What do you want to do when you grow up? my Grandma Sil always asked.
“I want to be a cantor,” is what I said. It made her smile and hug me. “Cantor” meant I was not only deeply engaged in the lessons of my yeshiva but also that I longed to sing about it. I have memories of Grandma Sil telling me I should take over the family law firm when it’s time. She said it in a tone that suggested, “Ya gotta do what’s right for the family, even if it’s wrong for you personally.” I found this philosophy all day in yeshiva. I understood my role. I just had no interest in being a lawyer. It was final. I’d better be a cantor. So I said it again. “I’m going to be a cantor, Grandma Sil.” She smiled and hugged me the same way, not realizing I might as well have said, “I’ll pass on the law.”
The idea of teaching college was lauded by Grandma Sil but not the idea of teaching children, a role that was designated either for women or less ambitious men. So when I chose early education as a major at NYU, she called me at home.
“What happened to being a cantor?”
“I want to teach.”
“There’s no money in it.”
“There’s no money in being a cantor either.”
“But you represent God.”
“He doesn’t need any more representation.”
“Of course he does.”
“I want to be in a school, not a synagogue.”
“Fine. Be a professor in a university.”
“I like kids. Kids are built to learn.”
“They complain a lot and mess around. You wanna be a cop all day?”
“I want to teach them to read literature.”
“In elementary school?”
“And to learn we all come from immigrants in America. To think, and create and defend.”
“At least become the principal.”
“Okay. I will. How’s grandpa?”
“Tell him I love him.”
“You’d make a great a cantor,” she says.
My classes were filled with women. I was the only guy. My friends said, great, you’ll be able to pick and choose. I had zero contact with any of them. Except one. I’ll call her Wilma. Wilma kept telling me how a man should make more money than a woman and that I was crazy for spending this much tuition to be a stinkin’ elementary school teacher. She said her fiancé had it covered because he was a trader on Wall Street and she was going to get this stupid degree, marry him and make some babies. One day after class she followed me.
“You’ll be driving tiny used cars your whole life and wearing Target slacks. Your vacations will be to Albany, maybe Reno one year.”
She could never, ever marry a guy like me, she said, all the way up my elevator. She told me how much her fiancé made a year. It was a lot.
The education classes at NYU taught human interaction and connection, the importance of age recognition, the disallowance of the instinct “to train,” the reinterpretation of give and take. As I listened I became fascinated with the reach I could have in a group of kids’ lives. In the fall of my junior year I was assigned a class at PS 41 in Manhattan. I’d be the assistant fourth grade teacher. On my first day, the teacher dimmed the lights to play a recording of pianist George Winston. She asked the students to write whatever came to mind but to allow the music to dictate their thoughts. I’d never had a teacher like this, but I knew I wanted to be like her. I came home, seeing myself as a prophet of education. I’d forfeit a chance at wealth for this position, which was both existential in a sense, and fulfilling with a soulful reach. I’d wear khakis from Target all my life and drive a used Honda in order to facilitate learning.
In the summer I took a job in a day camp for money. When Grandma Sil asked about the job I told her straight out that I was taking care of 22 8-year-old boys.
“Can you own it?” she asked.
“The camp, the place you’re working? Those places are cash cows.”
“Okay, sure, one day I’ll be the king of the day camps.”
“The overhead is huge.”
“Just a counselor for now. But a really good one.”
“You got to include the land. How many acres is a good camp?”
I got off the phone and started to think. I could become the Donald Trump of day camps worldwide. My grandmother would be so proud. I’d have 20 of the most state-of-the-art campuses this side of the Mississippi. I’d not only make the cover of Forbes Magazine, but I’d also be pictured winking at my Grandma Sil.
After NYU I went to Tokyo to teach English. Grandma Sil begged me to at least teach adults. So I did, it paid well and I came home with enough money to move to Seattle. It is there I discovered I was a writer of short stories.
“A writer of what?” said Grandma Sil.
“Where’s the money in that?”
“It’s about observing people and telling a story that utilizes voice and pace and metaphor to make an offering —”
“How does this pay?”
“That’s what I thought.”
“It doesn’t pay.”
“You have a job that doesn’t pay?”
“Yes. Yes I do.”
I had known my girlfriend since 7th grade. Now, in our mid-20s, the old feelings were allowed to return in adult form. We were in love and still are. She’d join me for my trip to Seattle, a journey I paid for with the money I made in Japan. She’d go on to support me way longer than Grandma Sil knew about. Grandma Sil was not a fan of women paying for anything. I told her that my girlfriend was different, that she was driven to work, as if she liked it.
