I was born into an endless fight, a kind of blood feud, initiated by me, the story goes, as soon as I got home from the hospital. “You really were an enraged baby,” both of my parents always assured me. It was true, they insisted, a pediatrician confirmed it for them when I was ten weeks old. A lifetime later, as my father was dying, he told me with regret almost as painful to hear as it must have been for him to speak, that he had been in the wrong. “It was my fault,” he said in the choked, faltering voice of a man who would be dead within a few hours. “I felt you reaching out to me many times over the years, I always fought you but you were essentially right all along,” he said, “and I was a horse’s ass who resisted all insight into how fucked up I was.” A good start, I thought, and good to hear.
“I wish we could have had this kind of talk fifteen years ago,” he said in that strained dead man’s voice, on what turned out to be the last night of his life. I remember thinking what a modest wish that was. I was almost 49 at the time. 34 years of senseless war, then fifteen of peace? I realized later I would have signed on for that too, even fifteen days. The next evening I was closing his dead eyes as the south Florida sun set behind the palm trees outside the hospital window. So much for the conversations we never got to have.
I began writing about my father’s life and times in earnest two and a half years ago. I imagined I could cover a lot in three or four hundred pages. So far I’ve written almost 1,200. Early on the skeleton of my father piped up to give me grief about a description of the childhood he never talked about. I thought the device of the opinionated skeleton stagey and ridiculous and figured I’d cut it in the next rewrite. The skeleton persisted, wound up waiting for me every day, eager to get to work. Over time, the skeleton provided a lot of assistance writing the story of the man he once was, what he stood for, how he felt about the history that was unfolding around us. The daily talks with the skeleton of my father were a great help.
It’s daunting to try to cover the panorama of a perplexing lifetime of almost eighty-one years, even with an imaginary partner urging you on. Add to this that my protagonist was an average man, a nobody. I can’t see his life outside of the context of our larger family tragedy, a context he always denied. A life, in death, as anonymous now as any of his aunts and uncles in that hamlet in the marshes, across the Pina River from Pinsk, forced to die terrible, unknown deaths, every trace of them, and the doomed little hellhole they called home, wiped away forever. This book is an attempt to reclaim his life.
My father’s life, though full of the highest potential, and animated by a keen sense of humor and idealism, was essentially a tragedy. I will give the gist of it to you, along with the seeds of wisdom he was able to impart, in a condensed form now.
Irv Widaen, was commonly known among us by my sister’s name for him, “The Dreaded Unit” (or the D.U.), a name he embraced. He read two or three newspapers every day, starting with the New York Times. He was a lifelong student of history. The bending of the moral arc of history concerned him greatly and he could speak intelligently on many philosophical subjects without the need for notes. He was a great humanist who was also, when he couldn’t help himself, capable of great brutality toward his children.
When my sister was upset at something I’d said or done when we were kids, he’d remind her impatiently “I’ve told you a thousand times, if you play with a fucking cobra you’re going to get bit.” This image of a deadly scaly brother was made extra potent by my sister’s phobia about snakes. He didn’t like the expression on my nine year-old face at such moments, not at all. “A fucking rattlesnake,” he’d say, closing his case, “look at his face, twisted and contorted in hate.” I’d hiss, rattle my tail, and hastily leave the kitchen.
Few people, outside of my sister, mother and I, ever saw this dreaded side of him. He came across as something of a hipster, an ironic idealist with a dark, wicked sense of humor. He loved Lenny Bruce, and later Richard Pryor. He loved soul music, particularly Sam Cooke. For a few years, in the middle of his long career, he wound up speaking like the angry black cats on the street. “As they say in the street,” he would say, then hit us with the latest street vernacular. “Dassum shit!” he would snap when confronted with something that struck him as bullshit. He appreciated the nuances of the word motherfucker.
Professionally, he hung out with the violent leaders of rival ethnic high school gangs, bullshitted frankly with them and won them over to his way of thinking. In those days he wore mutton-chop sideburns and grew his dark hair down to his collar. As part of a Mod Squad style team (Black guy, Jew, blond WASP folk singer, Italian guy, Puerto Rican woman) my father led the rap sessions, I’m sure, with quick, barbed humor and irreverent, pointed honesty.
