writing the anodyne version

I had a thought the other day about my massive on-line manuscript for the book about my father — write a detailed, sanitized version that gives only the many reasons to like and admire the man, as a preface to the whole deeper portrait.    Write the anodyne account, the one anyone could read with no fear of being confronted by anything unsettling or upsetting.  No harm in that.

The original first draft of the manuscript included everything I could remember about my father and his life, the noble things he did and the traumatic harm he also perpetrated — along with the unspeakably terrible details of the horrific childhood he survived.   I conducted a two year-long interview with my dead father (seriously) to help me speculate about things I knew almost nothing about — for example, a black and white photo, taken some time after World War II,  of him looking happier than I’d ever seen him.   To my amazement some of the things my father’s skeleton “told me” took me by surprise.  These revelations, spoken to me in his voice, furthered my understanding and changed my evolving view of this complicated and challenging person, dead now fourteen years.  

People who loved my father could easily have been horrified, on his behalf, at my first draft’s open recitation of some monstrous behavior, always done in the privacy of his family home.   Airing this kind of “dirty laundry” is generally frowned upon.   Every family has it, it always stinks, why wave it around?   Nobody wants that.   Unless, of course, you are determined to understand the forces that shaped your own challenges.

I realized the other day that it’s possible, perhaps even desirable, to write an andoyne version of my father and his life — one that shows only the many good sides of my complicated old man, only hinting at the understandable human foibles that we, all of us, are subject to.   Picture reading the inspirational story of a person born into unimaginably desperate circumstances who simply would not allow the past to hold him down.  Someone imbued by the privations he suffered for the first eighteen years of his life with a hunger for justice, a better world for everybody.   A man intimately connected to a sometimes terrible history, who did not shrink from doing all he could to help bend the moral arch of history towards justice.   

As any writer who seeks to seduce a reader knows, we must draw the reader over to our point of view by giving her (at least at first) treats she can readily chew on and digest.   My father was funny, clearly very bright, an idealist.  You see, here he is again being bravely idealistic, pelted with rotten vegetables as he speaks to New York City parents and teachers about the importance of de-segregating the schools in the mid-1950s.   Here’s a throw away line of his that always got a chuckle.  Look how tender he always was with animals, how playful with little dogs and young children alike!   Now we’re talking.

Explanation for P___

I saw old friends this weekend.   One of them, P______, told me  that V____ had given her a link to my blahg and that she’d read some of my posts.   This puts her in an elite sliver of humanity, since I scorn “social media” as a destructive shit-show and, in consequence of being an on-line hermit, get very few visitors here.   I was pleased to hear she was reading it.   I must have raised my eyebrows questioningly because she volunteered that she found some of it extreme.

I immediately tried, without waiting for her to elaborate (she didn’t seem about to in any case), to explain why these posts might seem extreme.  I sit down, often burned by some specific, irksome detail (like the seeming fact that many Americans appear to believe Bill Barr’s version of the Mueller report– nothing to see here, total exoneration of “POTUS”– in spite of Mueller’s own take, that Barr is sewing confusion about Mueller’s findings and conclusions) and I have to process it somehow, to make the burning and the fucking irking stop.  

It often helps, I explained, to think an issue through by setting it out in front of me, trying to see it as clearly as possible, writing it out as lucidly as I can.    I saw, as I was saying this, that P’s expression wasn’t changing.

It turned out that the politics didn’t bother her (probably because she holds largely related views).   It emerged that the extreme aspect was the personal writing, the laying out of hidden, monstrous details of people close to me, like my father.  My father had been director of the camp P and I went to as teenagers.  It turns out P thought my old man was a really great guy, smart, funny, hip.    Yes, he was all of those things, but he was also, how to put this delicately … a fucking monster.    

This is the kind of highly opinionated thing P was referring to when she said “extreme”.   Crossing a boundary of privacy and good taste, I guess.   I told her that it may have been a mistake to put the first draft of the book about my father on-line. as I was wrestling the material into form.  

I neglected to tell her that making my words “public” exerts a good effect on the words, forcing me to commit to each sentence in a way I don’t have to if I’m not putting them on-line.  It has become my practice, writing and editing my words for others to read, for a couple of hours, as close to daily as I can — and “publishing” them.    

I told her that if I had it to do over again, I would have written the sprawling first draft differently, now that I’ve written more than a thousand pages.   The first few hundred pages of the best version of the book about my father would conjure a man capable of great personal warmth, wit and charm.  An idealistic man imbued with humor and sophistication, a man unlike most fathers we knew in that he clearly loved subversives like Lenny Bruce, Richard Prior, Malcolm X.   He could tell you, in very few words, when you passed him in the grove by the office, why you should check out Lenny, why Malcolm was an inspirational character who needed to be vilified by the Man.   He could talk about virtually anything with insight and wit.   He could be playful.   Yes, I told P, I completely get why you found my old man cool.   He was, objectively, an original.

