“The reader will want to have a physical description of me,” said the skeleton, “you know, before I was this universal soldier we behold now, as you slink toward your own old age.”
I am always struck by an uncanny resemblance to James Earl Jones. The face, the eyes, the deliberate dignity with which he carries himself, the set of the downturned mouth, the body type, with the assertive, athletic thrust of its belly-prominent torso. Every time I see James Earl Jones it strikes me again how much, in his looks and the way he presents himself to the world, he looks like my father.
“Wow,” said the skeleton, “that’s a weird one, I have to hand it to you.”
No less an authority on the subject than Pablo Picasso said that art was a lie that helps us see the truth. It’s also a matter of poetic license, as they used to call it, but if you picture James Earl Jones, you have a pretty basic idea of what my father looked like. I think it may be his lightly colored eyes, as much as anything, and the downturned mouth, when his face is otherwise at rest. A kind of defiance.
“We can assume those burning light colored eyes are the genetic gift of a white man who owned an ancestor of his,” said the skeleton.
You yourself, with your six foot two frame, rangy as a young man, as we see in the army photos, filled out to the point of bursting in later years, and your thick, jet black hair, remarked self-effacingly from time to time, and out of nowhere, about how often you were mistaken for Rock Hudson.
“I did say that,” said the skeleton.
That was like your singing, in a way. You could pull off a few syllables of a very soulful Sam Cooke imitation, or some other singer of an earlier time. It wasn’t so much an imitation as an homage, a fleeting demonstration of how much you loved soulful singers.
“Your goodbyes,” you’d croon to mom, out of the blue, “leave me with eyes that cry…” You’d sing it very tunefully, and cut it off right there, go back to cutting your steak, shoveling down your dinner. “I got a house, a showplace, but I can’t get no place, with you…” you’d sing, as mom got that odd smile on her face.
“I…. wish… you…. bluebirds,” you’d sing, with a perfectly digested sense of Sam Cooke’s other worldly timing.
“Well, in spite of everything, I saw myself as a seductive, devilishly handsome man,” said the skeleton.
I know what you mean. It reminds me of that revelation I had as a young man, that you don’t have to smile at a girl you like. If the girl likes you, that is.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said the skeleton, “but if you mean you felt handsome, or unself-conscious, or whatever, and felt no need to smile or ingratiate yourself… I know you remember me telling you that when I look in the mirror I see what I want to see and ignore what I don’t want to see.”
I do remember that, and I do the same thing. You know my sister, a good looking woman, has always placed a tremendous premium on what a person looks like. She can’t stand to hear my critique of Obama, because he’s so handsome, as well as so well-spoken. “No, please, stop talking about my boyfriend that way. He’s too handsome,” she’ll say.
“Well, Eli said that about his love at first sight relationship with my mother,” said the skeleton, “you know, how much they both were drawn to good-looking people. How they could forgive anything, if the person was good-looking.” This is one of those odd moments, since I never mentioned any of this to my father when he was alive or since.
“Oh come on, stop being coy, Elie, you know very well how this works now,” said the skeleton. “Besides, how many times, in trying to describe Eli, piece together the painful mystery that was my mother, have you set out that scene, the reunion of oldest brother and youngest sister in New York City, when Aren brought Eli to pick up Aren’s little sister, Tante Chava? Eli would have been a boy of about seven years old, right, born in 1908, my mother came right before the War to End All Wars. Eli was regarded as a very handsome young man. Uncle Aren was a very handsome man too.”
“The D.U. was very handsome in his wedding photos,” my sister points out. The D.U., of course, the Dreaded Unit.
“This is what happens at this hour, when you would really much rather be asleep,” said the skeleton, not without a touch of sympathy. “You sleep for a couple of hours and then are suddenly awake, and desperate to go back to sleep, and you get up to try to mentally tire yourself out enough to go back to sleep. If you have a thought in mind and get up to write, this is the kind of thing you might write.”
Right. I got out of bed with the thought of a clip from a great Norman Lear documentary I saw the end of tonight. Lear is 93, completing his memoir, a work that takes him eight years, years when he is also in therapy. He looks at the filmmakers and tries to explain how difficult it is grappling with feelings about his father, who let the family down by undertaking a shady job that resulted in his being hauled off to prison when Norman was nine. Broke up the family, since the provider was gone. Lear is tearful as he wrestles with eighty five year old feelings about his father. A 93 year-old tormented by his feelings about his father. In the next scene he is watching a clip from All in The Family, a show that sheds tremendous life on our family.
The skeleton regards me warily.
Archie Bunker always reminded me of you also, his hectoring certainty and the aggressive thrust of his face, his belly. In this clip young Rob Reiner, The Meathead, is trying to convince Archie that Archie’s father was wrong to be brutal to Archie. The Meathead is hammering at a single very key emotional truth– that Archie’s father had been wrong to so badly mistreat his child. The subtext is that Archie is in a rage against a world he mistrusts because of his father’s cruelty, but the Meathead is all sympathy, genuinely horrified to hear that Archie was beaten and harshly punished as a child– and takes his father’s side. They are both, momentarily, completely out of character.
Archie wavers thoughtfully for a second, seeming to consider this, and then, remarkable actor that Caroll O’Connor was, his face becomes ineffably tender as he tries describes his father. A generic father, the first person to throw you a baseball, and take you by the hand for a walk. With that faraway look he describes his father’s hand, and how his father broke that hand beating Archie, for Archie’s own good. The camera pans to the ninety-three year old Norman Lear, tears running down his face. “Oh, God, is that good,” he says, wiping at his eyes with a handkerchief.
Earlier in the documentary Dick Cavett introduces Caroll O’Connor on his show with a phrase about the lovable bigot O’Connor plays. O’Connor comes out, in a suit, smoking a cigarette, and immediately speaks in a way that makes it very clear he is not Archie Bunker. He tells Cavett and the audience that Archie is not lovable, though he may make them laugh. He talks about how much pain Archie is in, and how imprisoned he is by that pain, how limited his world is. How much more fun he could be having, if he wasn’t so damaged.  Cavett does not try to make a joke.
I look over and the skeleton of my father is quietly weeping. I’m heading back to sleep, with Sekhnet and the cat.
 O’Connor nails it succinctly and insightfully for Cavett and his audience:
Well, you said ‘lovable bigot’, I don’t know about the lovable part of it. We’re presenting the story about a man who is basically a pretty unhappy guy. People may laugh at him and enjoy him but we must look at Archie as a man who could be getting a lot more out of his life, if he didn’t have these burdens on him and these things that have poisoned his life.
“Jesus,” said the skeleton of my father, parenthetically and in a footnote, “those words could be carved on my gravestone…”