Mehchaya

It was recently uncomfortably hot and humid in New York City (and much of the northeast, I understand) for about ten straight days.   The air was thick, heated to a sickening degree, and walking through it for more than a short stretch was like walking through warm vaseline.   It left a filthy slime on the skin that was most unpleasant.   The air went down hard to those trying to breathe it.   I would go out for a listless limp every evening slightly shaking my head.  Walking through it was like being slowly and deliberately punched in the face over and over by a giant, sullen, slimy fist.

We Americans have reason to be skeptical about a century of escalating pollution due to refining and burning fossil fuels having anything whatsoever to do with the warming of the atmosphere, and the oceans, and the catastrophic climate emergencies: floods, droughts, catastrophic hundred year storms and raging wild fires,  popping up with horrific frequency on every continent.   Our reason for skepticism has been bought and paid for by the refiners of the dirtiest, most polluting form of crude oil, primarily Koch Industries who invested three times more in “climate change denial” than even Exxon.  They certainly have nothing to gain by mounting this vigorous campaign against scientific consensus, easily observable catastrophic events and common sense.   I have to tip my hat to fucking Charles Koch, what an enormous and stunning cunt the man is.

Anyway, I was walking down Broadway one evening, at around my breaking point.  I’d been philosophical during the first week of the heat wave, summer in New York City has always been famous for airless humidity, certainly by day.  It began getting to me big time by day eight or nine.   I dragged myself down Broadway and looked toward a favorite bench, which was thankfully empty.  I sat down on the metal bench to check the score of the Yankee game on my phone.  I was damp from the short walk, my Hawaiian shirt stuck to my back.

From the south, without any warning, a cool breeze suddenly blew, and it kept coming.  I sat there like an old Jew in a sweaty shirt, two hundred years ago, my eyes closed and a big smile on my face.  “Oy,” I said to myself, or possibly out loud, “a MEHCHAYA!”   This Yiddish word indicates a pleasure that comes in the form of a great relief.  A cold drink to a parched throat– a mehchaya.  This beautiful, magnificent, life and hope restoring breeze, a mehchaya.  A fucking mechaya.

The breeze was actually wicking the dampness from my shirt.  It was indescribably beautiful.  It got me thinking, after the breeze finally died down and I made my way back up Broadway toward my apartment, that a mehchaya like that inevitably reminds one of other mechayas.

I recalled my father, at the dinner table one night when we were somehow not fighting, describing a woman he’d met recently, I have no recollection of who she was.   My father described her as a mehchaya.   A person as a mehchaya!   He had met her, possibly with some hesitation, and she had turned out to be a mehchaya.  Like a cool breeze on a hot, airless night.  A mechaya.

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Searching for Ancestors

It is late at night, has been a long day, an emotionally challenging day, but I wanted to get back to my cousin in Israel, so I dropped him an email just now.   He has been searching for the traces of our family and recently found some real clues.   The hamlet our people came from, on a fork in a marsh south of the Pina River a short ferry ride from Pinsk, has been erased from history, wiped off the map–  the people who lived there and the name of the hamlet that all those who lived there called it by.  

Truvovich was the name, wiped from every map in existence, as far as my cousin, and I, and a friend who lives in Poland and is a pretty fair researcher himself (and who searched in Polish), have been able to ascertain.  Between us we turned up one map, with a Jewish star and the letter T at the place we suspect may have been that site where one of my grandmothers, and one of my cousin’s grandfathers, were born.  The link I sent my cousin to that map no longer exists, though we have my screen shot of the pertinent section of the map.  

Pinsk Street Map - circa 1925.png

This takes us into the realm of What the Fuck?   We know the Nazis were fucked up, that the einsatzgruppen, the special killing units that followed the Wermacht, the army, as the secret police state was imposed in one occupied territory after another, were merciless (until they started going mad, becoming alcoholics, became unable, most of them, to continue murdering unarmed civilians and their children, usually by shooting them into ditches).  

The Final Solution, with its mechanized extermination camps, was put in place partly because the number of Jews and others believed by those insane Nazi fucks to be genetic poison was too great to be wiped out by shooting alone, and partly because the killers they sent to massacre these folks just couldn’t keep doing it, psychologically.  Those rare sadists among them who loved to kill became another kind of problem.  Easier to just put them in charge of a crew in one of the death camps, where their perversion would be a virtue.

