Silence!

I learned young, in my cells, the truth that the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.   Whenever something scary or painful happened to me or my sister, something that cried out for discussion in the home I grew up in, silence was imposed.   “You have to respect my right to ignore your pain,” was my father’s position.   He actually said as much to me explicitly, when we were both adults.    He had his own terrible pain, clearly, which made him very uncomfortable in these situations.    Why did I have to respect his silence?   I lived in his house, he bought me my clothes, my food and everything else.   I suppose that was how his logic worked, though it applied long after the childhood rationale was gone and he’d regret it all bitterly as he was dying.    

Silence is a prerogative of power.   If you have the power, you simply sit, lips pressed together, a silent “fuck you” the most irrefutable response to anything you don’t feel  like talking about, for any reason or no real reason.   That’s power.  Ask the powerful nominee a question he doesn’t want to answer.  He has already spent hours strategizing with the lawyers of the man who nominated him, has vast experience in this process himself as legal advisor on such nominations to a past president.   He is asked a question he doesn’t want to answer.  Clamps his lips together, stares at the questioner with undisguised hostility, knowing he can eventually run out the game clock.  “My answer, sir, is a loud, silent FUCK YOU!” he glares, mouth constricted to the size of a tightly clenched sphincter.

If a powerless person is sexually assaulted in the woods, a hand clamped over her mouth, and there is nobody there to hear her muffled protests– was there a sexual assault?   Come on.   Is this even a question?  

The Constitution was largely silent on the question of slavery.  To many of those who did not immensely profit from the “Peculiar Institution”, chattel slavery was an abomination.  For the rest a virulent racism was encouraged, so they didn’t care about the slaves.  It would not do to enshrine slavery too explicitly in the liberty-granting blueprint for republican democracy written by men who believed that all men were created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable human rights and so forth.  Lawyers are geniuses of this kind of thing, inserting the devilish, controlling details between two commas, bland as all get out.   “… such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit…” [1]  yeah, there we go– the constitutional basis for the Fugitive Slave Act is authorized by an equally innocuous-sounding clause.  Read the Constitution, it’s not long.  See if you can find the three discrete, discreet phrases making slavery as lawful as anything else a landed white man had a right to.  As a law student it took me a long time to find all three.

Silence!  Those who would be tyrants must become masters of this.   Speaking with a definitive, uncontradictable voice is only possible when no contradiction is allowed.   First thing you do, silence all the investigative journalists.  Then the lawyers of the opposition.   Once these troublesome elements are dealt with, the sailing is much smoother for a tyrant.  Of course, “tyrant” is such a judgmental word.   Can’t we just say Leader?   Or Winner?  

Silence!  Your right to be heard is limited by my right not to hear you, fucker.  If you can make yourself heard, go right ahead.   Let me just put on my state-of-the-art noise canceling headphones and my sleep blinders, ah, that’s much better.  Alone with my own thoughts.   Among them, no thought of taking off my blinders and deafeners.   Scream away in your victimhood, assholes, it’s so much faint white noise to me.

Silence, while sometimes the best response when tempers are hot, more often than not benefits the powerful and the guilty.   The most important single thing required for an unjust scheme to  succeed, without adverse consequences for the hatchers, for any crime to be committed with impunity, is silence.   Silence is golden, literally.

The Stories We Tell Each Other

My mother used to complain to me about a certain person’s conversational style, said that it eventually drove her almost insane.   The talk was always rapid fire, the meandering stories long, involved, usually about friends or acquaintances of people this person knew, who my mother didn’t know, had never met or heard of.  There would always be many twists to the endless, meandering tales, and a large, shifting cast of characters, and, not knowing any of them, my mother was hard-pressed to follow most of the drama, let alone care about it.  

My mother would be at a loss for how to respond, she’d venture a polite, inane comment once in a while, just to prop up her end of the monologue.    Her friend understood this non-engagement as a sign of my mother’s dementia and looked at her with a mixture of concern and impatience.   My mother didn’t have dementia.  She had strong opinions, and she spoke them to the end.   She also tuned out when she was bored, like many of us do, but she was not demented.   It was rare for my mother to have nothing to say and when she honestly had nothing she was at a loss, stumped, reminding herself that there was really nothing in the conversation for her.  Trying to remember not to make another lunch date with this high pressure talking hose.

To the other party in these chats, it was easy to make the case that her old friend was demented.   “First, she can’t really follow a simple story.   I had told her all about these people already, only last week.   Memory is another issue, she has no short or medium term memory, none!  She stares at me blankly, her mouth partly open, like she’s in a daze.”

“It’s true, I go into a daze, like an alpha state, just to try to keep myself from screaming.   I’m pretty sure if I ever started yelling it would hurt her feelings, there’d be some kind of trouble afterwards.   But every week, these endless tales of interlocking, uninteresting strangers she barely describes, over generic food I can hardly eat.  I hate that place, but it’s the only restaurant she likes to go to, it’s cheap.  

