A few months back I learned about an on-line sort of Reader’s Digest for baby boomers. A friend, who doesn’t need the money, makes some nice pocket change writing short, snappy pieces for it and suggested I do the same. I sent in three pieces, all were accepted for payment and publication. Then the third was unaccepted, leaving a lingering bad taste I can’t seem to rinse out.
The lingering bad taste came on, with accompanying smell, when I learned, on following up, that, yes, he thought the piece was beautifully done, but… funnily enough, and he could have sworn he’d written to tell me, possibly a tad too personal for a website that sometimes features pieces about being raped as a girl and other traumatic subjects. Mine was an amusing anecdote about something colorful my mother had said that summed up her personality and her view of religion.
On the same day he also rejected a fourth piece, about a Family Secret, a subject he’d suggested, for being “strangely unmoving”. The Family Secret was the murder of my mother’s twelve aunts and uncles along with everyone else in her family who had remained in Europe. I suppose it was strangely unmoving, in the sense that it was strange that he was unmoved, even stranger that he would tell me so. You can be the judge of just how strangely unmoving it was, if you’d like.
Actually, my father would have probably loved this in a way: another piquant example of the arbitrary assholishness of the world, another marginally competent fellow in charge of deciding who shall get $250 and “published” and who shall get a lame opinion about why he changed his mind. But that’s not the reason I mention the editor (this whole digression will be my pleasure to delete without a trace in the rewrite).
He sends an email from time to time with news of a new “franchise” he is considering, like Family Secrets. “Better Late Than Never” was one: first doing something at an age much older than most people and the wonderful ironies and complications that it hopefully entailed. If he ever comes up with the franchise “Times I Dealt Gracefully with Complete Assholes”, I have a perfect one for him that I could whip up in a few minutes.
Anyway, the “franchise” thing stuck in my mind when thinking about vantage points from which to show you my father’s unique personality: “Things My Father Loved.”
“Elie, tell them about my brother’s funeral,” says the skeleton of my father with the grin that is now, in the manner of all skeletons, his only facial expression.
“That will require a lot of background,” I tell him.
“Hey,” he says, “I’ve got nothing but time. And thanks to my industriousness and frugality, you don’t have to rush off to work today, for the time being, anyway, so you have time. Give them some background.”
My father and his brother had a strained relationship, until the last day and a half of my father’s life, when two brothers were rarely closer. My father was much larger than his little brother. My sister and I noticed the way our uncle always cringed around his big brother. It seemed my father had probably done many mean things to Uncle Paul all through childhood.
The crowning achievement of this sibling cruelty was probably the act of sadism he cheerfully recounted more than once for his children decades later. Here’s an account, snipped from an unsent family piece, that I wrote recently for (and never sent to) the jerk-off with the $250 a pop on-line magazine:
Our father shared very few stories from his difficult, impoverished childhood, but one we both remember is a time he recalled fondly.
“I stuffed my brother’s mouth with raw chopped meat one time,” he’d say with a smile and a little chuckle.
We pictured the dreary house they grew up in, a vignette out of a nightmare, some dim kitchen or dining room, dust motes dancing in the eerie light, nobody home but the two of them. For a family living in dire poverty, a mouthful of raw chopped meat was a big deal.
It seems to have been worth the ass-whipping he must have received from their mother, who bemoaned the “seenas cheenam” (senseless hatred) between her sons. She didn’t understand how there could be hatred between the large son she whipped in the face and the little, sickly one she doted on.
Both sons emerged from their difficult childhoods with raging tempers. They had markedly different styles of hiding their ready rage. My uncle’s camouflage completely fooled my sister and me for many years. Our father’s workarounds to his temper tantrums didn’t fool us since his anger was so well-known to us. We saw it up close virtually every night at the dinner table, saw it in its many colors, shades and gradations.
My father, in polite company, typically masked his anger in a killer sense of humor, barbed asides, dark observations and pointed ironies deployed in sometimes dazzling fusillades.
My uncle, who had a corny sense of humor and laughed easily, with a distinctive high pitched, scraping laugh, not unlike an inhaled cough, seemed like a mild- mannered man. He was not, as my sister and I would learn later in life when he went absolutely apeshit during a Passover weekend we attempted to spend in his house.
