From a March 12th Rachel Maddow report, I just learned of a whole other group of people who underwent slow occupational poisoning from a watchmaking activity very similar to the one that eventually did in my dad. Decades before he succumbed to illness brought about by watch-cleaning solvent poisoning, young women were killing themselves with the radium paint being used on watch faces. All done with a tiny brush that needed to stay pointy for detailed work.
Our document-scanning project (wherein old paperwork is converted to OCR-ed pdfs via a Fujitsu ScanSnap that is working quite well, thank you) is now working its way through a period of time when a certain dear, funny, wonderful, talented man was doing my taxes.
He’d been the musical director for the theater project that probably marks the most important creative moment of my life. He became one of the reasons why being on stage to tell good stories was so important to me. He was a bombastic, hilarious theater maven, something more people should have in their lives. He was killed during a petty burglary of his apartment and left to rot while the perps drove around town in his car.
Consigning his handwriting and handiwork to pdfs and the shredder hurts a bit. I can think of any number of people who deserved his fate far more.
Jeorge Capobianco, you are sorely missed. Wish I could give you a painful hug right now. I’d even let you cop a feel.
Some of the best Thanksgivings I can remember over the past three decades were composed of an ad hoc collection of friends who either had no family to reconnoiter with, or who chose not to.
The meal was either wonderfully anti-traditional, pot-luck, or mutually-agreed-upon to be outsourced to a creative, fun restaurant. No kitchen-territory issues. No decades-old arguments about childhood roles. Just people relieved to have a pleasant day of eating, drinking, and laughing.
Sometimes it can be wonderful to not struggle with expectations of the few people in the world who should know and understand you far better than they actually do. It can be a lot better to pick and choose the people with whom you celebrate something.
“What are you doing for the holiday?”
“Oh, going home.”
“No, my parents’. The usual family thing. Ugh.”
“Oh. Um, sorry?”
That’s not your home. You’re a grown-up now; you’ve made your own home. There’s a difference.
Good Thanksgiving to you all. Even the ones who are already planning how they’ll escape the family meal for a couple of hours at a local bar before returning for pie.
I know very little about the man. Described by his widow in little but glowing superlatives, he was present only for the first six years of my life, after which he was taken away.
And by the time I figured out what questions I should ask about him, my only source had outlived her days as a reliable narrator. Had she indeed ever been one.
* * *
My father was a watchmaker. Possibly within one of the last generations of those who could expect to make a living as a craftsperson needed by the majority of a population. Can I rightfully claim to have inherited some of his dexterity with intricate technology?
He’d ostensibly sowed his gender-role-approved wild oats before settling down. I wonder what he might have to say about any of the women he’d dallied with before finding himself a timid virgin to start a family. Were those other girls somehow less worthy for having dallied with him?
He was said to have diligently read the Talmud and enjoyed arguing about splitting its ethical hairs with his father-in-law. Might he have been equally enthusiastic to examine larger questions about the historical or scientific validity of scripture itself?
He was a chain smoker, at least until his wife forced him to quit, having seen its effects upon their asthmatic only child in the lower-Manhattan railroad flat where they lived. Contrary to what one might expect, lung cancer never became an issue for him. He instead succumbed to two other ailments when only slightly older than I am now. One of those was occupational: long exposure to toxic cleaning solvents that almost certainly affected his nervous system and vital organs. The other, arteriosclerosis, would certainly have done enough damage on its own.
His deterioration was gradual but undeniable. One of my earliest memories of police officers is seeing one or two called to our apartment after a report of a domestic disturbance. My father had grown distant, then delusional by degrees, undergoing periods of dementia which became worse over an unknown period (months? years?). He began hotly accusing my mother of imagined transgressions, both extreme and petty. It wasn’t long after I saw him strike her that the police were called, and he was removed from my life. He lived for several more years, but I was not allowed to see him until his funeral.
By all accounts, at least before the decline, he was a traditionally moral man of his time. My impression is one of cautious conservatism, leavened by an understanding of history, possibly scarred by decades of cynicism. Chances are good his old-world upbringing might have made him uncomfortable with many of the cultural changes that brought the 1960s to a close. Had he lived a full life, I suspect he and I might not have found very much consensus in several important respects.
