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Son's Tribute to a Father's Self-Sacrifice - and Humor


Abe Trillin had a dream.

As the child of Russian immigrants living in St. Joseph, Mo., early in this century, he read a heroic novel called "Stover at Yale." The book so captured his imagination that years later, as a young man struggling to establish his first tiny grocery store, he began putting small amounts of money in a "Yale fund" for the son he assumed he would someday have.

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Decades of six-day workweeks later, the grocer who had been born Abram Trilinsky somewhere "near Kiev" saw his American dream realized. In the spring of 1957 Abe Trillin and his wife, Edyth, traveled from Kansas City to New Haven, Conn., to watch their son, Calvin, graduate from Yale University. That education gave the younger Trillin, who had edited the Yale Daily News, entree to Time magazine, marking the first step in an impressive career as a journalist, novelist, poet, playwright, and humorist.

"It was a given in our family that my father was a grocer so I wouldn't have to be," says Calvin Trillin, who has turned his memories of his father into a touching portrait, "Messages From My Father" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

Two years ago, when Mr. Trillin wrote an essay about his father for The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1963, it drew more mail than any other of the hundreds of pieces he has written for the magazine.

"I guess everybody has a father," Trillin says in an interview, modestly trying to explain the response. He then expanded the essay into this book, finding "a lot of memories off in the corners that I hadn't realized I had."

Those memories portray a father whose "general thinking" was Midwestern. Believing that "proper behavior was modest behavior," Abe Trillin had no time for people who boasted of their accomplishments or lived ostentatiously. "Big k'nockers," he called them, invoking a Yiddish word that has come to mean "big shot."

He was a methodical man, rising at 4 each morning to drive to the city market to buy produce for his store. He believed that neatness counts. He prized highly shined shoes and carefully folded pocket handkerchiefs. And he always wore yellow neckties, a quirky signature to help him stand out from the crowd.

Thrifty but not stingy, the senior Trillin would buy a large bag of peanuts on the way to the ballpark rather than pay high prices for a tiny package at the stadium. He thought razor blades were "seriously overpriced." And his notions of honesty were so black-and-white strict that he considered it wrong for an undersized boy to buy a child's ticket at the movie theater the day after his 12th birthday.

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Blessed with American optimism, Abe Trillin saw no limitations. He was also, his son recalls, "truly funny," a man who delighted in collecting Yiddish curses and who, as a restaurant owner later in his career, wrote rhyming couplets for each day's menu. Sample: "Don't sigh/Eat pie."

"Fathers of that era have been sort of underplayed," observes Trillin. "It's very hard business doing something you don't want to do or that doesn't make you happy in order to give your children opportunities. It's very hard to think of yourself as a transition to something else. That was the position that most of my father's friends were in. They worked hard in ways we can't imagine."

His father, he adds, "had to work hard just to get a start. Nobody sent him to college. Nobody said, 'The world is your oyster - do whatever you want.'"

Trillin and his father never had a heart-to-heart talk. But no matter. Even without specific words or lectures, the senior Trillin managed to convey to his son exactly how he expected him to behave. By indirection, he also made it clear that his son's performance at school must not be "ordinary."

It was a lesson Calvin Trillin learned well, carving out a career that has been anything but ordinary. His 19 books range from serious nonfiction to comic novels to three collections of food essays. He has appeared as a humorist on "The Late Show with David Letterman" and made a cameo appearance in "Sleepless in Seattle." And as if to echo the verses on his father's menus, he writes humorous "deadline poetry" every month for the Nation, using rhyming couplets to analyze the news.

As a writer, Trillin enjoyed the luxury of spending time at home with his two daughters, Abigail and Sarah. Even so, he tended to leave the heart-to-hearts to his wife. "I'm only marginally better at that sort of thing than my father was," he confesses.

"I obviously think that having a father is terribly important, since I can't conceive of what my life would be like without his guidance and aspirations for me," Trillin says. "In the best of all possible worlds, everybody would have a mommy and a daddy, but we don't live that way."

Although fathers today are more likely to talk about childrearing than were men of his father's generation, Trillin says, "It doesn't do you a whole lot of good to talk about it. People ask me if I have any advice about rearing children. I think that's a question anybody gets if you have a couple kids and they haven't done any jail time. I always say, 'Try to get one that doesn't spit up.' Otherwise you're sort of on your own, because you can't really set policies."

Even so, Trillin sees heartening changes in family roles. "I think the revolution is here," he says, citing the presence of diaper changing tables in men's rooms on the Interstate as one example.

It is a long way from Southwest High School in Kansas City - "Mom, Dad, two kids, not rich, not poor" - to the Greenwich Village brownstone where he and his wife, Alice, raised Abigail and Sarah. Yet even there, Abe Trillin's Midwestern values and strong moral code prevailed. Noting that he greatly valued his own "very square" upbringing, Calvin Trillin explains that his daughters' upbringing was guided by a similar theme, namely: "Despite all evidence to the contrary, you are being raised in Kansas City." He describes Kansas City as "a sort of moral compass" and "the norm against which everything else must be judged."

Abe Trillin didn't live long enough to know his granddaughters or to watch Yale go coed. But had he been present in New Haven a few years ago when each granddaughter graduated from her father's alma mater - the second generation of the family to benefit from that long-ago dream sparked by "Stover at Yale" - he undoubtedly would have been immensely happy. But not insufferably proud. That, after all, would violate his own inviolable rule: No big k'nockers in this family.


* My father was matter-of-fact about his belief that most people didn't leave a lasting impression. It was that belief, he said, that was behind his decision to wear only yellow neckties. This must have begun when I was in high school and my father was in the restaurant business. He said something about how most people don't stand out from the crowd, and how it helped to have a sort of signature. His was going to be yellow neckties. They wouldn't necessarily be solid yellow, but yellow had to be the basic color. It struck me as a pretty dumb idea - actually, somewhere between dumb and embarrassing. I didn't see the point of identifying yourself by the color of your necktie. What was so great about having someone say, "Oh, yes, Abe Trillin - the guy with the yellow ties"?

I don't think I shared these reservations with my father. There may even have been an occasion or two in the ensuing years - a birthday, my return from a long trip - when I presented him with a yellow tie. The problem of what to get your parents as gifts is often so acute that sons and daughters will leap upon any hint of a hobby or a collection, relentlessly marking birthdays year after year with fishing flies or elephant statuary, long after the parent in question has grown tired of fishing or come to the conclusion that elephants are not as graceful-looking as he once thought. With my father, of course, there was no danger that, between birthdays, he had given up his pledge to wear nothing but yellow ties. He didn't give up pledges.

* My father liked names. When he told stories to small children, there was often a character whose name sounded like Stoolie-allahmalochas. His version of Joe Blow was someone named Schlayma Puch, whose last name rhymed, more or less, with "schnook." He handed out names to real people, and some of them stuck. His name for my mother's first bridge-and-gossip set was the Clique Adorables. Eventually, my mother called them that, too.

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