Herbert Hadad - Writer
Book Excerpts

The Art of Waving


    Trains hurtled by, big trains with bulging locomotives, not far from our house when I was a boy, and the thrill of running down to the tracks and waving to the engineer and getting a wave in return never wore thin.
    If we were late and a long freight train was click-clacking by with its geography-lesson collection of cars, we were patient. Chances were, the brakeman would be out on the little platform of his red caboose, and he’d never let a good wave go unnoticed.
    For years on end, my family, like millions of other American families, went out for Sunday afternoon automobile rides. Our destination was almost always the same place—the Howard Johnson’s near the beach. It didn’t take twenty-eight flavors to make me happy. I always ordered either black raspberry or maple walnut in a sugar cone, and they always had one or the other. Besides the ice cream, those Sunday rides were also prime opportunities for waving.
    Kids waited atop overpasses, grinning and waving strenuously at strangers, taking pleasure when they got a wave back. You wouldn’t drive by a person walking down a country road without a wave, and people who didn’t practice this gentle protocol were deemed a little odd.
    I didn’t think about it much then, but I do now. Waving is one of the great small gestures of mankind. It is the simplest act of animation, the almost effortless raising of an arm and movement of a hand. But what spectacular dividends it can bring!
    A wave can stimulate a feeling of warmth, an atmosphere of civility. It can tell people they are attuned to a social order, partners in it, connected to one another, without imposing any unwanted intimacy. Waving is a way for two strangers to tell each other they’re both having fun and then move along. Waving communicates between people in a strange land, between infants and grandparents, between all generations.
    In more recent years I began to notice that some people were reluctant to wave. During a ride in a speedboat, I waved toward other boats without getting any response. When we cruised slowly through a channel back to the dock I tried again, waving to other boaters and people on the banks. They looked away. I was disappointed and puzzled.
    I saw some people standing on an overpass not so long ago, and when I waved, I got a glare in return. I drove behind a station wagon brimming with children. They were huddled in the outback, behind the seats. The motion of the car tumbled them gently about, like playful cubs. I waved. They did nothing. I figured they couldn’t see through the glare of the glass, so I waved again. They finally saw me. The startled cubs turned toward the front of the wagon and reported me to their parents.
    I began to feel that a small but important practice was being lost. I also had an inspiration.
    I rounded up my children—although one may borrow someone else’s children, or go alone, or take the grandchildren—and we headed down to the local railroad station.
    We didn’t pay much attention to the electrified commuter trains, with their drivers sealed off in little compartments. We waited for an old diesel locomotive, fat and wide, to come hauling its train down the tracks.
    When it approached, we began waving. The engineer leaned out of the high side window of his cab, spotted us and began waving back. As he got closer he waved harder, then reached back in and blew a handful of blasts on his whistle. As he passed I saw the pleasure on his face, as he must have seen it on mine. We waved to each other until he was gone, a quarter-mile beyond the station.
    The children were so ecstatic they jumped up and down. They hugged each other and danced around the platform. Inside, I did the same.



Sweet and Sour


    
My son Edward never sleeps with me. He is seven years old and the oldest of our three children. When the others have had nightmares or heard strange noises or awakened in the middle of the night and don’t know why, they hustle down the stairs, rap at our door, and slip into bed with my wife and me. Edward fights his own demons, returns to sleep, and does not appear downstairs until daybreak.
    He and I had a fight recently. I feel foolish saying so, more foolish over explaining why. He took some of my Chinese take-out dinner after he had finished his own. I did not understand my anger, and before I knew it, I slapped his face. My hand only grazed his cheek, but it was bad enough. I remember him saying, "But, Dad, it was only a little piece." I felt terrible and afraid.
    Saturday morning, Edward did not appear. I went up, and he heard me coming and feigned sleep. He lay on his stomach, his face hidden. I talked to his back, touched his side, coaxed him to turn toward me, and asked for a hug. He put his arms around me tentatively, and I squeezed him hard and asked him to come downstairs.
    I had an errand to run and asked him to accompany me. Once we were in the car, I told him what was on my mind.
    "Edward, I apologize. I’m sorry for how I behaved last night." He only listened. "I had a drink. I was tired. I think if I hadn’t taken that drink, I wouldn’t have acted so poorly. Anyhow, I’m sorry, and I hope you’ll accept that."
    He was not eager to accept the apology. I knew he was still hurt, but he said, "Okay, Dad." I wondered then whether I admired or resented his aloofness and independence. I thought, both.
    I told Edward a story about a man and his father and drinking. It’s a true story, and it’s been in my head for twenty years. I wasn’t sure why it occurred to me at this moment, but I began to tell it and watched my son through the rear-view mirror and felt love at his rapt look.
    "This man I know and his father were separated when the man was a youngster, and for several years there was no contact of any kind. The man I know, who became a friend, liked to drink. Maybe he drank because he liked it, maybe because it made him forget for a little while things that hurt him, maybe because he had heard his own dad liked to drink so much.
    "My friend’s wife was so upset with his drinking, however, that she tried to get him to stop by saying he could not drink in her presence.”
    Edward asked, "Did he go to barrooms instead?"
    "No, strangely enough, he didn’t go to barrooms very often. He was a family man, and he liked being home at night, for he had two or three little girls. But he wanted to drink, too. So on many nights he’d go down to the cellar by himself and drink beer until he was tired and sleepy, and then he’d come up and go to bed."
    "But did the man ever see his dad again?" Edward wanted to know.
    "Here’s what happened. My friend decided he had to see his father at least once more in his lifetime. So he started searching. Every year when it was vacation time, instead of going on vacation, he’d go looking for his father.
    "This went on for several years, and one summer he heard his father was up in Canada. So he jumped in his car and drove all the way to this city in Canada, and when he got there he made some phone calls and all of sudden he was talking to his father. I don’t know what the first words were, Edward, but they agreed to meet in a certain barroom.
    "So my friend found the place and walked in and there was his dad, already sitting on a stool. They shook hands and each said something like 'It’s good to see you.' They had two or three drinks. Then the dad stood up, asked how my friend’s mother was, said good-bye and walked out."
    "Didn’t your friend chase his dad down the street?" asked Edward with cold fascination.
   
