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A Father's Light

August 27, 1995|ALLAN M. JALON

Who doesn't want to know more about their parents' lives? Or despair when the quest seems futile? Writers' children-- some writers' children--can study their parents in the light they shine on themselves.

Consider John Weidman. His father, Jerome Weidman, wrote a famous story about the struggle to enter a parent's mind. The young narrator of "My Father Sits in the Dark"--which will be read at 6 p.m. tonight as part of the KCRW radio series "Jewish Stories From Eastern Europe and Beyond"--is the American-born son of an immigrant father who sits each night in the unlit kitchen, staring into space. The story, published in 1935 when the writer was 22, is a spiral of worried questions, as the boy repeatedly asks his father why he stays there, what he thinks about. "It's restful," the father answers, oddly calm. He thinks of "nothing special."

"I read the story when I was 14, in 1961," the younger Weidman says. "I was startled that here was this other person, my father, having experiences that had nothing to do with me. . . . It was disorienting. There is a self-centeredness when you are younger. Also, he was a father to me and not an artist, and here was this man who had an active and vivid imaginative life."

Jerome Weidman is 83 now, debilitated by a stroke. Widely read in the 1950s and '60s, he wrote 22 novels and seven short-story collections, insistently tracing the losses and gains of a second-generation immigrant son's drive for success; his father, an Austrian-born garment worker, appears in other stories. The novels include the highly praised social satire, "I Can Get It for You Wholesale." He wrote the book for the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical "Fiorello!"

By the time John Weidman read "My Father Sits in the Dark," the father had left New York for northern suburbs that John Weidman says were "as separate from the world where my father grew up on the Lower East Side as the Lower East Side was separate from the world where his father grew up.

"He didn't talk about growing up on the Lower East Side in my presence. To me, this was the guy in car pools. This was the guy in slacks and a Shetland sweater playing catch with me in the field behind the house . . . but the story gave me an instant source of access to my father that he didn't have to his."

Finally, the worry of the son in the story spins into anger. Unable to contain himself, he snaps on the kitchen light. The father is startled, "as if struck."

"What's wrong?" the son asks. The father explains he doesn't like light, that they didn't have lights when he was growing up in Europe. The son recalls stories he'd heard about his father sitting in front of the family fireplace. "I see a small boy, crouched on a pile of twigs at one side of the huge fireplace, his starry gaze fixed on the dull remains of the dead flames. The boy is my father."

At this merger of light and dark, age and youth, Europe and America, anger yields to wonder. But before the story ends, almost compulsively, the son asks once more exactly what his father thinks about, and the father again turns opaque. "Nothing," he says, softly. "Nothing special."

What distinguishes the story from many intergenerational tales these days is its lack of bitterness. "The mystery remains affectionate," as John Weidman says.

John Weidman also became a writer, working with Stephen Sondheim in the theater and doing scripts for Sesame Street. His 12-year-old daughter recently pulled her grandfather's books off her father's shelves in Manhattan, fascinated to hear Jerome Weidman's youthful voice speaking to her. "She is amazed by it," John Weidman says. " 'Bompa wrote that? I can't believe that this is him.' "

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