Messages from My Father

Messages from My Father

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by Calvin Trillin

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Calvin Trillin, the celebrated New Yorker writer, offers a rich and engaging biography of his father, as well as a literate and entertaining fanfare for the common (and decent, and hard-working) man.

Abe Trillin had the western Missouri accent of someone who had grown up in St. Joseph and the dreams of America of someone who had been born is Russia. In


Calvin Trillin, the celebrated New Yorker writer, offers a rich and engaging biography of his father, as well as a literate and entertaining fanfare for the common (and decent, and hard-working) man.

Abe Trillin had the western Missouri accent of someone who had grown up in St. Joseph and the dreams of America of someone who had been born is Russia. In Kansas City, he was a grocer, at least until he swore off the grocery business. He was given to swearing off things—coffee, tobacco, alcohol, all neckties that were not yellow in color. Presumably he had also sworn off swearing, although he was a collector of curses, such as "May you have an injury that is not covered by workman's compensation." Although he had a strong vision of the sort of person he wanted his son to be, his explicit advice about how to behave didn't go beyond an almost lackadaisical "You might as well be a mensch." Somehow, though, Abe Trillin's messages got through clearly.

The author's unerring sense of the American character is everywhere apparent in this quietly powerful memoir.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
PW praised this "charming" memoir of the New Yorker writer's deceased father, a "taciturn, stubbornly honest Kansas City grocer." (June)
Library Journal
Lest one be misled by the title into thinking that this book has something to do with the supernatural, be assured that it is no ectoplasmic romp. Having mentioned his father in Remembering Denny (LJ 3/15/93), syndicated columnist Trillin here devotes an entire book to telling the story of the "second generation grocer" who lived in St. Joseph, Missouri. Enormous skill is required to interest a reader in a person who at first sight would seem scarcely to justify full-length treatment, and loyal followers of Trillin won't be surprised to learn that he keeps his readers absorbed. With sentiment that is never mawkish, he spotlights the charms and idiosyncrasies of the man he describes as "stubborn." The book is not so much a biography as a portrait, a kind of evocative search for memories and events that have been significant in the life of Trillin fils. Recommended for most collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/96.]-A.J. Anderson, GSLIS, Simmons Coll., Boston
Linton Weeks
A gentle, straight forward book about love for a father is also about the way a father's life and words continue to influence a child's life and words even after the father is gone and the child himself is a father…Abe [Trillin] would be proud. —The Washington Post
Kirkus Reviews
The renowned humorist fashions an affectionate portrait of his father that muses on the elliptical methods by which men raise sons and by which sons strive to please fathers.

Trillin likens his father's "messages"—indirect signals combining expectation, assumption, and wish—to a secret code. Their meanings were ambiguous to young Calvin. No fan of heart-to- hearts, Abe Trillin's most direct advice was the low-key dictum "You might as well be a mensch." By turns a grocer, restaurateur, hotelkeeper, and real estate developer, Abe was indeed a mensch—a person who always does the right thing—and it's clear his messages and example transmitted a powerful moral code his son still follows. Legendarily stubborn, thrifty, and opinionated, the Russian immigrant earned a reputation for taciturnity but also possessed American optimism and a comic sense that mixed Yiddish humor with a midwesterner's self-deprecating ingenuousness. He was a man of many theories: on butchers, gin strategy, and women's dental fitness (good teeth are the key to a happy marriage), and a connoisseur of curses. Calvin's well-documented love of doggerel finds an antecedent in the verses Abe penned for the menu of his Kansas City restaurant: "Don't sigh/eat pie." The writer obviously relishes Abe as card and character, but it's an amusement tempered by sobering loss at Abe's death, and by a sense of awe (heightened by his own experience with parenthood) that his father managed to pass on as much as he did. Of Abe's typically oblique support of writing as a possible vocation, Trillin wryly muses: "Would that be how you'd steer your son toward journalism—slip the word to him casually when he's three years old and then make sure he knows how to type?"

With characteristic grace and good humor, Trillin crafts a charming, heartfelt memorial to his father that is also a loving demonstration of how deeply he took his father's advice to heart.

Product Details

Simon & Schuster Audio
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2 Cassettes
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4.59(w) x 7.06(h) x 0.84(d)

Read an Excerpt


The man was stubborn. Take the coffee incident. This happened after I was living away from home, working as a reporter in the South. I was back in Kansas City for a visit, and my father and mother and I were sitting at the kitchen table. My mother had just made coffee. After pouring a cup for me, she asked if I wanted some milk in it.

