A Marker for my father

My father’s grave is marked with a large tombstone that notes, in an ancient tongue, that he was an intelligent and modest man.   His father’s grave, in the low-rent section of the same small town cemetery, where the tomb stones are jammed together like a mouthful of crooked teeth, is marked by an epitaph calling him straight and simple.  There are no other grave stones, going further back than that.  The Nazis simply didn’t give the Jews they killed such amenities.    

“Well, look, Elie, I don’t blame you for being disgusted, and angry,” said the skeleton of my father, “though I think we can safely throw these paragraphs into the circular file.   You are talking statistics again, a few handfuls of terrified, powerless Jews run into the swamp to drown, shot in the head.  They happen to be our people, fair enough, but, I mean, what is your point, really?”    

When I said “fuck Hitler” a few weeks back, this is part of what I was talking about.  

“Well, I’m sure the corpse of that psychopath is twitching in rage at your disrespect, Elie,” said the skeleton.  “In your fucking face, Hitler!”  

Fuck Hitler, dad.  In all his forms.  Hitler was a rock star of genocide, as charismatic as Elvis, to those who loved him.   We have always had these types among us, they tap into that rage we all feel sometimes, transform it into an irrational movement, capable of the worst mob violence.   When I used to rail against the aptly named Dick Cheney I was walking a mine field.  I had to be careful not to make any Nazi references, because, of course, Cheney never set up a system of death camps, didn’t even make any racial laws.  Killed a lot of people, sure, but not in the organized, systematic way Hitler’s folks did.  The comparison was unfair, even I realized that, even as he oversaw the torture and deaths of perhaps a million people in his borderless, trillion dollar, permanent war against Terror.    

“The pundits still call it that, ‘The War on Terror’, just goes to show — the power of branding,” said the skeleton.    

Yes.  So in the time I have left I suppose I want to testify.  I want to stand against the bullshit that is force fed to us by the marketing geniuses, by those who make big bucks to make atrocities sound benign, to keep the wheels of the war and oil industries humming.  

“That’s a big job, Elie.  Those types have already won,” said the skeleton.  “And besides, what do you really hope to gain?  You don’t even know the names of any of Pop’s large family, Grandma’s.  You have three siblings of my mother, Chaski, Volbear and Yuddle, just their names and no trace of the hamlet they lived and died in.  On my father’s side, just like him, a complete blank, two eyes, a nose and a mouth, in Eli’s immortal phrase.   That’s all you have, that and the area that 3/4 of them lived in,  where they all died horrible deaths.   At least they were spared being forced into cattle cars and railroaded off to slave labor and brutal living deaths, until their actual deaths.”  

You’re right, dad. Some days, it’s just too big a job to even contemplate.  I need to find a fucking chain pharmacy that has the shingles vaccine, before I start my immunosuppressive therapy in a few days.   Shouldn’t be this hard, I’ve been to several pharmacies already, one hurdle after another– now apparently it has to be a CVS that has the vaccine in stock.  Should not be this fucking hard, “should”, of course, being a word one shouldn’t use in a nation that places corporate personhood over the personhood of humans.   Give Hitler some credit for that, he showed how it could be done.  

“All roads lead back to Hitler with you,” said the skeleton.  

Yeah.  And there’s a freshly painted sign on that road, I painted it myself.  It says “fuck Hitler.”    

“Sieg Heil, man,” said the skeleton, listlessly lifting an arm in the Hitler salute.

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Food is Love — (note)

“So, if food isn’t love, what is food?” said the skeleton.

Look, fine, if you’re eating, and you see somebody who is starving, and you give them your food– food is love.   Nothing really more to the point you can do in that moment to express love.  Preparing a delicious meal for your loved ones, I’d say in that case the food is love.   Patiently spooning soup into the mouth of a weak, sick person– love.  Stuffing an overfed dog with steak?   I’m sorry, that just seems the wrong example.

“Well, maybe it’s a lot for me to expect you to understand, never having been hungry yourself,” said the skeleton.   

