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ONCE A YEAR

The True Genius of Fatherhood

June 19, 2005|Michelle Feynman | Michelle Feynman is the editor of "Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman." She lives in Altadena with her husband and two children.

I have often heard my father called the smartest man in the world -- and once I saw it written, in Omni magazine. His name was Richard Feynman, and three years before I arrived on the scene he won the Nobel Prize in Physics. He won the Einstein Award several years before that and would receive several more prizes before his death in 1988, when I was 19.

I'm often asked what it was like to have this intellectual giant for a father. Because he's the only father I've known, it's hard to say. Many of the things he did were what any father might do: He drove the carpool, he took us camping, and he embarrassed his kids regularly. I didn't even know he was regarded as a supreme intellect for many years. He would ask me questions that even as a child I found to be painfully simple: "Hey Michelle, where do we keep the spoons around here?"

He couldn't remember my friends' names, so he'd make up his own, usually based on the street on which they lived. He wasn't much of a handyman. He understood what needed to be done, but the actual doing never worked out so well. In those days it seemed to me that I was by far the smarter one.

It's not uncommon, I have since learned, for kids to feel that way about their fathers, at least some of the time. When you're very young, you think your father knows everything. Later, you begin to see only what he doesn't know -- and you think you know everything. The truth doesn't come until later.

For me, it was in my teens, when my parents shipped my 15-year-old self off to Europe with a youth orchestra one summer. As I was leaving, he gave me the following advice: Remember your sense of humor -- mixed-up, badly organized plans are not life-threatening -- and you can still have fun while everyone else is running around in chaos. I remember thinking he was probably exaggerating, but as soon as the trip began, I discovered he was right in spades. When I returned home that summer, I saw a wise man instead of the dopey father I had left behind. A few years later, he was dead.

That was 17 years ago. In the last year, working on a collection of his letters, I have spent a lot more time thinking about my father, and I see flashes of brilliance in places I hadn't appreciated before. Even in the ordinary things -- the carpool, the camping, the everyday embarrassments -- he brought a zest for life and an awe for the wonders of nature that made being with him both a comfort and an adventure. He taught the world how to unravel the mysteries of subatomic particles; with equal enthusiasm, he taught our dog to get the paper, taught me how to ride a bike and even tried to teach me how to do our family's income taxes -- until my mother told him to stop torturing me. (I was 12 at the time.)

Last month, the U.S. Postal Service honored my father and three other American scientists with postage stamps. On my way to Caltech for a related event, I stopped for a bite to eat at a nearby pancake house. There I saw an older man having breakfast with his daughter. I could hear snatches of their conversation -- he was regaling her with a story about a silly mistake he had made the day before.

My tears quietly reminded me: This is what makes any good father the smartest man in the world.

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