When I was in my late twenties, visiting the farm of my parents’ best friemd, Arlene, she laid a great truth on me. As we watched the sun set one evening she said:
“You feel like you disappointed your parents, like you’re responsible for their unhappiness. I love your parents to death, as you know, they’re my best friends, but they are both very unhappy people. They just are, they were that way long before you were born. Their unhappiness has nothing to do with you, there is nothing you can do to change it, the burden of it is not something you need to carry through life.”
Though what she said sounds obvious to me now, it was like she’d reached up and pulled a string to turn on a light in the universe.
That understanding was an immense help to me, comparable to my father’s older first cousin Eli, years later, describing how he witnessed his beloved Aunt Chava grab the thick, burlap covered cord for her steam iron, from a drawer behind her seat at the kitchen table, and whip little Irv across the face with it.
“In the face?” I said.
“Yep, over and over,” said Eli.
“Jesus,” I said, “how old was he?”
“However old you are when you can stand on your two feet without falling over,” he said, with limitless sorrow. He saw it many times after that, and he said that over time all she had to do was rattle the drawer where she kept the whipping cord and young Irv would stand at rigid attention, staring at the ground, trembling, waiting for the whipping to start.