His deep identification with these discontented underdogs must have come across, along with his sincere hatred of brutal, random hierarchy and its inhuman unfairness. He invited these young enemies to laugh, identify, curse, imagine, talk about injustice and find common ground. They all left as friends, or at least with mutual respect, at the end of these weekends, time after time. There was a certain amount of charisma and a lot of deft, real-time improvisation involved in this alchemy.
He’d been born and raised in “grinding poverty”, a phrase he always spoke through gritted teeth, face constricted like Clint Eastwood’s. “Grinding poverty” stood in for his unspeakably brutal childhood circumstances in Peekskill, New York during the Great Depression. To be sure, as was confirmed by a cousin his age whose family was very poor, my father had grown up in unspeakably painful poverty, making the cousin’s desperate childhood circumstances look somewhat comfortable by comparison.
Young Irv had the good fortune after high school to be drafted into the Army Air Corps as America entered World War Two. In the army he ate well every day for the first time in his life. He never looks happier than in those black and white army photos, after he’d put some meat and muscle on those bones. He went on to live through a unique time in American history when hard work and determination, and a little help from the G.I. Bill, which put him through college and graduate school, could actually lift a person from humiliating intergenerational poverty to a comfortable middle class American life.
Not to say he ever felt comfortable, not for a minute. He paid a high price, working two jobs, to give his family an infinitely better life in a nice little house on a tree-lined street in Queens. Naturally, his children, not knowing any different, never expressed the slightest appreciation for the many things they took for granted, the lawn, the great, small public school, the backyard with the cherry tree that gave big, black cherries.
Irv had all the appearances of a cool guy, but the nonchalant pose concealed a dark, corrosive edge that was always at the ready. He had a deep reservoir of rage that was kept under tight control most of the time. His anger poured out almost every evening over dinner, in violent torrents over his two children, my younger sister and me. Even as we expected it every evening, as our overwhelmed mother recited all her complaints about us for her tired husband to address before he drove out to his night job, the ferocity of his anger still surprised us, somehow. His rage was not understandable to his young children, it always struck us as cruel and insane, though, naturally, we blamed ourselves for it.
Like anyone who rages and snarls, the D.U. justified his brutality as necessary to do what needed to be done, in our case to educate the two viciously ungrateful little pricks he was raising. He never hit us with physical blows but pounded us regularly with ferocious words intended to cow us and destroy unified resistance. The terrible mystery was how he could be such a tyrant while also imbuing us with important life lessons about decency, humility and kindness to animals. There is no doubt that my sister and I try our best to live by the moral truths we learned from the D.U.
The brutal battlefield of our family dinner table was a regular feature of our childhood. Screaming fights, insane threats, vicious personal attacks were as common to us as the steak, salad and Rice-a-roni we found on our plates virtually every night. Eating steak was a palpable sign of prosperity for a man who’d been hungry during his entire childhood. Ironically, and somewhat characteristically, my animal loving father joined PETA later in life and cut most of the meat out of his diet.
I was an adult, well into in my mid-thirties, before I had the beginning of any insight into this confounding split in my father’s psyche. On the one hand he was a funny, smart, sympathetic, hip guy who was very easy to talk to, when he wanted to be. On the other hand, he was a supremely defensive man who more often used his great intelligence to keep others constantly off balance, a man who seemingly could not help trying to dominate and verbally abusing his children.
My father had all the attributes to be a sensitive, lovable, very funny friend, yet he somehow chose to be an implacable adversary to his children most of the time. That he may have shared this troubling split-personality feature with many men of his generation made little difference to my sister and me. We couldn’t help but take it personally.
I’m realizing only now, as I write these words, since I am not a father, what most fathers would probably have realized about my father a long time ago: what a tormented father my father must have been all those years.
I spent many years, before and since his death in 2005, trying to assemble a picture of my father as a whole person whose life made some kind of holistic sense. I could never do it. That’s the reason I eventually started writing this, an attempt to put together the challenging puzzle of my father. I work at the puzzle in a darkened room, most of the pieces missing, moving things around on a slanted, slippery table. His profound unhappiness, right alongside his great capacity for laughter, was something I never had any insight into, not even a clue. Puzzling over it as a kid is probably at the roots of my lifelong compulsion to research and write, to try to make sense of things that perplex me.
