I was my father’s primary adversary from before I could remember. We rarely had a conversation that wasn’t contentious, or had some element of sparring. I am told that I was born “with a hard-on against the world.” That was the phrase both of my parents always used, my father who fought me from the git-go and my mother who dearly loved me. I don’t recall my early, pre-verbal provocations, but they were famous in family lore.
“When we brought you home from the hospital the crib was on my side of the bed,” my father told me. “You’d stare at me through the bars of that crib with these giant, black accusatory eyes. You would just lie there staring at me. You’d never even blink, every time I looked over, those two black eyes would be staring at me. After a few days we had to move your crib to the other side of the bed, to mom’s side.”
It rang a bell. I remember as a new-born thinking ‘who the fuck is this asshole?’ I eventually admitted as much to my father, it seemed fitting under the circumstances. It was the way it was, the way it had always been, the way it would always be, until the last night of my father’s life.
“Well, don’t take dad’s word for it, Elie,” my mother explained. “Some babies are just born angry. You were a very angry baby. One day when you were about ten weeks old you turned bright red, and you were completely rigid, and crying, with your mouth wide open like you were trying to scream. We got very alarmed.”
“Your little fists were balled up and your arms and legs were straight out, you were stiff as a board, and red as a beet,” my father said.
“We rushed you to the pediatrician, who took one look at you and burst out laughing. He said he’d never seen it so young, but you were definitely having a temper tantrum. ‘This baby is definitely having a temper tantrum,’ he told us. He really got quite a kick out of it.”
I’m so glad he got a kick out of it. I remember him from that day, actually, and recall thinking, as he threw his head back and laughed through his donkey teeth — too bad I can’t talk yet, I’d love to register a stinging complaint with the medical ethics board against this arrogant asshole of a pediatrician.
My parents blew past all the obvious questions, relieved and vindicated by this pediatrician’s expert opinion. Did this excellent baby doctor, I wondered years later, offer a theory as to why a baby only ten weeks old could be so angry, outside of plain, native orneriness?
Was it possible I could I have been freezing, or thirsty, or had a diaper rash, or something like that? A terrible itch, a broken bone, perhaps? Could I have been trying to scream, ‘would you please feel my little feet, which are ice cold, and throw my blankie over me? I know it’s been a hot summer for you, and the cool breeze feels wonderful to you, sitting outside, chatting with your friends, but I’m skinny, just a couple of months old, don’t weigh much, and I’m freezing my ass off…’
I write this account of my father’s life and times in the form of a dialogue, mostly, because that seems the best way to show him in action. My father had a certain way of expressing himself, inimitable, really, and I have tried to convey it as faithfully as I can here. He could bullshit with anybody, was adept at conversation. He enjoyed chatting, was very knowledgeable about many things and he had a quick wit and a dark sense of humor.
The fact is, he’d have very much enjoyed a lifetime of shooting the shit with me, he told me as much as he was dying. He took the blame, said he’d felt me reaching out many times over the years, but he’d been too fucked up do anything but fight. He took the blame for that, regretted it. Expressed his regret very sincerely. I had no reason to doubt him.
I was writing this ms. for almost two years when I had a revelation about my father’s mother, my grandmother Chava. It became obvious to me that my father got the way he was honestly, as his violent little mother created him. I recently saw it from her point of view.
She died a few years before I was born so all I know of her is that she was barely five feet tall, had red hair (and according to Cousin Eli had been a beauty), was very religious and had a famously violent temper. I learned that she had regularly whipped her infant son, my father, across the face with a heavy cord. She also called him “Sonny”. I conclude from these things that she was an enraged psycho of some kind. But I eventually came to envision her life from another angle.
Eli told me she’d fallen in love with a Jewish post man, while living with and working for her older brother Aren and his second wife in Peekskill. According to Eli, this red haired Jewish postman was smitten with Chava, and Chava liked him. Also according to him, Aren and his wife busted up the romance. “She didn’t want to lose her slave. Chava was indentured to them, paying off her passage from Europe as their live-in maid, and she told my father to get rid of the postman. And he did.”
Years later a marriage was arranged by Aren for his little sister, now on the verge of becoming an old maid. The groom was a man without prospects, Eliyahu Widem. As the punching bag of his father’s second wife, he had learned to duck and keep all expression off his face. That was about it, from what I can tell. Chava found herself living in dire poverty, in a rented hellhole on Manhattan’s teeming, disease and crime-ridden Lower East Side, married to a cipher.
Her new husband drove a herring wagon, the horse clopping from store to store. When the horse stopped in front of a store, he’d get down and wrestle a barrel of herring inside. When the horse died he went out with a new horse. The new horse had no idea of the route, neither did my grandfather. When he returned at the end of the day with a wagon full of herring barrels, he lost that job.
At some point in the story Chava delivered a still-born girl, or perhaps the infant girl died after a few days. I can picture the dark, scary tenement, and Chava’s depression and mounting desperation. I can imagine her, a year or so later, naming the new baby boy, a huge newborn who must have been a difficult birth for the tiny, terrified Jewess. I can picture it now. “Israel, Azrael, Widem, Widaen, I don’t give a fuck. As soon as this kid can stand on his own legs I’m going to start knocking him down.”
And she did.