In the Valley of the Bones
The hand of HASHEM was upon me; it took me out by the spirit of HASHEM and set me down in the midst of the valley—and it was filled with bones…He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones! Say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of HASHEM!’ Thus said the Lord HASHEM/ELOHIM to these bones: Behold, I will bring a spirit into you, and you will come to life. I will put sinew upon you, and I will coat you with skin; then I will put a spirit into you and you will come to life: then you will know that I am HASHEM.” —Ezekiel 37:1–6.
I stand holding my father’s bones: a shard of memory here, a recognition there of something from him that lives in me.
I was twenty-three when he died; I am now forty-six, and have therefore lived half my life without him. For twenty-three years, I have carried my father’s death inside me.
I have long resisted writing this story, because it seemed a confirmation of my father’s being dead and gone, of the absence of his body and spirit. I denied the story, refusing to settle for anything but the flesh-and-blood man.
But now, in the absence of the body created by God, here is the story. I write it because I can no longer leave my father’s bones unattended.
My husband’s uncle, Seymour Mayer, a holocaust survivor, insists that it is he, not his dead contemporaries, who is a ghost. Seymour, who survived, believes that he haunts and disturbs his dead family and friends with his reminiscences, his journeys back to Eastern Europe.
In a similar vein, I write to my father.
The Happy Genius of His Household
If when my wife is sleeping/and the baby and Kathleen/are sleeping/and the sun is a flame-white disc/in silken mists/above shining trees,—/if I in my north room/dance naked, grotesquely/before my mirror/waving my shirt round my head/and singing softly to myself:/”I am lonely, lonely./I was born to be lonely,/I am best so!”/If I admire my arms, my face,/my shoulders, flanks, buttocks/against the yellow drawn shades,—/Who shall say I am not/the happy genius of my household? —William Carlos Williams, Danse Russe, Collected Earlier Poems
I begin with a photo of Roy Schenberg at ten years old: a slender, serious boy; close-cropped black hair frames his round face. He wears a shirt and tie and a pair of knickers. His right hand rests lightly on the front of the Steinway Baby Grand piano his parents have bought him. He dreams of becoming a concert pianist.
By the time I was born, he had long since given up that dream. He allowed his parents to dissuade him from making music his life and made it a hobby instead. The piano lived where we lived, first in our apartment in New York City and then in our house in the New Jersey suburbs, where my father had gotten a job as a public relations manager for American Cyanamid, a large chemical company which made, among other things, Breck Shampoo.
What must it have been like to be a businessman, rather than a musician? Dad must have had dreams of playing the Black Key Etude, the Waldstein Sonata exactly the way they should be played, of hearing the glorious sounds issue forth from his hands the way they came forth from Gieseking’s or Horowitz’s. Was he disappointed that the masters would elude him forever, or had he resigned himself? Why did he obey his parents, rather than pursuing his dream, regardless of their wishes? Was it out of fear of his parents, of lack of confidence in himself and his playing, or did he think his parents were right, that being a musician was no way to make a living?
I don’t know how my father processed his losses, since he had a gift for focusing on the moment, especially on the good, rather than the bad. He never looked the part of the tortured, or frustrated, artist.
“The weekend is here!” he would call, as he bounded up the stairs on Friday evening. He’d kiss my mother, then call me: “Come here, child!” When I came, he’d bump my head with his own, and sing, “Gung!”
Once inside, where he could smell dinner cooking, he’d holler, “Pot roast! Just what I’m in the mood for!”
I am only now learning my father’s gift for gratitude. For me, this trait is not in-born. Rather, when I look into the center of my being, I find a sense of loss. It’s just there and pre-dates any actual losses I’m aware of. I once saw a cat freezing outside a house on a windy autumn day and was full of despair for it, and for me, though I knew I wasn’t that cat. I felt helpless, down, without hope. These are the kinds of feelings I entertain, until I remember my father.
How did my father find happiness without being a professional pianist? I think he must have realized that a pianist is a person who plays the piano, regardless of whether or not he gets paid for it. Dad played on evenings and weekends. He always started with the same finger exercises: “ta-de-da-de-da-de-da-de-da-de-dah.” Then he’d practice his Black Key Etude, his Moonlight Sonata.