But I am getting ahead of the story.   At one time all of my family members were alive and supremely insecure in the impoverished little shit hole in the marsh where they lived.  Of two of them, Harry Aaron (who I always knew as Uncle Aren) and my grandmother, Chava, I know what can be known.  Aren fled the Russo-Japanese war, made a life for himself in America, had three children, all of whom I knew.   My cousin in Israel is the son of Aren’s daughter.  I remember Aren too, he lived until I was eleven.   Chava, Aren’s youngest sister, begat my father and my uncle and died in Peekskill a few years before I was born.  There was a cousin, Dintsche, who had two kids in America, both still around,

Beyond that, the fate of the rest of our family is a statistic.  The einsatzgruppen rounded up all the Jews of Pinsk, and the outlying areas, and wiped them out in two major aktions, a few months apart, in 1942.  The details are here.

It is late, and airless, the humidity is like a continual punch in the face.  Outside the sky is black.  I haven’t the strength at the moment to follow all the thoughts that led me to begin to write this.   Except to note the mystery, as we are alive here in this wink of an eye, and the need to know.   The desire, like a serious thirst, to find something out, to learn even a single detail.  It is too maddening to know nothing.  

Recently my cousin learned that one of his great-uncles, a man I’d heard of as Volbear, a man he names Wolf Bear on his family tree, is listed in Yad Vashem as killed in 1942.   This was big news, to see the testimony, our ancestor’s name in writing.  The testimony consisted of a few names: Wolf Bear’s (born 1888), his wife Tzirel’s (age unknown), their two children, Leah Reizel, 14, and Yisrael, 10, and the year they died in the slaughterhouse that was Nazi-occupied Belarus in 1942.  This is far more detail than we have about the fate, and lives, of Aren and Chava’s other brother Yudle or their sister Chaska.

The other day my cousin sent me this photo, taken in 1938, found among his mother’s papers (she lived to 104!).  The niece and nephew of our common ancestor, named for the matriarch and patriarch as far back as our family tree goes (four generations).  Those ancient ancestors would be my great-grandparents on my mother’s side, Leah and Azriel [1].  The nephew and niece in this photo are Azriel and Leah.  Look at them:

Azriel & Leah (Nephew & Niece) - 1938.jpg

1938, before Hitler’s war, the war the madman insisted the Jews made him start. Their photo, taken that year, came with a note, in Yiddish, which my cousin had translated into Hebrew.   My cousin wrote: they state that life is difficult and they are looking for help.  

 

[1]

Leah and Azriel Gleiberman.png

Why So Pissed, El?

I have a great memory, made of a moment that sucked in real time but which has become precious to me over the years.   During one of our normal family fights at the dinner table I became furious.  I must have been eight or nine, maybe younger. 

My mother, who sat next to me, responded by grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me.  She shook me like a terrier shakes a rat, or a floppy rag doll version of a rat.  In my memory I am limp, and being wagged in the rhythm of her words, almost syllable for syllable.  Picture it: “what (shake) did (shake) any (shake) body (shake) ever (shake) do (shake) to (shake) you (shake) to make you so (shake) fucking  (shake) angry?! (shake)” 

I thought of my reply many years too late.  It was one of those moments some clever grenouille dubbed l’esprit de l’escalier, the bon mot you think of after the fact, on the stairs, the perfect witty rejoinder realized moments too late to deliver.    My missed line was an obvious one: I don’t know, mom, maybe being angrily shaken when I’m clearly pissed off and asked angrily why I’m so fucking angry? 

I don’t offer this story as any kind of indictment of my mother, not at all.  She never gave me reason to doubt her love.   Those fights at the kitchen table were no holds barred, we were all in pure survival mode in the fog of war as we fired our rounds, lobbed grenades, ducked wherever we could.   She and my father were as helpless as we kids were.  I don’t hold it against either of them, at this point, it was just a tableau vivant (although not silent, but screaming) of the Human Condition.

I love the image of the mother angrily shaking her young kid and demanding to know why he’s so fucking angry.

I’m not writing this as part of my Mother’s Day or birthday card to my departed mother.   Though I’d like to note here that an orthodox Jewish friend of her’s, Benjie, hearing that she was in a coma on her 82nd birthday, told me that it is considered a sign of a righteous life to die on your birthday.   

My mother was miles away at the time, in a nice room at Hospice by the Sea, but she seemed to have heard this remark.  She’d always fought with Benjie about what she considered the idiocy of a life ruled by religious ritualism.   She hung on overnight and died a day after her birthday, that way winning one last argument with the religious friend she loved to fight  with.

