A Tough Write Part II

Here come the absent years, or the repressed ones. I’m just not sure. But as I think about the stretch of time after that night at the bar, while I was living with the rebbitzen’s family (8th & 9th grade), I only remember seeing my father once more until my wedding.

Sue said, “That’s impossible. What about your Bar Mitzvah? Your high school graduation? Birthdays, holidays, weddings or funerals, a movie, dinner with your grandparents?” That’s when I remembered my father had come to the synagogue for my Bar Mitzvah, but not the party afterward since it was held at my mother’s fiancé’s house. I also remember him taking me to see The Longest Day. Those were really the only times I can remember–though, as I said, I very
well could be wrong.

But “missing” parents wasn’t the largest piece of pie on my plate during those years. I was having a great time living in the rebbitzen’s home and the loss of connection to my father didn’t seem important to me. I was living in an intact family, albeit a crazy one. The rebbitzen might have had an Orthodox household, but she also had an artistic life apart from it with all sorts of friends in New York City. Her husband didn’t think it proper for her to go into the city on her own, so I became her chaperone. (“Zach, Zach,” she would whisper from the bottom of the steps to my attic room. “Get up and get dressed. We’re going to New York.”) We spent countless nights on the Jewish café circuit, especially raucous when sailors from the Israeli ship line were in town. I felt like I was living in Wonderland, but it was wonderful because I felt like I belonged.

Which came crumbling down when the rebbitzen told me her family was moving to Israel. Without me. Hit me like a hammer to my head. I felt angry, lost, and panicked. I knew I couldn’t go back to live at my mother’s who had, by this time, remarried. And, during the time I had lived with her, she’d poisoned my father’s well past the point where I could even consider living with him. Hell, my mother used that threat as a major menace over and over, pretending to call him to take me away. She actually cross-ruffed living with him or sending me to the Rahway Reformatory, then demanded that I choose. Although neither ever happened, eventually the two alternatives melded in my mind as the same. Also, to be fair, the bar scene where the rebbitzen traded my being seen as a bastard by Jews for lower child support never entirely left my head.

No worry, the rebbitzen assured me brightly. No worry,– at least to her. I was too hurt to feel bright about anything. She and her husband had a friend who worked in a Hasidic yeshiva in Brooklyn and I was guaranteed a full ride including room and board. Although I had attended yeshivas from the third grade on, I was never religious. I was familiar with Hasidim, but being surrounded by them fulltime scared the living shit out me. Since it was boarding school I could stay there on weekends.

My reprieve from this stranger-than-strange? On weekends I could go to my mother’s and her husband’s new house in Orange, New Jersey if I felt like it. Or my father’s in Carteret. Talk about a rock, a rock, and a hard place.

Brooklyn it was. I was so shell-shocked and out of place for months that I really didn’t experience my loss of the rebbitzen and what had felt like unconditional love. A cold rage smothered those feelings and managed to get me kicked out of the school three or four times during the three years I was there. I ended up often commuting to my mother’s on weekends, but I don’t remember seeing my father during any of those years. No doubt in my mind I felt I had to choose. If I wanted to retreat to Orange, Carteret was out of the question. No way to pull off two-supper nights.

Again, I have to say there might have been a couple of times during those ten years that I did see him, (Maybe the movie was during this period.) but what does it say that I have no memory whatsoever of it? I’ve been struggling to understand feelings and decisions during that period of my life but frankly, other than what I said above, I have no new ideas.

In fact, it wasn’t until I quit the University of Wisconsin, joined VISTA and was assigned to Chicago where I met my wife (see A MARRIAGE PASSED posted on 5/2/11) that I saw my father again. Although my mother and her husband refused to attend because Peggy was Catholic, my father brought my sister to the wedding.

He was fun at the apartment where my best man Bill was orchestrating the friends who were scrambling around cooking for the next day’s event. Many of whom were high on acid and/or grass. To his credit, when one of my acid-eating roommates jumped up in a middle of a conversation with him and dragged him to the window to watch the sunset he rolled with it.

