My Father’s House
I’m walking behind my father in a city that looks like Birmingham, the city he adored, the city he called home even after he moved to the suburb of Bessemer upon marrying my mother. I can’t see his face as I struggle to keep up; only the back of his head is visible: the curly, salt-and-pepper hair that is so familiar to me. I never understood why he needed to brush that hair, as it always stood the same despite sleep, despite physical exertion, despite shampoo. His dark suit is funereal, and as I follow him, I know what lies ahead of us. I would like to stop this journey–spare him the pain–if I could, but I know I can’t, so I don’t hurry. Though I’m no longer a little boy, it doesn’t feel strange to be unable to match his long, quick strides. For this was always our way as we walked the streets of our neighborhood, downtown to the bakery or apothecary, or to the stands of Bessemer Stadium. He would hold my hand then, making sure that I wouldn’t get separated or lost. In his hand, I always felt safe.
On this street that must be in Birmingham, he stops now, and so do I, still a few feet behind him. I seem unable to reach him, but I can see him pointing at a massive, three-story brown-brick structure. The windows on each floor are long and looming; ornate facades and cornices line the top and flow down the sides in patterns I don’t recognize.
And I never will recognize them, for as we stand there staring, the building dissolves as if it has been magically made to go “Poof,” leaving nothing but thick, swirling smoke. Even in my dream I know this is impossible. Brick doesn’t go “Poof,” and buildings that are an entire city-block wide do not disappear into nothing.
Just as I get the feeling that I might know this building, my father says, “That’s where I grew up…and now it’s gone.”
I put my hand on his shoulder, though he never turns toward me.
“It must be hard for you, Dad, seeing it like this, and losing it again.”
He continues walking. I follow, honoring his wishes as I always have, willing to accompany him wherever he leads.
“I don’t think you’re going to like seeing what’s up ahead,” I say.
He sighs but steps decidedly, purposefully. He knows where he is going, and I realize that he always has.
It’s a gray day, the growing fog making our path even more obscure. And as he walks, he is becoming obscure too, impossible to keep in sight. I still hear our footsteps, but I can’t see either of us. I call out to him. He doesn’t respond, or at least I don’t hear him.
And then I wake.
My Father’s Death
If you listen to the noble authorities you’d believe that there are only two kinds of people:
the valiant and the cowardly. That’s what I believed in my childhood at least. In high school English, I read that “conscience make[s] cowards of us all.” So be it. I have a conscience, an over-developed sense of empathy. I’ve heard myself described as a “gentle soul,” but no one to my knowledge has ever spoken of me as “valiant.” But does that mean I must be a coward?
Maybe I am when it comes to death, the “undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns.”
Coward or not, I admit it: death scares me, and it always has, ever since childhood, ever since Sunday School.
I’m in a beginner’s class, just one step up from the nursery. We’ve been singing “Jesus Loves Me” and “In the Temple.” Our teacher, Mrs. Self, looks us over, all fifteen of us dressed like our mothers’ fondest picture. In the sweetest voice imaginable, she asks:
“Where do you think you’ll go after you die, after your body and life here are no more?”
I am only five; I have no answer for her. Only fear.
“Don’t worry little ones! Like the song says, Jesus loves you and because he does, you’ll go with him when you die. You won’t need your mothers and fathers anymore. You’ll be with your heavenly Father!”
Fifty years later, I wonder if I’ve ever recovered from that scene, that time. That question and final statement. I’ve often thought about its answer too, but not long ago I read that “…there is no answer to such a question…it’s the question itself that is meaningful…to ask for an answer is to misunderstand the nature of the search, which is never-ending.” I cannot subscribe to conventional religious thinking, so I have no idea where I’m going after this life. Yet, I believe that my thinking, my desire and courage to wrestle with such questions, is the point. And that give me comfort.
But the comfort of knowing that I must struggle with thoughts about my own death doesn’t help me resolve this story about my father.
The story where my Jewish father received a ritual death sentence when he was twenty-six years old.
