Doctors doubted the tiny red-faced infant who was my father would survive his own birth. Screaming in protest for having been expelled into this world more than two months too soon, he fought for his life and won. But by the time he was strong enough to leave the Paris hospital where he was born, his mother had decamped to parts unknown, taking the secret of his paternity with her.
A buxom but infertile nurse named Alice—whom I would later know as my grandmother Mémé—brought the little boy home. However much she wanted a child, though, she never legalized the adoption. She also didn’t tell my father what she knew about his parents. The most she would do was introduce him to her lover Hagop, the man from Istanbul who had told her about my father and given her money to care for him.
Not long after Alice told my father to call his benefactor “Uncle,” Hagop died. And when he did, the money stopped coming in. My mother claimed that Mémé had used most of what Hagop gave her to buy a small cottage with a dirt floor high in the Jura Mountains of Southeastern France. “All that disgrace of a woman ever wanted was the money,” she said once. “She couldn’t have cared less about your father.” What no one knew for sure was why money had changed hands in the first place or why “Uncle Hagop” had even bothered to sign the birth certificate.
From the start, the world told my father he was an accident no one especially wanted to happen. Yet life still managed to offer him compensations. One was the stepbrother he acquired after Mémé married a French-speaking Italian widower in the mid-1930s. Dark-haired, wiry and robust, Raymond took an instant liking to the shy, thin-boned child maman Alice thrust upon him. He called his little stepbrother petit Max; my father in turn called his new older brother Pat because it was all his clumsy baby tongue could manage. Their relationship provided the closest to thing to unconditional love my father ever got, and he hung on to it for dear life.
In 1945 my father began his two-year compulsory military duty. Sixteen years old and scared, he spent the waning days of the Second World War jumping out of planes over Morocco. Eliminating Nazi thugs who remained in North Africa after the great desert campaigns of the early 1940s was his stated mission. But the truth was my soldier father was out to save himself. With no legal connection to France, Max Adjarian was caught in citizenship limbo. Only after serving in the French Army and proving his allegiance to la mère patrie was he able to get the passport that legitimized his existence and eventually immigrate to the United States.
My father had nothing to hold him in Paris. Apart from Pat, he had few friends. His only other companions were the books he would buy for a few francs from the outdoor booksellers or bouquinists whose crowded tables clustered along the Seine. “You’re never alone when you have a good book with you,” he used to say. This truth—that books nurtured and sustained when humans could not—was the wisdom he passed along to the daughter whose hunger for stories marked her as undeniably his.
But that truth hid another, more painful one: a cognitive disability left my father unable to retain more than a small fraction of what he read. My mother told me this during one of the innumerable times I asked her about my birth.
“You were right on time and close to eight pounds—absolutely perfect,” she said, glowing with maternal pride at the accomplishment I never tired of hearing about. And then it came out. “I can’t say the same about your father, though. He weighed less than half of what you did. And it affected his brain development.”
When she told me, I was nearing the end of elementary school—practically an adult in her eyes. I was eminently ready for small helpings of the private family truths both she and my father kept from me. I eyed her quizzically.
“You know all those books he reads?” my mother asked. “Well, he doesn’t always finish them. He can’t. It’s why he went to trade school—he couldn’t manage university.”
Her tone was triumphant, as though exposing my father’s weaknesses somehow made up for his defects as a husband. I longed to learn more about the man whose novels, treatises, manuals and encyclopedias filled our one-room house library. But the resentment I felt emanating from my mother warned me not to press for details I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear.
On a trip I took to Paris more than a decade later, Pat, who had become a jeweler, would tell me that petit Max had studied with master bookbinders on the Rue du Four in the Latin Quarter. A 1953 article I found online nearly twenty years afterwards—that had migrated from an Ithaca, New York newspaper and into the California Lodi-News Sentinel—filled in other gaps. My father had learned about bookbinding from the Boy Scouts, which paranoid Nazi officials eventually banned during the German occupation of Paris. What the article didn’t say was that my father’s first love had actually been architecture.