“If she was a good story-teller, at least, but she’s not, she doesn’t set anything up right, there’s no through-line to anything, no dramatic shape or pay off,  it’s all just:  ‘So X and Y go over to Z’s house, and everybody knows what Z’s house is like, I must have told you about that shithole.  Now, if you recall from three weeks or so ago, there is a couple named G and H, they were friends of U and V, the ones from college that they sort of aren’t really close friends with anymore, though they all claim to love each other and their kids, and those goddamned kids are another long, terrible tale, but anyway, as you may recall, G recently lost her hot shot job, a big blow to the ego and also to the family checkbook, and so H says…”

“It’s sad, the dementia.  I still try to tell her stories, keep her engaged, interested in life, but it seems she’s sunken into her own dour thoughts, whatever they may be.   It’s impossible to arouse her interest or engage her at all.  She doesn’t even seem to care about eating anymore.  It’s so sad, she was such a bright interactive person and now she’s just… like this.'”   The eyes half close, the mouth falls half open, under the dropped eyelids the eyes move around slowly, without plan or hope of a plan.  

“I become a zombie, I really do.   After ten minutes of her endless narration I just want to sink my teeth into somebody’s arm and go ‘ahhhhnnnnngggggghhhhh….’ the way zombies do.  I just want the noise to stop, that’s all it is, nervous, chattering white noise.   ‘So H has the temerity to say, and when I say temerity, I mean, you can’t compare H to even Z in that regard.  How people get so brazen and oblivious I will never understand.   Anyway….’  

“Last time she called I told her I’m sick and she said she’d come over, bring me that prepared overly salty chicken soup from Publix.  I told her she’s very kind but that the doctor told me I’m very contagious.  I almost told her I might bite her face, hard, if she didn’t let me hang up the phone right then, but thought better of it.  I’m lonely enough and at least she calls, you know?”

I understood my mother’s loneliness better than most things.  I urged her to write, but she never did.   There was a world in there that was too painful to relax in, let alone explore, better to keep the mind busy with books, murder mysteries, and murder mysteries on television.  It was uncanny how quickly she would tell you who the murderer would turn out to be, she pounced on plot points with the lightning quickness of a terrier grabbing a rat by the neck.  She’d give it a quick shake and leave it twitching when the commercial hit.  In the end, she was never wrong about the killer.

Fact or Fiction

My version of the story may be fact, or fiction.   You can take that to the bank, even though fact and fiction may be woven together without a seam and almost always are.  I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.   Think of any story you’ve heard, it contains the seeds of fact and the seeds of fiction grown together.  A little bit of fiction thrown into an otherwise completely truthful account of a well-recalled event can explain something in a very satisfying way sometimes.   Wisdom, if it is to be had, is choosing what is most useful, most evocative and real, among the interactive facts and fictions.

Wisdom, I joke.  There is only the way we treat each other.

I think of how many ways a child might be lied to.  The lies are limited only by the imagination and determination of the liar.  What do we call these lies?   Fact, because the world may repeat them loudly, over and over, in a chorus sung to an earwig tune that is hard to drum out of mind?  Fiction, because in the clear light provided by someone who loves you without selfishness or thought of profit, the ridiculousness of these lies can be easily seen?

How about the boy who watches his father be emasculated every day, what is the fact and fiction in his life?   Hard question.   What is it to be “emasculated”?   It is to take away from a man, by some kind of force, the vital sense that, in a rugged moment, he can protect himself, protect others.   This is the one thing a man has, at heart — the image of himself as strong enough to protect himself and those he loves.  Forget all the other trappings of what we think of as toxic masculinity, and no mistake, those are some toxic trappings to what we commonly think of as masculinity.  Emasculation is called that because the symbolism is easy to grasp: you hold a man powerless and forcibly remove that masculine quality that makes him think he has any control. [1]

We can call this rendering powerless by other names, or by no name, and it is certainly not restricted to use against men.   It is routinely and brutally done to women, and to vast multitudes of children, to anyone who attempts to act, as we all start off doing, with self-agency.   With the belief that our life is of infinite value, and unique, that our soul is a miracle, that there is right and there is evil and that we must be warriors against evil without becoming like those motherfuckers.

I see myself standing with the kid who is having his ass kicked.  I see myself there, even though I am almost never there during the actual ass whupping.   Kids have their asses handed to them every day, every minute of every hour of every day.  The things routinely done to kids make a certain kind of grown up want to scream.   Screaming is no help in this case.  A scream is only a reaction to horror, a turing up of the volume, it only makes things worse for everybody.  

Picture a hand moving quickly enough and strongly enough to intercept the fist heading toward the child’s face.  Picture Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kun Do, the Way of the Intercepting Fist, not practiced for personal glory, not for inflicting punishment on a violent jackass, but to intercept the fist, turn aside the blow, save the child from the punch, make the adult hesitate, afraid, perhaps become amenable to a larger discussion of right and wrong.

Picture the same child at dinner, watching someone she loves reducing her father to a puddle of fear, the awful lessons she must draw from it.   My father can’t protect me, my mother is a monster!   Fact or fiction, makes no difference in the individual case, everyone can picture this child’s dilemma.  The best fiction, of course, has the ring of truth throughout, is played without false notes.   Maybe it didn’t happen, maybe it couldn’t even happen, no matter, the story itself makes sense.  Real people would really do that, or want to do that, or dream of doing that.   The line is not always clear between fact and fiction, is it?