From his mother.
I heard this shiva tale from my mother after my father had lapsed into Parkinson’s-related dementia. As I listened, I reflected on this man whose touch had been so steady, whose mind had been paper-cut sharp, but who now shuffled down hallways on nearly-frozen feet, spilt his food with palsied hands, and wet his bed nightly through adult diapers.
“Your grandmother refused to attend any of our engagement parties-unless we agreed to be married by a rabbi. She simply pitched a fit, and your Daddy said there was nothing he could do to change her mind.
So we met with the Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, but the trouble didn’t end there.”
She paused to light a cigarette.
“No, she wasn’t satisfied. Even our willingness to be married by a Rabbi couldn’t stop her from declaring that as a Jew, your Daddy was dead to her. Lord Have Mercy, she actually sat shiva for him.”
Too stunned to respond at that moment, my mind fled through the years, not to my imagined reconstruction of my parents’ wedding or of my grandmother wearing black clothes and a veil, but to that story that had long haunted me: Bernard Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel,” in which a matchmaking Rabbi strategically introduces one of his clients to a young woman, after first insisting that this woman “isn’t for” his client:
“She is a wild one—wild, without shame…Like an animal. Like a dog. For her to be poor was a sin. This is why to me she is dead now.”
The girl is the matchmaker’s daughter, and after he sets up the date, he watches from a distance as the pair meet on a busy street corner. As they walk away, the story ends with his chanting the “prayers for the dead.”
When I first read the story, I didn’t understand the ritual of saying Kaddish for a living being. I assumed, in accordance with the story, that the daughter had been shamelessly wanton and that the matchmaker pawned her off because though she was no longer a good, observant Jew, she was still his daughter, and he wanted her married and provided for. At the time, I felt pretty thankful that I knew no one like that. No one, that is, who would say Kaddish for a living daughter or son. I didn’t know much then about what it meant to be devout and strict in the Jewish religion. I knew, though, that shame causes us to make powerful and absolute declarations—cutting off our heirs, banishing adherents for their sins.
At the time I first read Malamud’s story, I didn’t consider all the things that might cause a Jewish parent to declare his or her child dead. I didn’t want to, nor did doing so seem to matter to my life.
Until, that is, my mother’s story reached through the years and yanked me back to the moment of their wedding as if I were a measured piece of flexible tape summoned by the pressing of a metal button by the all-controlling hand of my Jewish past.
I know that marrying outside the faith causes rifts, terrible battles over which faith to raise the children and grandchildren in. I know that we want what we want and often demand to be right.
But I don’t understand pronouncing dead a son who has fallen in love and who has determined for himself as an independent adult man (my father was twenty-six when he married my mother) to marry the girl of his dreams. I don’t understand telling your child that he is dead to you because he is a Jew and his intended wife is a gentile. And I don’t understand, after all of that drama, demanding that whatever kind of Jew you now think your son is, that he be loyal to you for the next forty years. Or having your demand met.
I was fifty-three years old when I first heard this story, and now, three years later, its shock and power still jolt my bones. I’ve been writing a lot about my father these past few years, trying to tell our story: the half-Jewish son who wants to be closer to his Dad–who feels Jewish to his soul and wants to champion and defend the father who was so quiet about his faith. In my writing, I’ve been honest about my father’s shortcomings: his marital difficulties and his blind loyalty to his mother; the time he accidentally pushed me down when we were racing around the track at Roosevelt Park. But I’ve also been adamant about his standing up for me against bullies who thought I was a sissy for wearing my hair long. About his loyalty to his job and the dependability of his work that provided for all of us. About his passion for Alabama football which he passed so deeply on to me.
I’ve written of my discovery at age six that he was a Jew, of the matzoh with grape jelly that he shared with me every Passover day. Of my wonder and pride at watching him and my mother dress up and leave for Friday night temple services while I stayed at home with my maternal grandmother. Of the first time that I went to temple with him at age fifteen and my deep pleasure when, at the conclusion of the service, sitting on the very back row of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham, my normal, English-speaking father turned to me, shook my hand, and wished me “Shabbot Shalom.”