He played with great intensity, moving his whole upper body and twisting his face into contortions that made my sister Kathy and me howl with laughter. When I was small, I’d interrupt Dad’s piano practice and ask him to come play with me.
“Later, child,” he’d intone. “I have to catch up with Horowitz.”
I’d interrupt him again a few days later, figuring he’d be caught up by then, but he’d still say, “I have to catch up with Horowitz.”
Sometimes all my aunts and uncles gathered in the living room to listen to Daddy play. I wondered why. I yawned, put my head on my mother’s shoulder. To me, his music was as ordinary as the sound of water running; it was years before I’d differentiate between the Beethoven and the “ta-de-da-de-dah” of the finger exercises.
As a writer, I now try to practice my writing with the persistence my father gave to his music. I remember how he played his finger exercises, then practiced the compositions. When he came to a hard spot, he kept coming back to it, till he had it in his fingers. There was no ego involved in Dad’s practicing. He was working in the service of the music, doing what needed to be done.
I am reminded of a mystical Jewish teaching about the creation of the world. Rabbi Isaac Luria tells us that before God created the world, all that existed was God, and God was everyplace. Where, then, was room for creation? To make room for all of us, God had to remove Himself from a part of space. Luria calls this pulling back on God’s part the Tsimtsum, or contraction. The lesson of the Tsimtsum is that to create is to retract the self, or the ego, rather than pushing it forward. The person creating loses himself in his work—as my father did when he played, and as God is said to have done in creating the world.
My father did not look or sound like a genius. He was bald, round-faced, chubby, and spoke with a strong Brooklyn accent. When I was a kid, I realized he said “bafftub,” instead of “bathtub,” and loved tricking him into saying the word.
“Daddy, name some things in the bathroom,” I’d say.
“Well, there’s the sink, the toilet, the bafftub…”
“He says bafftub!” I’d yell, laughing.
When he was in his forties, my father decided to get an M.B.A., followed by a Ph.D. in applied mathematics. While few people would have taken him for a scholar, one of his professors at N.Y.U. said that Dad’s “A” work was as far away from that of the other A-students as theirs was from the F-students’ work.
It was not in academics where my father considered himself an artist or a genius. He liked to call himself the “Mahstah Chef,” which he was, as long as deviled eggs were on the menu.
“Observe, child,” he’d say, “how the Mahstah Chef makes deviled eggs. First, you must boil the eggs, without cracking them. Watch carefully.”
He’d remove from a kitchen drawer a needle, which he used to make a tiny hole in the top of the egg, where the air pocket was. The idea was, the air would escape through the pinhole, rather than forcing the egg to crack. It generally worked.
When the eggs were done and cooled, Dad busied himself mashing the yokes.
“Now, the finishing touches,” he’d say, adding mayonnaise, some salt. Then he’d replace the deviled yokes in the whites, add a sprinkling of paprika, and eat his eggs, smacking his lips over them.
“The Mastah Chef!” my mother would laugh. “Mastah Nudnik is more like it!”
I laughed, too, but now I say, why not? In a book by Polly Berends, I once read about a newspaper vendor who made an art of slapping a rolled paper under a commuter’s arm and collecting his change without the commuter breaking his stride. Then there was the soda jerk who could throw a syrup-coated glass in the air without spilling a drop. These guys did their work with joy, originality. Why not say they were artists? Why not say my father’s eggs were a masterpiece?
In our house, Dad was responsible for food shopping, clearing the table after meals, and washing the dishes and scrubbing the kitchen. He performed these tasks with the enthusiasm with which he did everything else.
A shopping trip usually brought him to three different stores, where he sought out the best food for the best prices. Any given trip had several false starts—as many works of art also have. Dad would leave for the supermarket, only to show up again a few minutes later, having forgotten his wallet.
“Dad’s shopping trip, take 2!” I’d announce, as he ran back out with the wallet.
A few minutes later, he’d be back for the shopping list. Once at the store, he often called for clarification: “Do you want All or Arm and Hammer? We need sweet sausage for the spaghetti, right?”
When Daddy worked in the kitchen, he deafened us with the sounds of cabinets banging shut, silverware clanking. Once when my sister Kathy and I were having ice cream at Friendly’s, we heard loud noises coming from the kitchen. I said, “Sounds like they’ve got Daddy working back there,” and Kathy and I laughed the laughter of someone who knows she’s heard something funny that’s hit upon the truth.