Only once you liked him, as a reader, would the crafty writer begin to show the fissures, the cracks you could look through to see the world of demons inside that made him act, in the privacy of his nuclear family, like the coldly insane bastard he often was to my sister and me.   A much more interesting story, once you like and admire the guy, to find the very dark side, the bottomless pit of personal torments that drove him.

I am fascinated by the feat of holding two strongly opposed sides of a person or thing in mind at once.    It is a feat we must often perform with the people we love, their faults balanced by qualities we do not want to live without.   That balancing act was the genius of Jane Leavy’s masterful portrait of my childhood hero Mickey Mantle.  On every page, sometimes in the same paragraph, you get strong evidence of the cool, generous, funny, playful, powerful, beloved  Mick and an equally compelling case for the sullen, angry, self-loathing, despicable asshole Mick.  

You can make the personal case both ways, at the same time, as Leavy does, without diminishing or idealizing the person.   If you do it well– fascinating shit.   We are all complex this way, capable of great kindness and sometimes unspeakably bad actions.  Leavy’s biography did not make me like or admire Mantle any less, it gave me a lot more nuance, and a much more realistic picture of the person, than most biographies do.

I also meant to tell P of my lifelong project, not to react with the helplessly raging anger I was taught.   It was the lingua franca of the little house I grew up in — lash out violently at those you know won’t punch you in the face.   A foolish way to be, and something that must be thoroughly understood if you hope to escape it.

My very brief conversation with P gave me an idea.   From time to time I write things here that are anodyne, in the best sense of the word.  These pieces are (unconsciously) calculated to cause no harm.  They are written not to grind any ax, expose troubling difficulties or to wrestle with my own nimble, endlessly engaging demons.  Oddly, these pieces express no bitterness, ambiguity or criticism at all.   I sometimes (not often, admittedly) write something just to tell a story of someone or something I love.    Take these pieces, for example.  

My brief chat with P convinced me that I should put up an Anodyne category on this blahg.  A link I could send you where you would read only pieces that put the things written about in the best light.    The affectionate vignettes about my grandfather, for example, do not hint at the savagely powerful demons that haunted the gentle old man in his deepest places.  Demons with every claim to fucking haunt him, I might add.   He grew up in the Ukraine among anti-Semites who, from time to time, drunkenly invaded the Jewish part of town and held an old fashioned pogrom.

Seriously, you ask, a fucking pogrom?  

Yes, a cohort of the worst of the good Christian Ukrainians he lived among, the folks he sold his father’s grain and other groceries to, went nuts periodically, and animated by the passionate belief that my grandfather and his filthy ilk had deliberately murdered God’s only son (another long story) , ran amok among the Jews.  They’d smash shop windows, plunder, loot, beat people up, kill a few Jews, if the feeling (and the vodka, one imagines) was on them strong enough, and, of course, rape any Jewish women and girls who were not hidden behind sturdy, heavily bolted doors.

My grandfather was physically strong, but an individual, no matter how strong, is no match for an enraged lynch mob.   He grew up with legitimate terror.  Being the object of a mob of hate-filled drunks is no joke.   Twenty years after he left the town, following his more courageous fiance to America during the reign of Calvin Coolidge (she’d arrived while Harding was president), those same Christian neighbors marched every Jew to a ravine on the northwestern edge of town and executed all of them, under Nazi supervision.   Fragments of their bones still stir on windy days, the bones of my grandfather’s and grandmother’s many brothers and sisters, and their children.  I read this disquieting detail in an article in the New York Times magazine, by someone who visited the town not long ago.

In the Anodyne section there would be no reference to this kind of horrific shit.   You could safely read, in a protected harbor I’d carve out for you, gentle reader, only things that make you wonder and imagine.  Only the lapping of the waters on the shores would be heard, the rustle of the leaves and the songs of birds and primates.  I will attempt to put this section together in the coming days, for my old friend P_____ and anyone else who might want to hang out in the cool shadows of a leafy glade as the greediest of the world casually burn everyone who is not them.

 

Fiction Writing Workshop

Fortunately for Hal, who’d had a novel published to good reviews when he was fresh out of college, he came of age in an era when such things could be parlayed into a comfortable life.  Hal was a tenured professor of fiction writing by the age of thirty-two and never had to worry about making a living after that.   