“Did you ever want to be anything else when you grew up, papa?” I asked once.
Instead of answering, my father took a flat-sided pencil and sketched a small, lopsided family of squares and rectangles sporting triangles and trapezoids for hats.
“What’s that?” I asked.
He winked at me. “I wanted to design buildings. But I was no good at drafting, so I became a bookbinder instead. You don’t have to draw to do that.”
Whether my mother told me about my father’s deficits out of a sense of duty, superiority or both, I never knew. Perhaps it was her way of preparing me for what I might find out. Sometimes, though, her explanations came in the aftermath of things I had glimpsed but not fully comprehended on my own.
The outlines of the paternal shame toward which my mother’s revelations gestured first became apparent to me a few years earlier. I had just started kindergarten, my head filled with stories about my mother’s own illustrious academic past. Now, newly initiated as a scholar, I had started to wonder about father’s background. All I knew was that when he was my age, his teachers had rapped the knuckles of his left hand black and blue to remind him that his weaker right hand was the proper one to use.
The day I made my discovery, I was sitting on the floor in his bookbinding workshop petting our German Shepard and pulling on her tail. Boredom had set in and I craved entertainment, even if it involved getting nipped by an irritated canine.
“Where is your diploma, Papa?” I asked suddenly. “I want to see it.”
“I’ll have to go into my safe to get it,” he said, gesturing vaguely at the imposing green cabinet near the workshop entrance with the big metal dials I loved to twist and spin for fun.
“But I want to see it now!” I pouted.
He looked at me uneasily. “I told you. I’ll get it later.”
I jumped up from the concrete floor and scuttled to the safe, where I began tugging at the steel handles. My father swept past me to a restoration project that awaited him on a nearby table.
“Go.” He turned away from me, picked up a brush and began stirring vigorously at a small bowl of glue he would use to repair the broken book spine in front of him. I saw his back stiffen beneath the chambray work shirt he always wore.
I left the shop reluctantly and clambered up the concrete hillside staircase that led back to our house. When I saw my mother, I told her what happened.
“But why?” she said, gasping in horror.
“I just wanted to see, Mama.”
“Your father will think I was the one who told you to ask,” she said, the creases between the dark arches of her eyebrows deepening. I couldn’t fathom either one of my parents’ responses. What had I done to provoke them so much?
When my father came to the house for dinner, she told him to pardon my inquisitiveness. “She’s just a child,” my mother said, her voice nervously tendering the implicit offer of an apology. I bit my lip and wondered whether the impassive mask of his face hid a silent dismay.
The next morning, my mother went about her business of managing the house, her pursed lips the only residual sign of tension. And my father went about his business of managing his restoration projects, warbling tunelessly on the way to his bindery. Order had been restored. But my father did not show me his diploma, nor did I ever ask to see it again.
As evasive as my father could be, he could also make personal revelations that struck me with the force of a closed fist. One disclosure in particular made me squirm in my skin every time I heard it. We would be talking about the weather, the latest news on TV or my next appointment at the doctor or the dentist. Suddenly, my father would turn to me and say, “I wanted you, you know.” The effect was always the same. I would stare at him wordlessly and swallow hard, feeling as though he had stripped naked before me.
The first time I heard his confession it made no sense. Of course he wanted me; didn’t all parents want their children? It would be many years before I realized that his words were as much talismans of love to protect me against what he had endured as much as they were salves for personal wounds that would not heal.
Of course he wanted me; didn’t all parents want their children? It would be many years before I realized that his words were as much talismans of love to protect me against what he had endured as much as they were salves for personal wounds that would not heal.
Despite the occasional hints of the personal anguish I saw in my father, I didn’t become aware of how much he suffered until I probed him about his family. I was nine years old and still as curious about him as ever, but also determined to get behind his reserve and find out more. If he wouldn’t tell me about school, then surely he would tell me about the people he had grown up with.