Because Daddy ate faster than the rest of us and was eager to get to work clearing up as soon as he’d finished his last bite, we had to fight to hold onto our plates. Many times during family dinners, I paused to talk to the person beside me, only to turn back to find my plate removed, scraped and in the dishwasher.
“I thought you were done,” Daddy would say, wearing the puzzled look of an artist whose work is not yet understood.
If, as my dictionary defines it, genius is, among other things, a single strongly marked capacity or aptitude, my father possessed genius in his ability to love.
My mother describes their first date, in 1947. Roy was seventeen, Rhoda Applebaum a year younger, when he asked her out. She thought he was wonderful—handsome, positive, funny—so she accepted.
“What time?” she asked, expecting him to name some evening hour.
“I’ll pick you up at noon.”
But she accepted, and they enjoyed an all-day date, which began with a rigorous game of ping-pong. Dad’s reasoning was, if you meet a great new girl, why not spend the whole day with her, rather than just a few hours?
When they married, he told my mother he didn’t care for children, especially babies. She said she wanted children. I don’t know how long it took her to convince him, but I was conceived, as my mother said, before Dad could change his mind.
To this day, my mother will tell me, “I walked around for nine months, worrying: will I have to raise this child myself?”
I wish someone could have told her she needn’t have worried. Right after I was born, Dad looked at me in wonder and told Mom, “I don’t like babies. But don’t you think this one is different?”
I have an early memory—from before I was a year old—of him coming home from work and getting down on all-fours in his shirt and tie. Mom put me on his back, saying, “Daddy horsie!”
Throughout my childhood, he saw that we never wanted for anything. My mother needed milk, my sister Kathy craved strawberries; Dad went out. Home from college, I was window shopping when I saw and fell in love with a beautiful, black opera cape. My mother convinced me—rightly—that the cape was impractical, so I got a cloth coat instead. Dad said, “The coat is nice, but some day, Cora should have her cape, too.”
When I got sick, Dad plied me with orange juice until I couldn’t look at the stuff anymore.
“No more OJ, Dad!” I said.
“No more OJ? What kind of juice do you like?”
“Cranberry, I guess.”
He bought an entire case of cranberry juice.
“Enough!” I’d sometimes say.
It was too much, being doted on all the time. Did my father think me incapable of doing for myself? I wanted to be taken seriously. “Stop calling me “Schmoogoo! Stop calling me Kiddo!”
And yet. As Dad was driving me home after college graduation, I told him that Miss McAllister, my advisor, whom I’d loved from my first days at Vassar, was now retiring and moving to California.
“Don’t worry,” Daddy said. “I’m sure you’ll be able to stay in touch with her for the rest of her life. You’ll get to see her at least twice a year. Even if you have to go to the West Coast.”
My father knew what I loved and needed. He would have brought Miss McAllister east for me himself, if he could have. I’m reminded of the traditional morning blessing in which we thank God each day for giving us all we need.
Dad waxed enthusiastic about all kinds of things. He loved breakfast, Beethoven, pot roast, bacon, sports cars, strong coffee, hi fi systems, and lemon meringue pie. He loved a radio show hosted by two guys named Bob and Ray, and was actually amused when they said it was time for “Bob and Ray-dio.” He loved to sit in his oversized chair and watch the most obnoxious shows on T.V.
“Ettie Jones, c’mon down!” would blare from the bedroom.
“Turn that crap down!” my mother would yell.
Dad claimed a fondness for wide-load trucks. We’d be traveling down the highway on vacation and get stuck behind a truck pulling an entire house, with a big sign on it, saying “WIDE LOAD.”
“I like Wide Loads,” Daddy would say. “They’re nice people.”
He loved our house, which most people would classify as an ordinary frame ranch, in Oakland, New Jersey.
“Can you imagine what this place would cost if it were a hotel?” he’d ask my mother. “A thousand dollars a day! It’s got the lake across the street, great food, comfortable rooms. Who could afford to stay in a place like this on vacation?”
More than once, my Dad was heard to say, “I love divorces!”
It never occurred to him to want one himself. Nor did my father enjoy seeing people break up and suffer in the process.
