A Tribute by Mary Sheldon, Sidney Sheldon's Daughter
My father was a storyteller — and that is the first memory I have of him. It's a composite memory, made up of many, many bedtimes. Where most kids struggle and fume as the hour turns to eight, I would cheer bedtime's arrival. My nightgown would be hastily donned, my teeth would be scrappily brushed, Mama would be kissed goodnight, and then there would be the leap into bed, waiting for... here he was at last... Papa. He would come over to the bed, sit beside me in the darkness, take my hand, and pause a moment. "Now, where did we get to last time?.." Then the stories would begin.
The one I remember most was about a mandarin, a poor but worthy gardener, a beautiful princess, and the triumphant creation of the mandarin orange. I don't remember any of the details, but I will carry with me all my life the suffocating excitement of that magical tale, and the calm, strong voice of my father as he told it.
Calm and strong. These are two other things that my father was. By rights, he shouldn't have had either of those qualities — he was by nature very emotional and very sensitive; he rarely slept and he suffered from bi-polar disorder. But seeing him, talking to him, you would never have guessed that there was any angst in him at all. He was a fountain of enthusiasm and ebullience and positive thought. When you asked him how he was, his inevitable response was a warm and heartfelt, "I'm Wonderful." Even in the last year, when he was patently not wonderful, the most he would ever admit to was a cheerful, "I'm Fine."
My favorite Papa story happened when I was fourteen. He had recently gone out on a very precarious career limb, trading a successful job in television for the untried path of novel-writing, and he was desperately anxious for his first book, THE NAKED FACE to find a publisher. One Saturday morning, the two of us were going out to lunch, and I came into his office a few minutes early. He was on the phone with his agent, obviously getting an update on the fate of his book. "Simon and Schuster?" he asked eagerly. The excitement in his tone soon turned into flatness. "Oh. I see." He tried again. "Random House?... Oh, I see." The list went on and on, with seemingly every publisher in New York turning down Papa's book. It was unbearable. I froze, unable to look up and witness the humiliation I knew he was feeling. Finally, Papa hung up the phone. There was a moment of silence, and then he turned to me with a big smile. "All right," he said, rubbing his hands. "I'm going to take you to lunch at the Beverly Hills Hotel, then we're off to a bookstore, and I'll buy you any book you want." I could only stare at him in wonder. My father's definition of a gentleman was always "grace under pressure," and I think he gave it new meaning that day.
And what was Papa's own favorite story? What story did the Master Storyteller live his life by? I think it was this one. It's a story about two men in Africa being chased by a lion. The first man turns to the second in a panic, yelling, "What are we going to do?" "Climb a tree," says the other instantly. The first man looks around at the flat grassland in despair. "But there is no tree." The second man smiles at him and says, "You're wrong, my friend. There has to be a tree." My father always found his tree. Many times he planted it on the veldt himself through his endlessly hard work, and his endlessly wonderful imagination. Many times he simply trusted luck, jumping up into the air, and, somehow, managing to cling to a branch invisible to the rest of us. Other times, I like to think it was the love of his family which provided a comforting perch away from the snarling lions.
And, in turn, he gave us a tree — himself. Thank you, Papa. For the rest of my life, I know I will find shade and inspiration there.