I am trying to structure the book of my father’s life, to fully describe his often dark, tragic life amid flashes of his tremendous potential. My father’s story would be inspirational, if it wasn’t so damned sad. There is inspiration there, but a very subtle form.
Irv Widaen was an obscure man who rose from extreme poverty in America in the unprecedented era of opportunity after World War Two. It is very rare, in this country today, for someone to emerge from poverty to live any version of the American Dream. It’s harder to come out of poverty here than in most wealthy countries. Yet my father was no outlier, millions followed the path he did when he got out of the army in 1946. It was still possible in those days to work hard, get a little government assistance, and move into a comfortable middle class home.
I don’t think my father was unusual in his attitudes as a college student at Syracuse and Columbia, which he went to on the GI bill. He, along with millions, truly believed they were living in the dawn of a better world and were helping to bend the moral arc of history toward justice.
In 1949, when he was twenty-five, a concert was organized in his hometown of Peekskill, NY. It was a concert for brotherhood, a call to fulfill some of the goals of the recent world war, long overdue things things like ending racism in America. Irv was part of a young generation that had just fought and defeated racist regimes who mass murdered their racial inferiors.
The headliners at the Peekskill concert were Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger. They were there to inspire the crowd to stand up to bigots, racists, to educate deluded haters. Bigots, racists and deluded haters carried the day, however, lying in wait along the narrow entrance drive to attack those going to the concert. Bloody heads, laughing bigots, indifferent cops; the concert had to be canceled due to the riot. Reorganized, with a shoulder-to-shoulder human wall of young union men in t-shirts around the perimeter, it came off a week or two later without violence.
It wasn’t until inspired concert-goers got into cars, passed out of the grounds and headed south, along Cortlandt Road, where my father, from his present-day grave, could throw a stone through a passing car window, that stones were thrown through car windows, stones the size of fists, raining down on the heads of those who believed in fairness, thought the Nazis had been soundly defeated by the end of the war.
“You don’t win the war against Nazis, Elie,” said the skeleton of my father, sitting up in his grave a stone’s throw from Cortlandt Road. “You can only stop them once in a while, for a short time, when they are completely out of control and literally millions of their victims find themselves wide awake in a blazing nightmare. I don’t need to remind you how many of the most vicious Nazis wound up living privileged lives in America as well-paid guests of our good anti-Communist government after the war. You often say the Nazis won the war, and looking around at some of the current practices done in our names, and the methods employed, it’s hard to disagree.”
The device of my father’s skeleton chiming in struck me as a bit stagy, the first time he sat up in his grave to voice objection to something I’d just written about his difficult childhood. It startled me, the first time he spoke up. I figured I could always write the skeleton out later during the rewrites, and went along with his running commentary. He has refused to be written out of his own life story, insisting on his right to be a corrective against any bias I might bring to the telling. So be it. The truth is, I have come to greatly look forward to our conversations.
“Not so stagy now, is it, motherfucker?” said the skeleton of my father. “We’ll leave aside the question of how you expect to get this unlikely book, the critical biography of a nobody, authoritatively written by another nobody, son and grandson of nobodies, into print, past the marketing people, out into the hands of people you’ve never met, to, presumably, open a discussion that might resonate with many people: is a full recovery possible, from an early childhood of brutality and rage?
“Me? I did not recover from brutality and rage, though an argument can be made– even if a feeble one– that you took a couple of big steps. At any rate, I’ll leave that to you to describe. You know, we’ve had our disagreements about how much a person can heal himself, to put it mildly. you know, ‘disagreements‘. You’re more optimistic than I was, I’ll say that for you, you poor bastard.”
As always, I appreciate the support, dad. If I manage to organize, cut back and rewrite what I have here in the 800 pages written in the last year, I believe a book worth reading will emerge.
“You’re more optimistic than I was, I’ll say that for you, you poor bastard,” said the skeleton, expression deadpan, yet also insanely gay.
“I can’t help that grin, you bastard, I’m a skeleton… Jesus, Elie,” said my father, a man who had many subtle facial expressions while he was alive. The sterner of those looks caused my sister to dub our father the Dreaded Unit, the D.U. Now. twelve years after his death, his only face is the mad, beaming, yawning or silently screaming perpetual grin of the skeleton.
“You won’t truly understand it until you’re dead, I suppose. No, I take that back, not even then. You would have to have somebody else conjure you, animate your skeleton, in order to understand anything I’m telling you about death.”
My father never spoke much about his actual past. His reluctance to talk about personal things contrasted with how strongly he expressed his opinions on virtually all matters. Many key moments in my father’s life are dark, matters of conjecture, leaving only what I can imagine, in light of how well I knew the man who was my father. The long riddle of his life was how such a witty, inspirational moral teacher could also be such a supremely destructive weasel.
As far as telling a tale that compels, sells, neatly ties together a hundred neat details, irresistibly, I may not actually be all that much more optimistic than my father was, the poor bastard.
“Well, how far from the tree can the apple fall, Elie? You have every reason for pessimism, I’ll give you that. Still, while there is breath in your body, desire in your heart and interesting theories percolating in your head– you’d have to give yourself a puncher’s chance, would you not?”
My father’s skeleton and I sit, as the occasional car motors by on Cortlandt Road, drinking in the profound silence these questions raise.