It can’t be helped. Whether I wind up sexily summarizing the selected highlights of your life story and managing to sell it or not, this is a crucial moment for the reader’s understanding.
“Lay on, then, Mac fucking Duff,” said the skeleton.
I persisted in asking about this troubling subject– I became desperate to know what happened to Grandma and Pop’s twelve brothers and sisters. I don’t think I asked them, I’m pretty sure I never did. Probably it didn’t seem right to me. Even as a boy, maybe I sensed I shouldn’t bring it up, the answer possibly being too terrible to make them talk about. My father was a tough, straight shooting guy, seemed like the right person to ask.
“Was I the right person to ask?” asked the skeleton.
I’ll let you be the judge. You’d told me that “one day the letters from Europe just stopped coming.” Mom told me, decades later, a few weeks before she died, that she corresponded, in Yiddish (which she spoke with her parents at home and learned to read and write at the Sholom Aleichem School, the secular Socialist Yiddish culture school) with her grandfather in Vishnevitz for years.
“Yetta’s father, yeah, he used to send her Russian coins with his letters, ” said the skeleton.
Well, those letters, apparently, stopped in 1942, when she was fourteen. The reason, it turns out, is that at that time Nazis occupied Vishnevitz and made the local Ukrainian reptiles the keepers of the Jewish ghetto they forced the Jews of Vishnevitz to build. I learned all this recently, from transcribed eye-witness accounts, and it chilled me to the bone to learn the hideous details. But at nine years old all I had were nightmares and troubling questions.
“Which you understand troubled me deeply too,” said the skeleton. “You know, it’s very easy, in hindsight, to condemn me for the way I responded. You’re building this lawyerly case against me, bringing in this one damning witness, a moment of weakness when I gave a very poor response in an impossible situation. I understand you’re eager to make your point about how subtle my abuse was — there was plenty that was not subtle about it, like regularly calling you a fucking poisonous snake, a cobra or rattlesnake, take your pick. Pointing out, when you argued, that your face was ‘twisted and contorted with hate’– an admittedly odd, recurring line that now gives you and your sister a chuckle. I answered your anger with anger when you were a teenager by announcing that your acne was the poison of your hatred pouring out through your pores. That was a pretty good one.”
Particularly coming from a man whose skin periodically cracked apart and left him bleeding on the way to the hospital.
“Yop. Look, I’m the way I always was, the way we all are what we always were. You’re conversing with me like those insights I had while I was dying changed me permanently. If I had been properly diagnosed, cured of the cancer, sent home to die quietly years later in my own bed, we would never have had that conversation that last night of my life. But for that circumstance of my misdiagnosis and sudden death you would have only the image of me as I always was, an implacable lifelong adversary. I would have given no ground and you would not be attempting to write this book, I guarantee it.”
Probably true. My sister would definitely endorse that view of you. Look, I understand why you couldn’t give me a better answer about Grandma and Pop’s families that day. But the answer I am about to report is not just the expression of a father’s discomfort with a super difficult subject. It is the coarse cord of an old fashioned steam iron, gripped tightly in an enraged fist, and lashed across a child’s face. You were dismissive, and instantly turned my troubling question into a discussion of my lack of courage, my weakling’s character, my pathetic lack of manhood at nine years old.
By way of illumination, for anyone poised for high drama, I had a girlfriend once who described her father as an abusive man. She clearly had been hurt very deeply by him. I have no doubt the man was a cruel bastard. I was in my twenties, and though I already knew everything, I didn’t actually know anything, was still taking many of my cues from how my father acted. I asked her, in the manner of the fact-based man from Mars speaking to the sensitive, emotional woman from Venus, to tell me about his abuse, which she said had turned physically violent. I asked her to tell me about the physical violence, and there was a skeptical tone to my question.
It turned out that one time, after he’d snarled at her, she stormed out of the room and, as she went by him, he swatted her in the ass.
I think I actually laughed, to show how little I knew about anything. That one glancing swat in the ass, physical abuse? Really? Oh, ha ha ha. My donkey ears went back, and as tears rolled down her cheeks, I tried to pull myself together for her sake. I understand decades later how abuse really works and how she felt.
The damage of abuse is caused by its relentlessness, over years, the way it wears the soul down, programs and reinforces the hurt. The essence of abuse is that it is not a random event, it’s constant. Any time you need something, the opposite is offered and you are cursed for being needy. To that poor damaged girl the one swat stood in for all the rage and rejection her father had been unfailingly expressing for her entire childhood. The physical blow was the final proof of his utter disdain for his needy youngest daughter.
“Well, that is the nature of abuse. Whatever you need, you get the opposite and also a stinging slap in the face if you complain about it,” said the skeleton.
We were standing in the dining room, I think. You were six foot one, I was probably four feet tall. I asked you what happened to Grandma and Pop’s brothers and sisters. You told me they had all been killed. That was upsetting news, and I probably reacted badly. You tried to reassure me. You said “look, those people were just abstractions. Nobody knew them. You can’t get upset about that, they were a few of millions of people killed by the Nazis during those years.”
I realized in that awful moment, when the worst was confirmed, that our once large family tree had been pruned down to a single shivering branch by an army of murderers. I asked you if that made our family holocaust survivors; it seemed to me it did. You remember what you said next?
The skeleton looked straight ahead with sightless eyes.
“Goddamn it, you find a way to make everything about you! You are such a fucking melodramatic kid, you want to feel like the victim all the time, you’re desperate to feel like a victim. You want to feel like you’re personally connected to this historical atrocity. You’re not. You’re not a goddamned victim, those abstractions who were murdered were the victims. You never knew them, nobody here ever saw them. Goddamn it…” and you ranted in that vein for a while. I had nothing to say, left, went off to lick my wounds somewhere, brood about what an asshole my father was.
“That was wrong of me,” said the skeleton.
No shit, Shylock. It’s still hard to trace your thought process, if there even was one. ‘Nobody knew those people’– Grandma and Pop had no relationships with their siblings, even Grandma’s youngest brother, who she adored, Yussele, Little Joey? Why would anyone but a grandiose little drama queen be upset about Little Joey and his family being marched to a ravine, resignedly stripping to their underwear and filing into a row to be shot in the back of the head?
“Enough!” said the skeleton, “we get the point. I was a fucking monster. What do you want me to fucking say? I already told you I was wrong!”
Fifty years after the fact, granted, and more than eleven years after your death. Better late than never, I suppose. Not to mention that it is me who is actually admitting you are wrong.
“Heh, clever devil you are. Look, we are all ultimately responsible for our own lives, Elie. That is the troubling, sickening truth, the sobering fact that hits you hard in the face from time to time in your life. We know how we should act, but that knowledge doesn’t always win the day. We act the way we are set up to act at any given moment. We paper over our terrors with a thin veneer of bullshit, but we know it’s bullshit. We are dealt whatever shit hand of cards we get, then we spend our lives bluffing. Then we die.”
The skeleton looked off from his spot on the hill at First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill’s boneyard. “Unless we are lucky enough to have a brooding child who keeps digging up our bones and making us account for how we played the hand we were dealt.”