But Dad loved my mother, and my mother loved to gossip. When she told the story of this or that neighbor splitting up after twenty-five years, her eyes would sparkle–partly with anger at the bastard for ditching his wife for his secretary, but also with sheer fascination. When Dad said he loved divorces, he meant he loved the sparkle in Mom’s eyes.
There is a place where our parents end, and we pick up the thread. We carry much or little of our parents in directions neither they nor we might ever have anticipated. A long time ago, my father’s ancestors came from Germany, my mother’s from Ukraine and Poland. My parents were born in New York, where they would one day meet. Eighteen years ago, my husband Wade and I came to Virginia for graduate school. Reagan was President then; George W. Bush was drinking beer and making bad grades. When I came here, I wanted to make my mark in my field, Germanic studies; in these last years, when I’ve studied, I’ve sought to be more like my father.
In my childhood and adolescence, I had no desire to be like my dad. Like my mother, I preferred Shakespeare to The Price is Right. I knew how to say “bathtub.” Nor did I make my father a role model when I went to college, or even graduate school. Now I know this was my loss.
The point is my father got stuff done.
“Roy putters around,” my mother often said. “He has his little projects around the house.”
The way it seemed to me, he puttered around, while I was going to be famous. First I thought I would be a singer. I developed a passion for the lieder of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. But I could not read music and got frustrated when I tried to learn. When I sang solos, I got self-conscious and couldn’t keep my voice from breaking.
Singing lieder led me to the German language and German to a love of languages in general. I took French and Spanish at high school and received awards in all the languages. My mother and I decided I would be a famous linguist. At Vassar College, I majored in German literature and imagined becoming famous in that field. I turned out to be only average in it. I went on for my masters, then worked as a translator and took poetry classes on the side, before returning to get my doctorate.
I began the doctorate, but came close to never completing it. I see now that I was too busy worrying about how I appeared to others and the impression other people made on me. In grad school, my friends and I loved to sit around and talk about this or that student in our department.
“He’s naïve,” my friend Barbara or I would say. Or, “how did she get that job at Smith? She’s so pedestrian.”
When my father studied, he did not look over his shoulder at other students. In our basement family room, Dad did his reading in the most comfortable chair in the house, a huge, brown leather armchair with a matching ottoman. My parents had finished that room with blue shag carpeting and a fireplace. Strategically placed in front of the armchair was the best stereo system to be had in those days. My father listened to music; he studied. He did not worry about how intelligent he was. His approach to his studies was similar to the way he practiced the piano: diligently, methodically, full of desire to do the thing right.
(Re)Codifying the Text: My Father and Mother
This body is only half of me; the other half is woman. —Persian love poem
In this photo of my parents, from 1955, Roy wears a suit and tie, Rhoda a sailor dress. They are sitting in the restaurant of New York’s Waldorf Astoria, celebrating my father’s return from service in the Korean War. While Rhoda, grinning broadly, is turned full-face outward, toward the camera, Roy’s face and body are angled toward his wife. He gazes at her, apparently seeing nothing else.
There are uncodified laws in families. No one speaks of these laws; consciously, perhaps, no one knows they exist. Some laws revolve around a horrible truth: we don’t talk about Bill’s drinking; we don’t say the word “cancer” around Grandma. Other laws are more minor, but just as strictly enforced: this is Dad’s place at the table; you can’t sit there. My brother’s name is Leonard, but he only answers to Chip.
To write about my father, I need to break one of our unspoken family commandments.
For me, the sun rose and set on my mother. In many ways, she ruled our family. Of my parents, she was the prophetic one. When I was four, she told me that I could read.
How could that be? I wondered. But my mother held out a piece of paper with writing on it. She pointed, and lo! I read. Later, it was Mom who knew that that my friend Terry Francos would be the first one in our high school to get pregnant and that Nixon would turn out to be a crook.
My father made no predictions or pronouncements.
When I was little, before going to school, I spent my days with my mother. She took me to play in the sandbox in Riverside Drive Park, made me my peanut butter and jelly for lunch. I wanted to be just like her.
“Make me a ponytail!” I’d beg, since she wore one.
And my mother would manage to pull a bit of my short, baby-fine hair, into a rubberband.