My mother always disliked my uncle, a vain, slight man she considered a tyrant and a condescending bully. My sister and I got a long, bracing view of this side of him for the first time when we were both adults. Deciding to leave early to avoid further exposure, we got in the car instead of staying for another hellish dinner.
I took a small bag of garbage from the car and went to dump it in one of my uncle’s garbage cans before we left. He clamped a hand on the lid.
“Take it with you,” he said.
I turned without a word and took the garbage bag back to the car. My sister and I laughed about it as we hurried the hell away from there.
At some point my father spent a couple of days at his brother’s home outside of Washington, D.C.
“How’s my uncle doing?” I asked him afterwards.
“Let’s just say … he remains unchanged,” said my father, in as good an example of his style as I have ever scrawled on the side of a telephone doodle.
Among my father’s papers was a letter he’d written to The First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill. It was a beautifully composed request, written on behalf of himself and his brother, to continue paying the special out of town member rate.
The Congregation sent them bills every year seeking the full dues that all members paid. These dues paid for the Hebrew School, construction of the large new facility, upkeep of the new building, and the small original building, salaries for everyone employed there, possibly a gym and pool, as well as maintenance of the small cemetery. My father and uncle had been out of Peekskill since graduating high school, and had continued paying dues for the fifty or more years since from wherever they were. They paid the dues in order to keep their graves paid for. My father had received, as had my uncle, as both apparently did every year, a bill for the entire several thousand dollar annual membership.
“I realize the financial hardship that giving discounted fees to many out of town members might impose on the Congregation,” wrote my father toward the end of his well-constructed plea for fairness.
“In speaking recently to Lisa Gagliardi, I learned that my brother and I are the only two such members. In light of this, I respectfully submit that the $300 out of town dues we have been paying for many years be accepted as payment in full for 1999.”
My uncle had a stack of such letters he’d written in a folder in his file cabinet when he died. The last were written after my father died, on behalf of him and my mother.
Their first cousin Eli, a man of famous temper, had dealt with this issue of out of town dues more directly, and with greater success. At 85, sick of getting these bills every year, he picked up the phone to yell at the rabbi. When told the rabbi was busy and asked by the receptionist if someone else could help him, Eli exploded.
“Yeah, tell the rabbi he can bury a fucking dog in my hole, for all I care. I paid dues for more than sixty years since I left Peekskill and haven’t set foot in the shul more than a handful of times in all those years. I’ve paid my fucking dues, bub. I’m done. Tell him to do whatever the fuck he wants with my grave.” He slammed the phone down.
Eli quickly got an apologetic call back from the rabbi’s personal assistant. Of course they appreciated his long payment of dues for a facility he never used, of course he’d more than paid for his grave, many times over. He was in fact their senior member, the man with the longest standing as a dues paying member. They apologized to him and waived any further dues from him. He skated for those last few years, until he was buried one sunny spring day in the grave he had paid for many times over.
My father and his brother were more civilized men, professionals. Hence every year they made their neatly typed written requests, later granted, to pay $300 a year instead of the full active membership dues demanded.
I note here that Eli’s best friend from Peekskill was a man named Benny Peritzky. Peritzky was the town’s kosher butcher. According to Eli, Peritzky, a heavy drinker and something of a hell-raiser when young, was very learned in Jewish law. He could have been a rabbi, Eli told me once, he had everything but “smeecha for rabbunis” — the certification that new professional rabbis receive from a board of professional rabbis. Benny Peritzky’s grave is not far from Eli’s in the same cemetery where my uncle and father are buried.
My father’s death, though long in the making, came upon him suddenly– he got his sentence six days before it was carried out. My uncle spent the last year and a half of his life in a wheelchair, after a stroke. He was in and out of hospitals, with infections, and pneumonia, and all kinds of terrible complications from being an invalid over eighty. My aunt, teetering on the edge of dementia, did her best to care for him, visiting him every day, eventually moving into an assisted living apartment with him.
“You do realize you could probably tighten up this story quite a bit,” observes the wry old skeleton wryly.
But I also know my father would relish this small detail about his brother, which I am setting up, something that occurred a couple of years after my father’s death.
My uncle was always a fastidious and demanding man. For years after he retired from the Civil Service he would put on a crisp shirt and one of his dozens of expensive ties every morning, and a suit, along with meticulously polished shoes he kept on shoe trees when not on his feet. Although confined to a wheelchair and living in a hospital and then an assisted living facility, he still wanted to be dressed impeccably, even if it was in sweat pants and a t-shirt.
