A Note on Eli as My Father’s “Father”

Eli was the closest thing my father ever had to a father and the source of 95% of what little I know about my actual paternal grandfather.  Eli described my enigmatic grandfather as being completely deadpan, his face ‘two eyes, a nose and a mouth’.

“Well, that’s about right, Elie,” said the skeleton.  “Eli was the closest thing I had to a role model in that house full of frightened shtetl Jews, the only survivors of massacres they avoided by sheer accident.  Eli, whatever his other faults, would not hesitate to stand up to someone who wanted to knock him down.  That was an amazing thing to see, as a kid, a tough American-born Jew who lived on his own and didn’t take any shit from anybody.  Of course, it had its dark side, as any of his kids will gladly detail for you.”

I remember the faces of his three children, all in their fifties by then, sitting in the front row at his funeral as I began to read my notes.   They knew I was his good friend, and in some ways the child he’d never had.   They all smiled and nodded gratefully when I ad libbed that had Eli raised me I most certainly would not have been able to say, without hesitation, all the good things I was about to say about our departed, sometimes savage, loved one.

“Well, he was pretty much hated by his kids, and not without good reason. He was a tyrant to them all, it was always his way or the highway.   He was also pretty much shunned by his grandchildren too.  You remember when he told you ‘just what the world needs, another goy…’ when his half-Christian grandson was named Connor Steven?   He was a very black and white fellow, our cousin Eli, and he loved few things more than a good fight.” The skeleton sniffed the air and chuckled.

You know how we act as unconscious surrogates in many cases, finding and serving as the family members and needed confidants we lacked as kids?

“Yop,” said the skeleton, picturing himself and others in those roles over the course of his eighty year life.

I realize in some essential way that I served as the interactive kid Eli never had, someone who didn’t reflexively dismiss him, and that he, in some odd way, was the father I’d never had, someone who actually considered the things I said.  He and I could fight bitterly without becoming enemies.  

“Well, I’d say that’s true.  Your mother and Eli had love at first sight, and they fought constantly, bitterly, gave no quarter.  Their fights were violent slug fests, no holds barred.   Afterwards they’d laugh, and hug and kiss, and say they’d never forgive each other, and their eyes would twinkle as they looked forward to their next knock down drag out battle to the death.

“In fact, your mother was about the only person who could ever go that far with Eli.  You saw how threatening he got when anyone crossed him, even at 85, 86.  His face would turn magenta, white foam would instantly form on his lips, his grey hair would stand up like porcupine quills.  He’d become, like you said at his funeral, savage as an angry panther.  

“Like when he backed into that car in a parking lot, and the driver jumped out, and he snarled ‘you’d better get back in your fucking car, bub, before I forget that I’m 85 years-old and come out there and beat the shit out of you!’ The other driver got right back in his car, as anybody not insane would have done.  

“But your mother had absolutely no fear of Eli.  My brother and I, even as adults, had some healthy fear of him.  When we sat down to eat as kids he’d yell ‘go run and wash your goddamned dirty hands!’ and we’d run, boy.  It was run wash your hands or get a smack, and it wouldn’t be a love tap, either.” 

My cousin and I were in Peekskill a couple of months back, when you gave me the cold shoulder at the grave.  

“Surely you didn’t really expect me to talk in front of Sekhnet and your cousin.  The game would have been up if I’d started speaking from my grave,” said the skeleton.  

Of course.  Anyway, the point is that when we stopped by your house at 1123 Howard Street I recognized the place from the home movie Dave’s son had transferred on to a DVD that I watched at the Nursing Home with my uncle shortly before he shuffled off this mortal coil.  In one scene Azi, at around thirteen, is smiling on the porch, and your mother and Aren are there as you pass by, crew cut and tanned, looking healthy and fit in your yellow t-shirt.  

“Well, why wouldn’t I look healthy and fit?   I was probably 28 or 29 when that was shot,” the skeleton thought for a moment. “I have no idea who shot that home movie.  Oh, of course, it must have been David.  Nehama was on the porch at one point, she came out of the screen door with a big smile and did a turn for the camera.  Dave was the only one not in the movie, and he was also the first one to get new technology, because he was rich.  He had the first nice car, the first television set, the first home movie camera, an 8 mm, probably from Germany.”

I mention 1123 Howard Street because when we stopped by it was a two family house, with a separate door and stairway to get to the second floor.  It seems this was likely a later addition to the place, along with the siding, but it made me wonder about the living arrangements at 1123 Howard.  

The house must have belonged to your Uncle Aren, who must have lived on the first floor with his second wife, Tamarka, and their children Nehama and Dave.  Which makes it likely that you lived upstairs, with your parents and Paul, and above your living space there was some kind of attic where the Jewish transients would stay, and piss out the windows, and shit in paper bags.  

“That is a mystery I cannot give you a definitive answer to, Elie, since, as you may have realized yourself by now, I can only really tell you things that you have already discovered for yourself.  Hopefully Azi will answer that question since you emailed it to him just a couple of hours ago,” said the skeleton quietly.

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