As you recall, my sister and I were pampered little middle class bastards.  It was a beautiful and horrible arrangement for you.  You could point to your virtue in never letting us know hunger or any kind of material want, and at the same time, you could be bitter because we had so little appreciation of the things we learned to take for granted.  You remember what you used to tell me when I thanked you as we came out of a restaurant?   

“You never have to thank me for food,” said the skeleton.

Food was many things when we grew up, few of them healthy.  Overeating was the norm, and eating in anger.  Literally, eating to choke down feelings. I recall you equated being able to put away a large quantity of food with manhood.

“Well, I saw that in the army,” said the skeleton.

I recall how proud you seemed to be when I downed maybe a half dozen hot dogs at the end of the Wading River Fourth of July parade.  I must have been eight or so.  The volunteer fire department had a big pot of free hot dogs and I kept going back.  The fireman would dip a long fork into the steaming water and pull out another one, put mustard on it, hand it to me.  I remember your smile, and your pride, at how many I ate.

Food, perversely, was also held up, mostly by mom, as a sign of personal bravery, a daring willingness to try things that looked and smelled repellant. She was not consistent with this in her own eating, but she always praised my sister, who was more apt to try new foods than I was.  “Your sister is a trooper,” mom would say, as my sister put something disgusting in her mouth.   

“Well, you had the last laugh on that one, didn’t you?” said the skeleton. 

We went for sushi after you died and I ordered eel.  Mom was horrified.  I got to chide her for not being a trooper.  Quite delicious, the way the Japanese prepare it, though I don’t know if, even at the height of my omnivore days, I’d have tried it boiled in a creamy sauce with onions.   

“Well, on the other hand, you were never trooper enough to try herring, Elie,” said my father.   As he said it I felt a sick feeling in my stomach.  Man, that stuff looks and smells disgusting.  Even my sister was not trooper enough to try herring.

 

 

 

Food is love

My father had a very sentimental side, the flip-side to his often brutal roughness.   One night at dinner he was feeding Sassy, the overweight Cairn Terrier, from his plate.   Toto from the Wizard of Oz was a Cairn Terrier and after visiting with dogs at the Westminster Dog Show we’d chosen a Cairn after Winnie, a great West Highland White Terrier went on to her reward.   Sassy was the daughter of Dodie.  Dodie had been a great, spirited little dog and the only one of our dogs (all female) to ever have been mated.   A breeder brought a randy male Cairn around at some point (or perhaps we brought Dodi somewhere, I have no recollection) and a few months later Dodi gave birth to three little Cairn pups.  My sister and I were shocked at how savage Dodi suddenly became when we started to approach her adorable sleeping mice newborns in their nest in a big cardboard box.   

The pups were very cute, and sadly, we were resigned to them all leaving for other homes.   Brer, our favorite, was chosen first, some people came by and bought him immediately.  Then the little female went.  The other, large, flat-backed and paranoid, never found a home.  We wound up keeping her.  My mother named her Sassy.  There was rarely an animal less sassy.   Unlike our other dogs, who slept out in the open and were always happy to interact, Sassy spent much of her time squashed under a bed or couch.    She was heavy and naturally suspicious, frightened, it seemed.   

I have thought of Sassy’s withdrawn paranoia over the years, in the context of nature vs. nurture.  We were there when she was born.  Her two siblings were playful, spirited little dogs.  None of the three had any experience that would make them distrust humans.  But Sassy, when she was not eating, was finding a place to flatten herself and hide.  She often skulked when she was not hiding, as though fearful to be out in the open, and gave the appearance of a giant, furry cockroach.   She was heavy, and sometimes, when it was necessary to pick her up for some reason, her eyes would roll in terror.  To complete the depressing picture, Sassy’s mother, Dodi, a very cool little dog, suddenly took ill a few years after Sassy was born, and died in what should have been the prime of her dog life.

My father doted on Sassy the sad sack.   One night when he was feeding the overweight dog from his plate I snarled at him to stop it.   I was a teenager who frequently snarled at my father at this point.   Our relationship, in fact, was mostly snarling.  A mutual snarling society, so to speak.  It took very little by that time for one of us to begin attacking the other.   The accumulated grievances weighed heavily on each of us, waiting for the next small flash point.  I was disgusted that he was stuffing this overweight dog with scraps of steak from his plate.  My father’s response was unexpected.   