Partly in search of insights into my perplexing father, I used to visit my father’s beloved first cousin Eli in his retirement cottage in Mt. Kisco, New York. I’d drive up there every other weekend for a while, about an hour north of my apartment, and sit with the supremely opinionated Eli in his tidy living room, shooting the shit. Then we’d go out for a meal somewhere. We’d often wind up talking until well after midnight and by the time I left I had to be alert driving the twisting, black Sawmill River Parkway, steering with both hands on the wheel.
Eli was an old man, well into his eighties, alienated from his own three kids, in a forty year blood feud to the death with his half-sister, on an every other year basis with his half-brother; he didn’t get many visitors. I was a fledgling writer and he was a great storyteller and it was usually a pleasure sitting around bullshitting with him about the past. His stories about the family, the few survivors of a group ruthlessly culled by a rabid movement to rid the world of their type, were fascinating.
It added to our bond that I was also the firstborn son of Eli’s favorite cousin, Irv. Irv was the firstborn son of Eli’s favorite aunt, Chava, who was the youngest sibling of Eli’s firstborn father Aren. Irv’s Uncle Aren had deserted from the Czar’s army, hopped a westbound train as the other draftees were shipped east to fight the Japanese. Aren’s run to America, and bringing his youngest sister here a decade later, a generation before their hamlet was wiped off the face of the earth along with everyone they’d ever known, is the only reason any of us were ever born. Eli was Uncle Aren’s firstborn son, born in New York City, 1908.
Eli was seventeen years older than my father, he had watched my father for his entire life. The tough, American born Eli was the closest thing to a father figure my father had growing up, though his own father, a silent man from Poland “completely overwhelmed by this world” (Irv, on his deathbed), was around until my father was in his mid-twenties.
Eli was a colorful character, no other way to put it. A short, powerfully built, frog-bellied man of infinite charm, with a sandpaper voice, equally comfortable charming a pretty waitress with his smile or punching someone in the face with either hard hand. I have often said of Eli that if he loved you he was the funniest, most generous, warmest and most entertaining person you could ever spend a few hours with. If he didn’t like you, he was Hitler. He had his own demons, surely, but was devoted to my father, my mother, my sister and me — there was never the slightest doubt of that.
Eli had a fierce temper, “the Gleiberman temper” as he called it, and would turn, in one second, from an infinitely charming raconteur into a purple faced, savage panther, white foam on his sputtering lips. Even at eighty-five he was formidable when he was angry, and Irv seemed to be occasionally scared of Eli until the end. My mother was the only person I knew of who was allowed to constantly fight with Eli. It was great sport between them, to rage at each other wildly and end up laughing, hugging and kissing when it was time to take their leave of each other.
Once, describing a car trip back from Florida with Eli, my father told me happily “your mother and Eli fought all the way from Boynton Beach to the end of the New Jersey Turnpike.” I pictured my mother, turned around in the front passenger seat, slashing at Eli with a broad sword as Eli swung his at her from the back seat. Tireless combatants locked in mortal combat, swords clanging, for more than a thousand miles, then getting out of the car, hugging and kissing with genuine, unquestionable love, laughing and saying they’ll see each other soon.
I had something of this kind of relationship with Eli, every visit he’d turn purple with rage at least once, but we always parted as friends.
It was in this spirit of friendship, and seeing me so frequently perplexed by my father’s unfathomable anger and sudden alarming rigidity, his grim determination to win an argument at any cost, that Eli finally told me something, a truly terrible thing, that immediately changed the way I thought and felt about my father. The more I thought about the brutal scenes in the kitchen, the more it explained.
I pictured the kitchen grinding poverty would have provided a little family in Peekskill, New York in the 1920s. It was like a scene out of a gothic horror movie, a shaft of light coming into the dim, barren room from a high, narrow window, dust motes dancing listlessly, menacingly.
The skeleton of my father sat up abruptly in his grave at the top of the hill in the small First Hebrew Congregation cemetery just north of Peekskill.
“Oh yeah, listen to fucking Eli, Eli the wise oracle, the great historian… yeah, a fountain of reliability, that raging fucking maniac. Ask his kids what kind of loving father Eli was, why none of them talk to him. Nothing in his life was ever his fault, that’s why he’s so angry all the time, he’s always the innocent victim, from the day he was born. Did he tell you how many times he was about to become a millionaire before he was screwed by some asshole, how his whole life was one long fucking, how his violent temper got him into big trouble time after time? Yeah, go ahead, listen to Eli. He’ll tell you the real story, sure, he’s ultra-reliable… Jesus Christ, Elie, when you build a story on a foundation of bullshit, what do you expect of the finished structure? You’re going to give credence to fucking Eli?”