I never questioned that my father was a dedicated employee at Standard Jewelry.
I never questioned that my father loved my mother, my brother, and me.
I never questioned that he loved the University of Alabama.
Or the United States of America.
Or the Jewish religion.
Or his mother.
But with my mother’s story, I began wondering about these last two loves, and of the father I thought I knew so well. And I began reconsidering the stories I knew about him and my grandmother—stories that I’ve retold in attempts to show others how quirky and colorful my grandmother was.
Stories like my grandmother’s belief that the communists were fluoridating our water; that UNICEF was a Soviet plot; that Negroes wanted to intermarry and take over the white race.
Stories like my Jewish grandmother apologizing for Joe McCarthy:
“McCarthy wasn’t so bad. He got rid of all those communists in our government!”
I was in my thirties then, and I wanted to argue with her—shout my outrage at her ridiculous beliefs. But then I looked at my father, and I couldn’t be disrespectful. I couldn’t disrupt this order. Still, I wondered: other than Roy Cohn and my grandmother, were there any other Jewish apologists for McCarthy?
I wanted to question my Dad about his mother’s distorted interpretation of history. But I knew better. You didn’t question him about her, ever. My mother questioned him once, the time when she sent fresh vegetable soup with him to give to my grandmother when she was sick. He returned a few hours later with the soup, untouched.
“Didn’t she like the soup?
“No, she said that it had fresh vegetable in it, and fresh vegetable are poison.”
“Yeah, from all the pesticides the government sprays on them. Only frozen vegetables are safe.”
“Oh Alvin, that’s crazy! Besides, I serve us fresh vegetables all the time!”
“Don’t you DARE call her crazy, and if I want your damn opinion, I’ll ask for it.”
I’ve wondered for most of my life why my father listened so closely to his mother—why he never dissented from any opinion she uttered. Why he didn’t see that she was a fanatical tyrant.
There have been times, too, after hearing that story when I think that she was doing my father a favor by declaring him dead.
She was releasing him from bondage.
If only he’d gone along with the ritual order of things. But as much as I wished he had, and as much as I’ve tried to understand why he didn’t, my wishing and hoping and thinking have gotten me nowhere.
Only here, standing in the shadow of this dead building.
It is said that “A dream itself is but a shadow.” Maybe so, but neither in my dream nor in any reality I know, can anyone describe the scene of my grandmother’s sitting shiva and saying Kaddish for her apostate son. No one can tell me exactly what was said or the exact circumstances under which it was done. Nor can anyone tell me whether my grandfather joined in this family curse–if he agreed to it or sanctioned it.
This past winter I found my grandfather’s wallet, the one my Dad kept in the top drawer of his bureau for almost fifty years; the one he brought home after my grandfather died in his hospital bed. I noticed that of all the photos in it—of his sons and daughter and of the children of close relatives—there was but one single shot of his wife, my grandmother, buried way back in the inner folds of the cracked alligator hide.
I thought about his death then, this man I never knew. My mother says I would have loved him, and that he would have adored me. I wonder what influence he would have had on me.
Of what influence he did have on me, and on my father.
I wonder sometimes if he guided my father at all.
I doubt that he had any effect on my grandmother. She never asked permission to do or say what she wanted, so I doubt that she consulted with my father’s father, sister, or brother in her decision of ritual death. And even if she had, they wouldn’t have had the nerve to stand up to her Old Testament wrath–her vengeance and self-righteousness. For all I know, she pronounced my father’s siblings dead, too, for each of them married gentiles, people of whom my grandmother vocally disapproved.
Her primal commandment: “Thou shalt not marry a….”
But my father, and both his siblings, did, against her commandment, which is refreshing, I think. Think about it: my father, in one of the most fundamental choices a person can make, defied his mother, the fanatical tyrant. And then she had to live with his choice. She had to go on living, knowing that whatever she had done to him, he stood up to her at least this one unforgettable time.