“Food is love,” my father said gently.  I replied harshly that love is love and food is food.  He was uncharacteristically unfazed by my harshness and went on to talk about how sharing food has always been a sign of love between creatures.   He quoted some writer about it.   I snarled some more and left the table in disgust, my regular way of leaving the loving dinner table.   

For the last few years of Sassy’s life, my father injected the diabetic dog with insulin.   Sassy appeared not to object as my father made a tent of the skin on her back and slid in the thin needle.   He did this every night, and it extended Sassy’s sad life by several years.   She lived to be fairly old, as I recall.

Don’t forget to hammer this home, Elie

“Well, you see, Elie, nobody can truly understand the story of my life unless you manage to hammer home this point,” said the skeleton of my father.   He was referring to his childhood of grinding poverty, and violence.  

“The particularly bitter taste of my experience has to be well-known to the reader so they can perceive every detail through the lens of grinding poverty.  I’m not sure exactly how you go about doing that, you’re the creative writer who’ll have to figure it out.   I just can’t stress enough how important it is to convey the wounds left on me from my childhood of abject poverty.  

“And don’t forget, we were not only among the poorest of the poor, I was raised a Jewish boy in a small town where the Depression had hit hard.   I grew up in Klan country, as the re-scheduled Paul Robeson concert would dramatically demonstrate years later, again, as if it was necessary to demonstrate that, again.   My own mother whipped me across the face from the time I was an infant.  Conveying the full taste of all that is the only way to tell my story that makes any real sense.  The terror of that childhood has to be in every frame of the movie, if you know what I’m saying.

“How do you explain the ongoing torments of poverty in a nation where most people are not poor?   We walk past beggars sometimes, and homeless people,  but rarely get even a glimpse of the real, soul-crushing poverty that afflicts millions of Americans.   Most of us are simply shielded from it, the middle class.  Once a year, at Christmas, the New York Times runs a story about the hundred most desperate, miserable children in the city.”  The skeleton paused, turned his head on his bony neck, surveying the distance beyond the graveyard.  

“You got the tiniest taste of that shocking poverty only once, more than twenty years ago, and that probably makes you rare among your readers,” said the skeleton.

It really was a vignette out of a horror movie.  Picturing that third grade Harlemite’s world, truly … terrifying.   We arrived in the apartment building two blocks from the school mid-day.  The dim entry hall looked like a set from a disaster movie, broken glass and garbage.   Walked up the filthy staircase to the apartment.   Mother in a diaphanous nightgown eventually stumbles to the door, breasts swinging freely, most likely a drug addict.  There were definitely rats and every other manner of vermin in the apartment, and a baby was crying.   The boy’s mother couldn’t focus enough for a conversation, there was no point even saying anything.  

Walking back to school I felt that kid’s life like a sledge-hammer to my solar plexus.   I don’t know how anyone recovers from that, and, as terrible as his situation was, he probably had it better than many kids in that neighborhood, in this country, in the world. [1]  

“OK, if you saw that once, and felt that sledgehammer blow to the gut, even just that one time, then you have a small hope of understanding what I’m trying to explain to you.   Look, when you’re born poor you grow up knowing that no matter how much you may want something, you simply ain’t gonna have it, you’re powerless to get it, to do anything about it.   That enforced powerlessness, that sense that your lot is just your own tough shit, is truly a curse on a child, a lifelong curse.  

“My brother and I were hungry, on a regular basis, as kids.  You’ve never been hungry.  Think about that.  When you miss your 4 pm snack you start to feel hungry and begin to forage.  But that momentary, easily cured hunger bears no relation at all to what I’m talking about when I say we were hungry.  

“Look, you’re getting a little taste of poverty right now, living on this strict budget and everything, but it is an extremely genteel poverty.   You live on a tiny income but can instantly pay for whatever else you might suddenly need or want.  You are experiencing only a tiny, attenuated fraction of what it’s like to live close to the poverty line, without a safety net.  And even that noble poverty you voluntarily live in is often so galling to you that you are compelled to cry out.”  