“Who are you talking to, dear?”  

And then, of course, there is always “who are you talking to, asshole?” which can be said in every shade of viciousness or perfect politeness if the tone is done just right.  And the tone is always done just right, done to a turn.

 

 

[1] Note, please, how daintily I have avoided any reference to the horrifically graphic castration.    Oops.

Heartbroken

My sister recently recommended Home, a book she loves, by Marllynne Robinson. The book is apparently part of a trilogy, all deep and beautifully written, according to my sister, but Home is her favorite and it stands alone as a story.   I placed a hold on a copy at my local library and a few days later began reading it.  

The protagonist arrives at the ancestral home to stay with her old, ailing father in his last days.   On page two the narrator writes: 

Why would such a staunch and upright house seem to her so abandoned? So heartbroken?

Framing the question this way made me suddenly see the book through my sister’s eyes, our father’s eyes.   Our father, like that staunch and upright house, was heartbroken.    He was abandoned and heartbroken.  It struck me that in the 1,200 page manuscript I’ve written about the man I don’t recall using the essential word heartbroken even once.  

The human world is impossible to understand without grasping the mortal suffering a broken heart inflicts.   Heartbroken people try many things to not feel like their hearts are broken, almost all of it in vain.   Heartbreak does not heal, fade with time or go away of it’s own accord.   We are resilient creatures, our damaged nerve endings display impressive plasticity, an ability to regenerate and recover from many kinds of harm.  A broken heart is in a category by itself.  Difficult hard work, empathy, fortitude, persistence and a few strokes of luck can begin to heal a broken heart, if it is the right kind of luck.

Irv, my father, had his heart broken very early in life.  He didn’t have a single stroke of righteous luck, really.   Being an infant and child in extreme poverty inflicts one kind of permanent damage, life-impairing  damage already very close to heart break.   Having nobody in your life to love and protect you in that harrowing situation breaks your heart, would break any little heart.   Add to this poverty and non-love your mother whipping you in the face from the time you can stand, your father cowering, powerless, without the ability to stop your pain.   Your child’s heart will shatter into a million pieces. 

Hours before your death, eighty years later, you will tell your son “my life was essentially over by the time I was two.”   You will insist, after a life as a well-read, quick-witted and brilliant conversationalist, that you were the dumbest Jewish kid in the depressed little river town you grew up in.  Your son will express disbelief.  You will emphatically respond “hmmpf!  by far!”

Did little Irv really have nobody in his life to love and protect him?   His first cousin Eli, maybe, though he feared the tough, sandpaper voiced man his entire life.   Outside of Eli, who by his own admission more than once witnessed the whipping of baby Irv without stopping his beloved aunt, Irv’s mother, who?   Nobody.   Abandoned and heartbroken.   His entire life, a desperate exercise in not appearing to be mortally wounded.  

And yet, I would not reduce his life to this terrible misfortune, this cruel tragedy.    To do so ignores the admirable traits he also displayed, his principled morality, the struggles he wrestled with (even if not very successfully) not to inflict on his children the harms done to him, the many valuable life lessons he was able to impart to his children about mercy, kindness to animals, fairness, protecting the weak.    It would be a terrible tale without a moral, the tragedy of someone crushed before he was two spending his entire life desperately fighting the horror of feeling how he was crushed.  

Many years ago I sent a description, and a few sample pages, of my Master’s thesis/novel (the degree was in Creative Writing) Me Ne Frego (“I Don’t Give A Damn”) to a contact I’d been given at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  I have the concise rejection letter somewhere in my unorganized library of fifty to a hundred and fifty thousand pages of drawings and other papers.  The kind and thoughtful rejection letter was from a young woman named Straus, no doubt with literary credentials from one of our top Ivy League schools, who praised the writing but found the material, unfortunately, not suitable for their prestigious house to publish.  The kernel of wisdom she imparted was that every great narrative is the story of a dramatic change in the protagonist.  She had seen no such change in the narrator in the few pages I’d sent.   She wished me the best of luck, which I proceeded not to have.

Part of my father’s abiding tragedy was that he fought the idea that people can change themselves in any fundamental way.  I might think I could get a handle on my temper, believe I might make myself less easily provoked, become more gentle, but he was there to assure me at every step that my struggle was doomed, that we are what we are born and wired to be and that was that.   Better, he always said, to simply suck it up and act like a man.   And no, he countered, eight years-old was not too young to start taking responsibility for your own life and acting like a man.  

He had nobody to teach him any differently.   Nor did I.   I didn’t have a magical stroke of luck in my life that left me believing, and able to somehow confirm, that we can change fundamental things if they cause us enough pain.  I have seen it in two old, very dear friends, fundamental changes in character.   Further proof, for me, is my greatly improved ability to forebear, a stubborn challenge I’ve worked on for decades now.    I can now, for the most part, endure direct, prolonged provocation without completely losing my shit, that is to say without doing anything violent or insane. [1]  

In a way Ms. Straus’s idea about a compelling narrative necessarily involving a dramatic transformation of the protagonist (now that I think of it, she probably wrote her under-graduate thesis on that proposition) was reflected in my father’s last words about his life.    He lamented that he had been too fucked up to realize how much richer his life would have been had he embraced its many gradations instead of blindly fighting for black or white. 