He also rolled with Peggy’s family, (her father also refused to attend for the exact same reason as my mother and her husband) who were shocked and extraordinarily upset about the marriage. In fact, he went out of his way to reassure them as much as possible. Even flirted with Peg’s aunt, the only Buckley who actually liked me.

He and I didn’t get a chance to talk very much; the day was crazy and crowded. As I recall, he and my sister left after the “formal” wedding took place. If I’m wrong and they did come to party at a friend’s house, I was too Cold Ducked to remember any conversation. Or, time and my own hostile feelings have erased any memories of him being there.

His attendance at my wedding broke the ice–at least, while I was married. I remember a number of his visits to Chicago. Now that I think about it, he must have driven all the way from New Jersey because he either brought a car full of groceries or insisted on taking us out for what he liked to call “a full shop.” He also always brought Peggy Ballantine Scotch, which he knew she enjoyed. And he always took us out for dinner every night he was there. This was actually the first inkling I had about his inherent generosity. While I appreciated it, I was still too bitterly full of abandonment to recognize this genuine part of who he was.

Boston changed things. Peggy and I moved here in 1971 because of my new job at Project Place, a worker-controlled, multiservice social agency. But now it wasn’t just Peg and me. We’d had Matthew and while my father never missed sending each of us a check for our birthdays, his visits once again stopped. In retrospect, (as if all of this isn’t retrospect) I’ve come to believe he just couldn’t deal with little kids. (But that insight was very retrospect–something I eventually understood when “post rapprochement,” Sue, Jake, and I would visit him in Florida when Jake was just a little boy and I saw that difficulty at work.

To be fair, I don’t remember us going down to Carteret to visit him either. I could rationalize this away by saying, Yeah, I had a little kid and a shitty car, but I think that would be bullshit. Despite the Chicago visits, my feelings toward him were pretty schizophrenic for all the reasons I’ve mentioned. It was just easier to avoid dealing with him face to face. Especially alone or with just Matthew.

Peggy and I broke up and I began to single-parent for half the week. Where there still were no visits, the checks grew larger. But so did my anger. Once again, when things got hard, I felt my dad left me in the lurch.

Then I met Sue and he met Lenore, relationships which put us back on and off the track.

“It is never too late to be what you might have been.” -George Elliot


A Tough Write Part I

Unfortunately, at my age I’ve had plenty of opportunities to grieve. Friends, peers, acquaintances, relatives, some of whom I’ve tended to and been with as they died. But until now, my mourning has consisted of feeling sad, bad, reflective, but, for the most part, in the back of my head. Of course, there were times my feelings took center stage. But more often than not, I kept going–a brief to edit, a jury to select, a mediation to conduct, a group to facilitate. Work. Parenting. My relationships. In other words, I simply got on with my life and let my grief work itself out from the back of my brain.

Now I’m faced with a different circumstance. This is my work. My job, at least where these nonfiction posts are concerned, is to get as close to my truths as possible. To move that which usually lives in back to the front and write about it.

To be honest, that’s a scary do. Especially about this. But as much as I might imagine retreating from my thoughts and feelings, I’m just too old for that.

As I noted in last Monday’s silence, my father has just died. Although he was 92, it was unexpected and mercifully occurred without prolonged illness or pain. Maybe it’s because I’ve been more self-reflective since I’ve started writing here, maybe it’s because, at 63, I am simply less afraid. But I’m ready to explore my feelings about his life and our relationship. For to mourn includes understanding what you lost and what you never had, and recognizing that a death means you’ve got to finish your unfinished business alone.

His was an unusual grow-up. A teenager throughout most of the Great Depression, he, like other kids his age, did go to school. Unlike other kids, he also worked for a father who ran card games, pool halls and, when the Democratic Party was in power in our town, the numbers. Although Pop had his hand in everything his father did, he was really talented with figures and odds, so he spent most of his high-school years running the all night poker games. He loved to brag that despite sleeping through most of his classes he was still a straight A student. From someone who barely got through elementary school (me), got tossed out of Yeshiva (me), and quit college (me), his As were pretty damn impressive.

