Family is the most important thing

Although most mass murders happen within families,  as a ten second scan of the internet will show [1], fratricide, parricide and filicide are not the most common forms of murder, thankfully.    (Although 100% of all incest happens in families, by definition.)    In many families lifelong grudges stand in for murder.   My family, for example, has generally practiced this humane alternative to actual killing (those few outliers who survived the actual mass killings of 1943, that is).    Even within devastated, crazy, dysfunctional families, the common refrain is that there is nothing more important than family– except possibly keeping your insane fucking aunt as far from us as possible.

Sekhnet’s mother’s best friend for many years (they had a terrible falling out years later) was the sister of a woman married to a dynamic first generation Italian man named Uncle Tony.   Uncle Tony and his wife had no children of their own, but exerted a great influence on generations of their nieces and nephews.   They hosted them every summer at their summer place near the beach, put them to work and instilled their values deep within these kids.   The youngest of these kids are now in their seventies, having passed the values on to their children and grandchildren.

The third weekend in August every year, for the last 65, is the Italian Picnic.   Family and friends would arrive on Long Island by the dozens, pitch tents, sleep in cars, in curtain-divided cubicles in the original cabin with Uncle Tony and his wife, in the “overflow”, a handmade structure in the back that housed an additional ten or so in various compartments.  Behind the overflow was the outdoor shower.   The sign over the toilet read “in these isles of sun and fun, we never flush for number one.”

Sekhnet attended the first Italian Picnic “in utero” as she likes to say.   She went that first time as a four month-old fetus (perhaps she was still an embryo, I’d have to look it up) and has missed only one or two in the following six and a half decades. I’ve been going every year since 2001, when I drove Sekhnet and her aged parents to the picnic when Sekhnet had a medical problem that prevented her from driving the 80 miles or so.    

I was welcomed warmly and instantly by this large, gregarious family.   It was beautiful to be in a gathering where everyone seemed to genuinely love, or at least like, each other.   The food was great, the controlled chaos of the festivities was cool, and there were several colorful characters that made these picnics a lot of fun.

Over the years I got to know a unique character named Louie, a truly larger than life nephew of Uncle Tony’s.   He was a jovial, powerfully built former cop with flowing white hair, impressive facial hair, an even more impressive belly and a great talent for storytelling.

Some years he’d drink everyone under the table (the table was in a thatched tiki bar across the dirt yard from the main house) while telling an endless series of detailed and often very funny stories.   Some years he didn’t drink at all, like the year he fasted, passing up the dozens of trays of delicious Italian delicacies, all that pasta, and seafood, and lasagna, and all the rest, including the table of homemade desserts.  He explained that he was doing this for his self-discipline and also as part of a purifying detox he’d been doing for a few days.   Early the next morning he broke his purifying fast with an enormous bacon sandwich he devoured standing over the outdoor breakfast griddle.  

One year early in my tenure, during a year when Louie was drinking, I first heard his stories,  They continued late into the night as one inebriated person after another staggered off to turn in.  He was in charge of the blender at the tiki bar and he induced me to drink perhaps ten delicious frozen drinks of some kind.   He drank at least that many himself, as one by one every other drinker mumbled good night, shuffled off, fell over.

I was the second to last man standing that night, kind of, I tottered off to sleep after slurring a goodnight to Louie. To my amazement, I saw (while up briefly to pee) that Louie was the first guy up in the morning, putting the coffee on before anybody else was up, cheerfully at work out at the makeshift workstation near the tiki bar, breaking eggs, making pancake batter, firing up the grill to get breakfast started for everybody.

Over the years there were tragedies.  Louie’s younger brother, Frankie (they were two of four brothers), another beloved guy, a former NYC detective, had a terrible string of them a few years ago.   Frankie’s playful wife was diagnosed, too late, with the cancer that killed her a very short time later, right before the picnic one year. A few months later Louie came down with a sore throat he couldn’t shake.  The sore throat turned out to be esophageal cancer.   Louie’s funeral was on a brutally frigid day a month or two later.   Frankie underwent a heart procedure that had a very remote, less than one percent, chance of paralysis.   Frankie hit that jackpot too. Somehow, his faith sustains him.  He seems in most ways to be pretty close to how he always was, except that he’s in a wheelchair and attended by two caretakers at all times.

