I visited my cousin Azi a few months back, a man I hadn’t seen in years. My sister and I always marveled at how much he looked like our father. The photos of him as a young man, on the walls of his home, posing with his beautiful wife and their three kids, showed an uncanny resemblance to Irv, his first cousin once removed. (You can see the two of them, as adults, on my sister’s couch by clicking here)
Azi, as my sister and I remembered him from our childhood, always seemed cheerful, had a good sense of humor, laughed easily and genuinely. It is hard to imagine that, like his cousin Irv, he could possibly have a dark side. My sister and I are both unable to imagine it. Then again, one could have spent a day or two with my father and never have glimpsed anything but a fairly cheerful, droll, highly intelligent man. Azi and his wife Sue were gracious and highly interactive hosts when we visited them in Israel in November. Azi, like my father, seemed to be interested in, and knowledgeable about, every subject that came up.
“Sapiens [A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari] is a great book,” said Azi when I mentioned a fascinating lecture I’d heard by the author, an Israeli professor who wrote the book in Hebrew, the language the American-born Azi read it in. “You can’t just pick it up and read it like a novel though,” he pointed out. “It’s more like taking a graduate course, you need to let it sink in. Read a chapter, think about it, digest it a little, read the next one.” When I listened to the audio version of the remarkable book I found he was absolutely right.
I’d had some trepidation about contacting Azi when we were planning our trip. I hadn’t heard from him in a couple of years, though he sent condolences immediately when my mother died (six years ago tomorrow). He and Sue used to visit my parents whenever they were in Florida visiting Sue’s father. I’d had a few pleasant meals with them over the years when we were in Florida at the same time. The trepidation arose because of my partisan position in a long cold war in our family. My father had chosen the losing side in that long war between his first cousins, as I too learned to do in most things. My father loved his seventeen years older first cousin Eli. The Eli faction had, for decades, had nothing to do with the Nehama faction. Nehama was Azi’s mother.
Eli’s mother died shortly after Eli was born, of complications from childbirth. Eli was raised by his mother’s mother and his three aunts. Eli’s father remarried and had two more children with his wife Tamarka. These children were Nehama, a brilliant woman who lived to 102 and had been the first female graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and David, a genius with an eidetic memory who became a lawyer but never needed to practice law as he became the family millionaire. Nehama married a rabbi, Ben Teller, and they had Azi and his older sister.
Eli, a rough and charming character with a ferocious temper, carried on a more than thirty year grudge against his half-sister Nehama; they never spoke after their father, my father’s Uncle Aren, died. My father allied himself with Eli, I became good friends with Eli in the last years of his life. It is thanks to Eli that I know the detailed history of the family that I have learned.
“Well, Eli had his version of history, that’s for sure,” said Azi laughing when the delicate subject of some old story came up over Friday night dinner at their home in Neve Ilan. I agreed at once, as I have finally learned to do, about a matter of opinion or speculation I might have reflexively taken sides about in former decades. Eli, although a very candid man, had strong opinions and was not always the most reliable narrator. Whatever the truth of this particular story may have been, it was easy for me to agree that there were other, completely plausible, sides to it.
I realized, a moment before I spoke and in time to say something else, that Tamarka, who Eli had described as “a bitch on wheels” and “uglier than an ape”, two sentiments my father endorsed, had been Azi’s grandmother. It was this same Tamarka, I learned from Eli, who had broken up the romance between my grandmother Chava and the red-haired Jewish postman. It was Tamarka’s rubber tree plant that my young father and his little brother dug their fingernails into, with vegecidal intent, as they dusted the leaves when they helped Chava clean Tamarka’s house. Chava, it seeemed, would never work off her indenture to Tamarka and Aren; her children were also required to kick in to pay off her passage from Truvovich.
It was Nehama and Dave who, along with their father Aren and Tamarka, made all decisions regarding my father’s future. He was to go, along with his brother, to trade school.
“Yeah, NYA, Sheet Metal School, ’cause we were too dumb to think about going beyond trade,” said the skeleton, quoting himself from the last conversation of his life.
I was shocked at how much bitterness my dying father still seemed to have toward Nehama, a beautiful woman who sang in a high melodious voice and served my young sister and me ice cream sodas in chilled metal tumblers whenever we visited her as children. Nehama and Ben lived very close to us in Queens when my sister and I were kids. They moved to Jerusalem when they retired, around the time Azi, Sue and the oldest of their three kids emigrated to found a new moshav outside of Jerusalem. It was largely my dying father’s bitterness that made me hesitate to contact Azi until a couple of weeks before we finalized our travel plans.
Azi at one point expressed, in the gentlest way, his perplexity as a younger man to see the hard-edged enmity I always seemed to have toward my father. In Azi’s recollection his older cousin Irv, who he remembers with great love, was a fun-loving playmate when Azi was a boy and a kind, brilliant and humorous man when they were both adults. “We used to wrestle all the time when I was a kid,” said Azi. When my father came out of the army Azi was a young boy. My father always loved young kids and interacted with them quite naturally.
“I remember he took me aside when he got engaged to your mother,” Azi said, clearly amused by the memory. “He told me we wouldn’t be wrestling too much any more, that he was getting a new wrestling partner.”
This reminded me of a game my father invented that my sister and I used to play with him when we were very little. My father would lay on the double bed in his bedroom, take off his glasses and say “Beaver Dam!”. This was the signal for my sister and me to jump on to the bed and begin trying to roll his huge body toward the edge, and over it, as a log in our beaver dam. We loved this game, shoving the top of our heads against his ribs and pushing as hard as we could. One of us would dive down toward his legs to push from there, get a grip on him, try to topple him on to the floor. This freewheeling physical fun, accompanied by our father’s humorous sounds and commentary, was probably similar to Azi’s experience with his cousin Irv.
I have no recollection of how many times we played Beaver Dam. I do recall that at least once the two tiny, tireless beavers managed to roll this gigantic log on to the dam, over the side of the bed on to the floor. I think my sister will immediately remember this game too, although she couldn’t have been more than two or three when we last played it. What I remember clearly is how every session of Beaver Dam ended.
“Goddamn it!” my father would bawl to his wife, “he kneed me in the balls!” This confirmed what my father knew from the beginning, when as a tiny baby I’d eye him accusingly from my crib, that I would do anything to hurt him. He’d cry out to our mother that I had deliberately kneed, or kicked, or punched him directly in the balls.
“Did you?” asked Sekhnet when I read her the account of the game. “Maybe you did it unconsciously,” she suggested. It’s possible, I suppose, though I have no recollection of intent to do anything but get leverage and roll the gigantic log on to the dam. In the grappling I don’t doubt that he may have gotten a knee or elbow in the balls.
“Well, it’s my own fault, really. Everyone who plays Log in Beaver Dam knows that you wear a goddamn cup, since a knee or elbow in the balls from a flailing little beaver is pretty much inevitable. But I was a young father and naive as a baby,” said the skeleton.