Broken-hearted, that’s what the man was.   He had deep regrets as he was dying, and long overdue apologies that came very late in the game, hours before he died, that was as close to change as he could come,.   But, in a way, Ms. Straus, aren’t those both proofs of how much he was actually able to transform in the end?   Does that count toward your compelling narrative thesis?

 

 

 

[1] Sekhnet, in her infinite love for me, always likes to tweak me when she hears me make this claim, but it is a tic of her’s I do my best to ignore.   Screaming horrible things at a computer in frustration, or venting angrily about the thousand indignities we are forced to suffer for the privilege of living in an inhumanly capitalist world,  is not the same as taking a hammer and smashing the computer, or hurting another person.   Even if the computer is made by slaves somewhere so that the global corporation that sells it can triple its own value on the stock market.  

I have improved my ability to endure all this, though, it goes without saying (especially by a man who regularly waxes Tourretic) that I have not perfected my absolute equanimity.   That is not the point of the exercise.   The point is to avoid the worst of what you’re inclined to do when you feel angry.  That you rein yourself in and learn to take a breath when you need to.   That you are not distracted from the conversational point by anger.  Those things are all good, and each one of them is quite valuable.

 

 

3,000 words — second shot (3,825 words)

I was born into an endless fight, a kind of blood feud, initiated by me, the story goes, as soon as I got home from the hospital.  “You really were an enraged baby,” both of my parents always assured me.  It was true, they insisted, a pediatrician confirmed it for them when I was ten weeks old.   A lifetime later, as my father was dying, he told me with regret almost as painful to hear as it must have been for him to speak, that he had been in the wrong.   “It was my fault,” he said in the choked, faltering voice of a man who would be dead within a few hours. “I felt you reaching out to me many times over the years, I always fought you but you were essentially right all along,” he said, “and I was a horse’s ass who resisted all insight into how fucked up I was.”  A good start, I thought, and good to hear.  

“I wish we could have had this kind of talk fifteen years ago,” he said in that strained dead man’s voice, on what turned out to be the last night of his life.  I remember thinking what a modest wish that was.  I was almost 49 at the time.  34 years of senseless war, then fifteen of peace?  I realized later I would have signed on for that too, even fifteen days.   The next evening I was closing his dead eyes as the south Florida sun set behind the palm trees outside the hospital window.  So much for the conversations we never got to have.

I began writing about my father’s life and times in earnest two and a half years ago.  I imagined I could cover a lot in three or four hundred pages.  So far I’ve written almost 1,200.  Early on the skeleton of my father piped up to give me grief about a description of the childhood he never talked about.   I thought the device of the opinionated skeleton stagey and ridiculous and figured I’d cut it in the next rewrite.  The skeleton persisted, wound up waiting for me every day, eager to get to work.   Over time, the skeleton provided a lot of assistance writing the story of the man he once was, what he stood for, how he felt about the history that was unfolding around us.  The daily talks with the skeleton of my father were a great help.  

It’s daunting to try to cover the panorama of a perplexing lifetime of almost eighty-one years, even with an imaginary partner urging you on.   Add to this that my protagonist was an average man, a nobody.   I can’t see his life outside of the context of our larger family tragedy, a context he always denied.  A life, in death, as anonymous now as any of his aunts and uncles in that hamlet in the marshes, across the Pina River from Pinsk, forced to die terrible, unknown deaths, every trace of them, and the doomed little hellhole they called home, wiped away forever.  This book is an attempt to reclaim his life.

My father’s life, though full of the highest potential, and animated by a keen sense of humor and idealism, was essentially a tragedy.   I will give the gist of it to you, along with the seeds of wisdom he was able to impart, in a condensed form now.   

Irv Widaen, was commonly known among us by my sister’s name for him, “The Dreaded Unit” (or the D.U.), a name he embraced.  He read two or three newspapers every day, starting with the New York Times.  He was a lifelong student of history.  The bending of the moral arc of history concerned him greatly and he could speak intelligently on many philosophical subjects without the need for notes.  He was a great humanist who was also, when he couldn’t help himself, capable of great brutality toward his children.  

When my sister was upset at something I’d said or done when we were kids, he’d remind her impatiently “I’ve told you a thousand times, if you play with a fucking cobra you’re going to get bit.”  This image of a deadly scaly brother was made extra potent by my sister’s phobia about snakes.  He didn’t like the expression on my nine year-old face at such moments, not at all.   “A fucking rattlesnake,” he’d say, closing his case, “look at his face, twisted and contorted in hate.”   I’d hiss, rattle my tail, and hastily leave the kitchen.

Few people, outside of my sister, mother and I, ever saw this dreaded side of him.  He came across as something of a hipster, an ironic idealist with a dark, wicked sense of humor.   He loved Lenny Bruce, and later Richard Pryor.  He loved soul music, particularly Sam Cooke.   For a few years, in the middle of his long career, he wound up speaking like the angry black cats on the street.  “As they say in the street,” he would say, then hit us with the latest street vernacular. “Dassum shit!” he would snap when confronted with something that struck him as bullshit.  He appreciated the nuances of the word motherfucker.