When Hal’s father died, Hal got drunk.   He got the news from his sister, who’d been at the hospital when their angry, hopeless father breathed his last.  The old man was pissed off that Hal couldn’t make it back to the hospital to say goodbye one last time.   Hal had been at the hospital all day, went home to make dinner for his daughter, and his father was bitter about that last bit too, according to his sister, who had no reason to lie.

Hal told his sister he’d see her the next morning and went into the kitchen where he kept the Scotch.   He drank a good deal of that fine single malt, which the label said had been aged in a sherry cask.   The warm feeling came over him.   He sat quietly at the kitchen table, in a comfortable chair that could tilt any way he leaned.  

When Hal’s daughter came in, her father was already drunk, that familiar blank look on his face.  He changed his facial expression slightly as she came into view, but the effect wasn’t exactly a smile.  She already knew that grandpa was finally gone.   She’d had the text from her aunt.   She went into her room, locked the door, and a few moments later, tweeted that she was going to kill herself.

“This is your autobiography, Al,” his friend Tova told him, walking in through the back door, gesturing toward the bottle, the daughter’s locked door.  “As you have been telling your students for decades, even back when you were still writing, ‘all good writing is autobiography’.”

“Yeah, yeah.   I was full of shit,” said Hal.  “All bad writing is also autobiography.  A meaningless cliche, like all the other ones in the vast imaginary forests of bullshit.  Vanity.  What the fuck was I thinking?”

“You made a good living,” Tova said.  

“Yes, there was that,” Hal said.  

Tova had a notification from her phone.  She read the screen.  “You’d better call David, your daughter is going to kill herself.”

David was still seven hours away, driving through the foggy night from upstate.  Even in good conditions, it was a long and tedious drive. David was the only person who could talk to Debbie in a way that made any sense to her.

Hal found himself thinking of the family roots. His father had been the last of thirteen children, from some benighted hamlet in Poland nobody had ever bothered to put on a map.  Just as well, everybody there was dead, murdered one chilly afternoon in 1943, by people smelling of vodka.   Hal’s father was in the United States twenty years by then, the only one.  Nobody had a crystal ball, or the money to consult one, otherwise they all would have tried to come to America before that madman marshaled an army of murderous zombies.  

“Look, Hal,” Tova said, as she had many times, “I’m sorry you came from such a poor, shit family and got no rachmunis from anybody when they were all slaughtered, may they rest in peace.  I, and I don’t need to remind you, I have the papers to prove my right to be fucked up, both of my parents got checks from the German government until the day they died, as you know.  They were certified Holocaust survivors, I am a certified, official child of Holocaust survivors.  You, on the other hand, are a melodramatic self-pitying drunkard masochistically fond of brooding on history that happened while you were in boot camp.”

“I could have been Charles Kushner,” Hal had taken to saying recently, “son of two Holocaust survivors who got out of Europe in time, their assholes crammed with enough diamonds to build a small real estate empire in New Jersey.”  

Charles Kushner, the billionaire son of Holocaust survivors, begat Jared Kushner, who was so righteously outraged when his father was imprisoned briefly for simply hiring a prostitute and a filmmaker to make a video blackmailing his uncle, a man who was about to turn rat.  

The blackmail video was necessary to shame Charles’s sister, who Charles believed wore the pants in her home (and, also, appeared to be susceptible to the threat of public shame).  If she said the word, the fucking rat would not take the stand against her brother. Otherwise, her husband was scheduled to rat him out at the federal fraud trial that was about to start.  Charles had been given no choice, as he explained to Jared in the weeks before he was convicted, sentenced and disbarred.  The brother-in-law was the only witness who could really hurt him, and they seemed to be on the same page going forward, but the prosecutor flipped him.  

“Fucking rat,” said Charles, when he gave the money to the scumbag who set up the whole ill-fated prostitute and surveillance thing.

“Who knew my fucking sister was also a fucking rat?” Charles later asked a pigeon sitting on the window ledge of his cell at the federal prison.  “They never revealed if she’d worn a wire that day or not, the treacherous bastards…”   The bird nodded.

“Why is Debbie going to kill herself this time?” Hal asked Tova.    

“The tweet is vague on that,” Tova said.  

“I haven’t been much of an improvement on my old man,” said Hal.  “I have no clue how to help that kid.”  

“I’m going to make coffee,” said Tova.  

“To ruin a perfectly good buzz,” Hal said, pouring the last of the single malt into his glass.  

“Buzz-kill is what they called me in college,” said Tova.  

“You went to a top school full of smart bastards, didn’t you?”  

