My father read two or three newspapers every day, starting with the New York Times. The bending of the moral arc of history concerned him greatly and he could speak spontaneously and intelligently on many philosophical subjects without the need for notes. He came across as something of a hipster, an ironic idealist with a dark, wicked sense of humor. He loved soul music, particularly Sam Cooke. For a few years, in the middle of his long career, he wound up speaking like the angry black cats on the street. “As they say in the street,” he would say, then hit us with the latest street vernacular. “Dassum shit,” he would snap when confronted with something that struck him as bullshit. He appreciated the subtleties of the word motherfucker.
Professionally, he hung out with the violent leaders of rival ethnic high school gangs, bullshitted frankly with them and won them over to his way of thinking. In those days he wore mutton-chop sideburns and grew his dark hair down to his collar. As part of a Mod Squad style team (Black guy, Jew, WASP folk singer, Italian guy, Puerto Rican woman) my father led the rap sessions, I am sure, with quick, barbed humor and irreverent, pointed honesty. His deep identification with these discontented underdogs must have come across, along with his sincere hatred of brutal, random hierarchy and its inhuman unfairness. He invited these young enemies to laugh, identify, curse, imagine, talk about injustice and find common ground. They all left as friends, or at least with mutual respect, at the end of these weekends, time after time. There was a certain amount of charisma and a lot of deft, real-time improvisation involved in this alchemy.
He was born and raised in “grinding poverty”, a phrase he always spoke through gritted teeth, face like Clint Eastwood’s. “Grinding poverty” stood in for his unspeakably brutal childhood circumstances in Peekskill, New York during the Great Depression. My father had the good fortune after High School to be drafted into the Army Air Corps as America entered World War Two and live through a unique time in American history when hard work and determination, and a little help from the G.I. Bill, which put him through college and graduate school, could actually lift a person from humiliating intergenerational poverty to a comfortable middle class American life. Not to say my father ever felt comfortable, not for a minute. He paid a high price, working two jobs, to give his children an infinitely better life in a nice little house on a tree-lined street in Queens. Naturally, his children, not knowing any different, never sufficiently appreciated the things they took for granted, the lawn, the great, small public school, the backyard with the cherry tree that gave big, black cherries.
My father had all the appearances of a cool guy, but the pose concealed a dark, corrosive edge that was always at the ready. He had a deep reservoir of rage that was kept under tight control most of the time. His anger poured out almost every evening over dinner, in violent torrents over his two children, my younger sister and me. Even as we expected it every evening, as our overwhelmed mother recited all her complaints about us for her tired husband to address before he drove out to his night job, the ferocity of his anger still surprised us, somehow. It was a little bit insane.
Like anyone who rages and snarls, he justified his brutality as necessary to deal with his responsibilities, in our case to educate the two viciously ungrateful little pricks he was raising. He never hit us with physical blows but pounded us regularly with ferocious words intended to cow us and destroy unified resistance. The terrible mystery was how he could be such a tyrant while also imbuing us with important life lessons about decency, humility and kindness to animals.
The brutal battlefield of our family dinner table was a regular feature of our childhood. It was as horrific as any war scene you can imagine. The strafing from planes, ominously rattling machine gun nests, the rolling clouds of poison gas, the stinking trenches, rusted barbed wire, the groans of dying horses were as common to us as the steak, salad and Rice-a-roni we found on our plates in front of us virtually every night. Eating steak was a sign of prosperity for a man who had been hungry during his entire childhood, my mother broiled steaks from Frank and Lenny’s almost every night. The steaks were barbecued during the spring and summer months, my father or I usually turning them on the grill. Ironically, and somewhat characteristically, my animal loving father joined PETA later in life and cut out a lot of his former meat diet.
I was an adult, well into in my late-thirties, before I had the beginning of any insight into this confounding split in my father’s psyche. On the one hand he was a funny, smart, sympathetic, hip guy who was very easy to talk to, when he wanted to be. On the other hand, he was a supremely defensive man who more often used his great intelligence to keep others constantly off balance, a man who seemingly could not help trying to dominate and verbally abusing his children.
My father had all the attributes to be a sensitive, lovable, very funny friend, yet he somehow chose to be an implacable adversary to his children most of the time.
I’m realizing only now, as I write these words, since I am not a father, what most fathers would probably have realized a long time ago: what a tormented father my father must have been all those years.