Dad was not good at everyday things. One day, Mom was out when lunchtime came around. I asked for my peanut butter and jelly, but Daddy said, “I think of peanut butter and jelly more as a dessert.”
“But Mommy lets me have it for lunch!”
He wouldn’t believe me.
At the park with Daddy one day, I fell and skinned my knee. Instead of comforting me, as Mommy would have, Daddy shouted, “why are you always falling down? Be careful!”
Everything was better when Mommy was there.
When she was there, Dad would fade into the background. When I was in college and my parents would come to visit, it was always my mother who rushed on ahead to my door, while my father ambled behind, carrying whatever needed to be carried. My mother had no qualms about taking over the kitchen of the apartment I shared with other students. When I fell in love with Wade, a fellow student, now my husband, and moved into his apartment, Mom took over that kitchen, too. She and my sister would invite all the neighbors in for spaghetti.
And where was my father in all this? You’d forget he was there at all. It was my mother’s voice you heard, cracking jokes, greeting my housemates. She was the one hugging everybody. Dad, meanwhile, had installed himself in a kitchen or living room chair, with a book he was studying, in preparation for his Ph.D. comps. He often did not say a word all afternoon.
My father and mother. They were married thirty-two years when Dad died, had lived many more years married than not. My mother has her rightful place in a story about my father; she certainly has a place in a story about my father as remembered by me.
But how to put my mother in her place; that is to say, to permit her to occupy a space on the canvas, but not the entire canvas? To create a boundary around someone who, particularly in those days, did not allow for boundaries?
I write with trepidation, as a person aware of breaking laws. I hear my mother say, “How dare you try to shut me in! You can’t put me in my place; I can go wherever I want!”
“I love you, Mom,” I tell her. “But this is Dad’s story. You can still speak for yourself, thank God. He cannot. You may take your place beside him. Listen.”
He Was a Tree of Life[The Torah] is a tree of life to them who hold fast to it, and all who uphold it are blessed. —Prayer after reading from the Torah
When my father comes from work
My mother meets him.
They stand rooted the doorway
In each other’s arms.
I grow impatient,
Run to join them,
Try to hug two pairs of legs,
Which rise above me
In this photo, my father is the age I am now, mid-forties. He is standing on a city street, his hands clasped behind his back, his stance firm, his right foot planted a little in front of his left. You can see his round face, bald on top, black hair around the sides. You can’t see his clear, green eyes, because he is squinting to keep out the sun. He wears jeans and a navy polo shirt. He has the look of a man firmly rooted in the world.
To this day, I don’t know the origin of my father’s roots, what made them so strong. Roy Schenberg had a fundamental belief in himself and the world. Who inspired that? As a pianist, he believed in music from an early age. How come? His parents only bought him his Steinway because they thought it a nice piece of furniture. Roy believed in his love for his children, his wife, and the life they created for themselves. As far as I know, he didn’t ask for anything beyond that. He did not care about religion one way or another.
I locate my roots in God, although I was not raised religious. It took me a long time to find my roots, or to be aware that they needed finding. As a child I believed in my family of origin; as a married woman, I learned to believe in my husband and our union. I still believe in these beloved people, but not in the way I believe in God, simply because I’m aware that none of us will be around forever.
As a graduate student, I became a feminist. I was horrified by the silencing of women’s voices in literature, art, and history, and wanted to know why women were silenced. From Virginia Woolf I learned practical reasons: what if Shakespeare had a sister with gifts equal to his own? When would this woman ever find time to write her plays and sonnets, what with her obligations to marry and bear children until her body gave out? Having no right to money or a room of her own, how could such a woman put pen to paper? I learned psychological causes for woman’s silence, as well as historical, economic. I believed in these causes and believe them still.
Yet as vital as the topic of women’s suffering is, I found myself drawn beyond feminist questions, fascinated more by the human urge to create. This urge crosses nations, cultures, genders—where does it come from?
Before and in the early years of my marriage, I had my share—perhaps more than my share—of crushes. I built castles in the air, with first one person, then the other, as the king—or queen—of my castle. In the midst of one infatuation, I went to synagogue for the first time. The man of my current daydreams was there. I suddenly saw my crush as a kind of worship; in pinning my dreams on that guy I was, in a way, trying to deify him.