No, look, dad, I absolutely get that.   I get how galling it is to have your powerlessness rubbed in your face over and over, just because you don’t have the money not to have to take that particular kind of shit.   A small thing, like a scofflaw slumlord who prevents you and your neighbors from recycling will sting like a burn after a while.  If you’re born into and grow up in a situation where your very survival is in jeopardy day after day, it leaves a dark, heavy mark on your soul.  Adverse Childhood Experiences they call them now, traumatic things it is now known cause lifelong harm to the health, alter the DNA, decrease life expectancy dramatically.  Most of these adverse childhood experiences are encoded into a life of poverty, particularly painful in a wealthy nation like ours.  The poor die young for a lot of reasons.

“Yeah, but when you put it like that, somehow you run the risk of reducing the conversation to statistics, the usual numbers chat about poverty, the way it’s generally done, with percentages and shit, and an arbitrary line, drawn artificially low, determining who actually lives in poverty, all of which misses the real horror of actually being poor, by a long shot.  It’s like saying ‘20% of you are totally fucked,’ and if you’re not in that number… you know.  Actuarial tables are one thing, the details of the life of the child who’s hungry, sees rage and violence at home, is brutalized by his mother, screamed at, whose main caretaker is overwhelmed, unreliable, mean.   You can keep zeroing in and much of what you focus on are the magnified traumas of being poor, of trying to raise kids in poverty, without basic things every kid needs, of the despair that leads to these hard lives and early deaths.

“But, you know, Elie, when you think about it, that’s really the problem with the world.  Anyone, with a modest amount of empathy, would do whatever was necessary to save the life of a baby who was cold, hungry and alone.   It’s human instinct, when an abandoned baby is crying for help, to go see if there’s anything you can do.   In this world there are millions and millions of babies, born doomed to poverty in the wealthiest nation in the world, and everywhere else.  How are you going to square those two things, the human instinct to care and the equally human desire to protect your own fragile happiness?   The poverty rate, even if it’s 30%, doesn’t directly affect the lives of the more well-to-do 70%.  Why would the 70% care enough to organize and fight to eliminate a poverty that doesn’t afflict them?”

Fuck.  You’re right about this, it’s going to be very hard to adequately lay out the grinding poverty piece of this.  I’m going to have to give a lot of thought to how to figure that out.  

Adios, then, muchacho,” said the skeleton, turning on his side to return to sleep. 

 

 

1]  One day, when I was teaching third grade in a Harlem public school, a boy put his hand down the panties of the retarded girl who sat next to him.  The girl may have cried out, other kids had seen it, there was no question about the boy having done it.  He denied it strongly, like a street character in an urban crime drama.  Shortly thereafter he slipped his hand up the girl’s skirt again.  I told him we were going to see his mother at lunch time.

We walked down Morningside Avenue (not to be confused with well-patrolled Morningside Drive) a few blocks, 118th, or 117th, down there in Morningside Depths.   Morningside Heights is where Columbia University is located, the faculty apartments opulent, the streets patrolled by police and by private security cars.  On the bottom of the steep cliff are quiet streets along Morningside Avenue.  The buildings are poorly maintained, their tenants are victims of poverty.   These events took place more than twenty years ago, closer to twenty-five.   These days I’m pretty sure Manhattan Avenue is a very pricey address, ditto Morningside Avenue along the park.  The building stock, the brownstones and small walk-ups, was nice, just maintained by slum lords.  I’m sure those valuable buildings are better cared for under gentrification.

What I saw at the top of those stairs that day was a scene out of a nightmare or horror movie, truly.   It explained a lot about the kid’s desperation to get something good out of his day.

Let me get this straight, Elie

“Let me get this straight, Elie,” said the skeleton of my father.   We’ve been chatting regularly the last couple of years, the skeleton and I.  A long overdue conversation, you might say.   My father’s skeleton has been resting in his dirt bed now for more than twelve years.  He finally has time for contemplation, to consider the things he wished he’d said and done while he was walking among us.