The day I did, we were in his workshop, just as we had been when I had asked him about his diploma. But things between him and my mother had grown strained enough that he now lived in the little apartment attached to his workshop. Any time I could spend with my father was becoming as precious as the personal information I wanted from him.
“Do you ever wonder about your parents?” I asked him. “I mean, your real ones.”
My parents routinely contradicted each other about my father’s relationship to Mémé. She had visited us 1971, and I remembered her for little beyond a persistent cough and the soft white forms she used in her brassiere to replace the breasts she had lost to cancer. Although it was unclear who Alice really was, my mother’s meanness had made me side with my father.
My father turned to me. “Of course I do.” He sighed audibly. “But it was so hard to get an answer from anyone. Were they poor? Were they criminals? I wish someone could have told me. The worst part is not knowing.”
The dark cloud of pain I saw pass over his face made me realize that I had been right to believe my father. But it also made me regret my question, while the searing intensity of his words unsettled me. Like his impromptu assurances of paternal affection, they cut to the bone and made me shiver at the almost unbearable honesty they expressed.
Not long after my father revealed his ignorance about his birth family, he gave me the unexpected gift of a Nancy Drew mystery. I tumbled headlong in love with the redheaded detective who always brought the bad guys to justice. My father never asked me about what I read beyond a perfunctory, “Did you like it?” In monosyllables to match his own, I’d reply “yes.” He had thought of me; that was all that mattered.
Nancy Drew was my father’s way of sharing what he loved best: following the adventures of crack detectives who solved the cases no one else could. Whodunit in hand, my father’s favorite pastime was to sit in the walnut rocking chair in the house library nose-deep in a crime novel, absently puffing on a pipe. Mysteries gave him a satisfaction he never outgrew. Closure about his family eluded him, but at least he could get something like it from the books he read.
More than fellow mystery fans, my father and I were incurable bibliophiles. When I wasn’t blowing the $5 dollar weekly allowance my father sometimes remembered to give me on books I found in school catalogs, I was following my father like the Pied Piper into bookshops all over Los Angeles, including the ones he did business with. Most of these, like Zeitlin and VerBrugge on La Cienega Boulevard, specialized in the antiquarian books that were the lifeblood of my father’s business and, I later realized, my father’s own soul. He needed and loved those dusty old tomes with fading gilt edges and torn marbled paper interiors as much as I needed the Nancy Drew mysteries and Scholastic paperbacks that I ingested like an addict in single sittings.
Our favorite bookstore was Martindale’s on the Santa Monica Third Street Mall. In that place of creaking floors, endless aisles, and shelves and tables laden with books, the hours slipped away like thieves. My father could flip through new-minted books and enjoy the aroma of fresh paper and ink rather than fix old ones that made him sneeze and threatened to crumble in his hands. Even the muscle twitch that occasionally flickered under the pale skin of his cheek was still. And I was happy because I had my father all to myself.
On rare occasions, I caught glimpses of the other books that had managed to engage the imperfect mechanisms of my father’s memory long enough to leave a lasting imprint. One was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. It had appeared on a summer high school reading list. Desperate to move away from Nancy Drew, I went into the house library and climbed onto the back of the sofa I routinely used like a ladder to get at books I couldn’t reach. Bare-toed and balanced with less than Olympic grace, I scanned the spines, found the book I was looking for, and dove into the cushions feet first.
I didn’t like it. In my frustration, I went to my father. Kerouac had a French last name. And to my mind, that meant my father should be on the receiving end of my complaints.
“My teachers told me to read On the Road,” I said. “But it doesn’t have a plot. Two guys drive all over the country getting drunk and pissing off the back of trucks.” I made a face. “That’s disgusting.”
My father’s pale blue eyes flew wide open.
“What are you saying?” he exclaimed. “When I was a kid in France, all I ever dreamed about was travelling across America. The story is magnificent.”