Professionally, he hung out with the violent leaders of rival ethnic high school gangs, bullshitted frankly with them and won them over to his way of thinking.   In those days he wore mutton-chop sideburns and grew his dark hair down to his collar.   As part of a Mod Squad style team (Black guy, Jew, blond WASP folk singer, Italian guy, Puerto Rican woman) my father led the rap sessions, I’m sure, with quick, barbed humor and irreverent, pointed honesty.  

His deep identification with these discontented underdogs must have come across, along with his sincere hatred of brutal, random hierarchy and its inhuman unfairness.   He invited these young enemies to laugh, identify, curse, imagine, talk about injustice and find common ground. They all left as friends, or at least with mutual respect, at the end of these weekends, time after time.   There was a certain amount of charisma and a lot of deft, real-time improvisation involved in this alchemy.

He’d been born and raised in “grinding poverty”, a phrase he always spoke through gritted teeth, face constricted like Clint Eastwood’s.   “Grinding poverty” stood in for his unspeakably brutal childhood circumstances in Peekskill, New York during the Great Depression.  To be sure, as was confirmed by a cousin his age whose family was very poor, my father had grown up in unspeakably painful poverty, making the cousin’s desperate childhood circumstances look somewhat comfortable by comparison.    

Young Irv had the good fortune after high school to be drafted into the Army Air Corps as America entered World War Two.  In the army he ate well every day for the first time in his life. He never looks happier than in those black and white army photos, after he’d put some meat and muscle on those bones.  He went on to live through a unique time in American history when hard work and determination, and a little help from the G.I. Bill, which put him through college and graduate school, could actually lift a person from humiliating intergenerational poverty to a comfortable middle class American life.  

Not to say he ever felt comfortable, not for a minute.   He paid a high price, working two jobs, to give his family an infinitely better life in a nice little house on a tree-lined street in Queens.  Naturally, his children, not knowing any different, never expressed the slightest appreciation for the many things they took for granted, the lawn, the great, small public school, the backyard with the cherry tree that gave big, black cherries. 

Irv had all the appearances of a cool guy, but the nonchalant pose concealed a dark, corrosive edge that was always at the ready.   He had a deep reservoir of rage that was kept under tight control most of the time. His anger poured out almost every evening over dinner, in violent torrents over his two children, my younger sister and me.   Even as we expected it every evening, as our overwhelmed mother recited all her complaints about us for her tired husband to address before he drove out to his night job, the ferocity of his anger still surprised us, somehow.   His rage was not understandable to his young children, it always struck us as cruel and insane, though, naturally, we blamed ourselves for it.

Like anyone who rages and snarls, the D.U. justified his brutality as necessary to do what needed to be done, in our case to educate the two viciously ungrateful little pricks he was raising.   He never hit us with physical blows but pounded us regularly with ferocious words intended to cow us and destroy unified resistance. The terrible mystery was how he could be such a tyrant while also imbuing us with important life lessons about decency, humility and kindness to animals.  There is no doubt that my sister and I try our best to live by the moral truths we learned from the D.U.

The brutal battlefield of our family dinner table was a regular feature of our childhood.   Screaming fights, insane threats, vicious personal attacks were as common to us as the steak, salad and Rice-a-roni we found on our plates virtually every night.   Eating steak was a palpable sign of prosperity for a man who’d been hungry during his entire childhood.  Ironically, and somewhat characteristically, my animal loving father joined PETA later in life and cut most of the meat out of his diet.  

I was an adult, well into in my mid-thirties, before I had the beginning of any insight into this confounding split in my father’s psyche.  On the one hand he was a funny, smart, sympathetic, hip guy who was very easy to talk to, when he wanted to be.  On the other hand, he was a supremely defensive man who more often used his great intelligence to keep others constantly off balance, a man who seemingly could not help trying to dominate and verbally abusing his children.  

My father had all the attributes to be a sensitive, lovable, very funny friend, yet he somehow chose to be an implacable adversary to his children most of the time.  That he may have shared this troubling split-personality feature with many men of his generation made little difference to my sister and me.  We couldn’t help but take it personally.

I’m realizing only now, as I write these words, since I am not a father, what most fathers would probably have realized about my father a long time ago:  what a tormented father my father must have been all those years.  

I spent many years, before and since his death in 2005, trying to assemble a picture of my father as a whole person whose life made some kind of holistic sense.  I could never do it.  That’s the reason I eventually started writing this, an attempt to put together the challenging puzzle of my father.  I work at the puzzle in a darkened room, most of the pieces missing, moving things around on a slanted, slippery table.  His profound unhappiness, right alongside his great capacity for laughter, was something I never had any insight into, not even a clue.   Puzzling over it as a kid is probably at the roots of my lifelong compulsion to research and write, to try to make sense of things that perplex me.  

Partly in search of insights into my perplexing father, I used to visit my father’s beloved first cousin Eli in his retirement cottage in Mt. Kisco, New York.  I’d drive up there every other weekend for a while, about an hour north of my apartment, and sit with the supremely opinionated Eli in his tidy living room, shooting the shit.   Then we’d go out for a meal somewhere.  We’d often wind up talking until well after midnight and by the time I left I had to be alert driving the twisting, black Sawmill River Parkway, steering with both hands on the wheel.    