“Yes, yes,” said the skeleton.  “But I want to try to understand something specific here, Elie, while you natter on in your blahg about every random gargoyle of injustice you encounter– and, it goes without saying, the less income you have the more stinking injustice will be thrust into your face to deal with.   I want to know what you actually expect to accomplish by telling the story of my life.  Your plan involves the telling of this story… and then?”  The skeleton raised an open hand and turned it palm up.  

“OK, you write this definitive, historically accurate, politically informed story, themes as urgent today as they were in 1932, and you manage to do a second draft you’re pretty happy with.  It’s now a fairly snappy read, a story someone would be interested in reading.   It pulls together all kinds of interesting historical moments, personal and national, illuminates them from cool angles, fits them into an ongoing puzzle of human irrationality and hope.  It works in the difficult question of how a person can truly forgive an abuser and learn to live a better way.  A good read, thoughtful, measured, thought–provoking.   Done and done, you could say.  Then, all you have to do is find an agent and then a publisher so you can both get paid.  

“But let’s assume your primary aim was to write the complex story of your complicated father as clearly as possible, to understand the relationship and set the issues out calmly, for yourself and anyone else, with no regard for the commercial success or failure of the manuscript.  If so, you would appear to be almost done with this project and we’d have to call it largely successful, in the manner of Bear Bryant’s moral victory– which he disparagingly, and accurately, compared to kissing your sister.  But I’m trying to put my finger on what exactly you aim to do with this Book of Irv, what your real hopes are for this thing you’ve been working on, systematically now, for the last two years.”  

Sell it to the highest bidder, obviously.  

“Well, you say that, but that has always been a distant after-thought for you, getting paid by the high bidder, or by any bidder at all, for that matter.  How much of writing this manuscript was motivated by a need to get some corporate princeling to pay you for your time tapping out little lines of carefully marshaled words several hours every day?   I’m trying to understand what, exactly, it is you hope to get out of finishing this book.  What role a need for recognition as a writer plays in your motivation.  How you think the success of this book might change your life.”

Part of my motivation, seriously, is to say “fuck you, Hitler.”   I reclaim your life, and your unknown life stands in for a brutally culled generation, a tiny handful left from a huge family on both sides, thanks to Mr. Fucking Hitler.  The rabid madman published an unreadable doorstop of a screed called Mein Kampf, after becoming well-known for a failed authoritarian coup he defended stirringly at his public trial, and lived off the royalties of that giant piece of dreck for a decade.  Until he actually took power and started carrying out the insane proposals he ranted about in the book.   

“Whoa, Elie, ‘fuck Hitler?’   That’s really the best you can come up with?   Buy this book because, fuck Hitler, yo?” the skeleton did a stiff armed Seig Heil and then let his skinny arm go limp.

Part of it, yeah.  Testifying.  Kill my whole family, you insane asshole, but since you didn’t manage to kill my parents, or me, I get the final last word.   You know one big reason why our family was so insane?  Every relative left behind where we come from was killed by mobs, factions whipped to murderous frenzy by that master of marketing and self-promotion, Germany’s savior, the charismatic psychopath Mr. Hitler.   There are white douchebags right now buying copies of Mein Kampf, hanging pictures of that foaming-at-the-mouth Alsatian bitch in their dens, next to the mounted heads of animals they’ve killed. 

“Seriously, Elie,” said the skeleton.  “I take your point, but still.  Hitler’s the best you can do?  You’re going to dedicate the book to mom and Hitler?” 

Hah, funny you should say that.  The thought did cross my mind, though I realized at once it would be problematic. 

“Obviously,” said the skeleton.  “But your little Hitler pivot doesn’t distract me from trying to get the honest answer to my actual question.   We’re not on some network talk show where you can get away with that kind of shit.  We have all the time in the world, all the time left in your world, anyway.  I want to know how important getting this ms. into print, and being paid for it, is to you.   

“You know, we can dance around and around– and I can go for days, now that I’m but a skeleton– or you can honestly weigh how important getting paid is to you, how pressing the need to be recognized for honing your ability to write about what moves you.”   