“Not like the place you teach, professor,” said Tova.  

“No, not like the place I teach,” said Hal, drinking up.  

“No matter, David will be here soon.”

“Let’s hope he can stay awake on the highway this time,” said Hal, tilting back in his chair.   There seemed to be no end to nights like this one, he thought.

 

(to be continued, or not)

 

Pop’s hammer

This is the “European hammer” that belonged to my grandfather.   I will have more to say about the old fellow and his life in the coming days, but, for the moment, here is the hammer itself:

20180830_185256.jpg

You can see how ready it is to get to work, banging in a thin nail or doing some serious peening (whatever the hell that is).   Here is another view of the business end of my grandfather’s ball-peen hammer:

20180830_185645.jpg

I never saw my grandfather use this hammer, that I can recall.   The hammer, I must say, reflects his style.  My grandfather had a certain graceful delicacy about him.  He was surprisingly light on his feet.   My sister once witnessed him, at close to eighty, doing a mocking dance move behind his overbearing wife’s back.   It was during a dispute over the fate of some cash my grandfather was planning to deposit in the bank.

“Don’t put that money in the bank! I’m taking Abby out for lunch and then we’re going shopping, I need the money,” my grandmother said, in the tone of one used to being the boss.  

My sister then had the miraculous luck to witness a little dance that my grandfather must have done countless times over his long life with Yetta.   As his wife went into the other room, he did a kind of shrug and with fluid grace lifted one leg, bent the other knee and threw his arms to the side in a comically ironic manner.  

“She don’t want to put the money in the bank,” he said quietly, moving his head from side to side as he danced his mocking dance.   “She don’t want to put the money in the bank!”

Decades later I found a great clip somebody put together of Paolo Conte’s [1] wonderful “It’s Wonderful” with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing.   A beautiful job.  Take a moment to enjoy it, and enjoy it you certainly will.   I sent it to my sister with the caption “Pop” and she instantly agreed.

 

[1]  dig  what Conte plays behind the sax solo, (I’ve cued it up for you), great stuff!

My grandfather’s hammer

My grandfather had a ball-peen hammer [1] that I now use to drive small nails into the wall to hang baseball caps and calendars on.   Because I was a child the first time I saw this eccentric looking, thin handled hammer (without the familiar woodpecker comb on the back of the head, used for pulling nails) I thought it was called a European hammer, which made sense to me, since my grandfather was European.    I have no idea how he came to own the machinist’s hammer as, to my knowledge, he never did any type of peening at all (whatever the hell that is).

I love this hammer, because it was owned by Pop.   The smooth handle has the feel of old, well-used wood.  The small metal head is smart looking and ready to bop.   I wield it every time there is a small nail to be driven into anything.   I feel a small rush of excitement as I go to get the natty little hammer.

When I was a boy I went through a time when all I wanted was a baby elephant.   I would not let up on the theme.   One day, over dinner, Pop promised to get me one when I reached a certain age, along with, a few years later, a copy machine.   I never stopped to think that baby elephants grow to become the earth’s largest land mammals.  The baby ones are so cute.   I was a kid.   Still, I didn’t forget, when I reached those ages and had no elephant, no copy machine (at that time a gigantic thing that took up the footprint of a single bed) appeared. My gentle, loving grandfather had lied to placate me.   Et tu, Pop? 

He was trying to soothe me with these obvious lies, I realize, and I didn’t really hold it against him.   Fifty years later we’d all have copy machines on our desks and, truly, it would have sucked to have been the child owner of a baby elephant.  In the best case scenario there would have been that wrenching moment when the growing elephant would have to move away.   I never even thought of the cruelty of taking the little giant away from her mother so I could have the world’s coolest pet.  Elephants are social animals.

… And I am going to be late for my appointment with the nephrologist if I continue tapping here now.  So, if you will please excuse me, I must… be…. awwwwwn my way.

 

 

[1] Wikipedia:  

also known as a machinist’s hammer, is a type of peening hammer used in metalworking.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

The 1950s detective in the fedora ponders the hesitation of the woman on whose doorstep he and his partner stand.   After an appropriate pause, he nods stoically and proceeds.   “Perhaps this world is a hallucination, ma’am, but, that noted, we need the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”

“Officer, I appear to be hallucinating,” says the woman floridly.

“No matter, ma’am, just give us the facts as you see them,” 

“Well, officer, we are all born sinners, as the Holy Bible teaches.   There is Original Sin, the one we all have as a birthright from the first woman and the first man God ever created, who disobeyed Him (in favor of a cunning snake and a seductive woman, respectively) and there are the sins people commit on their own after they are born.    It is hard to tell, officer, which category of sin applies when.   Also, when to roast the unrepentant sinner at the stake and when to hate the sin and love the sinner, that is, when to forgive, even the most terrible sins.”