Why am I angry lately?  On one level it’s the same reason my mother and father were so often angry.  An imposed sense of powerlessness, frustration they had their faces rubbed in over and over.  In reality I am no more powerless than anybody else, I just get more occasion to soak in it than most people I know, living on a small fixed income, as I do.  And, of course, I have much more time to feel my feelings daily, being self-unemployed until I can start selling little slices of myself the way professionals all do.  Few people can have any real understanding of the possible value of what you are putting together unless you sell it; once you are paid for it, work makes perfect sense.

We all live in the same viciously materialistic society, currently governed by a grasping, entitled madman who personifies its values to an alarming degree and is stinking up the common space with uncommon speed and effectiveness.  The poor, the weak and the marginalized are vilified in our great democracy as greedy parasites, while the truly insatiable and powerful are celebrated.  Yeah, yeah, I know, go write a letter to your Congressweasel… write an op ed, write your damned blahg, in fact, monetize it, win or go home, take a flying fuck at a rolling donut. 

I had the same chance for a comfortable, successful middle class life as any of my hardworking friends, I know.  It is unseemly of me to complain, really, having so flagrantly failed to cash in my winning ticket years ago.  I could be running on a very fancy treadmill in really, really expensive running shoes.  Instead of moralistically daydreaming about making any difference about anything, or even having a  voice in the conversation.

So what is it specifically that is so maddening?  We accommodate ourselves to the world we must live in.  It is a place where only a microscopic fraction of humans have any say about what is done in our names.  We learn as much as we can about the proper way to act and try to take as much solace as possible from doing what we believe is the right thing, from our sense of integrity.  Having integrity of any kind is just one challenge of being a member of a dodgy species like our earth ruling, hubris-filled, existentially terrified homo sapiens.   The self-named “wise man” has figured it all out, everything except how to behave decently toward his fellow primate.  Oh, and how not to destroy life on the planet while exploiting its bounty and striving to own and control everything.

Money, motherfucker, the only thing you lack, to give substance and reality to your fleeting, meaningless life, is a dump truck full of filthy lucre.  Until you get paid, you ain’t shit.  If you forget that for a minute, how about a long wait for a subway at night, a tight squeeze into the train with a thousand other powerless chumps too stupid to take a $45 cab ride home, remember now what you are?   Next go visit a doctor here, wait a few hours for surly service, try to see a specialist — here, let us remind you again, bitch — you want to feel like you have integrity of some kind, with that laughably shit insurance?   Hah! Yaw hilarious!  Unless and until you get paid for what you can do better than someone else, friend, you ain’t a fart in the wind, let alone shit.  Let that be a fucking lesson to you, ass-bite.  Have a wonderful day!

(to be continued)

Happy Birthday, Mom

Yesterday I was at a party, a memorial and celebration of the life of the mother of an old friend who died recently at 95. [1]  My friend’s mother was, in fact, almost 96 when she died.  In a glamorously lit photo from more than 70 years ago, she appears as a dreamy beauty from the silver screen.   Her smooth face is illuminated as Rita Hayworth’s was in those gorgeous black and whites taken during the war with Hitler and Tojo.  [2]   When I met his mother, my friend and I figured out, she was 47.   Seems like the blink of an eye.

My own mother, who died in 2010, would be ninety today.  Happy birthday, mom.   There is a book to write about you, someday, if the God it’s hard not to curse just a little allows me the time and focus to write it.   Not that you had much use for that particular fable, the whole God thing, the all-wise, always merciful creator who lets the creatures He made in His image take the fall for every evil thing that is constantly happening in His miraculous world of Free Will. 

There was a blue, leather bound notebook I remember seeing as a kid.  Your poems were in it.  Your gravestone, don’t forget, is inscribed, in Hebrew, “heart of a poet”.   You had such a heart, a heart that would not allow a simple story to be told without a couple of embellishments that would make the story shine a bit more.   I came not here to quibble about truthfulness, not on your birthday.  Not to say you weren’t also essentially a candid and truthful person.   You just always had that artist’s desire to make the thing a little more perfect, in this crooked, cockeyed world.

Funny though, as funny as this conceit of talking to someone dead for eight years tomorrow, I was sitting at your kitchen table in Florida, close to the end of your long battle with cancer.   That twenty-three year ordeal that knocked the shit out of you, and eventually took your last breath.   You were on the phone, talking to your buddy Sophie, also my friend, and she asked you if I had arrived in Florida, as planned.

