The Futility of Comparing Horrors — Eli’s stories

My father’s childhood was objectively horrible, beyond question.  The competitive comparison of traumas is usually an idiotic exercise, since trauma traumatizes in any case.  That said, my father’s life was objectively much more traumatic than the lives he provided for my sister and me, hands down.  That’s one reason my father was so quick to dismiss any complaints my sister or I expressed as the whining of pampered brats, wimps, children who had no idea how bad life could be, however bad we thought our lives might have been.  It makes me wonder about the lives of his parents, which were objectively at least as horrible as his, if such horrors can really be compared.  I know very little about either of those lives, except that each lived miserably in America while the rest of their siblings were murdered by organized groups of anti-Semites back in Europe.

My father’s childhood of grinding poverty was bad enough.  Starting American small-town kindergarten speaking Yiddish only, as the Great Depression began, made his situation even worse, if such a thing was possible.  Worse still, his mother hated his father and hated him, hatred she expressed through furious violence.  She called her oldest son “Sonny” to the end of her life, but that was apparently the full extent of her tenderness.  

His father, who survives in two enigmatic photographs and an epitaph that memorializes a simple, straight man, was described as having a facial expression consisting of two eyes, a nose and a mouth.   Except for stints chopping down trees for the WPA, a short run on a herring wagon and his job sweeping and mopping the First (and only) Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill, he was largely unemployed.  

It does not surprise me now that my father was so reticent about his childhood.   He and his younger brother had a miserable life in Peekskill and, to add to my father’s misery, his sickly younger brother appears to have been something of a mama’s boy. The real mystery is where my father’s many fine values and strongly held humanistic beliefs came from.

Toward the end of his life I spent a lot of time at the cottage of my father’s first cousin Eli, a simultaneously crusty and tender character. Eli’s manner was hospitable and droll or savagely threatening according to the situation, which was subject to dramatic change from moment to moment.  A combative man with a bad temper, Eli never backed down from any kind of fight and he fought those he loved as fiercely as those he hated.  

My father once reported on a Florida to New York drive with my mother and Eli. “Your mother and Eli fought from Boca Raton to the end of the New Jersey Turnpike,” he told me with a chuckle.  I pictured my mother, one arm across the back of the passenger seat, turned to face Eli in the back, the two of them clanging swords the whole ride, neither one tiring, both showing their teeth.  Those two adored each other, and neither could resist a good fight.  I fought with Eli too, you had to, really.  Mostly, in those last years, I interviewed him about the past, and he was happy to talk, a good story teller, honest to the limits of his insight with an impressive memory for details.  Along the way we had a few good fights, but that was not the point for either of us.

“I tell you these stories for you, so you can make some sense out of these tangled, miserable situations we’re talking about.  These stories are for you and your sister, not for anybody else,” he told me when I first began recording them. “I need your promise that you won’t write about these stories until everybody in them is dead.”  I gave my word, feeling like I was agreeing to a lifetime ban against writing about my family.  But the old man, he was around 85 when my regular researching visits to him began in earnest, knew what a relatively short-term promise I was making.  In the blink of an eye, over the course of less than twenty years or so, everyone in the stories was dead.

Eli’s father had been my father’s uncle, Uncle Aren, who my sister and I remember as an old man who always gave us money, kissed us with wet lips pursed under his rough close-cropped bristly white mustache (Eli wore his the same way)  and affectionately patted us on the cheeks with hands that smelled of white fish. He seemed to speak mostly Yiddish, and sometimes carried the Yiddish newspaper, though he had for many years run a garage in Peekskill where my father and uncle both worked.  Although my sister and I never saw it, except once in his agitation that one of us may have sat on his fedora (we hadn’t), he was known to be a man of towering temper.  Uncle Aren’s son Eli, my father’s first cousin, was seventeen years older than my father and had a front row seat on my father’s childhood.  

Aren who had escaped from the Czar’s army during the Russo-Japanese war and learned to vulcanize rubber tires in New York City, had four siblings who lived in a muddy hamlet on the outskirts of Pinsk.  Three of them, along with the muddy hamlet of Truvovich itself,  were wiped away without a trace around 1943.  Aren had two brothers, Yuddle and Volbear, and two sisters, Chaski and the baby, Chava.   Aren was a hard-working man and he saved money and, during Eli’s childhood, some time around World War I, sent for his brother Yuddle.

Yuddle soon came down with tuberculosis.  Aren put him on a boat back to Europe.  “America’s no place for a sick man,” he told his brother, “here you have to work.”  Aren sent for his baby sister, beautiful, red haired Chava, the only other Glieberman who would ever leave Truvovich.   