“Whatever one thinks of any of this, ma’am, the Christian leaders who most righteously frown on sin can also be very forgiving when the sinner is a friend of their cause with a huge public platform.  ‘Who among us?’, you know the drill, ma’am.”    

The woman intently studies something just over the officers’ shoulders.   Neither detective turns to look at her hallucination.

“The Bible also notes, ma’am, that all is vanity, and this striving after the wind benefitteth not anyone who seeks not to lose their soul in a futile quest for that which cannot be found,” says the detective.  

After a suitable pause, the detective continues “all that said, ma’am, what we are really after are the facts.”

“OK, he lied, which makes him a liar, I know that.  I voted for him, knowing that he was a liar, but then he lied publicly more than 8,000 times, so far, as documented by the pundits and their researchers.   We also call them pundents, officer, though I have no idea why so many people have adopted Sarah Palin’s mispronunciation of the word.”

“Perhaps they are being mischeevious, ma’am,” says the deadpan detective mischievously.

“I knew he was not a very ethical man when I voted for him.   I didn’t imagine he would behave this unethically once we made him the most powerful man in the world, literally did not see it coming.   We voted for him to put an end to corruption, to drain the swamp, as he promised to do.   We live in desperate times, officer,  I just did what millions of other desperate people also did.   But you’re not here about any of that, are you?”  

“No, ma’am,” says the detective.  

“So you’re not here about my reaction to his long speech in front of the Conservative Political Action Conference?”

“No, ma’am,” says the detective.  

“I didn’t like to see him hugging the American flag again, or using the word ‘bullshit’, I don’t think that’s a good thing for the president to do, with children watching it on the internet and so on.  On the other hand, I admit, I was impressed that he didn’t hump the flag while he was hugging it.  The temptation to drive his hips into it a few times must have been strong.”  

“Yes, ma’am,” says the detective, with no discernible emotion.  

An awkward interlude follows during which the woman watches a vivid and troubling scene unfolding behind the impassive detectives.

“Well, ma’am,” says the detective finally, producing a business card he hands to the woman, along with a photograph of a dog  “if you see this pooch, please contact me at this number.”  

“We certainly will, officer, always glad to be of service,” says the woman, who then begins keening uncontrollably. 

 

My mother in 3,500 words

As I struggle to figure out how to successfully package and sell the long-shot story of my father’s anonymous long-shot life, after years of detailed conversation with his skeleton,  it occurs to me that my mother, once a very opinionated and vibrant person, has been mostly silent.   To be expected, of course, she died almost ten years ago.   Her ashes are in a plastic bag in a corrugated paper box in a beautiful shopping bag.   She would like the bag, it is actually elegant.   A sturdy old fashioned brown paper bag on the outside, made of heavy paper, with two sturdy handles, slate gray inside; gorgeous.  It’s not like her to have been so silent all these years, she loved a good story, hearing them and telling them, and she had strong opinions about everything and never hesitated to voice them.

Her body was reduced to ashes according to wishes she made known two or three times over the five decades I knew her.   She was not one to talk about death.  I reassured my mother, when a sudden terror of being eaten by bugs and worms gripped her not long before the end, told her to have no fear, that I’d make sure that would never happen.   After she died I made arrangements to have her cremated.   My father’s written instruction, for both he and his wife, was earth burial.   Accordingly, he’s a skeleton, buried in their double wide grave at the top of the hill at First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill cemetery, and my mother is a spirit whose mortal remains dwell in a beautiful bag at the farm where I do most of my unpaid work.

It struck me tonight as ironic that my father, who was a complete pain in the ass most of the time, what he would call a prick, has taken up so much of my energies the last few years while my mother, also a pain in the ass, but a loving one– which makes all the difference, really — has been hanging out quietly, off to the side, seemingly waiting her turn.    It seems only right to try to publish a few words about her before I start back in on figuring out how to package the long story of my relentless, tragic father.   After all, I have my mother to thank for the pleasure of reading for pleasure.

Growing up I remember my mother telling me that she was a poet when she was younger, when she was an English major at Hunter College.   She’d write the occasional rhyme for an occasion, even late in her life, but the blue covered notebook of poems I’d seen once or twice when I was kid was never seen again.   It was not among her things when she died.  I looked on every shelf, in every box, but nothing.  I was disappointed.   One poem, written in her distinctive hand, remained, I found it among her papers after she died.   My sister blushed at the passion of that poem, noting that it was definitely not written about our father.  Though my mother stopped writing poetry at some point, she had a poet’s heart, a lifelong flair for colorful exaggeration. 