"No, he didn’t do anything like that. He had set out to see his father one more time, and he’d accomplished that. He seemed to realize there was no good reason to chase after him. His father had agreed to meet for a few drinks, nothing more. My friend sat there thinking for a little while, went back to his car, and started the long trip home."
    Not long after telling the story, I fought with Edward again. Curiously, it was over Chinese food; he’d eaten the meat and brushed the vegetables into the garbage. My mind raced back to the first incident. I’d had a drink this evening, too. I did not raise my hand, but I was annoyed.
    I told him to go and live with his grandmother, whom he had just visited, or with a neighbor up the road, where I knew the pleasures accorded the children are scant.
    Edward, the aloof and independent one, responded with cries of self-pity, which only irritated me further. I shouted how I had to run for trains and fight my way onto subways and meet tough deadlines, and I was a fool if I were going to continue to do so just to let him throw away good food.
    I finished my dinner alone and miserable while my wife put the children to bed. Feeling suddenly exhausted, I went to bed myself, listened for a few minutes to the radio news, and nodded off. When I awoke some time later, something extraordinary had happened. Edward was curled up against me. He didn’t move, but I felt great relief at his presence and a wave of gratitude.
    Never become the man searching for his father, I asked of my son. Never become the father waiting in the barroom, I promised myself.




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A Q&A for Finding Immortality

Herbert Hadad Interviews Himself

(1) Why did you write this book?

As a guy growing up and as a newspaper reporter, I had a variety of interesting and sometimes dangerous experiences: climbing a mountain, entering a boxing ring, pursuing women, interviewing famous and powerful people; I even worked on a presidential campaign, but I sensed that being a part of raising a family one day might be for me the greatest adventure of all.

(2) And was that true?

Yes. Naturally, like all new parents, my wife and I and all of our relatives showered the children with affection and gifts. We also took thousands of pictures. But I’m a writer, and it donned on me that the truest way to capture the delights -- and occasional sorrows  -- of raising a family was to write about it.

(3) How is it different from the host of parenting books out there?

It’s not a parenting book. If anything, it’s a literary or journalistic celebration of the pleasures of raising children, along with their mother, my loving wife. It’s true that embedded in the 60 or so stories and essays are useful lessons -- illuminations or epiphanies  -- but that’s not why I started to write the book. Originally I wanted a record of the family that the children and their children could look back upon.

(4) Are the stories about unusual or exotic situations?

Mostly not. Our family is typical of most. So what happened to us, I imagine happens within most families. One sub-theme is that our family is Arab and Jewish, Irish and Catholic, and that blend figures into some of the tales.

(5) So what makes Finding Immortality special?

For most of the children’s early upbringing, I was a freelance writer working at home and lavished a great deal of attention on them. One of the rewards returned to me was the revelation of stories. I started to write, and I found what is usually called the “writer’s voice.” In that way, the stories were distinctive, reflective of my skills and the personalities of my family. I started sending them out and found that The New York Times and other publications liked them and printed them. That gave me the idea for a book.

(6) So why isn’t it just a well-written family diary?

That’s a fair question. People began to tell me that they would specifically look for my byline in the Sunday Times or in our local paper. They wrote letters to the editor. I was asked to speak at colleges and writers’ conferences. Audience members would listen and say that something very similar that happened to us also happened to them. Or, that they were confounded by a problem and saw a solution after reading one of my stories. So I had written something more complex and complete than a diary. I was able to tap into some universal themes in personal experiences.

