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


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