My mother loved words, even if she didn’t always use them to seek deeper truths. There were good reasons for this, I suppose.   I remember how it felt, struggling against the painful limits of my power to express myself, when I was a kid.  My inability to have my questions heard burned me, provoked me.   As it turns out, the most eloquent, clear-speaking poet in the world, accompanying himself on a lilting samba guitar, against a lush, evocative painterly backdrop, could not have expressed what I needed to express as a child.    

The situation we were living in in that little house was insane, nobody could have made sense of it.  It was also devilishly subtle, the overarching madness of it, the way it posed as a perfectly normal middle class life and snappishly thwarted all analysis.   It wasn’t as if the rest of our once large family had been slaughtered during a particularly hellish period in human history, their letters just stopped arriving.   It wasn’t as if her mother’s many beatings had anything to do with my mother’s sometimes volatile temper. There were many things like this, things you simply had to suck up because, no reason — put your pajamas on!  

I always loved to draw, though it’s a famously confusing way to communicate.   “Who is that supposed to be?   What does this picture mean?” became as tiresome as the concerned look on the face of the person asking.   Writing was a clearer path forward — more perfect speech.   As I learned to write better I was able to get through to my mother’s intellect, sometimes move her with my words, which was always gratifying, to see her happily transported like that.  

My father, who could write well but used the skill only for readily practical purposes,  read whatever I handed him looking for what he needed to defend himself against.  He’d read the telltale words aloud, hum the first bars of his rebuttal.

My mother read like a real reader, if she liked the writing she’d follow the words wherever they were trying to take her.  She liked to suspend her disbelief, if she found the writing credible.  My father read more for information, my mother read for the journey.   I have my mother to thank for my love of reading.   I first saw by the way she read, how she read aloud to us, that worlds can be conjured with words, worlds more interesting, more vivid, more immediate than the world that is constantly around us, things endlessly happening, very few of which make great stories.  

She died a day after her eighty-first birthday, of a cancer that took its sweet time finishing her off.   Cancer of the endometrium, the walls of the womb my sister and I came of age in, took twenty-three years to kill her.   She never liked to consider this fact, that she was actually dying, that her unfathomable, indescribable pain toward the end was a not subtle signal that she was dying.   She fought the knowledge that she was being killed by a relentless disease with no cure, particularly toward the end, when she lost a lot of weight, lost the taste for even her favorite foods and there was nothing more the doctor could do.  

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me!  I never had pain like this,” she often said in exasperation during those final weeks. Though I am not a big fan of denial, I always considered it a duty of love to play along with her denial of death.  She was the one who was dying, I saw it as her right if she didn’t want to make it worse by acknowledging  it.

She fought the cancer to a standstill for more than two decades.  If we can say anybody can fight a monster like cancer, no matter how proactive and positive of mind and body they are.   My mother was fortunate, her body responded miraculously to a new treatment they had just come up with, a synthetic hormone called Megace that had shown some promise and was kind of a last shot for my cancer riddled mother, by then the cancer was everywhere.   She got lucky and had about fifteen years of remission, not that she was ever overwhelmingly grateful about that new lease on life, though she had many things she loved about life.  In the end, there was no treatment available, just a series of discussions to be had.   She had no taste for these kinds of talks.

My sister and I took her to the oncologist, maybe a year before she died.   She saw the handsome little silver-haired doctor’s face and immediately said “I don’t want to hear any bad news!”   

“It’s been nice seeing you, then, Evelyn, always a pleasure,” said my imagined version of the doctor, though the dapper oncologist was unable to be quite so breezy, nor would it have been possible to be, in his place, I suppose.  So, isn’t it really better to say that he was just cool and witty, made a quick, dashing joke out of the whole thing?   We all had a laugh, instead of deathly news, and went to a new restaurant and had a delicious lunch.  

My mother would appreciate my improving the story that way.   It’s not what happened, precisely, but it’s pretty close and why not give the doctor a better, jazzier line than the one he uncomfortably came up with?   It’s got to be brutally hard, breaking the bad news to a patient who doesn’t want to hear it.  Might as well have the doctor play along with a wink, we all know the score here but, damn it, Evelyn, you’re right, no reason to lay the terrible details out like that.    

My sister, who had many more dealings with him, was angry at the oncologist by the time he retired, about six months before my mother died, after he’d said an awkward goodbye.   My sister had been unhappy at the way he seemed to lose focus. The visit before he’d apparently asked my mother to take off her shirt so he could examine her breasts.