“But the characters aren’t doing anything!”
“Ah,” he said, a Buddha-like half-smile creeping on his face. “Just wait. You may not understand the book now, but a day will come when you will.”
On the Road had clearly spoken to my father. Without a healthy dose of restlessness, he would never have come to the United States. And he never would have moved to a different city in California and then Arizona as often as he did after he moved away from Malibu.
Each new place was supposed to be the last. “I’m home,” he would tell me. “Do you understand? Home.” It was his endless refrain. When I heard it, I would nod dutifully, unconvinced. I knew him too well. In four or five years, he would find another town that was smaller, more beautiful, less crowded or—when the isolation got to him—closer to civilization. And when it did, he and his wife would pack their bags yet again and take to the road in search of the fresh territory and the new start my father needed as much as the air he breathed.
It’s June 2012, the ten-year anniversary of my father’s death. I am looking at an article about my father from a 1961 edition of the Kansas City Star. Still thinking about my father and still missing him, I have begun to realize how little I really knew about the man, even in the years he lived with me.
My brother knows some things. But our histories only intersected until he slipped away to college and left me at home bouncing on the big red rubber ball I called my Hoppity Horse. Apart from DNA and a few scattered memories, we share little else. I email the Cornell University library, which tells me they have nothing about my father except references to him as a contractor.
I call the Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas expecting a similar reply. The head of reader services surprises me a few days later with an email containing a PDF of a Kansas City Star profile of my father. It seems he was a minor celebrity—or at least someone interesting enough for a journalist to cover. Less than 750 words long and yellow with age, the article makes me feel as though I have struck a mother lode of information.
Greedy for any details I can get, I find out that he bought his tools from an 80-year-old Parisian who had the equipment in his family for four generations. I also discover why he named his business J. Grolier Rare Book Bindery.
“In the sixteenth century,” my father says, “a Frenchman named J. Grolier perfected a style of cover design that has lived since as a symbol of quality and craftsmanship.”
The journalist has made my father sound almost academic; the man I knew was never that formal in the way he spoke. I stop reading for a moment and imagine his voice, the way he would softly growl his R’s at the bottom of his throat. Though the words may not exactly be his own, artisanal pride is evident in what the journalist attributes to my father. So is the need to claim to a history the Adjarian family lineage didn’t give him.
My eyes rest on the black and white photograph embedded in the profile.. Slim-faced with closely cropped hair, my father is dressed in a light-colored shirt the sleeves of which he has rolled back to the elbows. He has not yet begun to wear the glasses that will correct the myopia that he will develop later in life just like his daughter. Oblivious to the camera, he is completely engrossed in the heavy, centuries-old tome he is restoring and that he must use both hands to lift.
I read and re-read the article, then berate myself for not having taken greater interest in my father’s work. Why did I never think to ask him about it? Or how long it took him to master such an old and unusual profession? I look for the only restored book I have from his library, a red leather-bound volume of Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal. So many words and you can’t tell me how he fixed you, I say. But show me papa’s workshop. Take me home. The pungent aroma of old paper, cardboard and leather that once filled my father’s workshop hovers around the book and fills my nostrils. I close my eyes and allow the decades-old smells to coax my father’s bindery from memories I fear will one day fade beyond recognition.
The pungent aroma of old paper, cardboard and leather that once filled my father’s workshop hovers around the book and fills my nostrils. I close my eyes and allow the decades-old smells to coax my father’s bindery from memories I fear will one day fade beyond recognition.
In the darkness behind my eyelids, images begin to coalesce. Soon I find myself inside the yellow-walled corrugated metal building where my father did his work, standing before the endless racks and drawers of wood-handled brass tools. On the table in front of me are the fragile rolls of gold leaf he used for gilding covers and spines. And on the shelves above the table are tools carved with intricate patterns of leaves, flowers and letters in exquisite relief.