But not only did he defy her then, he defied her again by continuing to be that thing that she said he could never be again: a Jew. And I followed him.
My grandmother never knew of my journey into my Jewish self. I wonder now what she would have thought of this scene.
It’s our last Chanukah together—my father, mother, daughters, wife, and I–in my parents’ kitchen. I light our menorah candles and then my daughters and I sing:
“Barukh atah Adonai. Eloheinu melekh ha’olam…”
The candles blaze, and my daughters’ eyes dance with the fire of joy.
And we aren’t even “real” Jews.
That is, other than my Dad, none of us is affiliated with a temple. We don’t keep kosher, honor Shabbat. The first thing I’m asked when I tell someone that I’m half-Jewish is, “Which one is Jewish, your mother or father?”
“Oh, well, then you aren’t really Jewish.”
It seems like anyone who even remotely knows something about being Jewish has heard, from someone else, that being Jewish is strictly matrilineal.
But I keep asking: “What if, nevertheless, I feel Jewish?” Doesn’t my father count for anything? I feel like I’m getting to a different place with this “Real Jew” business. Maybe I’m seeing something appear on the horizon of my Jewishness.
Maybe I’m seeing something else disappear.
Still, reality cannot be discounted.
Back in my parents’ kitchen, it’s clear that my Dad doesn’t know the Chanukah song. He watches as we sing, smiling. He had a great baritone voice and often sang old Sinatra standards in his nightly shower. I’d hear him as I sat in our den, and I’d wonder at his strength, his memory for forgotten tunes. But he can barely speak now, much less sing. The last words I ever heard him utter, shortly after this night, were two phrases. The first, “Sho ‘nuff,” reflected his southern culture. The second, “Where’s your Mother,” reflected his fear: the fear of knowing that he was about to go alone into that other death.
The funny thing is that though his mother was dead, I expected that in his dementia, he’d be calling for her. But he didn’t.
Still, he’d cry at other things. Strange things. Once, I saw him watching an episode of “Walker, Texas Ranger,” and for some reason, Chuck Norris’s face in close-up made my father cry. On another occasion, he cried long and hard after The University of Alabama’s baseball team won an SEC tournament game with a walk-off home run. The players bounced around home plate, on top of each other in youthful giddiness. And my Dad just cried and cried, like I used to whenever TV Lassie raised her paw in goodbye as the ending credits rolled.
There’s always something inside that dies first.
So on this night of Chanukah, as the song-prayer ends, my father begins crying as our menorah blazes in the December dark. And I believe I know why. He still wants to be a good Jew.
But then, he always was a good Jew. He supported his temple annually. He attended faithfully. More importantly, though I know that like most Americans he looked for as many deductions on his income tax as possible, my father lived by the commandments handed down from God to Moses. Every one of them, and especially one of them.
The Fifth Commandment.
He honored the golden rule and instilled it in me. He believed in his God humbly but devoutly. And he taught me never to use the word “hate,” though in that, I haven’t always obeyed.
To me, a good Jew lives a quiet, studious life, devoted to his family, to his community, to leading a life where doing a “mitzvah” was expected daily, without thought or expectation of reward.
That was my father, the good Jew, who supported locals businesses; who came home every night promptly at six and dried the dishes and played ball with his sons. Who called his mother every night without fail, despite every reason not to.
He died two weeks after that Chanukah, on Christmas Eve. He left no instructions as to where he wanted to be buried. His family lay in the Emanu-El cemetery just west of downtown Birmingham. My mother’s family is in the secular Cedar Hill cemetery in Bessemer. On the day he died, my mother asked me what we should do with his body. She supposed that he wanted to be buried next to his mother.
“But Mom, if he had wanted that, he would have said so. No, we can’t do that to him. I don’t want him to lie next to her for all eternity. You’re the one who really took care of him, Mom. I want him next to you.”
She sighed then. And she agreed.