Both things are important to me.  I’ve been paid a couple of times for writing, $250 a pop.  It felt great.  Once the words are published they are something everyone in our consumer society can understand.  Send the link to the mangled prose, worked over by the same ham-fisted hack who gives the thumbs up or thumbs down on paying you, and every friend you send it to will write back with a happy ‘atta boy!’   Write something equally moving, send it to the same group of friends, and the reaction is a kind of chagrined silence.  The question hanging in the air is: what the fuck?  Get paid for this work and send me the link, I’ll be happy to see it, but this…. I don’t have any way to talk about this if it’s just a page from your diary…   

“That’s the world, Elie,” said the skeleton.  “Until a paid critic for a well-respected journal writes appreciatively about your important work, how is anyone to know how good or important it really is?  You can bitch about a materialistic, shallow, clueless consumer society where all creativity must be commodified before it can be grasped, a culture best conjured by the images in a zombie movie– or you can sell that bitching.  Are you serious about selling your bitching, sir?”

Serious as Hitler, dad. 

“How important is the conversation you will have with strangers, once the book is out in the public?” 

Clearly, also very important.   Strangers are ultimately who I am writing for.  My friends will be happy for me, a few will even read the book cover to cover.  But the real audience for this book is people who never heard of Irv Widaen.   As far as they go, he’s a fictional front man for the telling of a story much bigger than the conflicts of his individual life.   The larger conversation, that’s really what I am excited about.   

“Clearly,” said the skeleton.  “So excited you’d engage in a two year chat with a dead man, for lack of a more suitable interlocutor.”   

One small step better than talking to the wall, I think you’ll agree. 

“You’ll get no argument from me, Elie.  How important is your fantasy of talking to Terry Gross and Leonard Lopate about the book?”   

Fairly important, I guess.  For multiple reasons.  Leaving aside the marketing angle, and getting to speak directly to their demographic, I think they are both excellent interviewers and I’d enjoy talking to them.   Beyond that, they don’t talk to just anybody.  Sometimes you’ll hear an interview that seems to contradict that, but in general, they are asking nuanced, intelligent questions about things that people have written, sung, acted out.   Would you not have looked forward to a chance to talk to somebody like that? 

“Oh, absolutely,” said the skeleton, beginning to slump back into his grave. 

Well, there you go, dad.  Anyway, let me catch you later, you seem to be slouching toward a well-deserved nap. 

“My reward,” said the skeleton, settling back into the dark earth of his grave.

A thousand words

young-irv-paul-herman.jpg

This photograph, taken at the nadir of the Depression, showed up in a box of photos we looked through after my father died.  My father is in the middle, hand on the chest of his little brother Paul, the other arm draped around the shoulder of the urchin in the white shirt.  They are all in short pants, and the two older boys wear ties, likely for school.   I asked my uncle who the other boy was.

“That’s Herman,” my uncle said.  

That was about all I learned.  Herman was a friend who moved away from Peekskill not long after this picture was taken.  I have no idea who took this picture, a person rich enough to own a camera, or if there was a particular reason it was taken on that sunny day.  Maybe it was taken because Herman was moving and wanted a memento of his friends the Widem boys.  I have no idea whose house that was behind them, it could well have been the house on Howard Street into which Uncle Aren put the impoverished family of his youngest sister.

I look at the photograph through a forensic lens, as an artifact of deep archeological interest.  It is one of a small handful of photographic clues I can study.   My father is clearly much bigger than his younger brother and Herman.  He is sitting, or squatting, and almost the same height as they both are standing.  I put my father’s age at seven or eight, based, in part, on my uncle looking five or six years-old.   I’m thinking Herman must have been my uncle’s friend, though they all seem very cozy and friendly smiling for the camera.   

The expressions and attitudes in photos, of course, can be grossly misleading.   I think of a series of photos I found in an album of my mother’s, taken during a festive dinner at my parents’ house.  I am beaming in every one of the photos on that two page spread.   Grinning from ear to ear, my arm around my aunt, interacting with everyone with a huge smile on my face.   The over-the-top happiness I am showing in every picture made me wonder what the hell I was so happy about.  I did the math to figure out when the pictures were taken.   Right in the middle of a six month period that felt to me like a profound depression, a time of personal darkness when I was monosyllabic and dreaded everything.     

