I grew up to stories of my father's boyhood in the Jewish ghetto of Chicago. Taking mattresses up to the roof to sleep, when the tenements were too hot inside - his whole family watched the stars together in that unlikely place.
Other times, his mother would offer him fruit, making light of their poverty: "We have an apple. You want an apple?" - No. "You want a pear?" - No. "Well, you want a banana?" - Yes! "Well, that's good, but we don't have any bananas. Now, what will you eat?"
There is one story that, above all the others, I remember my father telling me.
You see, when I was nine or ten, my father and I used to write poems together. We'd get out 101 Famous Poems and read "Invictus" or "If" or "Charge of the Light Brigade." We'd feel inspired, so we'd each take pencil and paper and begin to write.
"Dad, what rhymes with 'missed you'?"
"Just go through the alphabet: 'bissed you, cissed you, dissed you'. You'll find one."
"I got it, Dad: 'kissed you'. Thanks!"
After 20 minutes or so, we'd share what we'd written. "Dad, how did you do that? That's so good!"
One day, he explained to me: "Just think of the ending first, and work toward that. Just like with stories."
"Dad, do you mean you can make up stories, too.?"
He paused and looked at me. I can still picture his face at that moment: it's my first memory in which I can see him wondering if he could live up to my expectations of him. "Sure, I could make one up sometime."
Hardly a day went by without my asking him to make up a story, a story for me. Finally, he agreed. I couldn't have been happier with a new bicycle or a trip to Disneyland.
The story began in his boyhood, on the roof of the tenement. It was a hot night; the family dragged their mattresses up onto the tarred roof to sleep. My father was the only one awake.
As he lay there looking at the stars, he noticed that Mars - the red planet - was getting larger. Soon, a giant red globe descended, engulfed him, and carried him up into the night sky.
Too soon, the first installment was over. Every day I asked for more. A week later, the story - my story - continued.
My father had been captured by strange creatures; then he escaped onto the bizarre, silent landscape of this alien planet. In my mind, I was with him there, picturing a black and red land that no human had seen before, where everything was indescribably different. Only my father and I really understood.
When this second episode ended, I wanted more - but not more so much as more of the same. I wanted to savor. My reality had been changed for a time. My father and I had taken a walk in a secret world; I wanted to linger at the doorstep before coming back inside the house.
Still, I became impatient. "Tell me more of my story. Tell me more, Daddy."
Now, my father became evasive. Every night, coming home from the bus stop after work, he seemed to brace himself for my demand. "Will you finish the story tonight?"
Every night, he seemed more exhausted as he refused. It was as though he were still fighting his battles in that alien land, and didn't dare give a report until he had returned triumphant. Were the horrors of Mars too great for me to hear?
Now I asked less often. Didn't my daddy love to walk in that landscape as much as I did? Was I inadequate for the adventure we were on together? At last one evening I said, with blame and pain in my voice, "Why don't you ever want to tell me my story any more?"
My father looked down at the table in our dining room, then out the window at our Scotch pine that had now grown taller than either of us. "I can't finish the story. You see, it was going to end like an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel I once read, with the only weakness of the Martians being sound. If you spoke, they had to run. But I don't know, I just couldn't make it come out good enough."
Good enough. My father was afraid his story wasn't good enough. I was crushed. Didn't he know how much I loved it? How much I loved him?
If only I had been able to say what I know now: it wasn't how good the story was that mattered to me, only the act of being told a story. He could have told the first episode over and over. He could have asked me to help him finish it. He could have started another story. He could have....
Sometimes it seems to me that my whole career as a storyteller - and especially as a leader of storytelling workshops for teachers and parents - is an attempt to get my father to keep telling that story.
What matters most about storytelling is the act of sharing your imagination with another person.
What matters most is that special closeness.
What matters is not the story told, but that you tell.