“No,” you said emphatically, as I watched in amazement, “he got stuck at the airport, in that terrible blizzard they had in New York last night.  He was there for hours, before they finally cancelled his flight.  I don’t know when he’ll get here…”   I said nothing, of course, but as soon as you hung up the phone I asked you what the fuck?! 

“I love to lie!” you said happily.  “I don’t know what it is, but I love to lie.”

A few days later, when we were visiting Sophie, the subject of my being stranded at LaGuardia never came up.  Why would it?   Sophie lived to be 98 by living in the present.  She was happy we were there, happy we were going to your favorite restaurant for lunch, eager to hear all the latest news.

I know, I know, of all the stories, that’s the one I tell on your birthday.  Some fucking son!   Hey, what can I tell you, mom, that’s the way God made me.

Kurt Vonnegut replaced Isaac Asimov as the president of some organization of free-thinking atheists.  In his first address to the group he told them Asimov was looking down from heaven, smiling on them all.   This caused the assembled intellectuals to roar in mirth.  If it had been now, one might have texted ROTFLMAO!    Funny line, Kurt.     

What has that to do with you, mom?   You know very well.  You always loved a good story, especially one with a punchline.   I don’t really have one for this birthday card, as I am feeling almost constantly angry these days, but I’m, you dig, trying to keep it light here for you.   For YOU, mom.  That’s kind of funny right there.   Even as we both know you’re smiling down from heaven right now, thinking of the perfect rejoinder.

 

[1] I am well-aware, Sekhnet (and mom), that the structure of this sentence is as ridiculous as the one I love from the old Mad Magazine “I was the prisoner of a sadistic hunchback with bad breath named Harold.”   I point out that the ambiguity about who died in that first, dick-fingered sentence, my friend or his mother, was resolved a nano-second later in the sentence that follows.   For what it’s worth, to a caviler with bad breath named Sekhnet…

OK, as I suggested above, I’m too pissed off and impatient at the moment to fix it.  (No, you don’t have bad breath, Sekh, and I’m pretty sure if you did it wouldn’t have the same name that you do).  Peace!

[2] see note above.  Rita never posed with Hitler and Tojo.  No way.

Mistake in my father’s eulogy

I wrote the eulogy of my father following the guidelines of the man who was conducting the funeral:  give the facts of his life, sprinkled with a bit of his personality.

My father read the New York Times obituaries every day.   Shortly after my father died my uncle handed me a long obituary he’d written and told me to contact the NY Times and have it published.   With my hands full, writing the eulogy, trying to coordinate the funeral 1,200 miles away, I smiled as I took the pages and gave my uncle the famous, ever so gentle silent  “fuck you” he’d no doubt received many times before.  My father never had an obituary in the NY Times, as far as I know.

I suppose I am making up for that now, or trying to, in setting down everything I know about the old man, part wonderful friend of underdogs everywhere, part monster.  

I recently read over the eulogy as delivered at the funeral.  The guy conducting it got a couple of details from my aunt and uncle that he added.   He added in some prayers, which he chanted beautifully.  But most of it were the words I’d written about my father.  The facts of his life sprinkled here and there with hints of his personality.

I saw one asshole mistake in there, a mistake I can easily forgive myself for, under the circumstances, but an assholish mistake nonetheless.   I refer to my father’s lifelong friend Benjie as “a colleague he met at Camp TY”, in the context of the two of them, along with my mother, opening the restaurant Tain Lee Chow, which they operated for a number of years.   I don’t even mention his good friend’s name.  What the fuck?  This is the guy I mystified right after my father was buried by a comment he had no hope of understanding as anything but the kind of weird “fuck you” I’d recently given my uncle about his absurdly grandiose obituary.  The details of that bizarre dis are here.

Benjie had done nothing, outside of being the son my father never had.   Benjie, for his part, found the father he’d never had.   It was a blessing for both of them.   I was an ungracious jerk to reduce Benjie to a faceless business partner.  How easy would it have been to add “my father’s lifelong close friend Benjie”?  Outside of that mistake, I think the rest of the eulogy was pretty good.  I have cut and pasted it below, since it apparently is nowhere else on this blahg.

 

EULOGY 

Israel I. “Irv” Widaen was born June 1, 1924 to Harry and Eva Widem in NYC.   The Widem family lived on Henry Street in Lower Manhattan for the first few years of his life. 

