My father had a pair of scissors. They were the handiest little scissors in the house—about 4 inches long, with pointed tips—they were just perfect for all kinds of jobs, from sewing to precise paper cutting, to various crafts. Although they were rather beat—grayish-black, with no silver varnish left, and a somewhat loose middle screw, everyone liked them more than any other pair, no matter how new.
They were kept in perfect working order. Every month or so, my father would spread out newspaper on the dining room table, get the scissors, sharpen them, and oil each and every part of their tiny body, finishing with a good rub to a lustrous shine. He consistently kept them in the same spot: top of his bookshelf, on the left, next to the potted ivy plant. “Always keep things in their place,” he would say, “and you’ll always know where to find them.” He was very literal in applying this rule to himself, and you could bet on finding these scissors within a few millimeters of their permanently assigned location.
Thus for an old, small pair of scissors, they had a rather privileged life. I didn’t know where they came from, and never really thought about it, but ever since I could remember, they were simply there.
A certain problem, however, was linked to these little scissors: my father vehemently hated it when anyone used them. He had a whole gamut of excuses, which he threw at us without a blink: “You will lose them,” he would say, or “they are too small for this job,” or better yet, “you don’t know how to use them properly.” Sometimes when my brother or I did manage to convince him, he would hover over us like a hostile aircraft, all tense and uncomfortable, as if using these scissors was personally insulting to him, or as if we were going to run away with the tiny hostage in our pocket, never to return.
Of course the more he tried to restrict us, the more we wanted to use them. On some occasions, we would specifically plan activities at a time when he wasn’t home. We were careful to put them back in their place, but I could swear my father somehow knew if they were one or two millimeters off in any given direction. Once in a while he caught us red-handed. “WHO took my scissors?” he would roar in his angry tenor, and he would not rest until those little guys were safely placed in their exact position on the bookshelf.
We played this cat-and-mouse game for years, and while it wasn’t exactly pleasant, it became an accepted element of my family’s folklore. I sometimes wondered why my father was so uptight about things, especially as insignificant as a pair of scissors, but I put it on the account of his general “ strangeness” and “meanness” as I then frequently thought.
One time when I was about twenty, my parents were entertaining a small group of friends for dinner. The conversation leisurely flowed through a number of usual topics—family, mutual friends, interesting cultural events, and the must-have political commentary, punctuated by the newest jokes. Laughter filled every corner of our small apartment, and I enjoyed looking at my parents’ faces, relaxed and happy in the warm presence of their circle of friends.
At one point, I unexpectedly overheard my father telling a personal story—something he never, ever did. I leaned in to hear what he was saying to one of his friends:
“The year was 1941, and I was living in Warsaw in a rented room with my mom and my younger brother Henry.” (He was 14 years old at the time, and Poland was in the middle of the 2nd World War.)
“Times were hard, and it was difficult to make ends meet, so we were always grateful when my uncle invited us to dinner, as he did on this one occasion,” he continued. “We left around noon, and when we came back later that day, our house was gone--it had burnt completely to the ground.”
“We rummaged through the rubble to see if anything could be saved, but there was nothing there except a few charred pots and pans and an occasional spoon.”
“When we finished looking through the ruins,” he went on, “I finally sat down on a smothered pail, devastated and exhausted, absent-mindedly digging through the ashes with a random stick,” he went on. “My mom told us it was time to go, when, at the last minute I felt something hard in the ground. And you will never guess what I found—my favorite little pair of scissors!”
When father passed away, my mom went through his things and offered a few to my brother and me--memories to take back to America where we now lived. Spread out on the table were his personal possessions: a few photographs, a high school essay in his impeccable handwriting, yellow mechanical pencils which he used for thirty years, one medal, a fountain pen, and an unfinished German-Latin-Polish dictionary, which he was painstakingly compiling during his retirement years. But one thing was missing. I walked over to the bookshelf, looked on the top left, and gently picked up his beloved object from its usual location—exactly as he had left it.
I put my fingers through the eye rings, opened them a few times, smiling at the familiar cling-cling sound they made when put into action. As I held their old, battered body in the palm of my hand, I realized the role they played was rather big for their little size—for my father, they were the only possession left from his childhood home. For me, their story is the only thing I know about my father when he was growing up.