I’m thinking about this family today because we came back from that third weekend in August picnic last night.   When Uncle Tony’s widow died about fifteen years ago the picnic was in jeopardy.   It was unclear, as Sekhnet edited her beautiful movie chronicling the history of the picnic, if there’d be another one.  That was a big motivation to make the documentary.  In the end the property was purchased by a grand-nephew who rebuilt the place into a modern family compound.  

I first saw this guy as a young man in Sekhnet’s masterpiece. The young Anthony looks into her camera and says “it was just a weekend but it seemed to us like the whole summer, we couldn’t wait to go and we used to cry when we had to leave.”  In the end he and his wife bought the place and they continue to host the family tradition the third weekend every August.

He runs the picnic much the way it was done  by Uncle Tony when he was a kid.  No elaborate planning of the menu is done, people bring whatever they bring, and it is always plenty, and delicious.   The traditional games are played as the assembled adults cheer and heckle: a line of kids trying to whistle with a mouth full of crackers, blow the largest bubble gum bubble, eat a round slice of watermelon by thrusting the face into the middle of it, three-legged sack races, tug of war with a gigantic rope.  Prizes go to everybody after each game.  

Gone is the candy tree of Sekhnet’s youth, a tree with candy on every branch where the kids found their prizes under the leaves and picked them right off the tree. Gone are the buzz cuts for the boys that Uncle Tony used to administer, but the traditions of the picnic are clearly prized and ongoing, as is the love and closeness of everyone there.   The children of Uncle Tony’s grandnieces and grandnephews are now becoming teenagers, young adults.    I knew all these kids as babies, then as toddlers.  If we live long enough, we’ll see their babies and toddlers, hard as that is to believe.  Sekhnet and I are among the older generation now.

Somebody took out a packet of photos yesterday after dinner.   They were passed around and cackled over.  Here is so and so (sitting across from me) at thirteen, forty years ago.  “Oh, my God, look at… is that so and so?!!”  Amid much hooting Sekhnet was examining a photo with a human shaped cut-out in the middle.  “I like the invisible man,” I said, pointing to blue table cloth showing through the open space the shape of a person literally cut out of the picture.   The cut out person was not identified or commented on and I didn’t follow up.    

Over the years a few people have disappeared from the gatherings.  Not only because of death, but other things too.  This happens in families.   We don’t talk about that, beyond a mention and a shrug, sometimes a short summary of the sad tale.   Why talk about it?   Family, and being with those you love, is the most important thing.  Am I wrong?

 

[1]  Although familicides are relatively rare, they are the most common form of mass killing.    source    

 

Losing the Propaganda War

Back in the day, in ancient Egypt, when a new dynasty came into power they’d send goons into the tombs of the rulers of the past.   These goons would scrape the images of the dead off the tomb walls, making sure to remove the faces wherever they were depicted.   It was a way of messing them up good in the after-life — try living forever in glory with no face.   It was a way of effacing their image, and memory, from history.    The same technique has been used a million times since.  Who are you going to believe — me or this asshole who literally has no fucking face?

It’s now common to call this process something like controlling the narrative.  In propaganda terms, you take a complex issue and reduce it to a phrase that will make people angry.  “Moscow Mitch” pops to mind, a great recent example of this technique (and, by the way, Moscow Mitch is fuming about this vicious, if not completely unfair, nickname).   Mitch McConnell, the long serving lady-killer from Kentucky, has used his position as leader of the Senate to block votes on all legislation, and every appointment, he doesn’t like.  He simply refuses to allow a debate or vote, that’s how you guarantee your enemies lose every time.   Losers.

Included on this list, most recently, is his ungentlemanly, anti-democratic refusal to bring two House bills about election security to a vote on the floor of the Senate.   These bills are to ensure that our electronic elections are protected from the massive foreign manipulation we can expect in 2020, in light of what the Mueller Report documented as “sweeping and systematic” Russian interference in 2016. [1]   Also in light of a recent government report that showed attempts to hack voting machines in all 50 states in 2016.  Moscow Mitch sees no problem with any of this, as long as his party, whose presidential candidate was openly favored by Moscow in 2016, and happily invited their help, stays in power.

