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.