Eli was an old man, well into his eighties, alienated from his own three kids, in a forty year blood feud to the death with his half-sister, on an every other year basis with his half-brother; he didn’t get many visitors.   I was a fledgling writer and he was a great storyteller and it was usually a pleasure sitting around bullshitting with him about the past.  His stories about the family, the few survivors of a group ruthlessly culled by a rabid movement to rid the world of their type, were fascinating.

It added to our bond that I was also the firstborn son of Eli’s favorite cousin, Irv.   Irv was the firstborn son of Eli’s favorite aunt, Chava, who was the youngest sibling of Eli’s firstborn father Aren.  Irv’s Uncle Aren had deserted from the Czar’s army, hopped a westbound train as the other draftees were shipped east to fight the Japanese.  Aren’s run to America, and bringing his youngest sister here a decade later, a generation before their hamlet was wiped off the face of the earth along with everyone they’d ever known, is the only reason any of us were ever born.  Eli was Uncle Aren’s firstborn son, born in New York City, 1908.  

Eli was seventeen years older than my father, he had watched my father for his entire life.  The tough, American born Eli was the closest thing to a father figure my father had growing up, though his own father, a silent man from Poland “completely overwhelmed by this world” (Irv, on his deathbed), was around until my father was in his mid-twenties.

Eli was a colorful character, no other way to put it.   A short, powerfully built, frog-bellied man of infinite charm, with a sandpaper voice, equally comfortable charming a pretty waitress with his smile or punching someone in the face with either hard hand.   I have often said of Eli that if he loved you he was the funniest, most generous, warmest and most entertaining person you could ever spend a few hours with.  If he didn’t like you, he was Hitler.  He had his own demons, surely, but was devoted to my father, my mother, my sister and me — there was never the slightest doubt of that.  

Eli had a fierce temper, “the Gleiberman temper” as he called it, and would turn, in one second, from an infinitely charming raconteur into a purple faced, savage panther, white foam on his sputtering lips.  Even at eighty-five he was formidable when he was angry, and Irv seemed to be occasionally scared of Eli until the end.  My mother was the only person I knew of who was allowed to constantly fight with Eli.  It was great sport between them, to rage at each other wildly and end up laughing, hugging and kissing when it was time to take their leave of each other.  

Once, describing a car trip back from Florida with Eli, my father told me happily “your mother and Eli fought all the way from Boynton Beach to the end of the New Jersey Turnpike.”  I pictured my mother, turned around in the front passenger seat, slashing at Eli with a broad sword as Eli swung his at her from the back seat.  Tireless combatants locked in mortal combat, swords clanging, for more than a thousand miles, then getting out of the car, hugging and kissing with genuine, unquestionable love, laughing and saying they’ll see each other soon.

I had something of this kind of relationship with Eli, every visit he’d turn purple with rage at least once, but we always parted as friends.

It was in this spirit of friendship, and seeing me so frequently perplexed by my father’s unfathomable anger and sudden alarming rigidity, his grim determination to win an argument at any cost, that Eli finally told me something, a truly terrible thing, that immediately changed the way I thought and felt about my father.   The more I thought about the brutal scenes in the kitchen, the more it explained.

I pictured the kitchen grinding poverty would have provided a little family in Peekskill, New York in the 1920s.   It was like a scene out of a gothic horror movie, a shaft of light coming into the dim, barren room from a high, narrow window, dust motes dancing listlessly, menacingly.  

The skeleton of my father sat up abruptly in his grave at the top of the hill in the small First Hebrew Congregation cemetery just north of Peekskill.  

“Oh yeah, listen to fucking Eli, Eli the wise oracle, the great historian… yeah, a fountain of reliability, that raging fucking maniac.  Ask his kids what kind of loving father Eli was, why none of them talk to him.  Nothing in his life was ever his fault, that’s why he’s so angry all the time, he’s always the innocent victim, from the day he was born.   Did he tell you how many times he was about to become a millionaire before he was screwed by some asshole, how his whole life was one long fucking, how his violent temper got him into big trouble time after time?  Yeah, go ahead, listen to Eli.  He’ll tell you the real story, sure, he’s ultra-reliable… Jesus Christ, Elie, when you build a story on a foundation of bullshit, what do you expect of the finished structure?   You’re going to give credence to fucking Eli?”

I never planned on my father’s skeleton being my partner in trying to tell the story of his life and times, but he made a pretty good case since popping up during an early writing session.   As I said, he was a very smart guy and, in spite of a lifelong twitch to defend himself at all costs, could always see the other side of whatever he was arguing against.  

“I love it when you talk to the reader like I’m not sitting right here,” said the skeleton, turning his head in a crackling circle to loosen his crepitating neck.  

That’s very helpful, dad.

“Don’t mention it,” said the skeleton, with a nonchalant little flip of his boney hand.