I spent many years, before and since his death in 2005, trying to assemble a picture of my father as a whole person whose life made some kind of holistic sense. I could never do it. That’s the reason I eventually started writing this, an attempt to put together the puzzle of my father. I work at the puzzle in a darkened room, most of the pieces missing, moving things around on a slanted, slippery table. His unhappiness, right alongside his great capacity for laughter, was something I never had any insight into, not even a clue. Puzzling over it as a kid must have been at the roots of my lifelong compulsion to research and write.
Partly in search of insights into my perplexing father, I used to visit my father’s beloved first cousin Eli in his retirement cottage in Mt. Kisco, New York. I’d drive up there every other week for a while, about an hour north of my apartment, and sit with the supremely opinionated Eli in his tidy living room, shooting the shit. Then we’d go out for a meal somewhere. We’d often wind up talking until well after midnight and by the time I left I had to drive the twisting, black Sawmill River Parkway steering with both hands on the wheel.
Eli was an old man, well into his eighties, alienated from his own three kids, in a forty year blood feud to the death with his half-sister, on an every other year basis with his half-brother, he didn’t get that many visitors. I was a fledgling writer and he was a great storyteller and it was usually a pleasure sitting around bullshitting with him about the past.
It added to our bond that I was also the firstborn son of Eli’s favorite cousin, Irv. Irv was the firstborn son of Eli’s favorite aunt, Chava who was the youngest sibling of Eli’s firstborn father Aren. My father’s Uncle Aren had deserted from the Czar’s army, hopped a westbound train as the other draftees were shipped east to fight the Japanese. Aren’s run to America, and bringing his little sister here a decade later, a few years before their hamlet was wiped off the face of the earth along with everyone they’d ever known there, is the only reason any of us were ever born. Eli was Uncle Aren’s firstborn son, born in New York City, 1908.
My father’s first cousin Eli was seventeen years older than my father, he had watched my father for his entire life. The tough, American born Eli was the closest thing to a father figure my father had growing up, though his own father, a silent man from Poland overwhelmed by this world, was around until my father was in his mid-twenties.
Eli was a colorful character, no other way to put it. A short, powerfully built, frog-bellied man of infinite charm, with a sandpaper voice, equally comfortable charming a pretty waitress with his smile or punching someone in the face with either hard hand. I have often said of Eli that if he loved you he was the funniest, most generous, warmest and most entertaining person you could ever spend a few hours with. If he didn’t like you, he was Hitler.
I sometimes brought friends with me to visit with him. I’d know in two minutes if the visit would be a fleeting ten hours of cheer, great stories and laughter or 150 endless minutes of grim, pointless discussion and occasional glaring. Eli either loved you or hated you, there was not much in between, though he was capable of pretending, mostly, for a couple of hours. He had his own demons, surely, but was devoted to my father, my mother, my sister and me — there was never the slightest doubt of that.
He had a fierce temper, the “Gleiberman temper” as he called it, and would turn, in one second, from an infinitely charming raconteur into a purple faced, savage panther, white foam on his sputtering lips. Even at eight-five he was formidable when he was angry, and my father seemed to be somewhat scared of Eli until the end. My mother was the only person I knew of who was allowed to constantly fight with Eli. It was great sport between them, to rage at each other wildly and end up laughing, hugging and kissing when it was time to take their leave of each other.
Once, describing a car trip back from Florida with Eli, my father told me happily “your mother and Eli fought all the way from Boynton Beach to the end of the New Jersey Turnpike.” I pictured my mother, turned around in the front passenger seat, slashing at Eli with a broad sword as Eli swung his at her from the back seat. Tireless combatants locked in mortal combat, swords clanging, for more than a thousand miles, then getting out of the car, hugging and kissing with genuine, unquestionable love, laughing and saying they’ll see each other soon.
I had something of this kind of relationship with Eli, every visit he’d turn purple with rage at least once, but we always parted as friends.
It was in this spirit of friendship, and seeing me so frequently perplexed by my father’s unfathomable anger and sudden alarming rigidity, his grim determination to win an argument at any cost, that Eli finally told me something that immediately changed the way I thought and felt about my father. The more I thought about it, the more it explained.
“You remember seeing those old electrical cords they used to make before the insulation was made out of plastic? They were thick and heavy, not very flexible, wrapped in layers of rough cloth for insulation. The ones you saw as a kid were frayed, like burlap — you remember those cords on the old toasters?”
“Well your grandmother, my beloved Tante Chava, had one of those cords for her steam iron that she kept in a drawer near where she sat at the head of the kitchen table.”
