Some time around 1922 or 1923, a year before the Immigration Act restricted the entry of people like my grandparents, in the crowded, polyglot slum of New York City’s Lower East Side, my father’s mother gave birth to her first child, a girl. The baby did not live long and the whereabouts of her tiny corpse are unknown. In fact, I’m not sure how I even heard about this poor child, born of two desperately poor immigrant parents. Probably from my father’s first cousin Eli, source of much of what I know about my father’s early life. History records that on June 1, 1924, my father was born in that same slum, moved to Peekskill as a toddler (in his Uncle Aren’s truck) and later lived, as a middle class homeowner, to be almost 81. I was there to close his eyelids after he took his last breath.
My father never went into the details of his years of grinding poverty. He always used that term, “grinding poverty,” spoken through gritted teeth, to evoke the circumstances of his hard life before the army. Of his mother, who turns out to have been a savagely unhappy little woman, all he ever said, in Yiddishized Hebrew, was “may she rest in peace.” He said the same about his father, about whom even less was ever revealed. A few hours before his death, my father described his father, in his breathy dying man’s voice, as “an illiterate country bumpkin, completely overwhelmed by this world.” He did not speak of his mother. I knew by then pretty much why.
The rest of my father’s large family, outside of his mother’s brother, Uncle Aren, the American patriarch who’d fled the Czar’s army in 1904, disappeared into the fog of war, literally. Their muddy hamlet in the Belarusian marsh, somewhere between Pinsk and Stolin, was erased from history, wiped off the maps, if it ever was on any map. That little town met the fate of hundreds of other little Jewish towns in those dark years when Hitler was restoring Aryan honor to Germany. After the German occupation of those areas the towns and their inhabitants simply ceased to exist.
The family in Europe was disappeared while my father was training to fight in what would become the Air Force. The immensity of this loss was something my father never spoke about, outside of dismissing it as talk of “abstractions” when I got old enough to know and be deeply disturbed by it.
The arc of my father’s life is almost unimaginable today, an impoverished boy from the slums growing into a well-educated, solidly middle class burgher. He worked hard, two jobs, followed the rules, took advantage of the GI Bill (which worked wonders for white vets, not so much for other vets) and a rare moment in history when the American Dream of a life of financial comfort could actually be lived by children born in extreme poverty. He made this transformation along with tens of thousands of the generation who fought World War Two.
My father, according to my sister, never had a happy day in his life. It’s an interesting question, because, though he had all the tools for happiness, she might be right. He found the humor in things, he was quick, he had a dark take on things (though he loved animals and small children), was beloved by his few close friends, was an avid reader with a deep interest in history and justice. He made his friends laugh and often his family as well. He could also be cold, hard, unbending. He died with terrible regrets, he’d learned basic lessons too late to put them to good use. At the very end all he hoped for was one actual conversation before he died, one that wasn’t a death match. We managed to have that talk, and then he was dead.
Years later I took many months, a couple of years back, writing an unwieldy first draft of “The Book of Irv,” an attempt to fully think his life through. My idea was to put a tricky story into perspective, letting nobody off the hook, but at the same time, taking pains to also not vilify or punish anyone. To my amazement, this long exercise in trying to see the whole picture left me with the ability to see my father’s life and sometimes troubling attitudes and actions completely from his point of view. Seeing his viewpoint clearly doesn’t make me agree with the worst things he decided, but I can understand them, even empathize. A few years earlier, before my long exploration of his troubling life, the thought of reaching that understanding was unthinkable.
Because my father was often harsh to me and my sister, I was usually harsh in my judgments of him. There are certain things I took him to task for that I understand now were completely reasonable and within his rights. This understanding emerged only after I became able to see the position from his viewpoint. As a boy and a young man, I was hard on him for the way he permanently banished good friends who hurt him. People we once enjoyed the company of, laughed long and loud with, were suddenly dead, simply dead.
He was famously unable to forgive, in the end unable to forgive himself for the rigidly black and white way he’d seen the world, for how that worldview often made him act toward the people closest to him. I see now that those two traits, cutting friends dead and being unforgiving, don’t necessarily add up to an unreasonable position; although a fault may come into play it doesn’t always negate a perfectly understandable motive.
I’ve learned about that terrible moment when it becomes clear that friendship is returned grudgingly (if at all) and looking away only prolongs the estrangement that is already well underway. This is not merely a matter of being unforgiving, sometimes it is simply the way it is between humans who have long been close but who have stored up grievances against each other. As I observed in my own life, and learned from my father’s steady example, there is sometimes a point of no return, even in once close relationships.
To tolerate painful treatment from someone you trust is being a party to your own abuse and there is no healthy reason to do it. Abuse is where you have to draw the line, in every case where you have choice in the matter. If you point out to a friend that they are hurting you and your friend says “I am not, you have a problem and your vicious accusation is yet another example of it” it is probably time to use the door. The old man was not wrong about that, however quick he might have been to slam that door, to shut friends into eternal darkness when they hurt him. The timing of this inevitable moment, one you see it, now seems to me a matter of pulling the bandaid off quickly or slowly.
My father’s skeleton has been quiet, outside of remarks he made over the course of a few months, a couple of years ago. Those unexpected conversations with my father’s skeleton often had moments of real surprise for me, as if I really was hearing things for the first time, things my father would have said if that conversation the last night of his life had continued. Somehow I knew that it wasn’t merely my imagination conjuring these responses, they made organic sense to be coming from my father’s now wiser skeleton.
If the voices of my father’s parents, the ancestors he never saw, ever spoke to him, or cried out to him, I cannot say. He rarely spoke of either of his parents, and if he did, it was only to comment that they should rest in peace. If the murdered souls in that unlocatable marsh near Pinsk could call out to me, it would be in a language I can’t understand. The closest I can come to imagining them is the few of them I knew, and the lessons of those lives are the stories I am interested in telling now, before the clock runs out on my time to tell them — before the next personal extinction arrives.