I roam the shop, listening to the ebb and flow of conversation between my father and Bernard. Beak-nosed with a cigarette dangling gangster-style from the corner of his mouth, he has come all the way from Paris to work at this little bindery tucked away on a quiet Malibu street. Out of childish malice, I tease him about the chunky-heeled black boots he wears to boost his height, fully aware that he speaks no English. But at least he is here legally. Fidel, another of my father’s employees, is not. My father smuggled this squat little man with the wide face and shy white grin from Mexico in a Ford Country Squire station wagon with back seats that fold over to form a hidden compartment.
Bernard lives in Venice and commutes to work in Malibu, which my father will also do after he moves out of the house. But Fidel lives in a rectangular wood building with a tarpaper roof that my father built himself. Located behind our house, it was supposed to be a laundry room and storage area. After Fidel arrives and my father installs an old refrigerator and small cook stove near our washer, dryer and laundry sink, the building becomes his home. For the three years he is there, the entire building will smell of the flour tortillas he makes by hand and cooks without a frying pan over an open gas flame.
Fidel has no privacy because his door has no lock. I know this because one day when he was in my father’s shop, I twisted the doorknob to his bedroom and found I could walk right in. Sometimes, when I am feeling especially bold, I take a few of the coins he leaves out on a bedroom shelf near the featherweight aerogram paper he uses to write letters home to his family in Tijuana. Fidel must surely notice the theft but says nothing because he is kind and because he is afraid no one will believe him if he does.
Sometimes Fidel seeks out my mother. He’s lonely for someone who speaks Spanish and is unhappy with the dismissive way my father treats him. ¿Por qué? he asks. Why? That dark side that will later come out more overtly in comments—“those damn Mexicans are retaking California without firing a shot”—that he will sometimes make after he’s drunk too much of the Pinot Noir he loves. My father knows that he is as much a foreigner as the men he hires. But he’s out to prove that a working class boy who nearly flunked out of high school because he couldn’t remember his lessons can still lord it over other men.
I start to play with my father’s guillotine knives. They’re better than any jungle gym or swing set because they are as powerful as they are dangerous. The desk-sized knife is my favorite toy to cut up scrap paper from the workshop floor into thin confetti slivers that I toss over my head or on top of Lucy the German Shepard, whom I named after Lucille Ball, the funny lady on TV who makes me laugh. The other is a blue monster the size of a man. It has a curved steel blade attached to a handle of which, when raised for cutting, rests comfortably on a man’s shoulder. “Be careful, chérie,” my father warns me. “You don’t want to hurt yourself.”
My father walks to his big square cast iron press. He arranges a large book between the two heavy black plates, and then guides the top plate down onto the stack. At five feet seven inches, he is not a big man. In adolescence, I will overtop him by almost four inches. But his shoulders, chest and arms are bull-sturdy and strong, made so by years of pushing and pulling at brutal-looking machines like his press.
To amuse myself, I fill a small jar with water and grab a handful of the watercolor tubes full of the expensive paint my father sometimes uses for his restoration projects. I open one silver tube after the other, squeezing big globs of paint into a palette at an open table away from my father’s line of sight. Then I dunk my brush in water and color and dab at the brown paper torn from the rolls my father keeps under his main work table to wrap restored books gift-like for his clients.
When my father finally sees what I’m doing, he scolds me. “Petit cochon. Little pig,” he says. “Look at this mess.” He has done this many times before, but I never see him express anything more than mild annoyance. What I do not know is that beneath the amiable placidity, he worries. A heart attack at age 42—the first of several he will have over the next few years—will finally give away just how much stress he is really under.
But he will manage. He will battle back from illness, divorce, disappointment over two children who can’t seem to get along, and a second marriage that will nearly break him. The child who didn’t exist to his parents or to the country where he was born and who disappeared then reappeared in the lives of his loved ones will live like this until his heart can take no more, a survivor to the end.