“She has endometrial cancer, doctor,” my sister reminded him, shaking her head slightly, signaling to her mother that this guy was as cuckoo for Cocoa-puffs as she was.

                                                                                   ii

During her final days, when I was staying with her, my mother would call me in every night to watch Jon Stewart with her.  My mother loved the bright, adorable comedian.   As much as she loved Stewart she hated his equally brilliant protégé Stephen Colbert.  As soon as Colbert’s over the top show began she’d quickly switch the channel to a rerun of some old show.

 I got why she loved Jon Stewart, I felt the same way.   He made her laugh and think, he informed her of unfolding events with trenchant irony, his wit and his perfect facial expressions made the horrible news easier to bear.  He, almost alone among the media in the years of her widowhood, gave her hope that not everyone in the world had gone insane.  

She was a secular Jew from the Bronx, had been raised to believe in equality, human rights and social justice.  I recall her telling me when I was a young reader that she didn’t think much of Howard Fast as a writer, but that the idealistic man who’d been blacklisted as a suspected Communist had his heart in the right place.  As an old woman she was depressed by the many signs that our country did not always have its heart in the right place.  She would clench her teeth every time President George W. Bush came on TV.  

She regarded him as the worst American president, definitely the worst of her lifetime.  One of the last things she said to me on her deathbed at the hospice, spoken urgently:  “please promise me Sarah Palin will never be president of the United States!”  

I promised her, thinking to myself “at least not in your lifetime, mom.”  

As much as she loved Jon Stewart, she had an almost visceral dislike of his gifted protégé Stephen Colbert.  As soon as Stewart’s show ended, even before Colbert’s American eagle swept, beak and talons first, toward the camera, she had the remote in hand and was looking for something else to watch.  I never understood this.   She couldn’t explain it, she just couldn’t stand him.  

“You realize that the overbearing right wing blowhard persona is parody, he’s playing a character.  He’s hilarious, mom.”  

She shook her head.   “I know.  I don’t know what it is, I can’t watch him.  I know it’s a parody, I just can’t stand him.”

So it wasn’t that she was like President Bush’s team who’d hired Colbert to do the Correspondents’ Club dinner, apparently in the mistaken belief that he was a fellow traveler, a very funny, popular comedian who happened to be as patriotic as Sean Hannity and a true believer in the unquestionable greatness of America and the Unitary Executive, right or wrong.  In 2006 nobody in the media was saying too much out loud about the Bush administration’s many excesses.

I showed my mother the video of Colbert fearlessly skewering the president at the Correspondents’ Club.  I recall at the time feeling great admiration for him, he was about the first person to publicly suggest that the Emperor and those around him might not be dressed as splendidly as they imagined.   He showed impressive sang froid by doing it, literally, in the president’s face.  My mother admitted it was a great routine.  He began:

Mark Smith, ladies and gentlemen of the press corps, Madame First Lady, Mr. President, my name is Stephen Colbert and tonight it’s my privilege to celebrate this president. We’re not so different, he and I. We get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book.

Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works. Every night on my show, the Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut, OK? I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument.  (the rest is here)

President Bush is still smiling gamely at this point, but his smile becomes more and more brittle until it falls off his face after a few moments.  Good sport and nice guy that I’ve often heard George W. Bush is, his politics aside, I’m pretty sure he shook Colbert’s hand at the end, probably told him he’d done a heck of a job.   But he clearly understood in pretty short order that he was being roasted by a merciless chef in a bullet-proof apron.  My mother loved it.

I tried to get her to watch Colbert’s show a few times after that, but she never lasted through the opening, switching to an in progress re-run of NCIS, CSI or other murder mystery as I left, befuddled.  

One night I was going through a shoebox of black and white family photographs.  I found a photo that made me feel like the protagonist of one of her detective novels.   It was a shot of my uncle, my father’s younger brother, as a young man, dressed in a well-fitting suit.  It could have been a photograph of Stephen Colbert, in character as the rooster-like right-wing talk show host.   My mother strongly disliked my uncle.  She found him narcissistic, tyrannical, unreasonable, demanding and petty.   In a word, Colbert’s character on the show.  

 She once desperately offered me a huge monetary bribe to spend a week in Florida when my uncle and aunt planned to visit her, after my father died.  She kept upping the dollar amount as I hesitated.

“Please,” she begged over the phone, “you can’t leave me alone with them!  For a week!  A week, Elie!  There will be bloodshed.”  

I rushed into her room with the photograph of my uncle.