He attended Rutgers University and graduated with the intent of becoming a teacher. One year in a classroom quickly disabused him of that notion. He hated it.

So he enlisted in the Army and accidently ended up in Army Air Corps flight training when the bureaucracy lost his application for communications. Another anomaly since he couldn’t swim and his eyes weren’t 20-20. No matter, he piloted B-17s, which he enjoyed and co-piloted B-29s, which he hated and flew combat missions in the Pacific—eventually dropping food to American POW camps after the Japanese surrendered.

By the time he returned home, his father no longer ran underground card games. Instead he had Klein’s Tavern. My father stepped behind the bar and eventually married my mother who also tended bar as my grandfather spent more and more time playing pinochle in the back of the

In retrospect I think a major reason for their break-up was my mother’s antipathy to the bar and her desire for upward mobility. She’s a woman who had smarts and ambition; she belonged in more recent generations where she would have possibilities that didn’t exist back then. Don’t forget we’re also talking about a working class town, top heavy with churches and ginmills where people had their boilermakers and raw eggs before and after their factory shifts. This wasn’t the life my mother had dreamt about. She despised it and apparently, in ways I’ll never know, made my father’s life miserable because of it.

In fact I only know this much because I was pretending to sleep the night they broke up and overheard their conversation. He made it clear he “had taken it for ten years but couldn’t and wasn’t going to take it anymore.” She, of course, had much to say. Their conversation freaked me out and I vaguely remember softly crying myself to sleep. My first taste of loss.

The second hit came a few days later when he left to live with his parents in their apartment above the tavern. But it was a knowing shock rather than loss that I felt since I expected it from their break-up conversation. And it was shame and embarrassment rather than grieving as I made up stories for the kids on my block about the long, unending hours my father was forced to spend at the bar to explain why they never saw him at the house.

This left me living with my mother and sister. And that didn’t really work out well at all. My mother was in a rage at her situation and since I was the only male hanging around, well, we didn’t much get along. Ugly fights and some serious beatings

For a couple of years, I was able to visit my father at the bar, only ten or so blocks away. It was a fight-free zone made better when my Aunt Jeanette worked there. She knew something wasn’t right at my house and was great to me, but wasn’t going to butt into her sister’s business. As I mentioned in a previous post, she enticed me to become a Yankee fan and we spent a lot of time talking batting stances and when a player was ‘due. Man, did I love her.

Meanwhile, things between my parents got even worse. So rough that I was never able to admit that I ate Friday night supper with my father and grandparents. I just forced myself to eat again once I returned home. Two bad meals and a cover up did not make for a pleasant evening. Eventually, I had to begin sneaking to the tavern if I wanted to see him at all.

By this time I attended a Jewish school called Hillel Academy where my mother worked as a secretary—though she called herself an “administrator.” A rabbi’s wife eventually saw how dysfunctional my life was at home. Using the excuse that she needed a baby-sitter for her five kids and I needed her husband to tutor me in math (I still use my fingers to count), she convinced my mother to allow me to live with her family. Manna from heaven but it came with a price. The distance between me and my father grew since my new living situation was located in a different town. That felt like a loss but the ability to leave my ugly situation at home trumped.

Eventually my mother wanted to remarry but my father refused to grant her a Jewish divorce called a get, which my mother felt was essential to proceed. I first learned about this the day the Rebbitzen (rabbi’s wife) told me about it, and that his refusal was leverage to lower his child support. She was to go to the tavern and negotiate with him. And I was coming with her. A human ace in her hand.

At least she let me sit on the other side of the bar while they talked. But you can only imagine what it felt like to be there—trying not to, but seeing their heads nodding toward me (An aside: Apart from this one incident, my time with the Rebbitzen was pure pleasure.She, more than anyone in my life until my psychoanalysis, helped me understand that I was a smart, creative person who just needed to find my niche. She helped me believe that I wasn’t just a stupid loser that no one cared about. Eventually there will be posts about her because I wouldn’t be writing this today without having lived with her and her family.)