"I don't use milk," I said.

"Well, I'll tell you one thing," my father said. "If you were blindfolded, you couldn't tell if there was milk in it or not."

As it happened, my father had never tasted coffee in his life. Was he a Mormon? No, he was not a Mormon. A health nut? No. The only nutritional theory I can remember his propounding was that you couldn't gain more weight from eating something than the food itself weighed, so devouring a one-pound box of intensely rich chocolate candy couldn't put on more than one pound. ("It stands to reason" was how he usually introduced that theory, among others.) Was he someone who had some rare allergy to coffee beans or caffeine? No, he thought of allergies as the sort of affliction that cropped up among my mother's relatives, who apparently constructed elaborate defenses against illnesses, real and imagined, and were described around our house as "nervous."

He didn't drink coffee because at some point in his childhood he had sworn that he never would. My father had sworn off any number of things. As a young man, he smoked for a few years and then sworn off cigarettes. He swore off liquor before he was old enough to taste any--supposedly because of his disgust at the smell of stale beer in the taverns where he sold newspapers as a boy. As far as I can remember, he never gave any specific reason for swearing off coffee. It may be that coffee just got caught up in the boyhood oath against liquor, tossed in because it was also something grownups drank. I think he also must have sworn off swearing; if you ran him out of patience, his strongest expression was "For cryin' out loud!" I .sometimes imagined my father as swearing off things just to keep in practice--the sort of person who looks at himself in the mirror after shaving one day and, for no particular reason, says to the in rage he sees, "You have hit your last bucket of driving-range golf balls" or "No more popcorn for you, young fella."

The act of swearing off, in other words, seemed to overwhelm whatever had triggered it. It's possible, I suppose, that over the years my father could have forgotten why he struck something off the rolls. In his ease, though, forgetting what had been behind some absolute prohibition would not have been an argument for ending it. If he swore off something, it stayed sworn off. He had no need to offer explanations for the ban, because it applied to him alone. He didn't harangue people about the wickedness of demon rum; I have no reason to believe that he thought it was wicked. He had nothing against anyone else's drinking coffee, including me. He wasn't questioning my ability to tell the difference between black coffee and coffee with milk as a way of telling me that coffee wasn't worth drinking. He spoke in a perfectly agreeable tone, as if he were passing on some interesting fact about coffee that he had just read in the Kansas City Star.

I also spoke in a perfectly agreeable tone. I said, "Does it occur to you that, as someone who has never tasted coffee, with or without milk, you may not be a great authority on this subject?"

"I don't care what you say," my father said, using an opening phrase he often employed even if you hadn't said anything. "Blindfolded you wouldn't know if there was milk in it or not." This is stubborn.

My mother's view was that my father's stubbornness was perfectly understandable if you considered the family he came from. In my mother's conversations about relatives, just about everyone was permanently assigned one characteristic--usually a less than noble characteristic, like cheapness or slovenliness or a tendency to spoil children--that could be illustrated in one phrase. If I had inquired, while I sipped my coffee, about a relative I'll call Doris, my mother's reply would have begun, no matter what milestones had occurred in Doris's life since my previous visit to Kansas City, no matter what acts of kindness or charity Doris had performed, "You know Doris--sink full of dirty dishes:" Whatever their individual characteristics, my father's relatives had been assigned the group characteristic of stubbornness. When the subject of the St. Joe people came up--my father had grown up in St. Joseph, Missouri, about fifty miles north of Kansas City, and when I was a child a lot of his relatives still lived there--my mother often summed up her feelings with one forcefully expressed word: "Mules!"

My mother accepted without question the notion that such characteristics as stubbornness run in families. in her mind, I think, it was partly a matter of what would now be called genetic predisposition. When I displayed behavior that she considered obstinate--that happened with some regularity--she would tell me that I took after my father's family, the St. Joe people. I was not troubled by this. There seemed to be only two alternatives, and what little boy wants to take after people who are nervous? When I got angry with my parents as a child, I stomped up to my room and remained there, silently smoldering, for periods that reflected impressive stubbornness--or so I thought until I read, many decades later, about a young man in Thailand who, denied a motorcycle by his parents, went to his room to sulk and was still there twenty-two years later. My mother also seemed to believe that the stubbornness of my father's family was, in effect, cultural: some tribes in New Guinea put rings in their noses; the St. Joe people practiced pigheadedness. She was perfectly willing to admit that her own mother's family had custom that encouraged nervousness. She nodded in confirmation when my father demonstrated the variety of the nervous gestures--a medley of tics and snorts that looked like something out of a Danny Kaye movie. It was she as often as my father who reminded us that some of her cousins drank a glass of warm water before retiring, to settle their stomachs.

