It’s one of those questionnaires designed to elicit something about you through quick and pithy answers. I’m speeding through this one until I hit this question:
“What strongly influenced you as a young child?”
It’s not that I don’t have an answer – it’s just that my answer might seem odd. Is it too strange to say that I was strongly influenced by the place mats at my childhood breakfast table?
The place mats featured colorful chalk drawings of the great European cities. I don’t remember which of my parents bought them and I don’t know why we only seemed to use them at breakfast. What I do remember is how often my dad and I discussed them.
I had lots of questions. “Why is there a bull in that picture?” (The one of Madrid.) “Why are there so many little boats?” (Venice.)
My father was happy to talk to me about all the cities on the place mats, but the one featuring bookstalls along the River Seine in Paris always drew an extra measure of warmth.
“That’s the most wonderful city in the world,” he would tell me. “The language they speak there is just like music.”
“But in each of these cities,” he would add, “they all speak a different language. And they are all beautiful.”
“Oh, Dad,” I would say almost every morning. “I want to go to all these cities. And hear all the languages. Can I?” And he always gave me the same unwavering answer:
“Absolutely. You can and you will.”
Of course, that wasn’t the only thing we talked about at breakfast. My dad was also a great lover of Broadway musicals. Not infrequently, he ushered me to the table with a song. “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” was a natural, of course, but it might also be “On the Street Where You Live” or “I Just Met a Girl Named Maria.”
I loved them all and wanted to know the story behind each one. Why did the character sing those words? What did they mean? This often led us, over our cereal and toast, to some surprisingly deep questions. “How could the King of Siam be both so right and so wrong?” and “Why couldn’t the Sharks and the Jets just get along?”
Whatever the discussion, I knew one thing for sure: I couldn’t wait to be a grown-up so I could go to the theater, too.
“Will I be able to see all these shows someday?” I would ask. And my dad would answer, with the same confidence with which he assured me that I would travel and learn languages: “Of course. You can and you will.”
Sometimes our conversations stayed closer to home. Talking about Broadway shows not infrequently brought us to another of my dad’s great loves: New York. Apart from his time at college and in the Army, he lived within a few miles of it all his life.
Sometimes he would list for me the fabulous things that one could do in New York: Eat oyster stew at Grand Central Terminal, stand between the lions at the Fifth Avenue public library, ride the Staten Island ferry. When I asked my usual question – “Can I do that, too?” – he changed the pronoun for his answer.
“Of course we can,” he would tell me. “We will.” And we did.
It’s been some decades now since I’ve been able to enjoy a meal with my dad. But the impressions of our early breakfasts together can be seen all over my résumé.
I spent two years of graduate school in Europe, including a full year in Paris. My degree in comparative literature required me to gain reading proficiency in Italian, French, Spanish, and German.
I lived in New York for 20 years as an adult. And to this day there’s never a month in which I don’t go to the theater at least twice.
So back to the questionnaire: “What strongly influenced you as a young child?”
“Breakfast with my dad,” I write.
Follow-up: “Why?” That’s easy. “Because he told me that I could and I would. And so I did.”
“Anything you’d like to add?” Oh yes. “Thanks, Dad, so very much.”