My father got into computers 20 years after he died,” claims Esta Cassway. “I was not particularly a believer in spirits,” says the local painter, lyricist and writer. That is, until 1992, when her father’s restless spirit, apparently relishing its afterlife, began interfering with her work.
“I had been asked by Aronson Publishers to write and illustrate a two-volume set of the Hebrew Bible for children,” she explains. “It was a wonderful opportunity to integrate my art, writing and poetry into a fresh approach for the stories. A month or so into the project, as I was typing a poem about Jacob and the Stranger, flowery, grandiloquent words suddenly appeared on the screen. Ididn’t write those words, but somehow, I knew who did. ‘Daddy,’ I protested, ‘this is my book, not yours!’ This was the first time he had tackled a word processor. Later on, he became adept at the computer — changing, deleting or correcting mistakes of time and place. He was communicating from wherever, still traveling from somewhere — a traveling man in death as he had been in life.”
Cassway’s latest book, Ghost Daddy, credits Edward S. Arkow “with his spirited assistance.” It’s a humorous, poignant memoir, lavishly illustrated with Cassway’s youthful drawings and Arkow’s captioned photographs, many of which feature himself — a glamorous man who would have been at home in the Hollywood of the 1930s. He favored breeches and boots, à la Cecil B. de Mille, and resembled Douglas Fairbanks Jr., whom he often imitated. Both had British accents. Arkow died in 1970, seven years after his wife, Rebecca, a tall and elegant beauty. “She was only 49; I was a young bride of 22 when she passed away,” says Cassway.
Thinking back to those days, she recalls a very ghostly experience involving her father. “Perhaps,” she speculates, “it was my first encounter with his genial spirit.” It occurred a few years after his death. “I had just sold one of my paintings and used the profits to purchase bronze memorial plaques for my parents at our synagogue. Their names would be announced at services on their Yahrzeits. That night, at 10:45 p.m., the exact time of my father’s death, a shadow appeared on the long mirror diagonally across from my bed. Without thinking, I said, ‘You’re welcome.’ ” Her husband, the architect Robert Cassway, asked her who she was talking to. “I tried to explain that I had just addressed the grayish image of a ghost.”
In Ghost Daddy, Cassway writes about some unexplained events that convinced others that her father was a real, well, spirit. The most visible of these happened on Dec. 24 at Cape May Point, where the Cassways have a summer cottage. “It had been closed for the season,” relates Cassway. “All the electricity had been shut off and the plugs unplugged. I was asleep in our Wyncote home when the phone woke me. It was our only neighbor on the street at the shore who called to say that the house was lit up like a Christmas tree. But by the time the policeman showed up, the house had returned to its darkened state. Nevertheless, a police report was filed. The fact that Dec. 25 is Dad’s birthday convinced me that he wanted to be remembered on his special day.” His daughter begged him to hold off on future public displays. And apparently, he listened. For a while.
“Ghost Daddy documents what I remember as our entertaining and colorful life together,” says Cassway. “Imagining my father’s voice was easy; talking back to him, something I never needed to do in real life, flowed naturally due to a mature understanding of the underlying flaws that rarely pierced his poetic, cheerful exterior. Though I was occasionally saddened by the evolving story, creating this book was great fun.”
Cassway was motivated to write the memoir for two main reasons. “I started making artwork when I was 3,” she says. “I am grateful for my artistic talents and I wanted to know how I got them. I kept looking for clues among the stashes of old photographs, many of them taken by my father, who never really knew his own origins. He always had a Kodak slung across his chest, documenting his life. It’s not so different from the kids today with their iPhones. Dad taught me and my younger brother Phil, who is also a writer and a musician, to appreciate all forms of music, from classical to jazz to opera, and especially lyrics. Dad sometimes resembled Toscanini and could play Rachmaninoff and Chopin. Yet he never had any training. He knew Yiddish songs, show tunes and opera and sang with gusto. He taught me performance skills and we often appeared together in local concerts.”
Besides wanting to give her father his own byline, Cassway needed to know more about her heritage. “I wanted to write this book as a way of finding my roots and understanding the basis of my father’s myriad talents, and by extension, my own.”
As a young husband, her father worked as display director for Gimbel’s department store. Later, he began his own company selling fiberglass snowflakes and other decorations for store windows, which launched his peripatetic life on the road as a traveling salesman. Cassway, who grew up in Logan, went to Olney High, won a scholarship to the Philadelphia College of Art and then graduated from Tyler School of Art. Her brother graduated from the University of Pennsylvania on a full scholarship. “Phil did a lot of the research for this book by looking up birth records,” she says. “Like my father, he is very smart and can do a weekend New York Times crossword puzzle in 10 minutes. And like my father, he has traveling in his genes.”
In the years it took Cassway to complete the book, she was able to create an accompanying artistic and unusual website, http://estacassway.wordpress.com . It includes vintage pictures, many ghostly happenings and several nostalgic recordings of her father playing classical music and singing.
Now that the book has been published, has the spirited Eddie Arkow gone quietly into the night? Cassway answers: “Last December, I was lying in bed thinking, ‘Hey, Daddy, it’s almost your birthday and I haven’t had any sign of you since I finished the book.’ About a week later, at 10:45 p.m., there were seven very loud bangs on the bathroom wall. Nothing was near that wall — no pipes, ice-makers, or people dancing around upstairs. I ran into the living room, dragged my husband into the bathroom, and tried to imitate the seven knocks using a hammer. He dismissed them as a mystery. The number 7 nagged at me until Christmas Eve, when, in a flash, I had the answer. I did the math twice to be sure, and guess what? Eddie Arkow would have been 107 years old on Dec. 25, 2011!”
And just last month, her father made his final appearance. Cassway relates the following story: “On the day that the Ghost Daddy public relations campaign began, I was sitting at my computer when photos of grandchildren, paintings and a moving collage of my life began rolling and flashing across the computer screen. I sat there laughing; there was no order to it, just a grand celebration. The only way to stop it was to shut it off. (My tech guy later checked it out: nothing amiss.) “I imagined Daddy saying, ‘Now that I’m officially in the cloud, it’s your turn. This, darling, is your life!’ ”
This article originally appeared in the November, 2012 issue of Inside Magazine.
Jane Biberman is a longtime Philadelphia-based journalist. She writes about all things literary for Inside.