Every family has its legends. Their origins lie in events that happened long ago. Stories get passed down from parents to children, and with each telling, the details change, until it becomes impossible to know what really happened back then.
Our family has its share of such ever-evolving tales. One of my favorites concerns my son Daniel.
Many years ago, when Daniel finished the army, he set off, like so many Israeli youngsters, on travels to far away places. At one point he got to Amsterdam; and after several weeks there, he was ready to move on. One day, so he told us later, he went to the central train station intending to catch a train to another country and another adventure. On a platform, he put his knapsack down and waited for the train doors to open. Suddenly, a man next to him grabbed his knapsack and began running away. Daniel, a recent graduate of the Israeli Defense Forces, ran after him, knocked him down and grabbed his bag back. The flustered thief got up and ran away. Daniel let him go; he’d gotten his bag back. By the time the train set off a few minutes later Daniel had become a hero in his own eyes and, after he told us, in ours too.
This story was told and retold in the family, and with each telling his glory grew. He would always look embarrassed, make light of what he had done and try to change the subject, but his modesty only enhanced his reputation. The story became an inspiration to any family member looking for examples of daring, courage and self-sufficiency.
The years went by. Some things changed. Others remained the same. I continued my lifelong hobby of writing stories, and one day I sat at my desk trying to write yet another. It started with an older man, recently widowed, who had lost meaning in his life. Every evening he would walk around Tel Aviv, looking at once familiar and comforting sights and now feeling lost. In an effort to help himself, he joined a group of people about to set off on a cruise to the Greek islands. However, after a few days of sea voyaging and island hopping, his depression had not lifted. I got as far as having him sit with fellow travelers in an outdoor café on one side of a colorful square. They were happy and enjoying themselves, but he was overwhelmed with gloom. There I got stuck. As hard as I tried, I could not come up with anything that would snap the man out of his despair.
Suddenly, the family legend about my brave son popped into my mind and in an instant I saw a way out of my dilemma. I quickly wrote that in the square across from the man’s table there was a sudden commotion. The widower saw a man wresting a knapsack from the hands of a startled young tourist. There was a struggle. Now, the thief was running directly towards my hero’s table. Like my son who had acted instinctively, the older man, without thinking, had stood up, stuck out his foot and tripped the surprised thief, who dropped the bag and ran away.
The young tourist retrieves his property and gratefully hugs the older man, who has now become a real hero. For the rest of the trip, until their return to Israel, he has a central place among his fellow voyagers. In the final group photo in which they were all lined up against a railing of the ship - the port of Haifa and Mt. Carmel in the background - the widower is in the middle, the rest of the passengers gathered around him. Joy and meaning had returned.
It was a perfect ending, and in my excitement I called my son and told him for the hundredth time how proud of him I was for what he had done long ago in Amsterdam. He reacted with his usual modesty and tried to change the subject.
The next day was Shabbat and to celebrate my writing success, I invited the family out for a coffee at a Tel Aviv café: my wife and I, Daniel and his wife and their little son. How the boy reminded me of Daniel at that age! The Israeli day was warm, and I sat in the winter sunshine feeling the contentment of an older man looking out over two generations of family I’d somehow produced. I basked for some moments in harmonious reverie until Daniel, frowning, said he wanted to bring something up - a problem.
“Okay, son, get it out.”
“It’s the story you wrote, Dad, and that part about the man tripping up the thief.”
“What about it? You were great.”
“Well, that’s the point, Dad. It never happened.”
“I just made it up. You were so proud of me, which is what I wanted. Afterwards, I felt bad about the lie and kept hoping you’d forget it. But, you were so enthusiastic that yesterday, after all this time, I realized I had to tell you."
I was shocked. The only sounds were the waves washing up on the Tel Aviv beach and the slapping of paddle balls by athletic bathers. Maybe I should have been angry, but I wasn’t. Always on the lookout for things to write about, I realized my son had given me not just one but two great stories: the one about the Amsterdam train platform so many years ago and what he was telling me now, about having wanted so hard to please his father that he had invented a story that had paradoxically turned into family legend. No, I wasn’t angry.
When he saw me laughing, he gave a smile of relief. Out of the corner of my eye I saw his little son at the table watching us hug each other and no doubt already in his mind adding new details to the family legend.