They moved to Peekskill when “Azraelkeh” was a young boy where he grew up poor with his younger brother Paul.  Began kindergarten in Peekskill speaking only Yiddish, played sports, mastered English, graduated from Peekskill High in 1941.   At least one member of Irv’s class went on to serve as Mayor of Peekskill.

Irv was a member, as was Paul, of Boy Scout Troop 33 of the First Hebrew Congregation and they marched together in Peekskill parades under a banner representing the First Hebrew Congregation.  

He was Bar Mitzvahed (and attended post-Bar Mitzvah classes) in the downtown First Hebrew Congregation on lower Main Street, where services are still conducted to this day, even though the “new” synagogue is on upper Main Street, where a plaque on the front of the new synagogue memorializes Harry and Eva Widem.  

 Growing up he idolized the Jewish slugger Detroit Tiger first baseman Hank Greenberg. His identification with Hank Greenberg was so strong that his schoolmates called him Hank and referred to him as Hank in print in the High School yearbook. He remained a lifelong Detroit Tiger fan.

Drafted into the Air Force in 1943 where, in spite of having almost no mechanical aptitude, he was sent to mechanic’s school and attained the rank of sergeant. He served after the war in Germany where his crew had a mutt they named “Schicklegruber”.

It was during WWII that his name became “Widaen” while the rest of his family remained “Widem”.  A spelling mistake on his birth certificate, relied on by the draft board, resulted in the new name.

 Irv graduated from Syracuse University on the GI bill with a BA from the Maxwell School of Diplomacy and Public Policy, and went on to a doctoral program in American History at Columbia. While at Columbia met Evelyn Mazur who lived downstairs from his cousin Dinch Stamper and her family on Eastburn Avenue in the Bronx.

 According to him it was love at first sight.

 Evelyn was the most beautiful woman he’d ever met and her love changed his life.

 After initial resistance Evelyn was won over and has always maintained that Irv was the most brilliant, funny, caring and wonderful man she ever knew.

 The couple moved to Queens after living for a while in Manhattan.  Eliot was born in 1956, followed by Abby in 1958.

 Irv taught Junior High School, then High School – at Martin Van Buren in Queens. At Van Buren he was the G.O. advisor and won the esteem of many a high school student.  

 In the early days of school integration in Queens Irv went from school to school to speak to hostile white parent groups about the need to bring black and white students and their families together.

 He was more than once pelted with the proverbial rotten vegetables and traveled with a police escort. His addresses to school principals were greeted with similar enthusiasm.

 He was selected to be part of a “Mod Squad” unit at the NYC Board of Education that intervened in riot plagued schools once integration began.  

 Along with a folk singing blond female WASP, an ethnic Italian, a Hispanic and a couple of Blacks, this mutton chopped secular Jew rounded out the Human Relations Unit.

 As Coordinator of Pupil Programs he designed and implemented sensitivity workshops that used role playing, and team building workshops conducted with humor and insight to teach the leaders of student factions to stop fighting each other.

 His team won over these hardened inner-city teenagers and peace reigned in the schools, until the students graduated and their little brothers began killing each other a few years later. He became a master of street talk, jive and playing the dozens in those years.

 He moonlighted as the Director of the Nassau/Suffolk region of a Zionist youth group called Young Judaea. He later went on to become director of their national camp, Tel Yehuda in Barryville, New York.   He directed the camp for more than a decade and became national director of Young Judaea.  

 He influenced many teenagers during his years as director, and kicked more than one of his son’s friends out of camp as well.

He also kicked his son out of camp once.

With a partner he met at Tel Yehuda he opened the first Glatt Kosher Chinese restaurant in Queens. He ran “Tain Lee Chow” for several years with his partner and a Chinese chef, named, coincidentally, Mr. Chow.

 He had a lifelong commitment to Social Justice, Animal Rights and the environment. He loved animals and he and Evelyn always kept a dog as a pet.   He did not care for cats.

 He was to the end of his life disgusted by the reactionary trend of American politics.

An avid reader of the New York Times — and a daily reader of the obituaries — once he retired and finally bought the computer his wife lobbied for, he added about five daily papers to his reading list and spent two hours a night on the internet. He subscribed to Sports Illustrated and followed college and professional football, basketball and the Detroit Tigers.

 He had suffered anemia and weakness for the last two years.   He always maintained that medical care in Florida was the worst in the world and that old people were treated as fungible cash cows. His final experience bore this out.