So I don’t put too much stock in the tender hand on my uncle’s chest, the smiles all around.    My uncle flinched around my father right up until my father was on his death bed.   It appears he had reason to flinch.  The one story my father told, with some glee, from his unbearably awful childhood, was about the time he stuffed his brother’s mouth with raw chopped meat.   Apparently well worth the ass-whupping he no doubt got for it, he chuckled about it decades later.   So the tenderness for the camera, while charming, even endearing, doesn’t convince me very much.  

Although, it must be said, when my father was dying, once I arrived in Florida, all he wanted to know is when his brother was getting there.   I picked my uncle up at Ft. Lauderdale airport and from the time I brought him to the hospital the two Widem boys clung to each other.  My sister and I were both struck by the poignance of that.  After my father died, my uncle sat with his brother’s dead body, accompanied by my brother-in-law, until the hospital finally made arrangements for the body to be taken downstairs to be watched over by the Chevrai Kadisha, the Jewish burial society, eventually sent over by the Florida affiliate of the funeral home in New York.  

What strikes me from the photo, outside of my father’s terrible haircut, the inexpert work of some family member, no doubt, is that my father, with his 20/400 vision, is still not wearing glasses.  My father always wore glasses, he was legally blind without them.   Late in his life a new laser procedure corrected his vision to virtually 20/20.  For the first time in his life he didn’t need glasses to see beyond a foot or two, to drive.  

“He looked so weird,” my mother told me, “that I made him get a pair of glasses with clear glass lenses and he wore those.  I was so used to him with the glasses, he was almost unrecognizable without them.”  

I remember the instant splitting head ache his glasses gave me the one time I tried to look through them.  I have his last pair of glasses in my baritone ukulele case, where I put them when I took them off his face minutes before he died.   The lenses are, indeed, clear glass.

But here’s my father, as a school kid, with no glasses.   He’s looking at the camera, and the person instructing the boys to hold still and smile, and he’s seeing only a blur, benignly smiling at nothing he can see.    How long would it be before the boy who grew up to become my father would get the glasses that saved him from life in the retarded class at that Peekskill elementary school?  

There is nobody alive to answer most of the remaining questions I have.  There are only the educated guesses of an amateur sleuth.  And not a dispassionate sleuth, by any means.

 I am understanding, slowly and by unsteady steps, that we don’t grasp anything important about deeply emotional things in a hurry.   The pieces of the story we think we have start to come together in their own time, if enough focus is applied to them, if we are fortunate.  The pieces that can never be known for certain become more or less likely after they are considered again and again, compared to other pieces that feel like they fit right.  

I don’t pretend to understand how this process works, or even if it works, but it feels to me, some days, like the story of my vexing father is beginning to shape itself into a book.

Raised to Fight

I was my father’s primary adversary from before I could remember.  We rarely had a conversation that wasn’t contentious, or had some element of sparring.   I am told that I was born “with a hard-on against the world.”  That was the phrase both of my parents always used, my father who fought me from the git-go and my mother who dearly loved me.  I don’t recall my early, pre-verbal provocations, but they were famous in family lore.  

“When we brought you home from the hospital the crib was on my side of the bed,” my father told me.  “You’d stare at me through the bars of that crib with these giant, black accusatory eyes.  You would just lie there staring at me.   You’d never even blink, every time I looked over, those two black eyes would be staring at me.  After a few days we had to move your crib to the other side of the bed, to mom’s side.”  

It rang a bell.  I remember as a new-born thinking ‘who the fuck is this asshole?’  I eventually admitted as much to my father, it seemed fitting under the circumstances.  It was the way it was, the way it had always been, the way it would always be, until the last night of my father’s life.  

“Well, don’t take dad’s word for it, Elie,” my mother explained.  “Some babies are just born angry.  You were a very angry baby.  One day when you were about ten weeks old you turned bright red, and you were completely rigid, and crying, with your mouth wide open like you were trying to scream.   We got very alarmed.”  

“Your little fists were balled up and your arms and legs were straight out, you were stiff as a board, and red as a beet,” my father said.

