Today is my father’s memorial. He died 4 years ago, at the age of 91.
He was very lucky in his last quarter-century. He left my mother after more than 40 years of a miserable marriage, married someone else, and proceeded to live a different, more peaceful life. His second wife loved him very much, proof of how much a person can change when he’s really loved.
My father had been physically brutal with me as I grew up. As the oldest, I became a scapegoat for everything that went wrong in his life, and especially his disappointing relations with my mother. Neither of them had had it easy in their early years, surviving World War II, getting to Israel illegally and meeting in a refugee camp, surviving active fighting in Israel’s War of Independence, immigrating to the US with two small girls and barely a word of English between them, and finally, 15 years later, going back.
I remember well the terror in my heart, when I was a young girl, each time the front door opened in the early evening as he came home from work. I would stay in my room, trying to avoid him as much as I could. When he was angry or had had a bad day, none of this mattered. I didn’t want to be close to him, avoided him at all costs. When two oceans came between us because I lived in the US and he’d returned to Israel, he seemed quite happy.
This changed. When I was in my 30s he began to write me letters apologizing for the past. I saw strong parallels between how I’d grown up with him and how he grew up with an unrelenting, sadistic father who had no patience for a free-spirited, sports-loving son. My father could hardly wait till I came to visit and for the rest of his life he mourned the distance between us.
At times I did wish I had been closer, if only to enjoy the gentleness that had grown between us. Whenever I was in Israel I’d see him every day. We’d joke around and tease each other, but the emotional bond between us tended towards silence. His love for me was strongly tinged with regret, and though I often told him to forget the past, I think mine was, too. There was a sense of having missed the boat, that we couldn’t undo the karma of that long-ago past. Phone calls and visits weren’t enough to do the trick. Like many men, he had very little language for emotions; for anything complex, he relied on me. The Jewish custom in these memorials is to light a yahrzeit candle the evening before, a small candle inside a plastic container that stays lit for at least 24 hours. I had a box of these candles, had ordered it for his first memorial and had lit the candles every year, but last night I couldn’t find them. I went through the hall closet, then opened drawers in the living room and my office, looking for them everywhere. They were gone, and though I have another candle always lit in front of my Kwan-Yin, I felt very bad about not lighting a yahrzeit candle. It was something he would have wanted me to do.
Complex relationships are a challenge. I always admire those people who describe coming out to the light on the other side, forgiving, focused only on the good, full of appreciation for what they had rather than what they didn’t.
I have never been able to relate to the word forgive. To me it implies that something was done to you in a very personal way, with a conscious desire to harm. My experience is that most people don’t mean to harm anyone; we get hurt because we’re seen as being in the way, obstacles to someone else’s happiness, anonymous reminders of suffering in the past. It’s enough to generate lots of harm, but even as a young girl I intuited that it wasn’t really about me.
I knew early on that people—including me—usually close their hearts for self-protection, to avoid hurt themselves, and that when they’re afraid they strike out.
But for many years, long after I “forgave” him, I felt a great emptiness in my heart. Today I feel tenderness, and sadness that we couldn’t do better. I promised myself that later today, at sundown, when the Jewish memorial ends, I’ll stop working and think back to our times together.
I’ll remember how he once came to visit me when I lived in southwest Yonkers, working at Greyston, and asked me earnestly to please leave that place because it wasn’t safe. He wanted me so much to have a nice middle-class life!
He loved to visit me when I moved up to Woodstock for 2 years, marveling at how I could live alone in the woods of upstate New York, tentatively stroking my Golden, Woody (he was afraid of dogs), walking alongside me on the promenade over the Ashokan Reservoir and shaking his head at the beauty. Like many Jews of his generation, he preferred cities because they felt safe.
Late one night we both couldn’t sleep and went out for a walk. It was winter and very cold, but we bundled up and walked down the road, just the two of us with the dog. He marveled at how quiet it was. He looked up at the stars and the black, black sky, and I think he found something there, some rest and quiet from his constantly anxious mind, as if the Promised Land wasn’t in Jerusalem but right there, walking with his oldest daughter on a snowy road lined with trees rather than parked cars. We talked and laughed softly though there was no one to hear us, he perhaps wondering how a Jewish man who’d started life in a disappeared shtetl in northern Rumania ended up walking with his daughter on a snowy road in a New York forest, and I wondering how a young girl who feared and hated her ogre father could now walk beside him, her hand clasped with his, both snuggled together deep in the pocket of his coat to keep warm.