I never planned on my father’s skeleton being my partner in trying to tell the story of his life and times, but he made a pretty good case since popping up during an early writing session. As I said, he was a very smart guy and, in spite of a lifelong twitch to defend himself at all costs, could always see the other side of whatever he was arguing against.
“I love it when you talk to the reader like I’m not sitting right here,” said the skeleton, turning his head in a crackling circle to loosen his crepitating neck.
That’s very helpful, dad.
“Don’t mention it,” said the skeleton, with a nonchalant little flip of his boney hand.
This skeleton is a different entity from the man who was my father during his lifetime. That man regarded me as a deadly adversary starting a few days after my birth. He fought me at every turn, until the last night of his life, when he took the blame for our long, senseless war. One of our long-running disputes was about whether people can fundamentally change themselves. He insisted it was impossible. In his case, he believed it 100% of himself, which blinded him to the possibility that anyone else could change anything about their life. Then he had a dramatic change as he was dying.
“Hmmpf,” said the skeleton.
What were the first words you said to me when I came into your hospital room that last night of your life?
“I asked if you brought that little digital recorder,” he said.
Right, and right after that?
“I said ‘You know those stories Eli told you about my childhood? He hit the nail right on the head, though I’m sure he spared you the worst of it. My life was pretty much over by the time I was two years old…'”
The skeleton’s consciousness starts at that moment, just before that last conversation of my father’s life, when he finally came to the understanding that had always eluded him.
“If you say so,” said the skeleton.
High over the well-situated grave (there is a huge tree over his hilltop grave providing blessed shade) two Westchester turkey vultures made lazy circles in the air. The skeleton looked up and nodded absently.
To those who loved my father, and there were many of us, including some very bright people who frequently roared at his tossed off lines, waiting with expectant smiles for his next bit of irreverence, it will cause great distress to read about his monstrous side.
“After all, Elie, who among us has not employed relentless brutality to irreparably damage the children we raise? Come on, Elie, be fair about that.”
I’m picturing the dinner table when Arlene and Russ Savakus were over. Arlene with her keen appreciation, her super-sharp mind, Russ, her more low-key hipster husband, a moderately famous bass player, both of them howling. Their explosions of laughter were a kind of music I can still hear. My father was at his best with an audience like Arlene and Russ.
“We’re always at our best with people we love, who love us back,” said the skeleton.
Yes. Love is all we’ve got here, really. If you don’t have love in your life, nothing else really matters, except a ruthless lust for power I suppose.
“As your friend Napoleon, who reputedly regarded men as base coin, wrote in his diary ‘As for me, I know very well I have no real friends, and you don’t suppose I care– as long as I remain what I am I will always have ‘friends’ enough.’ As you’ve noted before, Elie, who is the ‘you’ he is addressing this thought about not needing intimates to?”
Arlene and Russ. I remember lying in my bed, as a kid, long after dinner, with the smoke from Arlene’s endless cigarettes wafting up to my room, along with their cackles and excited remarks. It is hard to imagine, seeing you at your best, that you could have also…
“Well, there’s your mystery of life right there, Elie, and nothing very sweet about it, I’m afraid.”
The potential in all of us, to be at our best, instead of pressed under the pressures we’re constantly forced to fight being crushed by. Mind boggling, how hard it is to always put that best side forward.
“Well, some people are better at it than others. I think you’re probably right that a willingness not to be eternally aggrieved is important. Some people, some of our most successful people, are all show, a thin candy shell over an inner life of squirming, festering horror and rage.”
Overhead the two turkey vultures continued to circle.
“I like to feel, although, admittedly, I verbally whipped you and your sister in the face every night over dinner, that I never humiliated either of you, that I always, somehow, let you know how much I loved you both.”
Aye, that you did, pater, though it took me almost sixty years to see it all clearly.
“The tragedy of life, Elie,” said the skeleton. One of the vultures suddenly veered toward earth, the other one turned to follow.
Also the triumph of life, dad. We couldn’t have this kind of conversation when you were alive, but now we are.
“I’ll take it,” said the skeleton, looking off toward the rapidly descending scavengers.