My father’s mother, a diminutive red haired religious woman with a brutal temper, used to snarl whenever my father and his little brother fought. “Seenas Cheenam!” she would say, Yiddish for “senseless enmity!” They lived in poverty impressive even by the desperate standards of the Depression, their mother openly hated their father, the larger older brother was regularly whipped in the face by his mother, the sickly younger brother was always pampered by that same mother. Add it up and you get “Seenas Cheenam!”
My father spoke very little of his deeply scarring childhood, except to point out from time to time that he grew up in “grinding poverty.” That was the phrase he always used when comparing his lot to my sister’s and mine. We also heard the phrase “Seenas Cheenam” often enough growing up that it sticks in my head. I later learned Hebrew and the word cheenam means “free,” or “gratuitous,” if you will, seenas being the Yiddishized version of the Hebrew seenat, hatred.
Psychological insight into human behavior is not necessarily a widespread human characteristic. Certainty, of course, is. We like to be sure before we whip somebody that we are doing the right thing. And so it was with my grandmother, an uneducated woman from a family soon to be murdered en masse, prone to fits of righteous rage, a woman who died young, of cancer, a few years before I was born. The irony of her dismissing any reason the boys might be at each other’s throats in that sadistic experiment they grew up in is not lost on me. Blaming her boys for being at each other’s throats for no reason was her way of being certain that she was always doing what was best, exactly what God wanted her to do. Certainty is the human genius.
Before my uncle died (in a rehab center) he told his son and me that he had framed photos of our great grandparents in the house his son was selling. We looked everywhere, didn’t find them, and, on a last pass through, before locking up the house for the last time after it was sold, I walked into the sun room. There behind the wicker couch my demented aunt had secreted the almost life-sized portrait heads of my grandmother’s parents, in beautiful oval frames. I could barely stand looking at them. These two had created a monster of their youngest child, my father’s violently unlucky mother.
I can only imagine the household that raises their youngest to whip her infant son in the face over and over. I look at the face of her mother, in a photo taken before 1914 when my grandmother arrived here in the US. I shudder. The father looks a bit more human, though as I look a moment longer I start to cringe. People who were being photographed for the only time in their lives tend to look stiff, and rigid, and perhaps not at their most natural in the photographer’s studio, but there is something about these two that gives me the creeps.
It is the knowledge that they raised a girl who grew up to viciously take out her misery on her first born son, a toddler who grew up to be my father. My father, though he did much better than his mother, also was unable to resist taking out his misery and his unslakable anger on his children. He was not one to hit, but his brutal words, as he eventually admitted, were as harmful as any regime of slaps, punches or kicks could have been.
We don’t want insight, we want to be right. Keep it fucking simple, you merciless asshole! I am right, as my gut is telling me, as my muscular tension tells me, as the surge of fight/flight/freeze chemicals urge me, as my every justification fucking tells me!
My sister and I had a terrible fight almost thirty years ago when my niece was a toddler. Frustrations from years of conflict flared up and I lost my temper. So did my sister who began screaming for me to get out of her fucking house. My niece said, from her highchair, “mom, stop screaming at Uncle Elie!” Sides clearly had to be drawn more decisively, as they were over the years, until my niece and nephew were convinced not to communicate with their crazy uncle any more. Right is right when it comes to seenas cheenam, you understand.