(7) What, for example, are some of these themes?

Dealing with mortality, of course; adoring one’s children while preparing to let them go, coping with anger, with racism, the wages of drink, patriotism, shyness, a new car, making a house a home, the onset of puberty, bullies, the allure of a father having a daughter.

(8) I know they’re about the Hadad family, but are they truly non-fiction, creative non-fiction or borderline fiction?

When I first started writing these stories, I took a workshop with Mary Cheever, the poet, writer, and wife of the late writer John Cheever. She had us read in class, which made me so nervous that when I’d finish I’d be trembling. She might ask, “Herbert, is that story fiction or non-fiction?” I wanted to write fiction at the time so I tried to bluff her. “Fiction,” I'd say. “No, it isn’t,” she answered. I learned from her that I had no ability to write fiction. I became the George Washington of the class. I couldn’t make anything up. As for creative non-fiction, that expression is a great invention and I like to think my non-fiction is creative.

(9) You teach a class on the personal essay. What do you tell your students?

This is controversial but I say that a small fib detail in pursuit of a large truth is acceptable. I know some journalists have gotten into trouble for crossing the line. But if it helps your story to say a dog suddenly barked, or a bluebird flew overhead, and the dog and the bird were not really in the scene that you actually remember, go for the dog and the bird. And rewrite it until it's the best you can make it.

(10) What’s the significance of the title Finding Immortality: The Making of One American Family?

The book had another title, “Family Man,” but author and writer Calvin Trillin took it for a tribute to his father. Finding Immortality is meant to signify a few things: a warm, secure place where a child can always enter and be appreciated, be loved, and be free of the slings and arrows of the outside world, which we know await anyone from age two to 102. Then the title is meant to convey that if you are successful in conveying a message to the readers of the stories, it will be your immortality.

(11) The book covers the period from the birth of the children until the eldest is about to turn 12. How old are they now?

The boys are now 32 and 31, and the girl 29. I’m delighted to say, God willing, that they all are healthy and leading vital lives. One, who worked in finance, just returned from a 16-month around-the-world voyage of discovery and is currently mapping his future; one’s a producer at CNN; and the third recently joined the staff of the Ford Foundation after obtaining her Masters.

(12) What took so long to get the book out?

Oh, you really know how to touch sensitive spots. I completed an earlier version while the children were still young and I had sold it. But for reasons never clarified, it wasn't published. I had an agent and she called one day to give me the bad news. It was like being ambushed by a sniper. I hung up in shock and went into the living room and asked my little daughter to join me. I closed my eyes and ran my fingers over her face, feeling her features. I said to myself, this is more important than any book. Later I plunged back in and I’m glad I did. So did many readers, I’m happy to say.

(13) Are you all still close with your children?

Very. I call upon them for advice all the time. And they were very useful in editing and producing this book, especially the eldest. They’ve already been through the period when they felt I was out of it, that I didn’t know a thing worth knowing, and I humbly feel now that they have swung around to appreciate my wife and me. Actually, I think they always appreciated her. It was their dad who was cycled in and out.

(14) Speaking of your wife Evelyn, why does she come in for so much attention?

Besides being beautiful and wonderful, she made the family, physically and spiritually. My job for the most part was to enjoy the kids and spend time with them. The book’s tribute says: “To my parents, who gave me the dream. To Evelyn, who made it come true.”

(15) Do you have any other books in store?

Everyone is interested in the Middle East these days. And being a Jewish Arab I have a whole extra dimension of interest. My desire for peace is in my very marrow. I’ve also been living a lifetime as a kind of accidental spy -- Jews taking me for a fellow Jew confiding their outrage and misgivings about Arabs; Arabs taking me for a brother and revealing their outrage and misgiving about Jews. I see the whole mess as one enormous feuding family.  As remote as it may seem, I think our family can make up. I have written about this many times.

I’ve also written a series of essays on everything from the meaning of fishing to the pursuit, or non-pursuit of wealth, for the magazine of my alma mater, Northeastern University, and other publications. I’ve won several awards, and I think a collection of these stories would make for some very good reading. I even have some tentative titles. One is “Best Intentions,” and the other is "Available Light," even though a good friend says that sounds too photographic. Its meaning is supposed to convey that I’m working with all the insight and experience I have to make the stories as lucid as possible.

(16) Who should read Finding Immortality: parents-to-be, parents of youngsters, young adults, grandparents?

All of them. I feel that the themes in these stories will strike a chord with people of all ages and stages of their lives.

(17) Well Herbert, it’s been a treat sitting down with you and learning about your book. I read it and enjoyed it very much. Good luck.

Thank you. I think we both enjoyed it.



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