So, instead of needing to say all that simply say:  Moscow Mitch.  The phrase stands in perfectly for a candidate apparently more loyal to Putin’s right to a favorable say in the election than any Democrat’s right to cast a secure ballot.   Hopefully the cool new nickname will help cost the obdurate, unprincipled, partisan obstructionist his job in the next election.

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This sort of thing is common in politics, of course.   “Lock her up!” was used to great effect by a demagogue and his cronies in a recent election.  It was simply a way of channelling hatred for Hillary Clinton and all she stood for.   “Build the Wall!” was as feel good a chant as “Block that Kick!” at a football game.   Makes people feel part of something virile and powerful, to fullthroatedly yell in unison like that, standing and rhythmically pumping their fists.  Winners.  

Odd to say, the same simplifying principle is routinely employed by most of us in our personal lives.  From time to time we judge something another person did as crossing a line, beyond the pale (whatever that cliche actually means — [2]) and based on that transgression we write the final unflattering chapter of our history with that person.   Everything was fine until this person I was friends with for thirty years refused to take “I said ‘no’ and I don’t have to say why” as a final answer, the infuriatingly overbearing fuck!

Bringing people to one side or the other in these wars is largely a public relations battle, fought on the miniature battlefield of interpersonal relations.   It is routinely fought in families — who is to blame for what, who is the black sheep, who brought honor or dishonor to our family name, who is on whose side against whom.   It is fought everywhere people are angry about anything, which is to say, everywhere.  I give you the following highly hypothetical illustration which resembles nothing in anyone’s personal life, I assure you.

[illustration REDACTED]

A focus on the truth of what actually happened is often seen as misguided in our Moscow Mitch world, or, to be more accurate: irrelevant.   A simple, easy to embrace belief is better, in the all-important public relations/marketing/branding arena, than a well-researched, compellingly written thousand pages nobody will ever read, particularly if you burn the fucking book and the godless witch who wrote it. 

Mueller [3] was a godless witch, by the way, just ask Moscow Mitch.

 

[1]    “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” Mueller wrote in the 448-page document, which lays out new details about a Kremlin-backed plot that compromised Democrats’ computer networks and targeted state and local election offices.

source     note that this article is from April 19, 2019!   

[2]  Screen Shot 2019-08-01 at 3.47.27 PM.png

[3] Bobby Three Sticks

A Tricky Story to Tell

“You had only two uncles, me and your father’s brother,” he said.   

“Our father had a brother?” said the niece. 

“Yes, a few years older.   We only met him once, he was kind of estranged from your father and his father.   He was funny, and personable, and seemed like a very nice guy.   He was as big as your father, and had dark hair.   We sat on the back porch playing cards, at your grandparents’ house in Queens.”   

“How come we never heard of him?”   

“You’d have to ask your parents.   I have no idea.   Maybe it was the fact that they were estranged, had virtually no contact once the brothers were adults.   I  don’t know.   Maybe it has to do with his mental illness,” the sole uncle said.   

“Mental illness?” said the nephew.   

“Look, I know virtually nothing about the man, except for a pleasant afternoon we spent with him.   And that he was taking some psycho-pharmaceutical and his psychiatrist apparently had told him to have nothing further to do with the family, that it would only aggravate his condition.   And like I said, we only met him that one time, never heard about him after that.”   

“Whoa, his ‘psychiatrist’?”  said the niece.

“You know, in most families you have your pick of aunts, uncles, cousins.  You will have the ones you feel closest to, a real kinship, and many others will leave you cool, or even cold.  In our family, since the family tree was so ruthlessly pruned back in 1942, you get only one or two uncles — in your case one.   Your other uncle probably died before you were born, another reason you never heard of him, I guess.”   

“How did he die?” said the nephew.   

“That’s just speculation, we really have no idea.  He could still be alive, he’d be in his early seventies now”   

“Jesus,” said the niece, glancing at her phone.