 In spite of seeing as many as seven specialists a month for years, he died from a cancer that went undiagnosed until he got to the emergency room.

 On Saturday, April 23, as Evelyn prepared the fish and matzoh ball soup for their quiet seder meal, my father woke up from a nap yellow with jaundice and unable to lift his head off the pillow or move his legs.   He was rushed to the emergency room.  

He was diagnosed immediately by the doctor who palpated his swollen abdomen, as swollen with cancer-related acites.

 He died the following Friday late afternoon from a badly damaged liver that led to the shut down of his kidneys a day or two after he was hospitalized.

 Once certain that medical intervention was futile he chose hospice care and died within a few days. His condition was inoperable, his decision to have hospice care was informed and intelligent.

 He had no self-pity about the sudden news of his impending death and remained sharp, never losing his lucidity, even in his final minutes.

He died peacefully.

A personal note from his sister-in-law Barbara:

 “Irv was the best man at his younger brother Paul, and Barbara’s wedding 55 years ago.

 He was a man who could be depended upon with grace and compassion when a family member was in need.

 Barbara has everlasting gratitude for the manner in which he came to her assistance when both of her parents died suddenly.

 He and Evelyn were always gracious hosts when visiting them, whether at Tel Yehuda camp, their restaurant, Tane Lee Chow, in Queens) or sightseeing throughout south Florida.

 Their energy was awesome.”

 He is mourned by … [short list of names deleted] … and will be missed by many whose lives he touched.

 

Who gets to tell the story?

The cliché that history is written by the victors, as a rule, is hard to dispute.  We have to be a little careful about oversimplifying the categories of winner and loser, though.   Take the history of the American Civil War.   A generation or two after it ended the daughters and granddaughters of the great families of the South, the wealthiest families, the “best” families, in the popular parlance, became very concerned with how history would remember their glorious families.    An influential school of historians arose, largely supported by these well-born gals, who told the story the way they preferred it: a glorious history of high principle and protection of an inferior race who became predictably savage when liberated from the protection of their former masters.    

It may also be said that this history, written in the late 19th – early 20th century when most of the Confederate monuments were being erected to the heroes of the violent rebellion against federal tyranny, gave a moral fig leaf to a new generation of American racial terrorists.   The history is only now being written of the long, bloody decades of lynching and intimidation that went along with this sanitized, glorified version of the antebellum south and the Civil War.   It became cool, and often politically smart, for glory-seeking white racists to become “knights” in the Ku Klux Klan, membership soared nationwide after World War One.  Nothing like a good old-fashioned beating, mutilation and death by torture to remind everybody of their places.  The lessons of this brutality, even as it was most often kept a local secret, were not lost on anyone.

Who gets to tell the story?  In American politics mass media pundits (even drug addled ones), with no background in anything but self-promotion, are more influential than our most well-read, well-spoken, deepest thinking scholars.  Put the scholar on one side, a defiant blowhard on the other side, and America gets to watch another egghead get put in his fucking place.   It is a kind of thought crime here, basing your thoughts on too many fucking facts.  Fuck you and the fucking facts you rode in on, asshole!  You think you’re better than me just because you’re smart, and devoted to knowledge, and actively seeking facts and something you claim is truth?  I got your truth right here…

 Who gets to tell the story, even in your family?  Put any spin on it you like, dismiss the version that makes you feel bad.   No need to ever feel bad, just write anything bad out of history.  See how simple it is?     Most people I know, like my highly intelligent, idealistic father, eventually give up after enough time banging their head against the imperatives of our frequently merciless world.

I wrote the book about my father.  Not yet a book, it is a collection of stories and conversations, evoking the times, conflicts and the complicated spirit of a gifted man who did not fully enjoy his gifts, who died full of regrets.  More regretful than angry, even at himself.  How’s that for a deathbed surprise, dad?   The lifetime of rage and denial yields to the reality that death is hours away, your thoughts became more and more focused on how you missed out on the most beautiful parts of the ride your gifts might have otherwise provided you.

 “Oh, give it up, Elie!” says the skeleton of my father.   “Better to go through the hundreds of pages you’ve already written, picking likely lottery winning passages, pasting them together into a scroll.   Your lifetime of rage and denial will end in your own terrible regrets, when death is closing in on you, that you never managed to sell your book, be interviewed by Terry Gross.  I hear your man Leonard Lopate got canned for some likely sexual impropriety or other, so you missed that boat.   Keep paddling, Elie, is all I’m saying.”  