“She’s not telling you the truth. She wishes you were a lawyer.”
“It’s not true, Grandma. It’s just not true.”
In Seattle she was hired by Nintendo. In San Francisco it was Sega. I satisfied my Grandma Sil’s questions by getting into an MFA program where I could say I was “studying,” instead of “writing.” The answer of “writing” was not flushing well with her. “Writing” was synonymous with humiliating public failure. I was studying. She wanted to know if I’d make the dean’s list. I told her I would try.
“How about now, boychik? Did you make the dean’s list yet?”
“Why not? Aren’t you one of the best there?”
“I published a story, Grandma. I’m the first in my class to get a ‘yes’ from an editor.”
“Did it pay?”
“They paid me with two copies.”
“What? Hello? What —?”
By the time the wife and I had our first child in 2000, she was making a real salary in the digital gaming space. I’d become a true-blue house husband. I was Daddy — and Nanny and Mommy at times. The playgrounds were filled with moms, not dads. I was the only guy. The job I had found incorporated the love of teaching and observation and the witnessing of so many human intricacies. I was in the right place. And in 2000, it seemed I was the only man on earth who’d ever cared for his baby, while his wife went to work. I was the only man at Jungle Kids. I was the only man with baby food jars and diapers at the Safeway. Five months in Grandma Sil called to see how it was going. I couldn’t find the phone under all the toys and the baby was sleeping. I decided to ignore her. She doesn’t want to know who I really am. She wants to hear what she wants to hear. That I’m someone better. That I should be embarrassed I have minced peaches on my jeans. I let it ring.
Six months later I began my first novel, “The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green.” The novel allowed me to write another, at least. It appeared I had the ability to use what I’d absorbed about people and turn it all into characters that functioned wholly on the page. I’d have two jobs. A writer and a father. I remember calling my Grandma Sil to tell her to relax; I was a success after all. She’d already done the math and wanted me to know that without my wife, I’d be writing the next book in my car. I laughed at her, positive I’d be rolling in the kind of cash Hemingway used to blow on prostitutes and fishing gear.
I went out to celebrate and a loud woman at the bar began talking to me. She asked me what I did for a living. I chose to answer that I was a stay-at-home dad, trying to wear the nobility I felt for my “job.” The woman was not impressed and gave me a look of disdain, a sneer even. To suggest what? How could you let the mother of your child be the breadwinner? Are you really that lazy? I waited, living for a half hour as the man who’d wronged his wife. And then I told her I’d published a novel. She liked me a lot more. She wanted to introduce to me to all her friends. I felt stupid for telling her. Why couldn’t I just be proud of my accomplishments as a house husband? Because I wasn’t that proud, just like Grandma Sil made me feel. I wanted her to know I was more than a lazy slacker.
By the time my second child turned 9 in 2012, I began to see the strangest thing. TV commercials with young men wearing Baby Bjorns, leaning over washing machines to pour the Tide in the correct slot. The dad making mac and cheese is wearing an apron that says, “Chef Daddy.” I was somehow, suddenly, no longer the only man in the playground. I had comrades in my sissy behavior that made me an elder statesman of house husbandry. As the year passed, “Daddy Power” was even more ubiquitous, arriving with authority in Super Bowl commercials and in sitcoms that normally showed the dad as the stupidest bumbling moron on earth. When two of my friends became stay-at-home-dads there was only one thing left to do. Write a novel of observations from the point of view of a dad in the trenches of raising his children.
I visited my Grandma Sil in her nursing home last year. She loves the new book, and is positive one of the main characters is her. I told her the characters are all an amalgamation of multiple people I know. She said, “I like the way the narrator speaks, it’s a lot like you.” I thanked her and she said, “I knew you weren’t a school teacher.”
I nodded. “I still teach, Grandma. I just teach other writers now.”
“In a university,” she said with pride.
“Same concept, different age. I remember,” I told her, “how hard it was to tell you that I wanted to teach kids.”
“There’s no money in it.”
“But it was noble.”
“Not as noble as a cantor.”
“Sing the Shma, just once.”
“I’m not singing the Shma right now.”
“This is the Daughters of Israel Nursing Home. Who will be offended?”
So I do it, kind of low, close to her ear. Shma Yisroel Adonai Elohaynoo, Adonai Echad.”
Her face is pinned into a smile, her eyes closed and tearing.
“I’m so glad I talked you out of being a lawyer.”
Joshua Braff’s latest novel is “The Daddy Diaries.”