I pictured the kitchen grinding poverty would have provided a little family in Peekskill, New York in the 1920s. It was like a scene out of a gothic horror movie, a shaft of light coming into the dim, barren room from a high, narrow window, dust motes dancing listlessly, menacingly.
“When your father was little, she used to reach into that drawer every time she got mad, and she had the Gleiberman temper, you know, and she’d grab that heavy cord and whip your father across the face with it.”
Across the face? What? I’d never met my paternal grandmother, who died before I was born, but… what the fuck?
“Yeah, she’d give him a couple of shots in the kisser with that heavy cord and he’d stand there cowering and crying. I saw it many times. After a while, all she had to do was rattle the drawer and your father would stand like this,” and Eli stood and did a remarkably moving imitation of a little kid staring down at the ground, cowering in terror.
“How old was he when she started whipping him in the face?” I asked.
“From the time he could stand,” Eli told me with infinite sorrow.
The skeleton of my father sat up abruptly in his grave at the top of the hill in the small First Hebrew Congregation cemetery just north of Peekskill.
“Jesus, Elie, you spend forty years trying to dig up enough clues to solve an insoluble existential puzzle and you put that giant piece on the table just like that? On page two? You don’t think that’s kind of a spoiler?”
I never planned on my father’s skeleton being my partner in trying to tell the story of his life and times, but he made a pretty good case. As I said, he was a very smart guy and, in spite of a lifelong twitch to defend himself at all costs, could always see the other side of whatever he was arguing against.
“I love it when you talk to the reader like I’m not sitting right here,” said the skeleton, turning his head in a crackling circle to loosen his crepitating neck.
I can feel this little intro slipping out of my hands, dad.
“Don’t mention it,” said the skeleton, with a nonchalant little flip of his boney hand.
High over the well-situated grave (there is a huge tree providing blessed shade) two Westchester turkey vultures made lazy circles in the air. The skeleton looked up and nodded.
To those who loved my father, and there were many of us, including some very bright people who frequently roared at his tossed off lines, waiting with expectant smiles for the next bit of hilarity, it will cause great distress to read about his monstrous side.
“After all, Elie, who among us has not employed relentless brutality to irreparably damage the children we raise? Come on, Elie, be fair about that.”
I’m picturing the dinner table when Arlene and Russ Savakus were over. Arlene with her keen appreciation, her super-sharp mind, Russ, her more low-key hipster husband, a moderately famous bass player, both of them howling. Their explosions of laughter were a kind of music I can still hear. My father was at his best with an audience like Arlene and Russ.
“We’re always at our best with people we love, who love us back,” said the skeleton.
Yes. Love is all we’ve got here, really. If you don’t have love in your life, nothing else really matters, except a ruthless lust for power I suppose.
“As your friend Napoleon, who reputedly regarded men as base coin, wrote in his diary ‘As for me, I know very well I have no real friends, and you don’t suppose I care– as long as I remain what I am I will always have ‘friends’ enough.’ As you have noted before, Elie, who is the ‘you’ he is addressing this thought about not needing intimates to?”
Arlene and Russ. I remember lying in my bed, as a kid, long after dinner, with the smoke from Arlene’s endless cigarettes wafting up to my room, along with their cackles and excited remarks. It is hard to imagine, seeing you at your best, that you could have also…
“Well, there’s your mystery of life right there, Elie, and nothing very sweet about it, I’m afraid.”
The potential in all of us, to be at our best, instead of pressed under the pressures we are constantly forced to fight being crushed by. Mind boggling, how hard it is to put that best side always forward.
“Well, some people are better at it than others. Some people, some of our most successful people, are all show, a thin candy shell over an inner life of squirming, festering horror. Look at this menace you have in the White House now. Unloved bully, raised by a demanding, overbearing. loveless father and whatever the hell his gold-digging mother was, look at the cruel monstrosity that produces. I like to feel, although, admittedly, I verbally whipped you and your sister in the face every night over dinner, that I never humiliated either of you, that I always, somehow, let you know how much I loved you both.”
Aye, that you did, pater, though it took me almost sixty years to see it all clearly.
“The tragedy of life, Elie,” said the skeleton. One of the vultures suddenly veered toward earth, the other one turned to follow.
Also the triumph of life, dad. We couldn’t have this kind of conversation when you were alive, but now we are.
“I’ll take it,” said the skeleton, looking off toward the rapidly descending scavengers.