Monday, December 7, 2009

My Dad at 90 [March 8, 2007]]

The day after tomorrow will be the 90th anniversary of the late Gilbert Robert Mendelsohn’s birth.

Not a day goes by that I don’t wish I could tell him face to face how ashamed I am for having failed to see through my mother’s lies about him. Not a day goes by that I don’t realise a little more profoundly how lucky I was to have him as my dad. Not, God knows, that he wasn’t flawed.

He ached desperately, frantically to be loved — preferably by strangers — and lacked any sense of proportion. A few months before his death in August 1992, he dictated a letter seemingly intended to reaffirm his love for those most important to him. It enraged me, as he devoted as much attention to the young woman taking the dictation — whom he’d probably known for an hour or two — as to me or my sister. It enraged me further that he spoke of my mother with the utmost adoration, a classic case of the victim coming to idealise the victimiser.

When I was around four, he’d had some sort of temporarily disfiguring mishap involving a garage door; I come by my clumsiness honestly! When a neighbour, noticing his bruise, asked what had happened, my dad said I’d closed the garage door on him. It made a good story, and my dad visibly revelled in our neighbour’s amusement, but it made me angry and ashamed; I hadn’t had a thing to do with his hurting himsel!.

Aching desperately for the love, or at least attention, of strangers, he was an implacable show-off. As the life of every party, he couldn’t have been less well matched with my extremely shy, excruciatingly self-conscious mother. When I was around five, developers tossed cheap tract housing up in the San Fernando Valley where there had been endless miles of orchards and the Federal Housing Administration handed out loans to just about anyone who’d been anywhere near the service. My parents were surrounded by other young first-time owners, and seemed to go to lots of barbecues and get-togethers. The morning after, without fail, my mother would rage at my dad at the top of her lungs for having left her to fend for herself while he entertained perfect strangers. He’d look terribly contrite, swear solemnly that he’d learned his lesson, and invariably do exactly the same the next time he had the chance. It occurred to my mother, who could be pretty perceptive, that he actually sort of enjoyed the vicious browbeatings he got from her; what a lot of her attention they involved!

When I was 19, my driver’s license was temporarily suspended, and my dad had to drive me up to Hollywood to audition (successfully!) with my little trio for a battle of the bands sponsored by a local TV station’s Saturday afternoon dance show (that which, as a matter of fact, would later mutate into The Real Don Steele Show, a huge favourite of mine because the most fetching little glittersluts of Rodney’s English Disco had become its de facto stars, and the director didn’t know the meaning of the word decency). To that point, neither he nor Mom had done anything but discourage me; they enjoyed the racket of my practising about as much as I, back in the Valley, had enjoyed listening to her rage at him for being the life of the party. But when it turned out that the Channel 9 talent scouts thought my little trio reasonably fab, my dad appointed himself our manager on the spot. God, was I embarrassed, and resentful.

My dad was very, very conscious of ethnicity, as was prescribed for his generation. He assured me when I was a boy that black people had natural rhythm, and believed them to be inimitably terrific as singers. During the summer I worked briefly with him at Hughes Aircraft, where he’d wangled me a job, he maintained that you could always tell a black singer, and confidently affirmed that whoever was singing “Gimme Some Lovin’” was unmistakably black. Stevie Winwood, you see. He embraced the idea of tolerance in principle, but was very iffy on the idea of the races getting so comfortable with one another that a black boy might want to go out with my younger sister at some point.

(We pause to wipe the smug sneers of disdain from our faces, to acknowledge that it’s easy for us to be wise now, in a climate of infinitely greater understanding, but I’m not so sure that if I’d been born in 1917, I, by the early 70s, would have seen through racism and homophobia any more than my dad had. We flatter ourselves, I think, when we regard as self-evident truths that were obscured for our antecedents by deeply entrenched traditions of stupidity.)

He loved to play the ladies’ man. My mother, eternally averse to the idea of my being fond of him (because where would that leave her?), was quick to assure me that it was pure bluff. Accompanying my first wife to a supermarket near our last home in Los Angeles (so he could bum a cigarette from her), he apparently tried to get the cashier and box boy to perceive him as her lover, rather than her father-in-law. At the time I found it infuriating. Twenty-five years later, at nearly his age at the time, I can understand how much one can long to be seen as sexual, if even for a couple of minutes.

He was unfailingly generous with me. There wasn’t a single meal we ever ate together at which, when it came time for one of us to get what remained of a particular dish, he didn’t insist on my taking it. Even in my 40s he would always ask quietly on parting if I needed a few bucks, and in this, there was no trace of manipulation. He’d done the right thing and put me through university, and then endured years of my flippantly dismissing the whole experience as a waste of time, except for its having kept me from Vietnam. He never tried to strong-arm me into doing a particular job, though he was a great believer (as I’ve come, too late, to be!) in a steady paycheck and the pride and satisfaction that come with it. He was happy for me to do work I loved.

