My conversation with the skeleton of my father has grown quiet lately, which is a shame in a lot of ways. I spent the better part of the last year waking up every day excited to continue our long overdue discussion. It was the kind of talk we rarely had, but should have had regularly. My father blamed himself, as he was dying, for not being capable of letting his defenses down long enough not to be a ‘horse’s ass’. He was right to blame himself.
Poignantly, and too fucking late, he acknowledged that he’d felt me reaching out many times over the years to have the kind of back and forth we started to have on the last night of his life. Fucking tragic, truly, and the only other person who could fully appreciate the tragedy of it was the man who had just died.
I need to point out again that the idea of conversing with my father’s skeleton was not something I dreamed up, it happened of its own accord. In fact, he spoke first. It was early on in writing this manuscript, trying to recall everything I could about my father in order to try to describe the full scope of his complicated life.
“Well, I couldn’t just let you make a hash of the historical record,” said the skeleton of my father from his grave atop the hill at First Hebrew Congregation cemetery north of Peekskill. “Whatever liberties I may have taken interpreting personal history over the years, you will admit I was kind of a stickler for accurate historical detail.”
Granted. The devil, of course, is in the interpretation of those bare bones of what happened. History isn’t a recitation of chronology, it’s showing events in perspective to help us understand the present, navigate the future, in light of the heartaches of the past.
“Yes, of course, that goes without saying,” said the skeleton. “Howard Zinn spoke beautifully, toward the end of his life, of the ideal role of the historian. It’s at the end of a long, rambling post, as I recall. You can cue it up, Elie, cut and paste it, right?”
Sure thing, though it’s really an aside here, isn’t it, dad?
“Fine, make a footnote, or appendix out of it, then,” said the skeleton.
“The past’s fugitive moments of compassion, what a beautiful phrase,” said the skeleton of my father, with that manic grin skeletons always seem to have.
“OK, the point we’re discussing today, as you know, is that in fundamental ways adults never truly grow up. I’m not saying this just to excuse my immature temper tantrums or to justify the way I emotionally abused you and your sister. I’m thinking of that deep insight John Sarno expressed about how the subconscious has no sense of time. An early traumatic experience is exactly as painful at fifty and seventy as it was at two and six. These traumas operate on an emotional level, their pain is not lessened by the passing of years.
“It was almost a hundred years ago now that my mother, the only one besides my uncle who escaped the massacre of their extended family, in desperation and rage, rose to her full five feet and first whipped me vehemently across my unmarked baby face. Five hundred years from now, if anyone interviews me, the moment will be just as– for lack of a better word– fresh. Do you think the victim of a lynching has any more vivid memory of anything in their life than those last horrible moments?”
I never thought about it, but, it sounds true.
“Well, you know, it’s the old ‘aside from that, Ms. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?’ These indigestible moments mark us, Elie. The miracle is that anyone can move on at all. That’s one reason leisure does not sit well with most people. I don’t need to lecture you about this, since you seem driven to prioritize your life to have minimal security and maximum leisure…”
I think of it as productive work time and not being distracted by bullshit.
“Well, OK, but it’s work you don’t get paid for. Most people prefer to be working and getting paid to anything else they could do on an average day. You work, you get paid, you buy things you want, put money aside, take a vacation, come back and work. That’s the world, Elie. You’ve always been a little queer that way, as if the world, from the beginning, owed you something for trying to see beyond the facade of this mysterious dung-heap of a world.” The skeleton fixed me with an eyeless stare.
And your point, sir?
“No point, really, just sayin’. When you were a kid, and you could draw like that, grandma encouraged you to believe you were already a great artist. What did George Segal tell you about grandma? ‘Your grandmother was very good for you, and very bad for you’.”
That’s ambition, dad, that’s a separate thing from the love of creation. George turned out to be a pretty angry guy himself, when prodded a bit.
“Well, just because you get world famous, and rich, doesn’t mean you’re not still a spoiled little baby pinched by all your original demons. Look no further than this Whiner-in-Chief your idiot countrymen selected as their CEO — do you think he’s sick of winning yet? That’s all well and good. But, look, however intoxicating you find those moments of creation, without ambition, without getting paid and recognized for what you do well, love of creation eventually withers, becomes a bitter caricature of itself.”
Perhaps, but that’s another discussion for another time, dad.
“Fine. You know, when you were a kid and you watched mom and me interact with Russ and Arlene, I’m sure you felt you were watching four adults, finished with their maturation and enjoying adult life. You remember going upstairs to go to sleep and the smoke from Arlene’s cigarettes wafting up the staircase to your bed, and the roars of laughter continuing downstairs until very late. It was impossible for a kid to understand that those were also the laughs of five year-olds. I’m not explaining this very well.”
Believe me, I get it. It’s like the personalized demons we were talking about recently. Things that terrify one person are blandly nonthreatening to another person and there’s no predicting who will be deeply afraid of what, who will seem brave about what. My ultimate horror is finding myself trapped in an uncreative job I don’t particularly like, at the mercy of an employer who is free to act like an angry two year-old.
“I can understand where you’d get that,” said the skeleton, “since you spent your childhood at the mercy of parents who were eternal two year-olds, on one level. I was certainly that way, I think mom and you had a better relationship. You didn’t have to confront that childish side of her as often. Or maybe I’m rewriting history a bit, you can never tell.” The skeleton turned to watch two turkey vultures, sweeping in long, lazy arcs in the sky toward the river.
You know, dad, all this has made me think of other things I have to do today, to make myself feel productive. I’m going to wrap this up and try to do some excavation on the right side of my desk, see what I can do about taming some of this horrific interior wilderness.
“Strength to your arm, Elie,” said the skeleton, “and watch out for the natives. They’re restless today.”
 Howard Zinn:
“I wanted, in writing this book, to awaken a consciousness in my readers, of class conflict, of racial injustice, of sexual inequality and of national arrogance, and I also wanted to bring into light the hidden resistance of the People against the power of the establishment.
“I thought that to omit these acts of resistance, to omit these victories, however limited, by the people of the United States, was to create the idea that power rests only with those who have the guns, who possess the wealth. I wanted to point out that people who seem to have no power — working people, people of color, women– once they organize and protest and create national movements, they have a power that no government can suppress.
“I don’t want to invent victories for people’s movements, but to think that history writing must simply recapitulate the failures that dominate the past is to make historians collaborators in an endless cycle of defeat. And if history is to be creative, if it’s to anticipate a possible future without denying the past, it should, I think, emphasize new possibilities by disclosing those hidden episodes of the past when, even if in brief flashes, people showed their ability to resist, to join together, occasionally to win.
“I am supposing, or perhaps only hoping, that our future may be found in the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in the solid centuries of warfare.”