“My father and I drove down to New York to get her when she arrived.  When I saw her rushing toward us, with that red hair and those healthy red cheeks, she was gorgeous.  It was love at first sight.  There was nothing my Tante Chava wouldn’t do for me, and nothing I wouldn’t do for her.”   I knew that any story I heard about my grandmother, like any I heard about my father and uncle, would be told with love.  

Not so any story I heard about Aren’s second wife, Tamarka, who Eli described as a “bitch on wheels”.  Eli’s mother had died shortly after childbirth.  “I was an instrument baby,” he explained, “and in those days, they didn’t know much about sterilizing anything.  My mother got a massive infection from the dirty instruments and she died within a day or two.  My father was a single man, and he had to work, and he couldn’t take care of a baby.  He was going to give me up for adoption, but my grandmother and my mother’s sisters took me and they raised me on a farm.  And on that farm, among these women who adored me, my word was law.”  

He told this part of the story once to a pretty woman I’d bring up to visit him.  A young woman who loved flattery, and a charming old man who loved to flatter a pretty girl, they hit it off immediately.  He was at his best when she visited.  “I was a boy, five, six years old and my word was law!” he roared as she smiled delightedly at him.  He leaned forward, touched her leg and said, with great sincerity, in his quietest whisper “which was very, very bad.”  

Eli always felt odd man out when he visited his father in Peekskill, with his father’s second wife and two brilliant, middle class children, his younger half-siblings Nehama and Dave.  Eli was rough, and spoke plainly, he was a brawling high school dropout from the city, with a bad temper.  His father’s second wife apparently had little use for him.  The feeling was mutual.

“A bitch on wheels and ugly as an ape.  And she had my father by the balls,” he said.  

I was surprised, knowing Aren’s reputation for toughness.  “She dominated Uncle Aren?”  

“If she told him to jump, he’d ask ‘how high?'” he shook his head and sneered.    “So, anyway, your grandmother was a like a slave to her.  She worked as a nanny in the house, took care of the kids, and she cleaned, and cooked and Tamarka loved having a slave, and my father didn’t say anything.  In the beginning it was like she was working off her passage, my father paid for the ocean crossing and gave her room and board and she was repaying the debt.  But it went on for years.  That bitch didn’t want to lose her slave, you understand”.  

“There was a young mailman in Peekskill, a Jewish guy, with red hair, and he stopped by the house every time he delivered letters to them.  And they would talk and they hit it off.   Tante Chava and he fell in love, and he wanted to ask her out.  They wanted to get married.  Well, you can be sure that wasn’t going to happen, Tamarka wasn’t going to give up her slave.  They busted that up right away.  It broke your grandmother’s heart.”

I found it poignant that my father never knew anything about this story, except for the part about his mother’s slavery at Tamarka and Aren’s.  He and his little brother went along when their mother was forced to continue as a domestic there.  “We used to dig our thumbnails into her rubber tree plants when she made us dust them.  We wanted to kill those plants, but they were unkillable.  We used to hate going there.”

When Chava came toward the end of marrying age Aren set up an arranged marriage to a tall, quiet man whose slightly haunted looking face was two eyes, a nose and a mouth.   He’d not had it easy, either.  He’d been the favorite punching bag for his cruel step-mother, who knocked him to the dirt floor of a primitive farmhouse in Connecticut, in an area where, oddly, Eastern European Jews had once settled to farm.  According to Eli, she sometimes knocked him down with a wooden board to the side of the head.  After a while, Eli said, my young grandfather psychologically checked out.

We fast forward twenty-two years or so years after my father’s birth, to a black and white photograph I still have of my young father, black hair, glasses off, sideways, in ecstatic wrestling embrace with a thin, blonde, extremely Christian looking young woman. They are paused in a struggle across a picnic blanket, my father in an affectionate headlock, gripping the young woman around the waist.  His face is flushed and it is the happiest I have ever seen him looking, in life or in pictures.  My only clue about the photo is a story Eli had told me more than ten years earlier.

“Your father moved to Connecticut when he got back from the army, his father’s side of the family was from there.  He rented a room in a house owned by a young shiksa. She was a couple of years older than him, a widow.  And they took up together, your father was pumping gas by day and at night he was with this shiksa.  And your grandmother couldn’t stand it, so she sent me up there and I busted it up.”  Eli reported this without the slightest idea that he could be saying anything anyone could have an argument with.  I don’t recall arguing about it then or later.  I was simply surprised.



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