“I can tell you what happened two generations ago, on your mother’s side, when the German army ran across the area we’re from, on their way to invade the heart of the Soviet Union.   Between the winter of 1941 and the winter of 1942 everyone in our family was murdered, except for the handful of people who arrived here between 1904 and 1923.    The areas they came from were, as they say, cleansed of Jews by the SS and willing local anti-Semites.   We know a few of their names, we know what happened to their towns, the muddy little hamlets they came from.   Everyone was executed, end of story.”   

“That would make you a little paranoid, I guess,” said the nephew. 

Claro que si, sobrino,” said the uncle.

“I can only say a little bit more, because to some people, well, this is ticklish to say… some people believe that anything that causes pain or anguish should be avoided.  The passive voice and all that.   You don’t touch a nerve that’s raw.  If it’s bad, or makes you feel bad, especially if it evokes shame or anger, don’t talk about it.  Talking about it is very dangerous,” he turned to his niece.   

“You know, when you were a baby and first learned to sit on the potty to do your business, your mother asked you once why you have no hesitation to sit there and pee but the other thing, the shitting business, you weren’t ready to do that in the potty.   She asked why.  You said, with great seriousness and conviction, and you couldn’t have been more than two:  it’s very dangerous!   

“Ha, I forgot about that,” the niece said.   

“What I hear you saying between the lines, Uncle, is that you are very dangerous,” said the nephew.   

“Yes, nephew, if you believe in making sure every source of shame and anger is completely repressed at all times, someone like me is very dangerous.   I’m as dangerous as pooping in a potty, more dangerous, actually,” said the uncle. 

 “Some people believe it’s better to lie than to expose and talk about regrettable, shameful or terrible things.   We have a president like that.  Never made a mistake, never been wrong, never had any reason to reflect or do anything differently, nothing to apologize about, anything bad that ever happened in his life was somebody else’s fault.   You know, a lot of people live that way.   I try not to judge those motherfuckers, but I can’t live like that.  If I know I hurt you, and I care about you, I’m going to try to make it right, starting with an apology.  Unfortunately, not everybody does that.”   

“This is getting a little awkward,” said the niece. 

“I agree,” said the uncle, “where are we going for lunch?”

Asking Unanswerable questions

I’ve long had the intrusive habit of asking of what often seem to be unanswerable questions.   They’re not unanswerable because there is no explanation, no cause and effect that can be laid out, no illuminating reasons that can be produced to get closer to the truth of what’s actually going on. 

They’re unanswerable because they are fucking hard questions, the true reasons are ugly reasons, and great forces are arrayed to make sure they are answered only in self-serving, inadequate ways, like Mr. Trump’s (no reply submitted) reply to Mueller’s last long, compromising written question about the actions of his disgraced former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.   

The real answer will often cause more trouble than its worth — to those who have something to lose by it.  The anodyne answer (like the ones the New York Times specializes in) is always preferable, though it’s usually only a partial answer that, while accepting the status quo as the way it should pretty much be, makes no trouble.   Except that it also provides no real clue about anything but how important it is not to make trouble if you want everything to continue pretty much as it is.

I get that I seem to be acting as though humans are mostly rational creatures, animals who use sophisticated tools and logical means to enjoy the many wonders of nature and live in harmony with our miraculous world.  A clever person could say it’s illogical to proceed as if logic ruled the world.   Indeed, the world, we can see at a glance, is clearly not ruled by Reason.   That doesn’t invalidate thoughtfulness as the best we can do in a world often ruled by selfish, enraged brutes.    Understanding is always a net gain, it seems to me, as is honest connection to others.

I also understand that my clinging to “understanding” is an emotional thing, stemming from my childhood need to feel heard and addressed.   Not to say some explanations are not far better than others, only that in seeking them feathers will often be ruffled and emotions raised to the boiling point.   I grew up in a home where that happened regularly.   Some of my parents’ outbursts were understandable to me, I’d touched a raw nerve I had reason to know would be raw — but some were just rage doing what rage does — raging.    What the hell is up with rage?

After our father died, my sister used a great phrase to describe a force that decisively shaped his life (and to a large extent our mother’s as well).  “Shame-based” she said, and it’s a phrase that explains a lot.   The main characteristic about shame is that it compels the sufferer to hide that painful emotion, to rationalize, defend, develop plausible sounding explanations for actions that are not always easy to justify, and often, to lash out violently at others.

