“Your father is the most secure man I’ve ever known,” said our mother to us once. “He has the strongest ego, you have no idea how comfortable with himself he is or how rare that is in a man.” She was laying it on with a trowel.
When my sister and I stopped laughing, the scoffing wisecracks began.
“We didn’t know you grew up on a desert island, mom.”
“Are you teaching us a new meaning of the word ‘secure’– like lashing out in rage at your kids all the time?”
“Shut up,” said the skeleton. “These precocious wisecracks of yours are pure invention. Stick to what actually happened if you’re writing my biography, wiseass. A false move like this will cost you all the credibility you’ve been trying to maintain throughout.”
A chipmunk ran across the skeleton’s grave.
“Oh, and before I forget, thanks for that catch on that unbelievable use of the word ‘nigger’ yesterday. I explained explicitly at one point what my attitude toward that sickening word always was, as you knew very well. Not that I feel much differently than you about the hypocrisy of that fucking “n-word”, it makes my blood boil too– you know, in a figure of speech,” he glanced down at his dry bones.
“It was much more lifelike to have me conclude ‘Uppity Negroes, Elie, never satisfied with their lot,” something dark I might have actually said, rather than ‘Niggers, Elie,’ something I never would have said. I think you’re getting the hang of this kind of writing.”
“Although, of course, I’d be failing you as a father, protagonist, reader and critic if I didn’t point out how pathetic it is that you feel compelled to put compliments into my skeletal mouth,” said the skeleton.
My sister and I did not actually utter those wisecracks in response to our mother’s defense of our father as a kind of superman. As we pulled ourselves together from our laughing fit we began making our little versions of the familiar Jewish sounds and motions of extreme skepticism. Waving our hands to dismiss, even fan away the smell of, the absurd statements, we also made the ancient sounds, kind of like the cawing and hissing of disbelieving crows.
“You bastards,” said our mother with a tight smile, her face readying itself to fight the tears that were beginning to come. “It’s so sad that you refuse to see what a good man your father is,” then the tears began to flow and my sister and I toned down our dismissive dance a notch.
This is how it often was, my sister and I, taking a break from our own intermittent war, uniting to beat down our mother as we’d seen her own mother do countless times, as our father did whenever he found it to his advantage. As young as we were we already had that merciless knowledge that every mob has: if you attack somebody prone to run they will take off and you can have an exciting chase. Prey ourselves, we also acted like tiny prey animals.
“You two are monsters,” our mother said.
“Sure we are,” I said, “we were created by two of the most brilliant mad scientists the world has known.”
“Oh, I’m one of the mad scientists,” said my mother, the tears giving way to a bit of pique. She was quick this way, emotionally labile, as I later learned it was called.
“Nice way to introduce the love of my life,” said the skeleton.
My mother’s life deserves its own book. I’m not writing her story here, I’m introducing her as a supporting character, to shed another important light on your life. She was your accomplice, unwitting accomplice in my opinion, witting one in my sister’s. “They were bad cop and worse cop,” as she rightly observes.
“You two really didn’t fall far from the tree, did you?” said the skeleton.
It was the soil we were raised in. Look, mom had a similar upbringing to yours, only she didn’t have a little brother to take it out on. She never got to stuff raw chopped meat in anyone’s mouth, that I know of. She was lonely, and very bright, and her mother was a tyrant.
“A cheerful and very charismatic tyrant,” the skeleton pointed out.
Yes. And like all of Yetta’s slaughtered brothers and sisters, everyone in her family… you know, now that I think of it, I have a history question for you.
“OK, don’t wait to see the whites of my eyes, shoot,” said the skeleton.
Howard Zinn recites the immigration numbers in the early 1920s when the Captains of Industry were importing strike breakers and so forth.
“Ah, yes, in them good old days we hear so much about,” said the skeleton.
He reports that in 1920 there were strict immigration quotas from different countries. The quotas ranged from 100 a year from places like Palestine to 34,000 for English, Irish and Scottish immigrants to 51,000 for Germans. The number from Russia was 2,000 a year. How the hell did grandma and pop manage to get out in 1921 and 1923?
“Ask Jeeves, man. That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer. I suspect the quotas were lifted, or relaxed. It’s hard to believe the two of them could have been so lucky. They certainly didn’t have the money or connections to buy their way on to the list, that I know of — not that I can picture anyone in those sweaty masses huddled among the rats in steerage being in that category,” said the skeleton.
Anyway, you get mom’s parents’ escape from Vishnevitz, twenty years before all the Jews who weren’t starved to death or dead of disease were marched to a ravine for a bullet in the back of the neck, beginning life in America as two lonely immigrants. Mom, born in 1928 in the Bronx, was fifteen the summer night when all her still- living aunts and uncles and their families were massacred back in Russia. An only child who had Yetta’s yardsticks regularly broken across her ass, as the story goes.
“You can’t reduce people to their upbringings,” said the skeleton, almost instantly regretting it.
We’re prone to say ‘can’ or ‘can’t’ but, as you realized too, the fucking world doesn’t care about can or can’t. You know, you can’t take people, march them in a line and shoot them into a mass grave. Innocent two year-olds? You can’t do that.
“I’m afraid my boss would disagree,” says the man with the gun, shrugging. “Come on, you’re holding up the line. I mean, you’re perfectly right, you can’t do this– but move along, we don’t have all night, my precocious little Yid.”
“The madness of the fucking world,” said the skeleton, “our history as a merciless, eternally hopeful species, written in the blood of innocents.”
You made mom cry now. You happy, dad?
“You know me,” said the skeleton, whistling a snippet of one of his favorite romantic tunes from the 1940s.