I suppose I absorbed some of this belief in family characteristics, because when I found myself trying to figure out how my father's family became involved in the unlikely journey that took them to St. Joe in the first place, stubbornness was the first explanation I thought of. There was a lot about my father that was strictly western Missouri. He spoke with an accent that wound be familiar to anyone who remembers the speeches of Harry S Truman. By his description, a golf drive that disappeared in the clouds or a towering home run that cleared the fence at Ruppert Stadium was "hit all the way to Clay County." A woman approaching middle age was "no spring chicken." A diminutive person weighed "seventy-five pounds soaking wet, with his boots on." It was from him that I picked up the not altogether elegant Midwestern phrase "I haven't had so much fun since the hogs ate my little sister. " His childhood reminiscences were of St. Joe, around the time of the Great War; the one that stuck in my mind was that he had dislocated his shoulder jumping off a barn that once belonged to Jesse James, perhaps the best-known resident that St. Joseph, Missouri, has ever had.

But my father had actually been brought to St. Joe at the age of two, in around 1909. His family--then known as Trilinsky--was from a place that was always described as "near Kiev." I've sometimes said that a child growing up in Kansas City, unfamiliar with the world of the shtetl, could get the impression that people who came from "near Kiev" had lived in the suburbs. Except that it would have had to be an extremely poor suburb--like one of those sorry, badly used farm towns which Midwestern cities sometimes envelop as they expand. I never heard the name of the place mentioned. I knew nothing of what life had been like near Kiev, or how the derision had been made to leave for a strange country several thousand miles away. It wasn't a secret. The people who knew--my grandparents, generation--simply didn't talk about it to me, maybe because I didn't ask. My father, of course, had virtually no memories of the Old Country to talk about. I asked him once if he remembered anything at all about Russia--that part of the world was referred to in my family as Russia, not the Ukraine--and he said that he had a vague memory of getting his foot stuck the mud.

About all knew of how my father's family got to St. Joe was that they went there directly from Galveston, Texas, where the boat from the Old Country had landed. When I was a child, I didn't realize that there was anything out of the ordinary in getting on a boat in darkest Europe, getting off in Galveston, Texas, and going straight from there to St. Joseph, Missouri. Only later did it occur to me that what I had learned in school about the great wave of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe at the turn of the century said nothing at all about the route my family had taken from suburban Kiev to St. Joseph, Missouri the home of the Pony Express and, of course, Jesse James. Ellis Island was mentioned. The Statue of Liberty was mentioned. The Lower East Side was mentioned. There was not a word about Galveston, Texas. How did this family--a family indistinguishable from thousands of other poor Eastern European Jewish families saying their farewells to the czar, a family that could have been expected to fetch up on, say, Delancey Street--land in Galveston?

Could it have been stubbornness? According to one of the theories I came up with, my grandfather and his brother-in-law, my Uncle Benny Daynovsky, were talking to a friend of theirs one day in the suburbs of Kiev about where you land when you go to America. I knew that my grandfather and Uncle Benny went to America first, followed a couple of years later by my grandmother and my father and his older sister. In the conversation I imagined, the only two places any of the participants had ever heard of in America were New York and Texas. The friend said that when you went to America you landed in New York. My grandfather shook his head. "No," he said. "Texas." By the time they all actually left for the New World, my grandfather knew that the place you landed when you went to America was indeed New York, but he was willing to travel a couple of thousand miles out of his way in steerage rather than admit that he'd been wrong. Mules!

Meet the Author

Calvin Trillin has been writing for The New Yorker for over 30 years. His many books include Tepper Isn't Going Out, Travels with Alice, Remembering Denny, Family Man, The Tummy Trilogy, Deadline Poet, and Too Soon To Tell.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
December 5, 1935
Place of Birth:
Kansas City, Missouri
B.A., Yale University, 1957

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Messages from My Father 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
My dad handed me this book and told me I would enjoy. I figured it to be just 'a book to read.' I was pleasently surprised to find a deeper meaning to relationships, and especially one between father and son. Through each story, Trillin allows a reader to reflect on their own experiences. I laughed out loud at some points, remembering things that my dad does all of the time. This was an amazing book that everyone should read. It will make the relationships that you have even stronger.