52 – Vader Jay en zoon Daniel Mendelsohn en de Odyssee

Now he was sitting in my classroom on the first day of the Odyssey class with his hand in the air. Yes, he said, I’m his father.

Unlike my mother, my father didn’t enjoy being the center of attention; whenever he found himself on the spot, whenever he was the only speaker in a room full of people, he’d stress random words as he spoke, as if these random emphases would lend his speech authority.

I’m taking Dan’s course, he was saying now (a couple of them looked amused when they heard him call me by my first name), because I thought I’d try to read the Classics again, which I haven’t read since high school. That was during World War Two, in the 1940s.

His lips tightened into a private smile.

Most of your parents probably weren’t even born then.

My father jerked his shiny head in my direction and said, I knew all this stuff before he did.

The students were giggling.

Well, I knew a lot of it, he went on after a moment, vaguely tapping his iPad, onto which he’d downloaded the text of the Odyssey. I read Ovid in Latin. I used to know the myths. I read the Iliad and Odyssey, but it was only excerpts. So I thought now I’ll read the whole thing.

A couple of the students stared. They were loving this.

My father said, I figured now was my chance to read it again before I die.

Then he gestured toward me again and his face assumed an expression-eyes narrowed to slits, lips pinched tight, the corners of his mouth turned down, the narrow gleaming head faintly nodding as he spoke, as if reassuring himself of the truth of what he was saying or hearing – that might strike someone who didn’t know him as humorous. But I knew him.

If that guy is a classicist, he said, jabbing a pale white finger at me, it’s because he gets it from me.

I tried to look amused as I zipped up my book bag, which the students took as a sign that they could leave. But as they started to shuffle and stand, cramming their notebooks and texts into their backpacks, my father took another wheezing breath and cleared his throat. I turned toward him and suddenly I knew what he was going to say.

He said, I’ll tell you this. You’re never too old to learn.

– Daniel Mendelsohn, An Odyssey. A Father, a Son and an epic, William Collins, London, 2017, p. 77-78.