I’d begun collecting Coca-Cola stuff at around 24. Before my 26th birthday, my dad happened into a gas station with a derelict-looking Coke machine, and talked the proprietor into taking 50 bucks for it. When my mother got wind of the transaction, she achieved a level of lividness unseen since their party-going days in the Valley 20 years before. How dare he buy my birthday gift without her input? How dare anyone in my family even dream of doing anything spontaneous for the sheer joy of doing it.
He wasn’t much for introspection, my dad. When I’d begun psychotherapy for the first time at 19, he was actually a bit embarrassed. You could count the deep man-to-mans we had over the years on the fingers of one hand, but one conversation we had, when he was around 57 and had just lost his job at Hughes, has been coming back ever more insistently the past several years – that in which he spoke of how painful and demeaning he found being out of work and apparently unemployable in his late 50s.

Like father, like son.

We didn’t talk a lot, but came to enjoy playing our own variation of stickball (two players – one pitching, one batting) in my parents’ backyard. We’d try to hit practice golf balls with a wooden pole. You could make those practice golf balls curve wickedly, but I still got fairly adept at filling the next door neighbours’ (good sports!) yard with them. Sometimes I’d knock a whole bagful over the fence over the course of a few innings, and we’d have to finish the game with lemons; my parents had trees on which they grew more than they could use or give away. There was something quite wonderful about transforming a lemon with one mighty swing into airborne lemonade. My mother was generally the wittier, but it was my dad who took to referring to our little back yard male-bonding sessions as the Citrus League.

Steven B. Jacobson, the San Francisco psychotherapist who kindly treated me free for several months in 1990 out of sheer kindness, told me that at some point I had to express and then let go of the anger I felt toward my parents for the great pain of my early years. When I finally did so, they both confounded my expectations, my dad by telling me immediately how sorry he was, my mother by denying the whole thing. “But how could you have been unhappy when you were getting such good grades?” she wondered.
What Steve hadn’t told me was that I might not be getting the anger out of my system and into the light, but starting an inexhaustible deluge. Once having told them how angry I was, I proceeded to keep telling them, pretty much for the rest of my dad’s life, a fact of which I am inexpressibly ashamed.

My mother explained to me not long after his death that, in bullying my dad so relentlessly she’d been trying to find the point at which he would finally defend himself. She never found it, mostly, I suspect, because any attention was as pleasurable to him as any other. He might actually have enjoyed vilification more than praise; maybe it felt to him like home. In any event, I gave her nine years of her own medicine, treating her with the same avid contempt she’d always shown him. I lose my dad to death, that is, and then proceed to lose my formerly close friendship with my mother to my own vindictive rage.

I didn’t inherit just his clumsiness, but also his mechanical ineptitude. Along with the homophobia and racism and distrust of psychotherapy, he’d been acculturated to feel emasculated by his inability to fix things. I have the benefit of universal recognition that not all men are good with their hands any more than all women are recessive and nurturing. In my boyhood home, any mechanical snafu spelled disaster, as my mother was utterly clueless herself — but always ready to rub my dad’s nose in his own ineptitude. He got good at watching over their shoulders with hands on knees as more capable neighbours and passers-by fixed things for us; he always seemed so attentive, so intent on seeing just what they were doing in case a similar situation ever arose.

Which brings me to one of the memories of my dad that brings me nearest to tears. My car had broken down several blocks from where I was meeting my parents for lunch. After our meal, they drove me back to it for the ritual of my dad not being able to ascertain what the problem was and my mother ridiculing him for it. I found some paper and wrote a note to leave on the dashboard – Won’t start. Please don’t tow. As I got back behind the wheel to try one last time, just in case, my dad, who was clearly almost coming out of his skin trying to will himself to be able to do the heroic virile thing —stick his head under the hood, fiddle around for a minute, and then call to me, “Try ‘er now” — did all that was in his power to do: he rewrote my little note very, very neatly, and then positioned it with great precision for maximum visibility on the dashboard.

In the final quarter of his life, his greatest joy was moonlighting (a sympathetic higher-up at Hughes managed after a few months to find him another job) as a caricaturist. He tried to ingratiate himself by offering to do new acquaintances’ caricatures, much as his son, 35 years later, offers to work up little Websites for them. He hired himself out for fairs and weddings and the like and apparently got on a fair number of peoples’ nerves by being too desperate for attention and affection. It seemed to give my mother considerable pleasure to relate that this fair had informed him they wouldn’t be using him any more, that weekly swap meet. I suspect it broke his heart, but he never let on. Even in the convalescent hospital in which he would eventually die (of pneumonia, said the death certificate, but of boredom and despair, say I), he was trying to figure out ways that he might return to the circuit, his inability to walk be damned. He was almost invariably good-natured, my dad.

He ate like a lunatic, keeping everything on his plate very neatly arranged, making a lot of noise with his knife and fork in the process. I hope that in Heaven he is able to reach into a communal dish with his own fork without anyone having a heart attack because of the danger of contamination; my mother insisted on sterilising our utensils after dinner every night. I grew up not realising that such behaviour wasn’t normal. Happy birthday, Dad. If you were here, I’d invite you to spear a piece of birthday cake off my plate with your fork.

No comments:

Post a Comment