We were also forced to use my mother’s Methodist minister to perform the funeral as the Rabbis of Dad’s temple were out of town. Ironically, the Rabbi of my father’s temple was also absent when my parents married, for when my parents asked him to perform their wedding ceremony, my Dad’s Rabbi refused.
“He wouldn’t marry us because we weren’t going to raise our children as Jews,’ my mother said, as she exhaled the last puff of smoke.
I wonder now. Why didn’t my grandmother pressure their Rabbi to marry them if Judaism meant so much to her? Maybe because doing so meant that she’d actually have to enter the temple. On those Friday nights in the early 1950’s, instead of attending service like Dad did, my grandmother chose to attend Little Man Popwell’s gambling den across the county line with some of her male friends. After Little Man’s joint was raided–the very week after my mother, father, and grandmother, at my grandmother’s insistence, played roulette there—my grandmother discovered The Boom-Boom Room, a swinging-by-Birmingham-standards night club, where she could hang out with her daughter, my Aunt Carole. Such a picture, I don’t want to imagine.
I see now that to talk to their Rabbi about her son’s wedding would have been to shame herself as a fair weather Jew.
In the end, the Rabbi who agreed to marry my parents traveled from Montgomery, 100 miles away, to unite this couple. Clearly he didn’t know about the Kaddish.
Or maybe he did and just didn’t care.
However, he did send my parents an anniversary card every year until he passed. But I don’t recall their receiving one from my grandmother, ever.
And if their marriage got off to a shaky start, I can’t say that in its forty-eight year history it ever found firmer ground. My grandmother never welcomed my mother as her own family, or even as her son’s wife.
My mother remembers this story, and I do too.
It’s Thanksgiving, and I’m fifteen years old. My grandmother and my Aunt Carole are hosting the meal this year, which means they’ll buy the already-cooked turkey from the local cafeteria and my mother will bring all the vegetables and the desserts. We’re to meet at my aunt’s apartment, but that morning my Daddy awakens with high fever and chills. He has to stay in bed but insists we go ahead to my aunt’s because they’re expecting us, and he can’t stand letting them down.
So, completely against her wishes and instincts, my mother drags the food, my brother, and me over the mountain to my aunt’s. We walk in the front door, on this bright Thanksgiving morning, and when my grandmother sees that my Daddy has failed to appear, she asks,
“Oh, he’s home sick with a 102-degree fever.”
“Well, if I’d known that he wasn’t coming, then I wouldn’t have come either.”
My mother paused for just a beat.
“Then I guess you’re not glad to see us!”
“Oh, no, that’s not what I meant…”
But the damage was done; my mother’s beliefs about her place in this familial world all confirmed. And she held this day against both my grandmother and my Daddy. It wasn’t the only such day in her marriage.
I thought through these stories as we laid my father to rest. The Methodist minister sang in Hebrew and refrained from mentioning anything from the New Testament. Dad’s first cousin, Leonard, came to the funeral and brought me some real kosher corned beef. I spoke at the service, and I think I did my Dad justice: about our family life, my mother’s success in nourishing us all, and my father’s dependability in providing for us. I carefully and intentionally omitted any reference to his mother.
Still, there’s a part of me that worries that I added to his eternal grief by having him buried in non-sanctified Jewish ground. That I undermined the Jewish identity that he tried so hard to maintain despite his mother’s edict.
Maybe by deciding to bury him away from his mother, I was deciding on a revenge strategy for him. I think, though, that if there is any revenge to be taken on my grandmother, it is I who need to take it.
So I don’t feel bad about my decision.
I didn’t cause him to dishonor that commandment: “Thou Shalt Honor Thy…”
I liberated him. And in doing so, I think I set myself free as well. Free to take my own path. I never consulted with him when I chose to “become” Jewish. I simply saw my path, began following it, and then informed him. Since he couldn’t consult me about how I wanted to be raised, maybe he saw no problem with being left out of the later loop of my religious/ethnic change.