This skeleton is a different entity from the man who was my father during his lifetime. That man regarded me as a deadly adversary starting a few days after my birth.  He fought me at every turn, until the last night of his life, when he took the blame for our long, senseless war.  One of our long-running disputes was about whether people can fundamentally change themselves.  He insisted it was impossible.  In his case, he believed it 100% of himself, which blinded him to the possibility that anyone else could change anything about their life.  Then he had a dramatic change as he was dying.

“Hmmpf,” said the skeleton.

What were the first words you said to me when I came into your hospital room that last night of your life?

“I asked if you brought that little digital recorder,” he said.  

Right, and right after that?

“I said ‘You know those stories Eli told you about my childhood?   He hit the nail right on the head, though I’m sure he spared you the worst of it.   My life was pretty much over by the time I was two years old…'”

The skeleton’s consciousness starts at that moment, just before that last conversation of my father’s life, when he finally came to the understanding that had always eluded him.

“If you say so,” said the skeleton.

High over the well-situated grave (there is a huge tree over his hilltop grave providing blessed shade) two Westchester turkey vultures made lazy circles in the air.   The skeleton looked up and nodded absently.

To those who loved my father, and there were many of us, including some very bright people who frequently roared at his tossed off lines, waiting with expectant smiles for his next bit of irreverence, it will cause great distress to read about his monstrous side.  

“After all, Elie, who among us has not employed relentless brutality to irreparably damage the children we raise?   Come on, Elie, be fair about that.”

I’m picturing the dinner table when Arlene and Russ Savakus were over.  Arlene with her keen appreciation, her super-sharp mind, Russ, her more low-key hipster husband, a moderately famous bass player, both of them howling.  Their explosions of laughter were a kind of music I can still hear.  My father was at his best with an audience like Arlene and Russ.

“We’re always at our best with people we love, who love us back,” said the skeleton.

Yes.  Love is all we’ve got here, really.  If you don’t have love in your life, nothing else really matters, except a ruthless lust for power I suppose. 

“As your friend Napoleon, who reputedly regarded men as base coin, wrote in his diary  ‘As for me, I know very well I have no real friends, and you don’t suppose I care– as long as I remain what I am I will always have ‘friends’ enough.’  As you’ve noted before, Elie, who is the ‘you’ he is addressing this thought about not needing intimates to?”

Arlene and Russ.   I remember lying in my bed, as a kid, long after dinner, with the smoke from Arlene’s endless cigarettes wafting up to my room, along with their cackles and excited remarks.   It is hard to imagine, seeing you at your best, that you could have also…

“Well, there’s your mystery of life right there, Elie, and nothing very sweet about it, I’m afraid.”    

The potential in all of us, to be at our best, instead of pressed under the pressures we’re constantly forced to fight being crushed by.  Mind boggling, how hard it is to always put that best side forward.    

“Well, some people are better at it than others.  I think you’re probably right that a willingness not to be eternally aggrieved is important.  Some people, some of our most successful people, are all show, a thin candy shell over an inner life of squirming, festering horror and rage.”

Overhead the two turkey vultures continued to circle.

“I like to feel, although, admittedly, I verbally whipped you and your sister in the face every night over dinner, that I never humiliated either of you, that I always, somehow, let you know how much I loved you both.”  

Aye, that you did, pater, though it took me almost sixty years to see it all clearly.

“The tragedy of life, Elie,” said the skeleton.   One of the vultures suddenly veered toward earth, the other one turned to follow.  

Also the triumph of life, dad.  We couldn’t have this kind of conversation when you were alive, but now we are.  

“I’ll take it,” said the skeleton, looking off toward the rapidly descending scavengers.

Mehchaya

It was recently uncomfortably hot and humid in New York City (and much of the northeast, I understand) for about ten straight days.   The air was thick, heated to a sickening degree, and walking through it for more than a short stretch was like walking through warm vaseline.   It left a filthy slime on the skin that was most unpleasant.   The air went down hard to those trying to breathe it.   I would go out for a listless limp every evening slightly shaking my head.  Walking through it was like being slowly and deliberately punched in the face over and over by a giant, sullen, slimy fist.

We Americans have reason to be skeptical about any correlation between a century of escalating pollution due to refining and burning of fossil fuels and  the warming of the atmosphere, and the oceans, and the catastrophic climate emergencies: floods, droughts, catastrophic hundred year storms and raging wild fires,  popping up with horrific frequency on every continent.  American skepticism has been bought and paid for by the refiners of the dirtiest, most polluting form of crude oil, primarily Koch Industries, who invested three times more in “climate change denial” than even Exxon.  They certainly have nothing to gain by mounting this vigorous campaign against scientific consensus, easily observable catastrophic events and common sense.   I have to tip my hat to fucking Charles Koch, what an enormous and stunning cunt the man is.

Anyway, I was walking down Broadway one evening, at around my breaking point.  I’d been philosophical during the first week of the heat wave, summer in New York City has always been famous for airless humidity, certainly by day.  It began getting to me big time by day eight or nine.   I dragged myself down Broadway and looked toward a favorite bench, which was thankfully empty.  I sat down on the metal bench to check the score of the Yankee game on my phone.  I was damp from the short walk, my Hawaiian shirt stuck to my back.

