A Tough Write: Conclusion

My dad had a superficial gruffness that helped create the impression he was a man’s man. Ironically, it took much of my life to learn that, despite the enormous amount of time my father spent with men running his father’s card games, the war, tending bar, and working as a government accountant, it was much easier for him to talk to women. Learned that through his and Sue’s relationship. Throughout the years their friendship tightened much more rapidly than his and mine, and it was through their connection that he and I gingerly approached each other.

But despite the circling, I finally began to see how tolerant a person he actually was. He never batted an eye when we told him Sue was pregnant with Jake. He knew we weren’t married, but didn’t even ask if we were going to. He just rolled with it. Much the same way he’d rolled with my wedding, for which I never gave him much credit. And much the same way he rolled with my less-than-ambitious earning power—something that was important to him, but that he never laid on me other than an occasional tease.

I also learned it was impossible for him to live alone.

As much as both Sue and I have come to believe that Lenore was his true love, it wasn’t long after her death before he became involved with another woman from New Jersey and they eventually moved fulltime to Florida.

At this stage of our lives (I was about 40, him about 70), both of us were reluctant to jeopardize the delicate link we had made. And Sue made certain we not only maintained but fostered it. She would announce that it was time to go to Florida. She was the one who came up with the idea of making a license plate that read Sammy K., echoing a band leader he liked. She was the person I could watch tease my dad and make him laugh. She brought out and introduced me to aspects of his personality that made visiting more than a chore or duty.

In fact, it was Sue who, once he mentioned an interest in computers, suggested I take him shopping for one, set it up, and teach him how to use it. The first two were an easy do. The third, well, that turned out to be a blessing and a personal trip to hell.

He enjoyed the machine that let him follow his stocks, but never really got the hang of operator error. He was ham-fisted and impatient; if something didn’t happen instantaneously he’d keep banging the keys—lots of them. Not a useful way to work a computer, and out of character since he was usually pretty damn methodical.

Of course his computer ‘tech’ was me, which meant call after call with complaints about the machine while I tried to visualize what was going on and give him suggestions. Every time we visited I spent a day untangling the mess he’d made. But it was also a bridge. We were finally
talking on a regular basis.

Our visits and the computer crap slowly healed the old hurts we had inflicted upon each other. It wasn’t that they disappeared, more that new space opened between us. Space where something

other than the past, the conflicts, or the pain resided.

I was writing at the beginning of those years and, though he used to complain that my main character was too unkempt and drugged for big sales or a potential tv series (he was probably right), my father now knew me well enough to understand I was gonna write what I wanted to write. Years later, after Sue transformed a magazine writing career into writing books for kids, he kept asking why she didn’t just write “another Harry Potter.” I honestly believe he thought if a person could write, they could write anything. WRONG! This crack and his chuckle went on for years until Sue couldn’t take it anymore. She stopped it cold, when she countered with her own question: “Tell me Sam, how come you don’t stop buying those loser stocks and just get
good ones?”

But he was also quietly proud of our work. Kept our books in the living room where anyone who came into the condo would see them, including us.

Even more space opened between us. Hell, when Matthew was in college, he and a coed group of friends crashed at his place. The old man really enjoyed the visit. He never stopped telling the story of a mass of sleeping bodies on the floor and how Josh (Matt’s best man at his upcoming wedding) would wake up early and cook breakfast for everyone. My father still liked action and throughout his 70s traveled to Las Vegas (I met him there once), and to Atlantic City (met him there too), and went on cruises—as long as there were ‘comps’ and crap tables, his favorite gambling game. He’d started playing dice on the streets when he was a kid and the bug never left.

By the time he was 75, we were pretty comfortable with each other. To celebrate that birthday the whole family went on a short cruise where he and Matt hung in the ship’s casino, Sue and I chilled, and Jake fell in love (for the trip) with a girl he met at the karaoke bar.

Essentially, what had been at best an arms-length relationship had morphed into a strangely familial one. Strange because neither of us were yet willing to talk about the past, which hung on like a background shadow.

Those discussions began when he was about 85. He had slowed down considerably. I no longer had to have Sue at my side when I visited. And when he needed a hip replacement, I basically moved down there for a month or two, though Sue was also there a great deal of the time.

That’s when some real talk began to occur. He and I used to stay up after everyone was asleep, tv on in the background (tv background seems to be a necessity for men talk. Lets you move your eyes around when things get tough), and slowly, over time, our conversations became more
personal. He talked about his troubles with my mother and sister, and his pain about Lenore’s deterioration and death.

My end of the conversation included talking about the impossibility of living with my mother and sister, that night at the bar with the rebbetzin, his long, long absences. And, finally my embarrassment and dismay at how I treated him when Lenore was sick.

His hip mended. Even though he used a walker, he went back to his shopping, cooking, cleaning, and poker playing. But my visits, with and without Sue, became more frequent. As did her visits without me.

When I was there, those late night conversations continued. I learned more about the decisions he had made and why he had made them. He learned more about my life, my work, my anger towards him, the pleasure of our reconciliation. Sometimes the talks were easy, sometimes damn difficult. But they created a bond that remained for the rest of his life. A bond that will be with me the rest of mine.