That was the beginning of my belief in God. There was an empty space in my mind and heart where God would be, but I thought I’d rather pray to that empty space than to worship an ordinary human being.
After stumbling many times, I now stand rooted in what I am: a Jew, a mother, wife, and writer. My work is to bear witness, especially to those who can no longer speak for themselves, such as my father.
Here is what I remember: my father has me on his shoulders and we are walking in our hometown, New York City. We pass skinny brown buildings; the apartments are tall, with lots of books in shelves, flowers in the windows. We pass trees in iron cages, women walking with baby carriages or dogs. Being on Daddy’s shoulders is like sitting on the limb of one of those giant trees in Central Park; it’s sturdy, so there’s no fear of falling off.
We end up at the Metropolitan Museum. I ride inside, on my father’s shoulders. I love the hall of statues we pass on the way in. There is a flat statue on top of a box called a sarcophagus, which I call “The Man Sleeping.” There are statues without heads.
“You see that statue?” Daddy says. “The artist didn’t have time to finish it before the king wanted it, so it doesn’t have a head.”
I believed that for a long time, just as I believed sandpaper came from men’s beards. My dad would say, “Have some sandpaper, kiddo,” and rub his rough face against mine. How did they get the sandpaper off the faces? I wondered. Did it hurt?
At the museum, I did not yet know names like Picasso or Matisse, nor periods, such as Renaissance or Medieval. Down from my father’s shoulders, I raced into a big, high room with knights on horseback with long, silver lances. “Wow!” Next I found myself in a bedroom with high, canopied beds you had to use a stool to climb into. I tried to duck under the velvet cord and jump onto one of those great beds, and Daddy had to hold me back.
We had lunch at the Met’s cafeteria. The food wasn’t good. Fat ladies behind the counter piled boring, wet vegetables onto our plates, which Dad put on our tray and pushed along the counter. The metal tables and chairs were uncomfortable, but I liked them, because they were metal, unlike any at our house or anyone else’s. I loved the fountain in the middle of the room, with its loud splashing water and green statues of enormous men bent in various positions. I ran around the fountain and threw in pennies while my father ate his lunch.
After lunch, it was back onto Daddy’s shoulders for the walk home, down the now hushed streets in the late-afternoon sun. People pointed up at me and waved; once, a lady said, “You’re getting a nice ride.”
I felt embarrassed and hid my face. As Daddy walked on and with my belly full and the sun warming me, I yawned, then let my head drop onto Daddy’s. The buildings, the museum with the statues and high beds, my father’s heavy tread, his shoulders sturdy as an oak, the tall houses with black iron gates, worked their way into my consciousness. Dozing on my father’s shoulders, I grew roots, the way a dormant plant puts down its roots in winter.
I live in Charlottesville, Virginia now, but my roots remain in New York. My mother still lives in the city. When I go there, I always hit the streets as soon as I can. I walk where my father carried me. I know my father shares my love of these streets, the smells of French, Chinese, Italian, Turkish, and Korean foods, since it was he who inspired that love, to begin with.
From the time I was five or six, my father insisted on taking me to the best restaurants in New York, to cultivate my palate. We lived in New Jersey then, in a part of the state my mother once heard called the Frozen Pizza Belt. My favorite restaurant was a burger place called the Chuck Hut. For Dad, this constituted a food emergency.
My father did more than take me to New York to learn to appreciate other types of food. What I learned was, there are two ways to approach eating: you can eat to fill your stomach, without tasting anything on the way down, or you can eat with all your senses awake to the pleasures available: the smells and tastes, the feel of a crisp salad or a velvety chocolate mousse filling the mouth, covering the tongue, the presentation of the food. My father taught me how to eat the latter way.
I was five when he took me to my first Japanese restaurant, where we got to sit on the floor, as Daddy had promised. The waitress brought tea in a shiny little pot, and I asked for sugar.
“You don’t put sugar in Japanese tea,” said Daddy. He’d lived in Japan for three years when he served in the Korean War.
“But I want to put sugar in,” I said.
“You’re being childish,” said Daddy.
“But I am a child!”
I said the tea was yucky without sugar and didn’t drink it. Nor was I impressed with the sukiyaki, and I couldn’t manage the chopsticks the way my father did.
Afterwards, when Daddy asked how I liked the meal, I said the food at the Chuck Hut was better.