“Is this why you hate Colbert?” I asked, handing her the photo.  

“Oh, my God,” she said, staring at the picture, “oh, my God!”  And then she began to laugh.  Another mystery satisfyingly solved.

 

                                                                                iii

I would not say that my mother was a mostly happy woman, though she had several things that gave her delight, things she loved to the end: opera, thoughtful conversation, well-plotted ​murder mysteries, dogs, intelligent comedy and good writing.   

When she was alone, which she was most of the time in the years after my father died, she was subject to dark mood​s. This is no surprise, considering she was alone day and night for the first time in fifty-four years, with a gnawing cancer increasingly determined to do her in.  Also, sorrow had always been as large a part of her life as her robust sense of humor.

After she died I was referred to an excellent book called Death Benefits (by Jeanne Safer) which points out that the life of a loved one, once over, can be seen as a whole and valuable ​life ​lessons should be drawn from it.  I made a list of the things I’d received from my mother, there were many good things on there.  

One that I remembered to add after I spoke off the cuff at her memorial service was: have no fear to shock a little if the truth also makes a good story and nobody is really harmed by it.

At her request we had her cremated.  The woman at the Florida crematorium insisted on calling the ashes ‘cremains’, which gave my sister and me a few cringing laughs.  I brought the cremains up to Peekskill, the haunted little town where my father’s unspeakably miserable childhood unfolded.   We gathered in the beautiful new chapel of the synagogue up there for a memorial service.   

My mother’s cremains were in the first row, sitting unobtrusively in a box in their fancy shopping bag.  We’d already been informed by the rabbi that her ashes could not be buried in her funeral plot next to her husband of 54 years.

S​everal people were ​ready to speak, a looping slideshow showed photos of my mother at different ages, and the people she loved; a recording of her reading some of her favorite Edna St. Vincent Millay poems played over improvised ambient music.  She was an excellent and expressive reader and it was eerie and oddly comforting to hear her living voice in that setting.

I changed into my suit behind the folding wall.  It was a hot day so I left my sandals on instead of putting on shoes and socks, something I needlessly pointed out ​to the assembled guests (most of them couldn’t see my feet) ​and apologized to my mother for.  My mother would have certainly ​given me grief for not putting my polished black shoes on, and done so sincerely, but in the end she would have probably written the offense off as me, as always, having to be me.

The chapel was full, I cued the recorded music to go down, a singer friend and I played September Song.  Then I began what were to be short remarks before my beloved partner read the beautiful eulogy she’d written.   I had a digital recorder in my pocket, but I forgot to hand it to someone to record the service, so memory, as so often, is the only available guide.

“My mother would not have missed the irony of having this memorial in a synagogue in Peekskill, of all places.  Not only did she have only the most tenuous connection to this small town, having visited it only a handful of times, but my father, who’s buried here, left at the first opportunity and never returned.”

​”It is even more ironic, of course, that we are gathered in a synagogue. Outside of the occasional wedding or bat mitzvah, my mother did not set foot in synagogues.  She had no use for the rituals of our religion, although she proudly identified as a Jew, in fact, you know, she couldn’t have been mistaken for anything else, except perhaps Italian.  Now that I think of it, she was last in a synagogue about a year ago, for a Friday night service, of all things.”

“There was a left wing rabbi in South Florida whose column she read every week in the local paper.  She was largely in despair about the tidal shift to the ​right in American politics​, how even supposed liberals like Bill Clinton, who called themselves Centrists, were in many ways to the right of Eisenhower.   So she loved this fiery liberal ​rabbi who stood for all the things she believed in and wrote fiercely about his values.”  

“She was excited to read that the rabbi would be speaking at the local synagogue.  She went to the Friday night service with a friend to see and hear him in person.”

“I asked her afterwards how it was.  She told me, with characteristic animation, that it had been horrible, awful.  Her rabbi was on the bima, seated, was introduced to the crowd, waved and did not say a word.  Not one word!  Not only that, she said, ‘they read every goddamned prayer in that fucking prayer book!'”

Those assembled in the chapel laughed heartily at this evocation of my mother, a refined and earthy woman from just off the Grand Concourse in the Bronx of the 1930s and ’40s.  I hadn’t really intended to tell this particular story, but as I stood there it became an irresistible opening to my remarks.

My mother would have been only fleetingly embarrassed, had she been there in more than spirit.  She would have immediately protested before laughing herself, any embarrassment quickly wiped away by the love she got from those assembled to remember her distinct and unique personality in that godforsaken chapel in the little town that had formed the backdrop for her beloved’s traumatic childhood.