Righty-oh, dad.   I remind myself, while I’m wondering about who gets to write the stories we all come to believe, that there are many ways to see a given thing, a given person.   Not to say that every point of view is equally valid, equally interesting, equally revealing.  Can we separate a devoted Nazi’s beliefs from his watercolors?  I mean, the guy may have been a supremely gifted watercolorist, a regular Winslow Homer, but he was a major fucking Nazi.  A Nazi, dude, those beautiful watercolors were painted by an officer in the SS.    Nazi watercolors, dude.   Ain’t dassum shit?

The best artist I ever knew, a few nights before she died, expressed this very clearly.  She had no truck with Nazis who were otherwise very artistic people.

Lunch with cousins (& the grasshopper and the ant)

My ninety year old cousin Gene introduced me, at his birthday party yesterday, as his only living relative.    His wife, sister and daughter were also there, along with a brother-in-law and a son-in-law,  but his point was taken.   His father, one of eighteen siblings (nine of whom lived, for a while, at least) was the only one who made it out of the caldron that was Hitler and Himmler’s Europe in the 1940s.  His father had survived by sheer luck.   An uncle in the U.S. had sent his future father a ticket for a steamship.  This was around the time of the First World War.  That uncle died shortly after the thirteen year-old arrived in America.  That was it for that side of the family.   No trace was ever found of anybody else, and Gene searched on at least two trips to Europe.

My grandmother and Gene’s mother were first cousins.   They had come over together right before the First World War on a steamship called Korfus die Grosse.  I never met that grandmother, my father’s mother, who died young before I was born, but I remember Gene’s mother very well.   Dintch was a bright woman with mischievous eyes and prominent cheeks that were often raised in a wry smile.   She also lived to be ninety or more, if I recall.   The rest of our family disappeared into that marsh south of the Pina River, across from Pinsk in what was then Poland and is now Belarus.   There is no trace of any of them, or even the muddy hamlet they all lived in, as far as any of us have been able to find out.

Gene explained our exact degree of cousinly relation yesterday.   Since my father and Gene were the sons of first cousins, they are, apparently, second cousins.   This makes Gene and me second cousins once removed.   I believe the same relationship exists with my cousin Azi in Israel.  His mother and my father were first cousins, so their children, Azi and Azrael (Israel), both named for their common ancestor, my father’s grandfather and Azi’s great-grandfather, were second cousins.   Or something– I’m pretty sure my analysis is faulty, now that I reread it.  I have never been good at this cousin business, probably because I have so few of them it never seemed to matter.

Chatting in the restaurant with Gene’s sister, I couldn’t help mentioning the 1,200 page manuscript I’ve drawn up grappling with my father’s life.  Gene’s sister has only fond memories of the witty, well-spoken Irv, and of my mother, another colorful character, an opinionated, earthy woman who loved a good story and a good laugh.   Gene’s much younger sister expressed interest in reading it, as Sekhent put the sales varnish on it, that it’s a story of history, and memory, and forgiveness and blah blah blah (actually, all she mentioned was history, but she strongly suggested the ms. is way more than a cv of an unknown man going on 13 years dead).

As is her way, Sekhnet pointed out to the group at the table that it is much easier for me to keep cranking out new pages than it is for me to figure out how to package and sell the book I’ve already largely written.  That’s the hard work, she pointed out, making the obvious a little easier for all to see.  Hard work, she made plain, is something  I constantly shrink from.    Like the grasshopper I am, think of that parable of the grasshopper who loves to play guitar, and mocks his constantly worried, constantly working ant neighbor (until winter comes and the grasshopper begs in vain for some food), I continue tapping here, instead of reading the whole thing and plucking out a succulent 15-20 page slice to send out to literary agents and get to the next step.

Since I have promised to send Sheila the whole megilla, I figured I’d seize the opportunity to select a strong 15-20 pages and send her those first [I sent her a random 53 page sampling– ed].   It will be much easier for her to deal with an appetizing slice than more than a thousand pages of sometimes rambling prose.  

In my experience, people have a very hard time reading even a five page story, unless it’s published somewhere, in which case they are all pleased to send a good word.  I need to cut out a strong section to get to the next stage.  How I will do this, I have no idea.  I do know I need a cup of strong coffee before I get started.  That is the very least I need.  You hear me, Sekhnet, goddamn it?