Haunted as I am now by dreams and memories, as a little boy in Sunday School, I was supposed to memorize The Ten Commandments. I don’t know how hard I tried, but I never did learn them all. However, one commandment stuck out for me—this fifth one–for whenever I heard it, I heard my father’s voice, admonishing me for not following it. Not that I wasn’t honoring him and my mother, but because I was not honoring his, or rather, not honoring him for honoring her.
It’s his voice I hear even now: …Father and Thy Mother. And I don’t know if this voice is my memory of him, my dream of him, or my fear of disappointing him, of angering him.
Of not following him.
During the last ten years of his life, I did follow my father to temple whenever I came home. I know he was pleased, even though I didn’t particularly care for or appreciate the service. In my mind, I was trying to connect with him, to fulfill him. And in my mind, I continued following him as we fasted on Yom Kippur, ate matzoh toasted with grape jelly during Passover, and visited the gravesites of all his family on their birthdays.
In my memory, my father never once declared that he wasn’t a Jew.
And in my memory, my grandmother, at moments of her own convenience, knew he was a Jew.
As evidenced by that one Passover Sunday at her apartment. My Aunt Carole brought over a definitely leavened pizza with mushrooms and anchovies instead of partaking in the salami and matzoh sandwich that the other Jews were eating. My grandmother took one look at the pizza, then at her daughter, and then declared to my father,
“Alvin, you and I are the only true Jews here.”
My grandmother taketh away and my grandmother….
Made him a “true Jew” again? Did those words sustain him until he actually died? Maybe. But maybe they only confirmed what he already knew about himself. And about his mother, too.
My Father’s Pain
When my mother told me of my father’s ritual death, I was too stunned to speak.
I’m often slow to ask the questions that flood my mind. It’s like I can’t get the words out, can’t fit them into any coherent order. But this time I knew that no question would do justice to my confusion, to what I believed was my father’s pain. Yet there they were, the questions of his life:
How did my Dad look when he told my mother of his “death?” What exactly did he say? What was his tone, and how long did this story take to tell? Was he apologetic? Sad? Ashamed? Uncompromising?
What did my mother think then? How did it feel to be the cause of this familial, Jewish rift? How did it feel to know that because of who she was, she ritually killed her future husband?
That she would be marrying a dead man?
Why did she go through with the marriage at that point? Was it because she was only nineteen, and fairly rebellious? Too stubborn to turn back?
Did she simply love him that much? At nineteen, can you possibly love someone that much? Did she really know then what love was?
I haven’t asked my mother these questions. I am not a valiant man.
Nor have I asked until now what impact this traumatic episode had on my father’s view of his family, of his future wife. Of himself.
If your mother says you can’t be a Jew anymore, do you listen to her? Obey her? Ignore her? Can you still be a Jew if you want to be? Can you ever forgive this woman, or forget her words even if you still go to temple? Do you wonder for the rest of your life if you’re a “true Jew?”
The thing is, my father never wondered any of this. I don’t know if he even thought about it. He could be oblivious to the emotional needs of his family, and once I even counseled him to do something different for his anniversary instead of giving my mother a similar piece of gold jewelry. She once showed me that he had given her basically the same gold pendant three years in a row.
“So Dad,” I said one late August evening as we were driving home from work, “why don’t you and Mom go somewhere for your anniversary this year? You could take her back to New Orleans. That’s where you spent your honeymoon, right?”
He thought for a moment, then replied:
“Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.’
Then he turned the radio up because it was news time in that election year of 1976.
I thought I had planted the germ, but the virus never carried. That October on their anniversary, they stayed home, and Dad bought Mom a set of gold earrings.
I never tried to intervene in his personal business again.
He never told me stories of his courtship, engagement, or wedding. And as far as I know, his pre-dating life never existed. About his religious beliefs, all he told me was that he went to Sunday School as a boy and was confirmed in the temple since, back, then, Reform Jews didn’t Bar Mitzvah their young.
If Dad was troubled about being or not being a live Jew, he never said to me, and he didn’t lose sleep over it. His snores at night seemed untroubled anyway. He loved his mother until our death, and my mother until his. He never seemed to suspect that the woman he loved and married resented his mother, or if he did, he repressed it all.