Well, she succeeded in her mission and we drove back to the town where we lived. Although she was pleased, I felt used by her and my mother. And what did it mean that my father didn’t want to pay for me? More loss, more estrangement.

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

Frederick Douglass


Forever Yours

Those of you who either read or have read my posts know that my nickname isn’t Mr. Sweet.  I’m far better known for my cynicism than optimism.  But this week I’m taking a time out from my usual attitude.  After all, my oldest son is getting married to someone wonderful this spring.  And I thought it might be cool to interview the daughter of one of my best friends, who is getting married this week.  I’ve known her for a very long time and I also know her intended so this chat was pretty enjoyable.

ZK:  “You’re days away from marrying Rich.  I gotta ask, do you have any doubts or fears about being with him, hopefully for the rest of your life?”

Rachel:  “It’s funny, I did have those fears, but after we got engaged, they basically vanished and I haven’t felt them since.”

ZK:  “Even with the wedding looming?”

Rachel:  “Truthfully, none at all.  I really love Rich and I know he really loves me and that’s no different days before marriage than it was months and months and months ago.

ZK:   “So what is going through your mind these days?”

Rachel.  “I’m having feelings I don’t think I’ve ever had before in my life.  It’s like a combination of every imaginable feeling all mushed together.”

ZK:  “Do any particular ones stand out?”

Rachel:  “Probably the mix of extreme excitement and being anxious for the day to finally arrive.  For me the pressure is totally internal since everybody involved in the planning and taking care of details has been completely supportive.”

ZK.  “No fights with Mom and Dad?”

Rachel.  (laughter)  “Some quibbles but nothing I would call a fight.”

ZK.  “So how hard was it to pick a dress?”

Rachel:  “Why would you ask that question?”

ZK:  “What can I say?  Must be the metrosexual in me.  So was it tough?”

Rachel:  “Well, I was with my mom and my dad’s sister and it started slowly, but when we saw the right one all of us knew that was it.  So, I’d say all in all dress shopping went pretty smoothly.”

ZK:  “Do you still think it’s the right one?”

Rachel.  “I love it even more now and can’t wait to wear it.”

ZK.:  “You mentioned internal pressure a while ago.  Can you talk more about that?”

Rachel:  “Sure.  I grappled with body perception earlier in my life and I feel some of those old feelings surfacing. (FYI–Rachel is lovely and not the least bit heavy.) So I have to sometimes work to keep those feelings at bay.  Everywhere you look, there is pressure for brides to look completely perfect on their wedding day. It’s the “Bride’s” day!  Everyone is looking at the bride, waiting to see what she’s wearing, how she wears her hair, what her shoes look like, how much weight she’s lost…That’s a lot of pressure on a single day in your entire life.  And I sure don’t want to look back at my wedding pictures and think I look fat, or my hair not right. So there’s those sorts of things.

ZK:  “I can’t imagine you’re going to look fat.  Unless you spend the next week living in an ice cream parlor.”

Rachel.  (laughter) “I can’t do that.  I work every day and then I work out.”

ZK.  “Well, that takes care of that.”

ZK:  First, thanks for spending this time together.  And for letting me write this up. Maybe it’ll give me some sense of what my future daughter-in-law will be going through before her wedding.  Also, I want to say that you and I see each other almost every week and I’ve been really impressed watching how you’ve dealt with everything.  So my last question—is there anything you want to add to what we’ve gone over?

Rachel:  “Yes.  There’s this amazing feeling of WOW! I’m getting married.  How lucky am I?  My anxiety is purely about the wedding. I am incredibly blessed to have found someone as amazing as Rich.  I know it’s a cliché, but I really feel like he’s my other half.  I try to remind myself of that in case something isn’t perfect at the wedding, I still get to be married to the love of my life.  That’s what really matters, that’s what all this craziness is about!  I truly love him and I know he loves me and I like knowing that wherever we end up in the future, we’ll be together.

“Life is 10% of what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.” – John Maxwell