“We rushed you to the pediatrician, who took one look at you and burst out laughing.  He said he’d never seen it so young, but you were definitely having a temper tantrum.  ‘This baby is definitely having a temper tantrum,’ he told us.  He really got quite a kick out of it.”

I’m so glad he got a kick out of it.  I remember him from that day, actually, and recall thinking, as he threw his head back and laughed through his donkey teeth — too bad I can’t talk yet, I’d love to register a stinging complaint with the medical ethics board against this arrogant asshole of a pediatrician.

My parents blew past all the obvious questions, relieved and vindicated by this pediatrician’s expert opinion.  Did this excellent baby doctor, I wondered years later, offer a theory as to why a baby only ten weeks old could be so angry, outside of plain, native orneriness?

Was it possible I could I have been freezing, or thirsty, or had a diaper rash, or something like that?  A terrible itch, a broken bone, perhaps?   Could I have been trying to scream, ‘would you please feel my little feet, which are ice cold, and throw my blankie over me?  I know it’s been a hot summer for you, and the cool breeze feels wonderful to you, sitting outside, chatting with your friends, but I’m skinny, just a couple of months old, don’t weigh much, and I’m freezing my ass off…’

                                                                              ii

I write this account of my father’s life and times in the form of a dialogue, mostly, because that seems the best way to show him in action.  My father had a certain way of expressing himself, inimitable, really, and I have tried to convey it as faithfully as I can here.  He could bullshit with anybody, was adept at conversation.  He enjoyed chatting, was very knowledgeable about many things and he had a quick wit and a dark sense of humor.  

The fact is, he’d have very much enjoyed a lifetime of shooting the shit with me, he told me as much as he was dying.  He took the blame, said he’d felt me reaching out many times over the years, but he’d been too fucked up do anything but fight.  He took the blame for that, regretted it.   Expressed his regret very sincerely.  I had no reason to doubt him.

                                                                     iii

I was writing this ms. for almost two years when I had a revelation about my father’s mother, my grandmother Chava.  It became obvious to me that my father got the way he was honestly, as his violent little mother created him.  I recently saw it from her point of view.

She died a few years before I was born so all I know of her is that she was barely five feet tall, had red hair (and according to Cousin Eli had been a beauty), was very religious and had a famously violent temper.  I learned that she had regularly whipped her infant son, my father, across the face with a heavy cord.  She also called him “Sonny”.  I conclude from these things that she was an enraged psycho of some kind.   But I eventually came to envision her life from another angle.

Eli told me she’d fallen in love with a Jewish post man, while living with and working for her older brother Aren and his second wife in Peekskill.   According to Eli, this red haired Jewish postman was smitten with Chava, and Chava liked him.  Also according to him, Aren and his wife busted up the romance.   “She didn’t want to lose her slave.  Chava was indentured to them, paying off her passage from Europe as their live-in maid, and she told my father to get rid of the postman.  And he did.”

Years later a marriage was arranged by Aren for his little sister, now on the verge of becoming an old maid. The groom was a man without prospects, Eliyahu Widem.   As the punching bag of his father’s second wife, he had learned to duck and keep all expression off his face.  That was about it, from what I can tell.  Chava found herself living in dire poverty, in a rented hellhole on Manhattan’s teeming, disease and crime-ridden Lower East Side, married to a cipher.

Her new husband drove a herring wagon, the horse clopping from store to store.  When the horse stopped in front of a store, he’d get down and wrestle a barrel of herring inside.  When the horse died he went out with a new horse. The new horse had no idea of the route, neither did my grandfather.  When he returned at the end of the day with a wagon full of herring barrels, he lost that job.  

At some point in the story Chava delivered a still-born girl, or perhaps the infant girl died after a few days.  I can picture the dark, scary tenement, and Chava’s depression and mounting desperation.  I can imagine her, a year or so later, naming the new baby boy, a huge newborn who must have been a difficult birth for the tiny, terrified Jewess.  I can picture it now.  “Israel, Azrael, Widem, Widaen, I don’t give a fuck.  As soon as this kid can stand on his own legs I’m going to start knocking him down.”

And she did.