I, however, have thought about it fairly constantly for the past thirty years, hearing my mother’s complaints, fearing that she might get up enough gumption one day to leave him. My mother has said on too many occasions that for my father, his own mother was number one in his life.
“The rest of us are somewhere far behind.”
And, after all, it was my mother who has told me most of what I know about my Jewish family. But I was the one back then who, after seeing Molly Picon on “Gomer Pyle, USMC” cooking Jewish delicacies for Gomer’s platoon tried to get my Mom to agree that gefilte fish and kreplach were as good as fried catfish and chicken and dumplings.
I was the one who asked, demanded, to know that a mixed marriage could succeed. I was so sure she was going to tell me something like, “Yes, with some work and compromise, you can be happy with someone from another faith.” Instead, I got
“I don’t recommend it,” she answered. “People from different culture have too much to get through. Christian people are warmer, too, I guess because Jesus gave them such an example of love. I don’t know. Other people can be so cold. No. I don’t recommend it.”
And yet, as I got older, got to be “of marriageable age,” she reassured me of her intent that I should follow my heart:
“I’ll never interfere with your choice of whom to marry. Not like your grandmother did with your Daddy and me.”
I took her at her word. And I thought about her pronouncement when I eloped with my girlfriend, an Iranian emigre. My wife. My mother was shocked, and to be fair, so was my Dad. Maybe I married in secret because I knew how my grandmother had meddled, how she had ruined any chance for my parents to be happy.
Or maybe it was because I remembered that quaint love ballad from the 70’s, that song by Paul Stookey:
“A man shall leave his mother, and a woman leave her home….”
A song that made me wince back then every time I heard it crooning from our AM car radio.
For as we know, my father didn’t choose to leave his mother, though it seems that on some level she cast him off, and my parents didn’t create a new home of their own, but instead lived in my mother’s mother’s house.
And maybe it was this act of independence that not only separated me from my parents, but also determined for all of us that I could make my own decisions, including ones for the rest of my family.
Decisions about faith and culture and family.
Decisions like where to bury my father.
After all, he left it up to us.
And I made the decision, and as I write this I realize that I have been at peace with that decision. With where he is now, and where I am. With him in mind but no longer by my side.
My parents gave me more than they ever knew, certainly more than they imagined when they married. Rebels they were, marrying outside of their own faith; forging ahead with a wedding that so many people were against. They created me and set me off on this sure path—a path I’ve been walking a long time without them, I realize now. Fortunately, unlike them, the person I am walking with is someone no one ever tried to keep me from marrying.
I learned from their rebellion. And I learned from their mistakes, the things they couldn’t help and the help they needed but didn’t receive.
In the end, maybe that was how it was meant to be. How I was meant to be.
After his death, I took possession of my father’s prayer book. Sometimes I think that if I hold it long enough and examine every fragile, thin page, it will tell me what he thought and felt as a Jew and as a man.
To my knowledge, his temple never banished him, never removed him from its rolls. He received its bulletin in the mail every week. He sent in his financial obligation yearly. He received his Rosh Hashanah tickets every fall.
As a married man, he seemed comfortable, at ease, resigned to his life and fate. I remember seeing him trudging home from work, reading his beloved Birmingham News, and falling asleep every night in his recliner. He’d complain about work like most people. He’d argue about monthly bills with my mother. He seemed to resent her spending any money on unnecessary items. Like new clothes or furniture. He really got angry over doctor’s bills, as if my brother and I got sick on purpose. I realized much later that his anger masked his fear—his fear of our dying. I’m only intuiting this now, for he never said that he feared our or even his own death. But after his mother finally died, he confessed to me on the way home from her funeral, in the darkness of the winding road home, that when he was a little boy, his most fervent wish was that his mother and daddy would live forever:
“I was with my Daddy the night he died, in his hospital room. He asked me to stay with him that night, but I couldn’t. I was exhausted and had to go to work the next day. So I left, and so he died maybe three hours after I left. I’ll always regret no staying. But my mother lived until she was 99! That’s something!”