The staff at the hospital were not as exacting when it came to the attire of patients confined to bed and wheelchair. My aunt, more than passingly demented by then, did her best to keep his laundry clean, sorted and folded, toting it home several times a week and bringing it back in neat stacks.
“I’m worried about your aunt,” my uncle told me when I visited him in the hospital. “She really can’t live alone anymore, and I’m not able to take care of her or do much from here. I have to figure out what to do, she’s really not capable of taking care of herself anymore. I’m afraid something will happen to her, alone in that house.”
I nodded, had seen troubling evidence of my aunt’s deterioration. A moment later my aunt walked into the room and my uncle jumped straight on her back, wheelchair and all, about the laundry.
I opened the drawer while he raged and saw perhaps a dozen neatly folded t-shirts in there. He was attacking her about the latest batch that she hadn’t managed to do yet. Their son, a long-suffering fellow of considerable wit, who was standing next to me at that moment, later proposed this epitaph for his father’s grave stone: “Where the fuck are my 10 t-shirts?”
Soon enough my aunt and uncle moved together into an assisted living facility in Bethesda. Not very long after that my uncle passed away during one last trip to the hospital. I helped my cousin with details for the funeral.
He called to tell me the rabbi had told him, during the call to arrange the funeral, that they could make no funeral arrangements until he agreed to pay his father’s delinquent dues for the current year to the First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill. I was more outraged by this than my cousin was, though the outrage of it was certainly not lost on him.
“I told him I would put it on the credit card before the funeral,” my cousin told me with impressive maturity. “He also asked me if they could bury my father with a pallet of worn out prayer books. Apparently Jewish prayer books need a proper Jewish burial after they die. He told me it’s considered a great honor to be buried with worn out prayer books. I told him it was fine, that my father would love it.”
The funeral was one of the saddest I’ve ever attended. It would have made my father weep, to be there. The surrounding ironies would have given him a grim, satisfying, delight and that’s the reason I present them here: to illuminate my father by something he loved, something twisted in a way he would really appreciate.
The extreme cold at the cemetery, where the grave had been dug, the pallet of old books, the fresh snow, the seven mourners around the grave, including the rabbi– all very depressing. My cousin escorted his mother, by then quite dotty and shaky on her legs, up the long slippery hill to the grave.
The service was not long, the remarks by my cousin were short, my own were much shorter. My uncle, I said, had been my inspiration for being an uncle to my niece and nephew. I didn’t add that I hadn’t seen or talked to either of them for an unconscionably long time.
As the books and my uncle were buried, and my aunt gripped my cousin’s arm for the slippery descent to the car, I took the rabbi aside. I told him how wrong and hurtful he’d been to bring up the one late dues payment by my newly deceased stroke-victim uncle. I mentioned the brutality of the insensitive timing, putting this matter to a son who’d just lost his father, a man, by the way, who’d dutifully paid his out of town dues every year for more than sixty years.
The rabbi began to explain that it was the policy of the Congregation, that they told him to do it, that he was only following orders. I shook my head and watched as it quickly dawned on him how lame the excuse sounded, and how similar to Eichmann’s. He appeared to be truly aghast and apologized to me. I told him it was my cousin he owed the apology to, and he hurried over to talk to my cousin. His body language was very humble. My cousin later said it had been a very sincere apology.
Here’s the punchline for my father. He would have loved it and I hope it was worth the old skeleton’s time waiting for it.
As my cousin was driving his mother back down to Bethesda he got a call on his cell phone, somewhere on the New Jersey Turnpike. Benny Peritzky’s son, a senior member of the board of First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill, a man he’d never met, calling to tell him how sorry he was to hear about his father’s death. He remembered Paul, he said. He was also calling to tell my cousin he was sorry about the rabbi’s unfortunately timed mention of the unpaid dues and to give, as a token of the Congregation’s apology, a $25 discount on the final year’s dues. They would refund it on the credit card charge, he said.
“Wow, $25,” I said, “that’s generous. Almost ten percent.” My cousin and I snorted about the whole hideous business. The darkness of the whole thing would have tickled the old man, who would have savored every grotesque detail, even as he no doubt would savor them now, if he could, grinning in his chilly grave at the very top of that same hill where his brother is buried.