Shame is a powerful force in world history.   Adolf Hitler spoke directly to the shame and thwarted national pride of his audience.  He spoke magic words to larger and larger crowds of desperate, angry Germans after Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War One and its submission to a harsh and destructive treaty.  According to the self-taught Mr. Hitler, the German army had never lost the war, not at all; Germany had the greatest military in the world, but it been savagely betrayed, you see, it was stabbed in the back.   No reason to feel national humiliation, the punitive Versailles diktat was heaped on a great and victorious nation by vicious, scheming, inhuman traitors, you understand.   Inferior traitors who continue laughing at Germany, traitors whose laughter will turn to whimpers and screams when we turn the tables!!!

Shame is the source of much rage and violence.    The need to hide shame and act out to keep it hidden is behind many of the terrible stories of savagery we see, many tragedies that unfold before us.  Shame leads directly to abuse, in its many forms. 

 A few years back I heard a great interview on this subject with a psychiatrist named James Gilligan who’d spent many years in prisons working with violent offenders.   He put his finger on shame as the common denominator for violent acts of domination, horrible things done out of a sense of being “disrespected”.    You can read his article on the subject here.    Every sadist was once humiliated, and the reaction to that humiliation is often expressed in a desire to humiliate others.   The vicious cycle (literally) is turned harder by the fact that we tend to blame ourselves for our shame, and for the sometimes shameful things we sometimes do to avoid further shame, which makes everything ten times worse.    

There is a great scene in the movie Goodwill Hunting that vividly illustrates the first step on path away from shame  — addressing the pain and forgiving the self for feeling it.    The psychiatrist, played by Robin Williams, finally get’s through Will’s (Matt Damon) resistance to gaining real insight.   The young man is clearly in pain, and his nerves are painfully exposed after he lays out the violence of his childhood, the terrible punishment inflicted on him by a brutal parent for no reason.    Williams tells him “it’s not your fault”.   The statement is undeniably true — the kid is not responsible for the uncontrollable violence of his angry drunk father.   Will tries to nonchalantly acknowledge this, but he is only retreating back to his tough guy pose.   The shrink, not going to miss the opening, tells the kid again “it’s not your fault.”   He keeps repeating this statement, in the face of his patient’s rising emotions.    In the end the young man breaks down in the older man’s arms and it’s a moment of great progress in his treatment.

Of course, it’s a Hollywood movie.  We know all about successful Hollywood movies — they are pretty much mostly bullshit.   Every time a couple has sex on screen — they come together.   Every time a victim gets a gun, she shoots her sadistic victimizer dead in the final scene.   The poorest characters live in beautiful homes.   Violence is cathartic, makes everything better.   Plus, for good measure, showing a naked woman or man is much more offensive, for purposes of ratings, than showing people being shot, blown up, smashed in the head with baseball bats.    Still, the essence of that scene between Robin Williams and Matt Damon crystalizes something deep and true.

We tend to blame ourselves, which increases our sense of being worth less than others who, aggravatingly,  do not seem to blame themselves.   Except in rare cases, nobody shows us how not to blame ourselves when we feel guilt, or regret, or shame — or rage, for that matter.   It’s our fault we are (slug in your pet fear here).   The poor, generation after generation of these hard-pressed fuckers, have only themselves to blame for their poverty.   After all, hard work and determined ambition is always rewarded in a free nation like ours — just look at all the successful people who worked their asses off to become celebrities!    Surely the poor can grab ahold of their own bootstraps and perform the physics-defying feat of lifting themselves off the ground by their own heels.   Even the metaphor is absurd — but no worries, the image is good enough for our purposes.  Our purpose, to sum it up, is “fuck you.  It’s not me, not us, not the way we do things here, it’s you, asshole.”

So it is down the line with superficial, stupid answers to troubling questions.   Husband, finding himself in a tight spot, as a result of unsuccessful embezzling and numerous lying attempts to cover up his crimes, about to declare bankruptcy he’s kept secret from everybody, suddenly threatens mass murder– stabbing, beheading and killing by fire — of his entire family.   What the fuck?  “He was under unbearable pressure!”  Decades later, the wife who never left, dismisses the homicidal raging as an isolated thing that only happened once.   Her children, two of the intended victims, must never know about the shameful, terrifying episode.   She can’t understand why she still has tremendous anxiety, even though her life is objectively pretty much stress-free, though, admittedly, she does blame herself for the low self-esteem that prevented her from leaving her volatile, serially untruthful husband.