But Daddy was persistent, and my tastes did change. I remember our lunch at the French Shack, on Fifty-Fifth St., when I was ten or eleven. When the waiter described Quiche Lorraine, I thought it sounded terrible, but then tasted some of Daddy’s and discovered what many people already knew: it was delicious. And who’d have thought prosciutto and melon could taste so wonderful together! My main course, julienne of beef in a wine sauce, was amazing: so tender, with flavors jumping off the plate. By the end of the meal, but I’d been converted.
Forty years later, I am standing in my Charlottesville kitchen, preparing Shabbat dinner for my family and guests. It’s a cold night, so I’m making a beef-and-barley soup. I start my soup by heating onions and garlic in olive oil until they are glossy, sweet and bursting with flavor. I brown my beef with garlic, add tomatoes, barley, beef broth, lemon juice, and spices.
Tonight, my father is long absent, but his spirit appears in the form of my son Gabriel, who dashes in, asks what smells so good.
“Beef-barley soup!” he shouts, when I tell him. “Yum! Just what I was in the mood for!”
It is Shabbat. The sun is setting. The house is clean, and redolent of barley and beef soaked in a broth of vegetables, garlic and wine.
My father was a study in contrasts. The same man who loved the best restaurants in New York was the sloppiest eater I ever knew. He would slurp his coffee, making a “ffffft” sound and smack his lips loudly when he ate. He ate the most disgusting snacks in the world. He’d sit at our table with a loaf of Arnold’s white bread, a stick of butter, and some jam. He’d break off a bit of bread, which he’d top with an inch of butter, slather with jam and then—the crowning glory—sprinkle salt on top. Then he’d shove the whole thing in his mouth and smack his lips over it. When that was gone, he’d reach for the next morsel of bread, and the whole process would start again.
Why mention this now? The answer is simple: because I am talking about my father’s rootedness. It was the man who sat there gorging himself at the table who gave off an air of permanence. I never worried about Daddy. He was solid, heavy; he was there and would always be.
He was there. What has stayed with me and with others who knew him is that my father could be silly without knowing it. After Dad’s death, when we gathered family and friends at our house, my Uncle David said, “I can’t believe he’s really gone. I keep expecting him to walk out of the bedroom, wearing that stupid robe.”
Dad’s blue terrycloth robe was ordinary, except that it kept hiking up in back, leaving his butt cheeks exposed as he walked around. People would laugh; my mother would say, “Oh, Roy,” and he’d give us a confused stare: “What’s wrong?” When we told him, he’d pull the robe down, but soon, the robe would hike itself back up, and we would laugh again.
Had Dad been aware of being immodest, he’d have covered up, in his way. My parents’ bedroom was on one end of a long hallway; the bathroom was on the other. Dad used to get undressed to take a bath, then realize he still had to make the journey across the hall. Who knows why he didn’t bother with his robe? I’d see him striding down the hall, naked, with one hand across his front, the other across his back.
Here is one more image that remains: our family was walking to St. Paul’s Cathedral, in London, in the rain. My mother, sister and I had gotten ahead of Daddy. When we looked back at him, his umbrella had folded up, leaving only a small disc raised above his head. He looked like a comic poet, holding up an oversized daisy. When we laughed, he had no idea what we were laughing at.
Why are these pictures of my father unforgettable? I think it’s because of their oddness and his refusing to feel odd. His confidence was not shaken, even when people laughed, as we did. His was a large, full presence and we couldn’t imagine him ever going away.
October 25, 1980: it is time to let my father go. He is two months away from his fifty-second birthday. On this day, I cannot prevent him from getting in his car.
He died in pursuit of pot roast. It was a Sunday afternoon; he had asked my mother for pot roast for dinner and gone to buy the meat for her to cook.
It was a sudden storm, a freak accident: a dead tree blew down and landed on my father’s car. An eye-witness said Dad did not see the tree. I hope he was thinking of his pot roast. My mother would sear the meat before slow-cooking, so it would be crisp on the outside, falling-apart tender on the inside, the way he liked it. My mother, working on a sewing project in the den, glanced outside and said, “Look at that wind.” But she didn’t worry, suspected nothing.
Then the call came.
