In Messages from My Father, Calvin Trillin reveals the source of his unique brand of gentle humor. Calvin clearly took after his father Abe, whose most pronounced characteristic during his lifetime seemed to be his stubbornness. Trillin recounts an episode during his boyhood when he resisted his father’s desire that he join the Boy Scouts:
I remember the argument lasting for days, but maybe it just seemed that long. I argued, among other things, that I was being treated unfairly: how come Sukey, who was a year ahead of me in school, hadn’t been forced to be a Girl Scout? . . . I became a Boy Scout—not an enthusiastic Boy Scout, perhaps, but a Boy Scout. I thought I had put up a pretty good argument, but I was, after all, only the second stubbornest person in the house.
Nevertheless, while Calvin may have inherited some of Abe Trillin’s obstinacy, the writer also came by his vocation naturally. Messages from My Father details the elder Trillin’s love of language. Although he was known as a man of few words, he also delighted in collecting curses (his favorite was, “May you have an injury that is not covered by workman’s compensation”), in indulging in play-dumb Midwestern humor (once asking a salesman at Tiffany’s if the famous jeweler had “anything to do with Cartier’s?” adding, “I’ve heard of Cartier’s”), and in naming (he called his wife’s gossipy bridge club the “Clique Adorables”). He loved to challenge children to spell a word that sounded like “yifnif” (“Of course I made it up,” Abe declared, “That’s why I know how to spell it”) and to invite those learning a foreign language to translate a sentence. The sentence was always the same: “The left-handed lizard climbed up the eucalyptus tree and ate a persimmon.”
In his business life, Abe Trillin evinced his literary bent in the short poems he appended to the menus he typed up daily during the period he owned a restaurant. For much of his life, however, Abe worked as a grocer. After emigrating in 1909 from somewhere “near Kiev” to the United States and landing improbably in Galveston, Texas, Abe’s family settled in St. Joseph, Missouri, where some relatives worked in a furniture factory and where Abe’s father set himself up in business as a grocer. When Abe moved on to Kansas City, he himself went into a line of work with which he was already familiar. In time, he became the owner of five Kansas City grocery stores which, when he sold them, provided him with the capital to buy, at various points, a restaurant, a hotel, and some real estate. Yet Abe Trillin never found himself in a congenial profession, and he seems to have felt he sacrificed his one big chance in life when, at his family’s urging, he agreed not to follow his dream to California.
It is clear in Messages from My Father, however, that the calling that spoke loudest to Abe Trillin was to become a writer. After he suffered a heart attack in his late forties, he went into semiretirement, and he began writing down anecdotes: “He typed them, each on a separate piece of almost square white paper. They were all typed with no strikeovers, and . . . each took up precisely the full page.” In his late fifties, Abe Trillin began collecting books, which his inherent thrift demanded he purchase at garage sales. After his death, a friend deemed some of his collection to have monetary value. After Abe’s death, his son also discovered how high a premium his father placed on the craft of writing. Meditating on a number of lengthy pieces which dated from before Abe’s marriage but which came to light only after Edyth Trillin’s death, Calvin muses: “A thirty-eight-page short story is a serious effort. The pieces made me wonder if my father ever harbored ambitions to be a writer—not someone who wrote down anecdotes as a way to pass the time in retirement but a writer.”
Abe Trillin clearly sacrificed much for the sake of his family, and he dedicated his life to making sure that they were able to fulfill their American dream. Or perhaps it is more appropriate to say that this “mule” of a man was dedicated to making sure that his family fulfilled his American dream. Hence his insistence that his son join the Boy Scouts, because “American boys were Boy Scouts.” Abe Trillin may have been born in the Old Country, but...