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
MORE NEXT WEEK