relationships. Then that had a book about mothers and daughters, a chapter that people liked very much, so I wrote the book about mothers and daughters. Then my mother passed away while I was writing that book, so that delayed that a bit. I was very close to my mother when she got older. The tensions were no longer there. Then somehow in the mid-nineties, I got quite serious, had all that material, had all those notes, but I did move away from the idea of actually writing it. I got more serious about it around 2012, ’13. I had a year; I had a sabbatical. I did come out with a draft at that point, but didn’t really start shaping it until a couple of years ago. Again, wrote another book in between, my book about friendship, I Only Say This Because I Love You. In a way, I needed that much distance from my father. It’s now fourteen years since he passed away. I guess I was finally ready to bring it all together and shape it.

Zibby: Do you now feel a sense of closure now that it’s come out into the world and it’s done and it’s here?

Deborah: Oh, yeah, understatement of the year. I’m so thrilled that I got it done, that it’s published. I promised him I would write it. He was pleased that I was writing it. We talked about it. He sent me things with that in mind. “I hope you have a file for this. Keep these things together in a file.” We were very lucky. As I said, he was really healthy until the end. There was just one week. He had a heart attack. He was in the hospital. He seemed to be recovering. Then he had a stroke. After the stroke, he wasn’t responsive. The hospice people assured us he could hear. They said, “Talk to him about all the good times you had.” I thought, I think I’ll tell him what I think he would appreciate hearing. I said, “I promise you I will write the book about you.” I’m glad I kept my promise.

Zibby: I’m glad you did too. That’s really nice. That’s so special. I’m glad you got to tell him. I sort of believe that people know on some level even if they’re not with us, which sounds a little woo-woo. I do believe that it’s out there and it’s acknowledged in some way.

Deborah: I think I do too. Although clearly, he was an atheist, so he didn’t literally believe in the afterlife. One of the conversations we had really stuck in my mind. This is when he was ninety-seven. We were talking about how long I would live and how I would like living that old. I said, “I guess I won’t know until it happens.” He said, “You’ll have to tell me when I’m up there. I’ll be watching you from up there.” I feel in a way that he is.

Zibby: Aw, that’s so nice. That’s amazing. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Deborah: The advice is pretty much advice that I was told and inspired by many years ago. Just write. Don’t wait until you’ve got it all right. All those notes that I was writing all those years, I did eventually incorporate, not all of them of course. I couldn’t, but many of them. If I had waited until I knew what shape the book was going to have, I would never have written it because it was so hard to know what shape it would have until I started writing. Then having all of that material, it was certainly challenging to figure out how to shape it, what to include, what to leave out. Maybe that was the hardest, deciding what to leave out. Having been writing and having all that material to start with I think is what made it possible.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Thank you. Thank you so much for coming on my show. Thank you for sharing your beautiful stories. I feel so great knowing that I got to hear just a sliver of the backstory of this beautiful love letter to your dad. Thanks.

Deborah: Thank you so much. Thank you.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Deborah: You too.