But then again, might he have viewed Walter Cronkite’s candid, fateful reports about the struggle for civil rights in the deep south, or America’s doomed venture in Viet Nam, or a disgraced president’s resignation, and not been changed by repeated violations of public trust?
He’d been born just before the first World War, had reportedly seen his share of violence during the second one, and had come to this country seeking a better life, one made possible by Roosevelt’s creation of a middle class.
His survivors in my family, at least on this coast, have been all too eager to embrace Big Lies told about Liberals, Muslims, and foreigners, only two generations after having escaped from virtually identical Big Lies told about Jews (and several other groups many Jews tend to gloss over). I can only guess where my father would now come down on such matters.
I have too many questions about my father that nobody can answer. I can only construct a fuzzy portrait of the man. Granted, the gap in that picture doesn’t loom enormously over my current life, but there are moments when the issue rears up and clouds my vision.
* * *
I’m often inordinately affected by dramatic fiction that depicts genuine fatherly devotion towards a young son. In an episode of Aaron Sorkin’s great TV series Sports Night, broadcaster Casey McCall realizes that his young son — always eager to please Dad — has lied about his Little League achievements to avoid risking his father’s disappointment. Horrified, McCall recognizes a behavior that has been handed down at least two generations, and leans in to reassure the child of his unconditional pride and support. I was helpless for the better part of an hour after first seeing that.
When I observe such relationships in real life, I feel the lack. I don’t have to idealize a notional perfect father-son relationship in order to envy the simple added security of having two parents present during one’s childhood. And while I miss something I never had, I have to remind myself that I still might not have gotten what I needed, even had the old man lived.
He’d be 104 now. But even had he somehow retained his health through a more normal lifespan — say, until his seventies — he still might have witnessed some pretty amazing things we could have shared.
* * *
In this bookend to my Mother’s Day remembrance — where I speculated about the life of someone it took me decades to understand — I’ve written far more about someone I never knew at all.
I envy many of you for knowing.
She never got accustomed to the answering machine. There’d be ten or fifteen seconds of breathing, and then a request for me to call back. Occasionally a subject was mentioned. Once in awhile, a note of urgency, but without the benefit of context.
* * *
She most likely was looking forward to a well-earned lifetime with her husband when he up and lost his ability to function, sticking her with the need to figure out how to support herself and a little kid in a strange country while somehow planning for their future. While somehow getting all the paperwork right.
And it wasn’t as though she had no prior experience being the sole caretaker of a household. But she was probably hoping those days were long gone… when they suddenly returned. That must have felt horribly unfair.
I’d have been pretty angry about that in her place. I might even have taken that resentment out on everyone around me in my weaker moments, wearing it like armor, burning it to fuel my need to keep the bills paid, and keeping it lit to heat arguments full of non sequiturs.
I’d probably grow to be unpleasant and authoritarian with the rest of my family, carrying that anger around with me for years. I’d push friends away and have trouble making new ones. I’d have little patience for anything I didn’t understand.
I might sometimes wonder why my only child didn’t seem to like me very much, wondering only why I was being punished for having sacrificed so much of my own personal life.
Until the effort to live finally knocked the wind out of me, and being right became less important than having a peaceful day without something new to worry about.
His dead wife’s halo gets bigger every year. His living daughter gets more invisible.
Blood hurts too much. I long to spend time with my chosen family.
Family flees eastern Europe because of rampant anti-Semitism spurred by poor economy and opportunistic right-wing political persecution, then moves to Palestine.
Family then flees Israel because of lack of economic opportunity and the often violent consequences of having displaced existing residents in order to create an apartheid state, then moves to America.
Family settles in America, breeds one generation, and almost entirely embraces America’s opportunistic right wing. Because you never know when you’re gonna need to keep those angry brown people in their place.
In short, having come from a culture which can arguably be described as the loudest, most self-righteous victims of the 20th century’s horrors, we sought a better life, and ended up embracing pundits who blame the victim every chance they get.
Have I missed anything?