The baby who grew up to become my father, after many a quirk of fate, was born into a nightmare. It’s hard to see my father’s childhood as anything but a terrifying bad dream. It is only by seeing this nightmare clearly, something my poor father feared more than anything in the world, that it becomes possible to understand the immensity of his triumphs and his monstrous inability to do the simplest things.
Around the time of World War One his mother fell in love with a man her stern older brother and strong-willed sister-in-law soon drove off. After all, they would have lost their indentured servant if she had married the local post man– a red haired Jew, like she was. She was paying off the cost of her voyage from the hellhole they came from, paid by her brother, plus room and board in America.
Years later they arranged a miserable marriage for her, with a silent man many regarded as brain damaged. This unhappily married couple were my paternal grandparents, though neither of them would live long enough to see me born.
The couple moved to the teeming, crime ridden mecca of American immigrants, the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Their first child, a girl, was stillborn, or possibly lived for a few days before she died. The next child, a gigantic boy, caused his tiny mother great agonies as he was born. She would never forgive him.
Meanwhile the baby’s father was about to lose his job driving a herring delivery wagon. He would daydream behind the horse until the horse stopped at the next stop. He’d wrestle a barrel of herring off the wagon and bring it into the store, collect the money. It went fine, until the horse died and the new horse, as luck would have it, had absolutely no idea of the route. Neither did my grandfather. A written list was no help, he couldn’t read. There were a hundred immigrants waiting for his job and one of them snatched it immediately.
My great-uncle Aren’s little sister Chava was in serious trouble. A newborn baby, with a second on the way, and Harry out of work, basically unemployable, as he’d remain for the rest of his relatively short life. Chava began taking it out on her big, stupid baby.
In those early days of electricity the cords that connected an appliance to the outlet were removable from the appliance. This was in the years before plastic, they were insulated with layers of fabric wrapped around the wires. The cords were thick, and sturdy, and the outer layer was a kind of rough burlap, or canvas. I saw a couple of these frayed, primitive looking cords as a child, and thought nothing of them.
My father, on the other hand, must have learned to swallow a twitch of revulsion every time he saw one. His angry, terrified mother used to sit at the head of the table, behind her was a drawer. In that drawer she kept the cord to her iron. When she got angry, which was frequently, she’d yank the drawer open, pull out the inflexible, abrasive cord and whip the infant in the face.
“In the face?!” I said, when my father’s older first cousin Eli eventually told me the story, by way of explaining my father’s nightmarish childhood. “In the face?!” Eli nodded, with infinite sorrow.
“How old was he when she started whipping him in the face?” I asked.
“However old you are when you can first stand on your own two legs,” said Eli.
Eli described how he and his father, Uncle Aren, had taken the truck down to the city from Peekskill and collected the miserable little family and their few belongings and brought them back up the Hudson River to Peekskill. This was probably in 1926.
Attempts to put Harry to work at various jobs were largely unsuccessful, though he had a period several years later, during FDR’s Public Works Administration, of chopping down trees, which he apparently did quite well. Harry swept and mopped the synagogue, and did other odd jobs there, and was paid just enough, along with his brother-in-law’s charity, to keep his family from starving.
When little Irv (who was then still called by his Yiddish name Azraelkeh) entered kindergarten, in the fall of 1929 he was the biggest kid in his class in that Peekskill elementary school. He was also the only one who couldn’t speak English. This marked him, among his little classmates, as a big fucking dummy. He would never fully recover from the trauma of his first contact with his future classmates. To make matters worse, he was also legally blind, his vision was 20-400. Not only could he not speak the language of the country he was born in, he couldn’t see more than a few inches in front of his big dumb face.
It gets worse, though, and more impersonal. The stock market collapsed right after he began kindergarten, giving him the distinction of being a big squinting dummy from the poorest family in an impoverished little town in the midst of a worldwide economic collapse.
The only thing that saved him, years later, was a maniac named Hitler, who declared war on the United States a few months after my father graduated high school. Soon drafted into that war, a war that would see Death Squads traveling behind Hitler’s eastward advancing army, ethnically cleansing the area of all Jews, he was one of 16,000,000 Americans in the armed forced. As luck would have it, his unit remained in the U.S. until the end of the war in Europe, when he was stationed in occupied Germany.
By that time the German advance through Belarus, then part of Poland, had left no trace of Truvovich, the ill-fated little hamlet in the marshes south of Pinsk that his mother and his Uncle were from. Wiped off the face of the earth, off every map, ripped from human history, along with the couple of dozen blood relations who had not made it to America.
“What the fuck, Elie?” said the skeleton of my father, sitting upright in his gave, finally having heard enough.
When this skeleton was a living man, he was, for a long time, a bright eyed idealist, a thesis short of his PhD in American history. He went on to a distinguished middle class life, raising two ungrateful, spoiled, merciless middle class pricks. Two entitled little kids who, but for the relentless puzzling and research of the older child, would never have a had a clue about the perilous inner life of their difficult father.
“Kind of makes you glad to be an American,” said the skeleton, with characteristic irony, before sinking heavily back into his eternal nap.