A woman tells you, after a few glasses of wine, that she has always hated everybody.   Present company excluded, she adds with a wan smile, realizing how bad that categorical statement must have sounded.   We all laugh about it, admit that we hate most people too.   Then, over time, it emerges that this woman does hate EVERYBODY– present company now included.  Doesn’t talk to her brother or sister, rages at her children, is in a constantly escalating war with her husband, etc.  She hates everybody because, when it comes down to it, her life is shit and she hates that too– and, most unbearable of all,  it’s all her own fault.

A guy praises and thanks his old friend, offering to do him a favor he then, without explanation, decides not to do.   When questioned about this change of heart the guy explodes — “this is the last straw, you demanding fuck, I don’t owe you shit, I don’t owe you an explanation, you pushy fucking fuck!    I love you, man, but we have a gigantic personality conflict here, so maybe better if you just fuck off and die.”   The guy, on some level, must know he’s overreacting and trashing a long friendship over what seems to be a pretext, but, for whatever reason, it feels good for him to rage at this guy.   Certainly better than feeling whatever shame is behind his emotional outburst.

In any of these cases, the facts don’t speak for themselves.   The true causes are murky and, most likely, shame-based, as my sister said of our father’s frequent outbursts.   The wife whose husband threatened to kill everyone would need, at minimum, a sincere apology from her murder-threatening husband before they could move on together in their lives.    The woman who says she hates everyone is reaching out, clearly in pain, feeling isolated, no matter how justified her feelings of hatred may otherwise seem to her.  The guy who loves his friend would, it seems, extend a tiny benefit of the doubt rather than attacking, but, who’s to say?

You probe these kinds of shame-based scenarios at your own peril.  As we have seen over and over, many people would rather punch you in the face than look squarely at something that causes them shame, or even discomfort.   Turn on the news and you will hear the latest “social media” attack by a powerful man whose overbearing, inhumanly demanding, brutish father (and loveless, materialistic mother) instilled in him a lust to blame others as loudly as possible as the better alternative to dealing with the lifelong terror of shame and a deep sense of his “inadequacy”.   Better to put three, four and five year old enemies in prisons, let them stink and catch all the diseases unsanitary confinement produces, then brazenly lie about their conditions of captivity, than realize your entire life is based on unbearable desperation not to feel the shame inflicted on you by relentless sadists, no?

Ancestors erased from memory

 

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The only thing I know about these family members (at least I think they’re family members, I found these four photos dated 1927 to 1938 in a shoebox of black and white photos after my father died) is that every one of them who was alive in November 1942 was definitely dead by the end of November 1942.    I am awaiting translations of the inscriptions on the back of each, written in various Yiddish handwritings, as undecipherable as cuneiform to me.  The translations will hopefully give a clue or two about who each person was.

All dead in a massive international pogrom, victims of one of the countless mass killings in those crazy days when Nazis occupied virtually all of Europe.   Incidents of mass murder sadly consistent through the ages, continuing as we speak.  Yesterday there was a similar massacre in Mali, over a hundred slaughtered.

The expressions on these faces seem to ask “how many American school children are taught about the two day Tulsa, Oklahoma pogrom of 1921?”

A “racial” massacre perpetrated by enraged racists, like so many others over the years, approved by local law enforcement.   Like all others done by our countrymen it has been erased from collective memory (such as it is here) because, well, it does tend to make America look like the same kind of barbaric shithole that Belarus was for Jews back in those dark hopeless days.   Like every other place where mass killing is winked at by the authorities, for a time.

 

 

Pop and violence

My grandfather, who my sister and I always called Pop, was a physically strong man.   Trim and powerful into his eightieth (and last) year, his large hands could open any jar easily and he could show you his strength whenever you asked him to, just by squeezing your hand.  Those big hands were always very gentle whenever they touched my sister or me, he never hurt us for more than a second, to make his point when we pressed him.  When we asked Pop if he was always strong he’d tell us about his youth back in Russia. 

