The skeleton of my father sat up in his grave in the First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill cemetery on that tree-lined country road, Oregon Road, in Cortlandt, NY (though you won’t find it reasonably placed on any map) and summoned me. I have to admit, these conversations with a man long dead are starting to wear me out. On the other hand, the duty to honor our father and mother does not end at the grave.
“Exactly,” said the skeleton, “and that’s what I want to talk to you about. It’s human nature, as you know, to look for causes for things, particularly things that trouble us. That impulse to find a cause for vexations without explanation animates violent mobs and great thinkers alike. It’s tempting, when you think you’ve found a cause, to believe that it explains everything. Nothing explains everything. That’s one thing that begins to sink in once you are dead, Elie.”
I knew what he was driving at, of course. It is one thing to step forward into a life of new insight, it is another to avoid stepping back into the dimness of your previous life.
“We had this mostly senseless debate for most of our life together,” said the skeleton, “arguing about how much a person can really change, if at all, on a fundamental level. It is a stupid argument, really. Of course we can change things that bother us enough, of course we can’t change other things that make us most vulnerable. It’s not all our choice, on one level, and it’s all our choice, on another. You can talk about the role of genetic predisposition, DNA, early childhood experience, circumstance, luck — humans are complicated biological machines. But I think it’s ultimately a mistake to blame someone else for the misery in our own life.”
Interesting pivot, dad, back to where this discussion started so many years ago. A mistake, you say, to hold others accountable for their destructive actions and the impact those actions have on us?
“OK, I can see the problem with that. Fine, let’s take this away from a discussion of intangible abstractions, then. I don’t blame my parents for what happened to me in my life. In particular, I don’t blame my mother,” the skeleton’s neck looked suddenly stiffer, if such a thing is even possible. “I have to imagine she suffered terrible things to make her unhappy enough to whip her own baby in the face.”
No doubt about that, though it’s two different things to imagine the terrible things she suffered and to hold her accountable for the suffering she caused. One can only imagine the miseries of life in that doomed little hamlet Truvovich. In fact, one is forced to imagine them, since the place and all its inhabitants are gone without a trace. If not for the Russo-Japanese War, and your Uncle Aren drafted for a twenty year stretch by the Czar, Aren probably never would have run away across the ocean with Fischel Bobrow and a guy named Fleischman and wound up in New York City learning to vulcanize tires at the dawn of the automobile. If Aren hadn’t arrived, Chava, my grandmother, would have remained in Truvovich and died with everyone else in her family as the shtetl was wiped off the world map forever by anonymous murderers.
“Well, yes, thankfully she made it to America, courtesy of her brother Aren. What we know of the lives of Jews in that part of the world, and seeing what their eventual fate was, we do not imagine a very happy life there even for a little Jewish girl who was born happy as a clam. I don’t imagine that my mother was born with a great talent for happiness, and she certainly found very little reason for it here in America. As to what made her so violent toward me, it’s really impossible to say.”
Is it, though? How do we find it impossible to say? She suffered enough to make her violently enraged at her infant son. The suffering must have been tremendous to make her whip a baby in the face.
“OK, I don’t think I’m making my point. It doesn’t really matter what made her that way, I guess that’s what I’m saying. Would I have preferred a mother who didn’t act like that? Of course. Can I blame her for everything that I suffered in my own life? I really don’t think so.”
Interesting perspective, for a dead man. I will have to mull this over a bit more and get back to you.
“You do that,” said the skeleton, then he seemed to wink. “You’ve had a lot of practice mulling things over, haven’t you?”