Yeah, something, I thought. Too bad that your wish almost came true. Too bad for all of us. I imagine, though, that he wished the same for the rest of us, though again, I never heard him say anything else about death.
Just like I never heard him say “I love you” to my mother, I know he did love her. It’s just that he never loved her in the way she wanted him to. He never romanced her with flowers, never worshipped her like she claimed he did with his mother.
He seemed to save adoration only for the woman who killed him. He took his commandment seriously. In the end, I think, he was a believer.
As I think about it now, I believe that he always believed in himself and in the life he chose to create, whether or not his choices satisfied or pleased anyone else.
On the Saturday afternoon of his wedding, he listened to the Alabama football game on his Motorola AM radio. Nervous about the game, but relaxed about the wedding. . For him, one outcome on this day was in doubt. The other outcome? Never.
“Thank God, Alabama won,” my mother, who must have been extremely nervous, says.
And that night, with the foreign rabbi, with his family finally agreeing to attend, he is smiling and happy, this new Jewish groom. In fact, everyone is smiling, at least in the pictures I’ve seen.
Especially my grandmother. It’s as if no one had died at all. As if all had been forgiven. And who knows, maybe it had.
My Father’s Dream
As I considered my dream, I first believed that it meant that we were revisiting
my father’s childhood and that he was disappointed and sad that everything was gone. I thought that the structure that disappeared was an apartment house where he had once lived, the first of his family’s many residences that we would pass on this dream-journey, all of which, of course, would tempt us to enter, only to vanish when we got too close. A later thought was that this now empty field was the site where Alabama played Auburn in the two schools’ initial football game against each other back in the 1890’s. It looked like the place I’ve seen, and given our love for Alabama football, it felt right too.
But then, someone far wiser than me—someone whose brain isn’t as slow as mine to pronounce the right words in their proper order, and who has the courage to ask the right questions when they need to be asked—pointed out another possibility. The building—a very important detail–was not my father’s house where he lived, but rather the temple where he was raised. The temple where he had been a true Jewish boy and man. The place that taught him that his calling, the dream of his life, was to marry the woman he loved, be faithful to her, and raise a family with her with as little conflict and acrimony as possible.
And he tried to do this, though like most of us, he didn’t always succeed.
Still, he succeeded in one way that I’m not sure he ever realized. The Jewish man that he was—for in my heart and mind, I know him in no other way—is a man I’m trying to be. I’ve followed him all my life, but only in the last twenty years as a Jew. As a biological half-Jew for sure, but one who honors the rituals and traditions I watched him so faithfully observe, even if he didn’t know the proper words.
Even when he couldn’t speak at all.
As a husband, father, teacher, scholar, and writer, I’ve dedicated my life to making our dreams come true–to ridding him finally of any doubt about who he was and what he left behind. He gave me this wisdom. He taught me how to honor what’s most important, especially when the one thing you honor most has failed to honor you, or turned her back on you.
I immerse myself in my dream again. But this time, before he leaves me to fade into that distant fog, my father turns around and meets my eye. We recognize each other fully, who we are, what we want. And when we are in the midst of this fuller knowledge of each other, my father nods at me.
And in that nod, I see it all clearly. I can be whatever man I choose to be, as he did. I can listen to others and partake of their wisdom; they can have an effect on my life, but my father, I believe, has given me the wisdom and courage to hear their words and do what I want to—what I must do to follow my own path.
If he’s left me on the path, giving me all the wisdom he could; if I can’t see or find him anymore, I know that I’m not lost and I’m not alone. He didn’t abandon me or kill me in any way. On the contrary, he educated me to find my way, to be a good man. And a good Jew.
He has helped me see that it is I who will find the structures that have been eluding me in my dreams. For, half-Jew that I am, I hold the answers to how I will be fulfilled and who I will become. They are all there, in the questions I ask, in the nature of who I am.