The Stories He Tells
My dad is the kind of guy who pays for his dinner in conversation. When I was still young enough to be taken out of school to travel, my dad took me all over the world, and my mom made sure we found ourselves at the nicest open tables in whatever city we went to. My dad would get invited out to dinner by fellow doctors, my mom would suggest one of her pre-screened restaurants, I would get dressed up, and he would spend the night storytelling. Dinner conversations lend themselves best to comedy, so he generally stuck to his lighter fare, although growing up in the Soviet Union does change one’s perception on what constitutes levity. So at first I heard about his days traveling around the world as a doctor meeting famous eccentrics who stole chairs from restaurants in Prague, getting into trouble gambling at Monte Carlo, ending up with the wrong pair of shoes at the end of a dinner in Japan, conning his way into a table at Gavroche to impress my mom…
Over time I pieced together that he was a Slovak immigrant who fled the Soviet Union through a series of chance occurrences aided by my father’s social charms, athletic ability, and intelligence. He ended up an anesthesiologist in the US with contacts all over the world, a husband, and a father. He told stories at dinner, and they were my glimpses into his vast life spent largely in a very different place during a very different time. The dinner table, not the bedside, was where I got my fill of stories. But they were better than stories, they were real. They were his.
Now you’d think after 23 years worth of dinners, I’d have heard all my dad’s stories. But every once in a while a spark goes off in his a-few-months-short-of-80-year-old brain, and I get a new piece of him like at a dinner at the Riverside Farm Restaurant in Fairfield, ME the night before I graduated this past May. It was the first time my parents were meeting my then boyfriend now “it’s complicated with” Adam, so my father was on his storytelling game. My half-brother from my father’s first marriage Rob was also there. We started off the night with fresh baked bread, a bottle of wine, and a few of my father’s crowd favorites. When the appetizers arrived, he was finishing up “Played Travel Basketball, Got into Med School Off a Napkin.” There was a brief intermission while we consumed pork rillette, farm fresh salad, and a vegetable bisque. Before their steaks and my spaghetti carbonara arrived, Rob mentioned Katka, not my aunt but my father’s friend from Slovakia’s daughter who was my babysitter for a few months, and it spurred a story I had never heard before:
“My whole thing is that we were shopping for babysitter and I learn that one of my best friend’s daughter is in Canada and she was physician in Czechoslovakia and she was visiting some friend and she was willing to come to work as babysitter for couple months in New York. Then to my big surprise she call that she will come by bus from Montreal. We were staying at our house in Quogue for most of summer, and Robert went with me to pick Katka up from airport. And we were waiting for her and finally I met her and I learn that she is almost professional tennis player and I was desperate to play with her tennis but to my big surprise she didn’t have sneakers—tennis shoes. I am big tennis fan and we had clay court at the first Hamptons house and spent much time at the sports club near by. Sammi took lessons there for many years, she used to be very good but anyways we continue,” he paused to take a long sip of Sancerre.
“So the next day we went to buy sneakers, went to play tennis on our court. Well and Katka easily beat me 6-love 6-love. Then the next day I brought her to the club. We play mixed doubles with some local tennis players and we were easily beating everyone around but not due to my playing due to her playing.”
Then the entrees arrived, and Rob asked when Dad had spoken to her last: “Well I met her recently, three years ago. She has own office in Bratislava in Slovak Republic for acupuncture. Well I have very good memory on her and we hope she has good memory with us. She was traveling with us in several places in United States.”
I don’t really remember Katka, and I had no recollection of the story. But I remember summers at the house on Bluejay Way and sweat drenched afternoons comprised of forehands, backhands, and volleys followed by a Crystal Light Lemonade next to the pool. I remember passing the animal sanctuary on our drive to the club decked out in tennis whites. I remember my own stories of those days. But I prefer hearing his over a tastefully curated table top with a glass of Sancerre in his hand.