This isn’t to say that all the conversations and my many years in therapy erased what had come before. Deep inside me there’s still part of that kid who sat at the bar. Things didn’t just vanish; nothing ever does. I’m still a product of my childhood, however altered.

But it’s almost funny. For so much of my life I never would have imagined that when my dad died, I would lose a friend.

Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

A Tough Write, Part III

I began a serious relationship with Sue in February 1978 and moved in with her towards the end of the year. Lock, stock, and Matthew who lived with us for half of every week. It was a rich time of my life and I remember a whole lot about it, but no matter how much I wrack my brain (and Sue wracks hers), neither of us can remember how my father and I reconnected. I’m not sure if it was even before or after Sue and I got involved, but, in fact, we had.

I do remember visiting him in Livingston, New Jersey, and meeting Lenore the woman he moved in with as well as her two high-school-aged kids. She seemed nice though needy. It was good to see him happy, but watching my father living with her kids raised feelings of jealousy about what they were receiving from him and what I hadn’t. Still, the time was well spent and all in all the visits satisfying.

Then I got hit with another one, two punch–a real schizoid bomb. My father asked me to be his best man at his wedding. The notion of being my dad’s best man, given our intermittent and difficult history, felt like the best gift I ever received. But the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. He continued by fumblingly asking me not to bring Matthew. Lenore didn’t want any of the invitees to know he had a 7-year-old grandson. It embarrassed her to be marrying a man that “old.”

On one hand I felt great about the best man do, but I also felt a growing rage about his willingness to disinvite my son on account of Lenore’s self-serving mishagas. Once again my father managed to raise all our history and it wasn’t pretty. He hadn’t stood up for me when I was a kid, and here he was refusing to stand up for my son. And worse, given my childhood experiences, my being the best father possible was huge. It was something I had fought for the right to do in my own divorce. Yet here was my father easily disowning his own grandchild rather than claim what was his. Déjà vu all over again.

My need trumped my rage. But, at the same time, I made late afternoon train reservations back home to be with Sue as soon as I possibly could for her return from a long planned trip to Europe. I have no doubt my decision to leave his celebration early was, in no small measure,
acting out about Matthew and god knows what else. It sure had nothing to do with my self-deceiving rationalization about needing to meet Sue the moment she arrived.

Once home, my relationship with Sue and Mathew was front and center. New love, fun times, making a new family, creating our own holiday–Mammal Day, replete with customized tee-shirts. And, like any new couple that just moved in together, there were issues to be worked through. Plus, Sue had the added responsibility of becoming a stepmom at twenty-five–which as any stepparent can tell you is pretty damn difficult.

So once again, the relationship with my father stabilized. The three of us made a number of trips to his and Lenore’s new house in Jersey–made easier because her kids were no longer living with them. There were some nice memories there too. A spiral staircase Matthew was enchanted by with a landing on top where he would perch over the action and read. Some really large, fake stuffed lions we would wrestle on; my father going out of his way in restaurants to do tricks with the cloth napkins which Matt loved. A general sense of comfort among all of us.

Problem was, with my father’s and my relationship, nothing lasted all that long (at least until later in life). Lenore was diagnosed with acute multiple sclerosis, the kind that advances pretty rapidly.

Which is when I became a shit. Instead of sympathy, I felt anger. It made me sick to watch him become a fulltime caretaker, catering to her every need (a trait I later realized was a significant aspect of his core personality). He even retired early to be home every possible moment.

Despite Sue’s exhortations and accurate analysis about my long-term resentments emerging in the most heinous ways, in my twisted mind I didn’t even acknowledge she had MS. Or at least that bad. She was just using her weakness as another way to take my old man’s attention away from everybody but herself. All the slights and abandonments from my childhood through Matthew’s dis-invitation, filled my head and there was no way to break through the cement.

My passive aggressive attitude and dickwadedness peaked when he brought Lenore for experimental treatments in Boston for two or three weeks. I went to the hospital once or so and only invited him over twice. And, as I recall, those times were tense, though by then I had actually accepted that she did have M.S. I just didn’t give a damn.

We drifted as emotionally far apart as we’d ever been, this time because the anger and hostility were shared by both of us. I knew he was enraged and, frankly, was pleased about it. He knew I felt this way and it probably enraged him more, though all this was unspoken.

My father and Lenore eventually moved to Florida a few years before her death and we visited them down there a couple of times. I told myself it was a way to get out of Boston’s winter. But despite Florida’s heat, my father and my relationship remained arctic until years after Lenore died.

Like I said, the connection was ugly. And I have no one to blame other than myself and my inability to see past my prior let-downs and earlier hurts. No excuse. When I think about it I have trouble looking at myself in a mirror.

Because the truth is, in thinking back, he really didn’t know what a father was supposed to do–which didn’t make the betrayals any the less painful for me as a child, but much more understandable as I grew into a mature adult. He loved me, but that wasn’t the same as being a good father. I understand now that when he and Lenore were in Boston, he was asking me for something for the first time and I refused. Which hurt him. And made me, once I began to
understand him, ashamed of myself. But of course I was always one, or in this case, several steps behind in life.

Luckily my dad and I had time for one last chapter.

Sometimes I lie awake at night, and ask, ‘Where have I gone wrong? Then a voice says to me, ‘This is going to take more than one night.’

Charles M. Schulz

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