From the south, without any warning, a cool breeze suddenly blew, and it kept coming.  I sat there like an old Jew in a sweaty shirt, two hundred years ago, my eyes closed and a big smile on my face.  “Oy,” I said to myself, or possibly out loud, “a MEHCHAYA!”   This Yiddish word indicates a pleasure that comes in the form of a great relief.  A cold drink to a parched throat– a mehchaya.  This beautiful, magnificent, life and hope restoring breeze, a mehchaya.  A fucking mechaya.

The breeze was actually wicking the dampness from my shirt.  It was indescribably beautiful.  It got me thinking, after the breeze finally died down and I made my way back up Broadway toward my apartment, that a mehchaya like that inevitably reminds one of other mechayas.

I recalled my father, at the dinner table one night when we were somehow not fighting, describing a woman he’d met recently, I have no recollection of who she was.   My father described her as a mehchaya.   A person as a mehchaya!   He had met her, possibly with some hesitation, and she had turned out to be a mehchaya.  Like a cool breeze on a hot, airless night.  A mechaya.

Searching for Ancestors

It is late at night, has been a long day, an emotionally challenging day, but I wanted to get back to my cousin in Israel, so I dropped him an email just now.   He has been searching for the traces of our family and recently found some real clues.   The hamlet our people came from, on a fork in a marsh south of the Pina River a short ferry ride from Pinsk, has been erased from history, wiped off the map–  the people who lived there and the name of the hamlet that all those who lived there called it by.  

Truvovich was the name, wiped from every map in existence, as far as my cousin, and I, and a friend who lives in Poland and is a pretty fair researcher himself (and who searched in Polish), have been able to ascertain.  Between us we turned up one map, with a Jewish star and the letter T at the place we suspect may have been that site where one of my grandmothers, and one of my cousin’s grandfathers, were born.  The link I sent my cousin to that map no longer exists, though we have my screen shot of the pertinent section of the map.  

Pinsk Street Map - circa 1925.png

This takes us into the realm of What the Fuck?   We know the Nazis were fucked up, that the einsatzgruppen, the special killing units that followed the Wermacht, the army, as the secret police state was imposed in one occupied territory after another, were merciless (until they started going mad, becoming alcoholics, became unable, most of them, to continue murdering unarmed civilians and their children, usually by shooting them into ditches).  

The Final Solution, with its mechanized extermination camps, was put in place partly because the number of Jews and others believed by those insane Nazi fucks to be genetic poison was too great to be wiped out by shooting alone, and partly because the killers they sent to massacre these folks just couldn’t keep doing it, psychologically.  Those rare sadists among them who loved to kill became another kind of problem.  Easier to just put them in charge of a crew in one of the death camps, where their perversion would be a virtue.

But I am getting ahead of the story.   At one time all of my family members were alive and supremely insecure in the impoverished little shit hole in the marsh where they lived.  Of two of them, Harry Aaron (who I always knew as Uncle Aren) and my grandmother, Chava, I know what can be known.  Aren fled the Russo-Japanese war, made a life for himself in America, had three children, all of whom I knew.   My cousin in Israel is the son of Aren’s daughter.  I remember Aren too, he lived until I was eleven.   Chava, Aren’s youngest sister, begat my father and my uncle and died in Peekskill a few years before I was born.  There was a cousin, Dintsche, who had two kids in America, both still around,

Beyond that, the fate of the rest of our family is a statistic.  The einsatzgruppen rounded up all the Jews of Pinsk, and the outlying areas, and wiped them out in two major aktions, a few months apart, in 1942.  The details are here.

It is late, and airless, the humidity is like a continual punch in the face.  Outside the sky is black.  I haven’t the strength at the moment to follow all the thoughts that led me to begin to write this.   Except to note the mystery, as we are alive here in this wink of an eye, and the need to know.   The desire, like a serious thirst, to find something out, to learn even a single detail.  It is too maddening to know nothing.  

Recently my cousin learned that one of his great-uncles, a man I’d heard of as Volbear, a man he names Wolf Bear on his family tree, is listed in Yad Vashem as killed in 1942.   This was big news, to see the testimony, our ancestor’s name in writing.  The testimony consisted of a few names: Wolf Bear’s (born 1888), his wife Tzirel’s (age unknown), their two children, Leah Reizel, 14, and Yisrael, 10, and the year they died in the slaughterhouse that was Nazi-occupied Belarus in 1942.  This is far more detail than we have about the fate, and lives, of Aren and Chava’s other brother Yudle or their sister Chaska.

The other day my cousin sent me this photo, taken in 1938, found among his mother’s papers (she lived to 104!).  The niece and nephew of our common ancestor, named for the matriarch and patriarch as far back as our family tree goes (four generations).  Those ancient ancestors would be my great-grandparents on my mother’s side, Leah and Azriel [1].  The nephew and niece in this photo are Azriel and Leah.  Look at them:

Azriel & Leah (Nephew & Niece) - 1938.jpg

1938, before Hitler’s war, the war the madman insisted the Jews made him start. Their photo, taken that year, came with a note, in Yiddish, which my cousin had translated into Hebrew.   My cousin wrote: they state that life is difficult and they are looking for help.  

 

[1]

Leah and Azriel Gleiberman.png