“They couldn’t put a finger on me!” he’d often say gruffly, meaning the many local Ukrainians, the goyim who periodically went nuts and started beating and raping Jews.  He got along with the goyim, he told us, would take a wagon out to their farms and deliver goods, and he’d drink with them.   He dressed like a Russian, he had blonde hair and pale blue eyes, he looked Russian.   They respected him.  More on this later.

The one story that stayed with me, and will stand in for all others, was about the time the wagon Pop was driving, a horse drawn flatbed that carried groceries out to the surrounding farms, broke a wheel.   To replace the wheel they needed to jack up the wagon, prop it aloft for as long as it took to do the work.  They were in the middle of nowhere when the wheel shattered and they had no way to prop the wagon up while the work was done.   So Pop lifted the wagon off the ground on the side with the broken wheel.   He held it up on his shoulder until his companion pulled off the broken wheel and replaced it with a good one.   Then they went on their way.  All in a day’s work for Pop.   To hear Pop talk about his youth, he was one strong, silent, tough young Jew.

One night when my sister and I were quite young Pop babysat for us.   We were older than babies, probably six and four, or maybe eight and six, but that’s always the word that’s used, isn’t it, babysit?  Pop was in the kitchen, right next to the dining room, and my sister and I began to argue in the dining room.   Things escalated quickly.  Pop came out to intervene just as I grabbed my sister by the neck and started choking her.  (My sister usually did just fine in physical and psychological battles, no worries, gentle reader).   I don’t remember Pop putting a hand on either of us to separate us, I think it was his pure horror that made me drop my hands, made my sister and I instantly stop fighting.

Pop was so upset he retreated to the kitchen and started throwing up in the kitchen sink.  My sister and I felt so bad we left the rest of our fight for the next time.  There would always be time to continue our intermittent war, I guess we both reasoned, we were concerned about Pop who couldn’t seem to stop crying.

Many years later my sister and I were having lunch with Pop in the apartment in Miami Beach.   Our grandmother had just narrated how Pop had gone next door to talk to their neighbor, a tough-talking old Jew both of them suspected (possibly because he always bragged about it) had been a Jewish gangster in his earlier years in Brooklyn .   When the guy didn’t answer the door, and Pop could see him through the screen door, sitting in his usual chair, Pop tried the door, found it open and walked in.   He found the neighbor dead.

“Wow, Pop, you must have been shocked.  Weren’t you scared, standing there next to your friend’s dead body?” my sister asked.   

Pop scoffed.   “A dead man, to me?” he said, and flipped the cloth napkin on the table with the back of his hand.    My feelings about a dead man, his gesture said, are not even worth the couple of words it would take to dismiss them.   

I knew, even as a boy, that “one day the letters from Europe just stopped coming”.  The coins Pop’s father sent to my mother, and the Russian stamps, stopped in 1942, when my mother was 14.   She used to practice her Yiddish writing to the grandfather she’d never meet.   Nobody would ever meet him.   

Along with the rest of Pop’s family the old man was marched (if he’d survived the privations of a year of hellish ghetto life– his home had been designated the eastern edge of the ghetto), by local Ukrainian goyim who couldn’t put a finger on Pop, supervised by Nazis who regarded Jews as dangerous, gigantic insects, to a ravine on the northwestern edge of town.     

Eyewitnesses describe the ravine, raked in preparation by local Ukrainians, the softened earth waiting to receive layer after layer of dead Jews.  I have read the chilling testimony, by those who saw the execution and somehow lived to talk about it.  Fragments of bone from this killing place blow in the wind to this day, skitter across the dry ground, according to someone who visited and wrote about the town for the New York Times not long ago.

I never wondered, once I learned, as a boy, that the rest of Pop’s family (but for one I learned about recently, apparently as strong and tough as Pop, who survived the war in a series of harrowing Russian prison camps after being accused of disloyalty as a draftee in the Red Army) had been made to vanish, how somebody as strong as Pop could be so full of fear, and sometimes prejudice.    They hadn’t put a finger on him in Russia, perhaps, but that was as much pure, dumb luck as anything about Pop’s impressive physical strength.