'Brave world, that has such people in it'

Adine Panitch

June 14, 1991|By Adine Panitch

DID YOU know that Shakespeare didn't really write Othello?"

The voice over the telephone was both incredulous and indignant.

"What do you mean, Dad?"

"What I mean is he didn't really think of that story himself," the voice said. "Someone else did."

I wondered whether the telephone line betrayed my smile. Old Will caught with his hand in the cookie jar 300 years after the fact? After years of family gossip, gardening and the weather, it was definitely time for something new.

"A lot of writers in those days took old stories and rewrote them," I said reassuringly. "It doesn't make him any less a genius."

A disparaging "hrrumph!" came across the line as Shakespeare dropped audibly in Dad's estimation. He always was one to toe the line of a rigorous morality.

Actually, the entire world of Shakespeare has been virgin territory for Dad. His adventure into the unknown began a few months ago when, casting about for something to fill his hours after Mom's death, he learned that a nearby college invited "senior citizens" to audit classes.

As a Jew growing up in Latvia and the Ukraine during the chaotic days of World War I and the Russian Revolution, Dad never had the opportunity to get a formal education. He came to America at 18 and immediately began the struggle to learn English and earn a living. He was truly self-educated, and he read voraciously in several languages.

His tastes, however, tended toward the nonfiction side of the card catalog -- history, politics and a fine-tooth-comb reading of the New York Times, which he quoted with biblical reverence.

It was not until January 1991, at the age of 85, that Dad sat down in a classroom for the first time. And his eyes opened wide.

"All these youngsters come into the room. They take out paper and start writing. Then a bell rings and everyone gets up and leaves!" There was a note of amazement in his voice.

"The professor knows so much. He quotes from other plays -- not even the one they're studying -- by memory!" A tone of quiet awe.

"Some of these kids, they just sit there," he said. "They never ask him anything. They never answer any of his questions. How can anyone turn away from such a feast?" He was truly bewildered.



O brave new world/That has such people in't, wonders the tender young Miranda in Shakespeare's The Tempest.

New to you . . ., counsels her father, with the tempering wisdom of age.


"I wish I could read your notes in the margin," Dad tells me. He's talking about the beloved old copy of Othello that I mailed to him.

Before slipping the passionate Moor into a plain brown envelope, I had browsed through those faded, earnest jottings from two decades ago when I was one of the kids who jumped up every time a bell rang.

As I flipped through the pages, the images crackled alive once more: Torch light glinting off shining swords; evil, poisonous lies hissed into innocent ears. I wondered if Dad would feel the same excitement when he opened the book.

Whatever struggles he has with the knotty Shakespearean language, Dad's satisfaction is in the pursuit. And I am immensely proud of him. Like a parent watching the first wobbly steps of a toddler, I cheer from the sidelines. Time is pulled slightly out of joint when the child nurtures the parent.

When my own daughters grew to a certain age, they occasionally would ask if I could use their old red sweater or blue skirt. It was with a wry sense of poetic justice that I tried on their "hand-me-ups."

Now, in "handing up" to Dad whatever insights into Shakespeare I can offer, I feel the currents of the paradoxical river that flows two ways.


My father is late in life -- that time when, as Shakespeare observed, "yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang upon [the] boughs." But at Dad's house, it's college catalogs that are hanging around -- summer catalogs, fall catalogs. Dad is busy planning the classes he wants to attend next.

I watch and store this image for some moment in my own future when a nagging voice may whisper, "It's too late . . . you're too old . . . don't be foolish . . . don't start something new."

/# And for that, I thank you, Dad.


Adine Panitch writes from Baltimore. 1/2

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