Submitted by Bobbi Linkemer
In 1987, a new Stephen Sondheim play opened on Broadway, and I wanted to see it. This was not an idle whim; it was an obsession. It was also highly unlikely that it would ever happen. I couldn’t really afford to go to the play or to stay in a hotel. I had used all my vacation time. My company wouldn’t pay for me to join a professional association let alone to send me to New York. Talk about dreaming the impossible dream. Yet, in October of that year, I watched the curtain rise on Into the Woods from what was surely the best seat in the house. What followed was magical.
Into the Woods is a morality play about fairy tale characters that all inhabit the same story. Their lives intersect as they seek the one thing they think will make them happy: a handsome prince, boundless treasure, adventure, freedom, lost beauty, or a baby. When they get what they yearn for, they live happily ever after. That’s the end of Act I.
How could a 50-year-old woman be obsessed with seeing a bunch of make-believe characters, including a frustrated witch, two womanizing princes, and a cowardly baker, sing and dance their hearts out for hours? And what does this have to do with my father? Well, that’s the real story.
Stephen Sondheim didn’t know my father, but he captured his essence when it came to make-believe. My father was a gentle man with a beautiful, deep voice and a vivid imagination. He thought it quite natural to have fairy tale characters show up in each other’s stories even though some of my friends insisted they didn’t belong. The original versions paled in comparison to his stories.
Into the Woods opened the same year my father died. The play was, in my mind, a kind of memorial. They say that the people we love hang around a while after they die just to be sure we are okay. He surely did, at least until I saw that play. In a theater full of people, I watched it alone except for the very real presence of my father, who stayed just long enough to watch it with me.
My father never considered himself a successful man, and I was always puzzled by that. Perhaps he felt he should have made more money, but I can’t imagine what he could have provided that we didn’t already have. He always had a generosity of spirit and of self that I have found in no other human being. His whole life gave testimony to the philosophy that the more love you give away, the more you have to give. And give it he did—consistently, constantly, endlessly.
For fifty years, he gave his love to my mother in small ways and, occasionally, with extravagant gestures. No woman, I think, has ever been more loved by a man than she was. He gave his love to my sister and me and then to our daughters, who were three additions to what we always called “Frank’s harem.” He also gave it to everyone he met on his journey through life: his parents and brothers and sisters, those he worked with on the Long Island Railroad, friends and total strangers, and every child he ever met who wanted to sit on his lap and hear his wonderful, slightly rearranged fairy tales.
I could list the things he did, his accomplishments, and the specific acts of kindness he performed that I can remember or which others told me about. But, in truth, I would prefer to gather and share my own special memories of this man who held my hand as we walked through the park and swept me into a magic world of make-believe with his wondrous stories and fanciful pipe dreams.
The things I remember may seem inconsequential and not the stuff which defines a man’s life, but, they are significant to me and help, somehow, to explain what made my father so special.
He could fix anything with his wonderful hands no matter how mangled or hopeless the damage might seem. He could take himself and any child who wanted to accompany him into a world of fairies, princesses, and wonder. He was a marvelous dancer, effortless and smooth, somehow trapping the music in his every movement and transmitting it to his partner. He was a helper and was always rushing to do something for my mother or for us. He woke me in the morning with a hot cup of coffee; he was always first to do the unpleasant chores he wanted to spare us. He is best remembered, I think, for removing the saucers from beneath our cups so he could beat all of us to cleaning off the dinner table.
He was a collector of everything, especially memories. His dresser drawers and closets bulged with wonderful things he had saved for his children and grandchildren, and his mind was equally full of recalled treasures from the past. He loved history and baseball and things made of wood, but most of all, he loved the railroad. All his life, no matter how far from trains he may have strayed, Frank Levay was a railroad man.
I grew up on the railroad, riding back and forth between New York and Chicago. I slept in upper and lower berths, in tiny compartments, and in spacious bedrooms. I ate meals in dining cars with white tablecloths and heavy silver coffee pots. I was watched over by tall, dignified porters who had promised to keep an eye on me during the trip. This was my father’s world, and so it was mine.
I was an only child for the first eight-and-a-half years of my life and spent much of that time with my father. My memories are like slides flashing on a screen: flying through the air on a swing until all I could see were thick green leaves dotted with patches of blue; watching beautiful ladies, whom my father called debutantes, sweeping though fancy hotel lobbies; eating chicken chow mein in New York’s Chinatown; walking on top of a wall made of rocks and holding tight to his hand; and riding with the engineer in the cab of a brand new diesel engine.
We built a life together during my early years, and we rediscovered each other when I was a grown woman. I reached out to my father and found that he was reaching out to me. He went blind very suddenly in his 70s, and he never really adjusted to the loss of his sight. He was 79 years old when he died, and he left an unfillable void for the six of us who loved him.
All my life, he gave me the one priceless gift of unconditional love. There were no strings. I didn’t have to live up to expectations; I just had to be me. Few parents have the wisdom and strength to give that to their children. My father had both.
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