I have been working sporadically on a book about my father’s life, the Book of Irv. I’ve spent nineteen months, so far, putting this puzzle together in a darkened room. For the first year I worked on the manuscript pretty much daily. That was the easy part, remembering what I could and writing it down. For the last six months I’ve been wrestling with how to put it all together to best show my father as a three dimensional person.
My sister reminds me that we can never truly know another person’s inner life with any degree of certainty. This portrait I’m assembling of my father’s life is an attempt to show him in action, his conflicts, what he loved, what he hated, the tides of history he contended with, the personal challenges he faced, the regrets he died with. It is, it goes without saying, my version of his life.
“I think you need to add one crucial piece to this description, Elie,” said the skeleton of my father, sitting up in his grave. “Much of this book is the conversation you and I should have had all along. As you reminded your sister the other day, though we usually fought, we were in agreement about virtually every important thing: politics, humanism, kindness to animals, our duty to protect the weak– ironic as that last one may seem coming from a man who tortured his children as much as I did. As mean as I was to you guys, I managed to instill values that both of you try to live by to this day. As you told your sister, that is the true puzzle of my life: my highly evolved belief in justice and mercy versus my tendency toward merciless cruelty.”
“And, yeah, yeah, I know, whipped in the face when he was a baby, insisting to his kids that childhood experience has nothing to do with adult life, lavishing loving friendship on a string of surrogate sons while lashing his own kids ruthlessly for their failure to fulfill his unobtainable need from them — to make the pain of his childhood disappear– a perplexing, hypocritical horse’s ass dying with bitter regrets, The End. But, as you note, not such an interesting book.”
More interesting, to me, is the story of how high you climbed toward your potential, given the impossibly heavy boot of the world on your soul as you were growing up. Imagine beginning your life at school as the Big Dummy, the biggest kid in your kindergarten class, unable to speak the language and legally blind. Add in the Depression hitting with the stock market crash during your first weeks in that demoralizing classroom. By the time you’re nine, Hitler is in charge in Germany. If your mother had been the kindest woman in the world, how does a kid overcome all that?
Your mother was, sadly, not the kindest woman in the world, but you apparently made your way among peers who had viciously mocked you, with emerging high intelligence, a keen sense of humor, an unaccountable interest in the larger world and, one must imagine, a certain elan.
“Well, as your sister said, you can never really know what’s in another person’s heart, what their inner life is really like,” said the skeleton. “I can’t really know about my own inner life at that point in time, except that it was pretty fucking grim.” The skeleton regarded me with sightless eyes.
“The fact is, from the point of view of completing this book, you need me to help tell the story, ridiculous as that may seem. I am dead, true, but also, I’m the only person who can provide another perspective, so to speak. Plus, as you say, the heart of this book really is the discussion I wanted to have but that I was never capable of having with you. I told you at the end that I didn’t know how to open up and be a human with you and your sister. The least I can do is try to do that now.”
You understand the dilemma that puts me in, trying to be a reliable narrator and all.
“Of course, that goes without saying,” said the skeleton, looking around with what used to be his eyes. “About my 20/400 vision, of course nobody had any idea I was legally blind until they tried teaching me how to read. They all just figured I was a moron, including my uncle and my cousins who would later run the family. My father was a dim bulb, an illiterate country bumpkin completely overwhelmed by the world. Everyone just assumed I was a mental defective like him. Eli told you my father spoke English with no trace of a European accent. That’s true. But he said almost nothing. He kept his head down. When my mother, may she rest in peace, raged at me, my father said nothing. He didn’t want to attract attention to himself, or he’d be next.
“When I was able to see and start to read, even though I looked at the words through those humiliating wire frame glasses that marked me as a boy whose family was on Relief, the dole, as they used to call it, I became fascinated with a world I’d never known existed. There is a vast world of ideas out there. Many of them, as we know, are destructive fucking ideas. Hitler had ideas, Dick Cheney has ideas, as does, presumably, this audaciously self-promoting orange asshole you have now, but there are also ideas that turn a light on in a dark room. The illuminating light of humanism, which comes, largely, if sometimes indirectly, from the moral insights in our ancient religion.”
A couple of black vultures did a few languid turns in the sky over the graves in the First Hebrew Congregation cemetery. On the hill, toward the top, my father and mother’s graves. My uncle, Irv’s younger brother Paul, is buried a few steps down the hill, his coffin suffocated under the honor of a pallet of worn out prayer books. Paul’s funeral was on a bitterly cold day, the ground and the sky were both white. There were a half dozen of us there, freezing, nobody but my cousin said much. A couple of years later my cousin, Sekhnet and I drove up to plant some of my aunt’s ashes under her side of the headstone, next to my uncle.
“First Hebrew doesn’t allow the ashes of cremated members to be buried in their cemetery. I knew that, that’s why I didn’t want mom, your mother, to be cremated. I know it varies among Jewish congregations, there’s nothing in Jewish law specifically about not burying ashes, though it’s customary, and still done in Israel, to bury a body in the earth as soon after death as possible. In Israel the body is put into the grave in a winding sheet, or shroud, no coffin. In Jerusalem more and more cemeteries are now above ground, vaults one on top of the other, and the body is slid into a slot-like crypt.
“The day of my funeral was a magnificent Spring day in early May, 2005. It was warm and sunny as you walked up past Eli and Helen’s grave to the freshly dug hole where I would be planted. Birds were singing and the world was that beautiful Spring green.”
That was the last time I saw you, at the bottom of that hill, in the plain pine box, with a shard of broken pottery over each eye and one on your lips. You had a five or six day growth of white stubble, almost a beard. You were wrapped in a gauze shroud. That greedy ghoul in the black suit, former lawyer turned beaming funeral director, had a worker open your coffin so I could identify you.
“The last word I remember hearing you say was ‘yes’. Then my coffin was closed again, the wooden pegs pounded back into place. I was buried and rested under a ton of earth for twelve years. Suddenly now, and to my relief, you wake me up to continue the conversation we should have had for all those years.”