Haunting the Dead
I was thinking about ghosts…and suddenly I realized my contemporaries are not the ghosts—their lives are finished. There are no markers of their existence. I’m the one who haunts them, I disturb them. I remember them. They are not the ghosts. I am the ghost. —Seymour Mayer
My father is walking in the rain. He is walking away from our family. His umbrella has folded to a little disc above his head. He looks silly, but doesn’t notice. We laugh, but he keeps on walking, doesn’t hear us.
This is a ghost photo; it exists only in my mind’s eye.
My father is gone. Who will turn on the heat in my room when I come home now? Who will make sure I get the foods I love to eat? They say the dead remain with us. I want to believe that, only my father’s absence is so huge, I don’t know how.
My mother says she cannot feel my pain, hers is so great. She says her suffering is so much worse than mine, since I still have my beloved Wade. I believe her. I feel for her, though it exhausts me. She talks about waiting three years for my father to come home when he was drafted to serve in the Korean War.
“But now he’s never, ever coming back!” she sobs.
I cannot help her, though I keep listening. My mother grows stronger, lighter, while I grow heavier from taking in her grief. Since when is love a scarce commodity in our family? Since when is grief a competition between my mother and me? I see our bond is broken, but don’t know how to fix it.
Turn around, Daddy, I say. In one dream, he turns around and walks with me a little, but then he apologizes for starting to smell. In another dream I’m riding across the George Washington Bridge with my dad, in a car full of loud-mouthed floozies. He never liked these women, never even acknowledged them before, but now he prefers their company to mine. I tell him I miss the way he was before. He laughs: none of you can touch me now.
Wade and I live in New York, where he works with computers, and I work as a translator and write poetry. We are married in 1983, at the Chapel in the United Nations, and celebrate in our apartment in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. We see little of my mother, although we live in the same city. In 1986, Wade and I move to Charlottesville, Virginia for graduate school. Wade soon decides to return to his computer work. In 1995, our son Gabriel is born.
My father is walking in the rain. He is walking away, and I know he cannot turn around, even to welcome his grandchild. Nor can he turn to celebrate this child’s bris, his first words and steps, his learning to read.
I realize I am the one who needs to raise up my father, to turn his face toward us, by telling his story. Gabriel is now in third grade and learning cursive writing. He asks me to tell him again about when I learned cursive writing and got hold of the shopping list my mother had made to give to Dad. Before handing over the list, I added a few things: candy, cookies, ice cream–all of which my father bought. When afterwards, I told Dad what I’d done, he said, “I wondered why the handwriting looked different.”
Many years pass before I ask myself: am I ready to stop looking outside, in the rain, for my father? For fifteen years, I have worked on my degree, a Ph.D. in German literature. I have picked it up, put it down again. I’ve worked odd jobs, retreated into motherhood. Am I ready to pick up where my father left off? Can a Germanist carry on a mathematician’s work?
I believe that while my father and I grew in different directions, our roots are the same, as is the soil that nourished us.
Because the time has come, I sit down in the most comfortable chair in our house. I open my books, at last curious to know what they might offer, how they might or might not tie in to my topic. I rock in the chair, feeling solid, content. Will I finally catch my breath, stop crying for my father? As I do, I feel his presence for the first time since he died.
May 18, 2003: I am standing in the rain, wearing a black gown and mortarboard. This is graduation day at the University of Virginia, where tradition dictates that commencement exercises be held on the Lawn, regardless of weather. Under our robes, my friends and I wear waterproof pants and rain slickers; I sport yellow rubber boots and am grateful to have them. The cardboard in our caps is soaked, making the caps droop. Our lovely doctoral robes, with the three velvet stripes, are dripping. Our teeth chatter. We laugh at how silly we look, but also for joy that this day has come.
Does my father turn around? Does he turn around to see his daughter looking silly in the rain, laughing at herself?
Turn around, Daddy, I tell him.
I know this, Daddy: no story is enough. Yet I’ll continue to haunt you. Here is the ghost of your living daughter, stepping up in her soaked gown for her diploma.
Walk with me, Daddy.
Now she’s shaking hands with her advisor. Daddy, we did it.
Now, diploma in hand, she waves a fist in the air, stomps her booted feet, loud enough for you to hear: Daddy, turn around. I love you.
Share this post with your friends.