Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Good Man Whom I Admire

After the stroke that immobilized him, my mother wouldn’t let my dad come home for fear there’d be a fire and she wouldn’t be able to drag him to safety; he found himself in the same grimy Santa Monica convalescent hospital where my mother's mother would soon die. I left these decisions to my parents, and will go to my own grave filled with shame for having allowed my dad to die in such a miserable setting.

Not that he’d have been easy to move. He might have been severely disgruntled, but not to the point of considering spending money on himself, not this second son of one of those Jewish families in which all hopes had been pinned on, and every spare cent invested in, the firstborn son. When I spent a day taking him around to other care facilities in the area, all of them brighter and fresher-smelling, he rejected them on the basis of their being more expensive.

That my parents spent so little on their own comfort almost certainly had to do in large part with their wanting to leave me and my sister as much as they could. What they left, given the frugality they taught me, might have lasted the rest of my life if not for the fucking recession. How deeply infuriating to think of all my parents’ (and tens of millions of other parents’) years of self-denial coming to nothing because of the greed and megalomania of the million-dollar-bonus boys on Wall Street.

My dad had hoped as a very young man to be a medical illustrator, but it didn’t work out for him. Once having allowed my mother to talk him into relocating to LA (from Washington, DC), he sold toys in Westwood Village and equestrian supplies in Santa Monica before getting a drafting job at Hughes Aircraft, where he spent the next 35 years; in the world my dad lived in, a job was a lifetime thing, as too was a marriage, however loveless. Not counting my mother's ever-more-naked loathing, he hardest thing I ever saw him have to go through was an extended period of unemployment in the early 70s when Hughes’s aerospace division tightened its belt and laid him off. I think he felt invalidated, confused and adrift. A part of me is glad he didn’t live to see how intimately his own son would come to know those feelings in his own life.

My dad’s greatest pleasures were in drawing caricatures and in flirting with women. At one point, he hooked up with an agent of some sort who’d get him caricature bookings at different events, fairs and corporate wingdings and so on. I think it was very aggressive flirting that caused this agent to stop representing him. It must have broken my dad’s heart.

There was bacon in my household when I was a child, but never pork per se, eating which had famously sickened my dad at one point in his early twenties. But when I invited him to lunch one day in my 28th summer, he scanned the daily specials, ascertained that a pork dish was the cheapest thing on offer, and ordered it. He’d have given me his last dollar, but couldn’t bear the thought of my spending a dime more on his meal than I had to.

On approximately a million occasions, I’d go outside — my mother forbade him to smoke inside — to ensure my dad was still breathing after my mother had sliced him up with her tongue. He would blithely remind me that all married couples argue; I felt as though living in a Lewis Carroll novel. After my dad's death, my mother told me all she’d ever wanted was to see if just once she could make him stand up for himself. For my dad, though, any attention was as pleasurable as any other. He might actually have been more comfortable with my mother’s avid contempt; when I got old enough to be able to embrace him at the end of visits and tell him I loved him, he was mostly embarrassed.

I failed during their lifetimes to even begin to appreciate how much my parents loved me. I post this in honor of the 93rd anniversary of my dad’s birth — and a couple of days after the eighth anniversary of the last time my daughter deigned to speak to me. What goes around really does come around.

1 comment:

  1. The Mendelsohn Saga is a compelling one, and I am grateful to read your reminiscences because I have my own well of painful memories. It’s all so complicated. However outwardly embarrassed he might have behaved, I like to imagine that your father was made happy by your expressions of love at the end of his life. Wouldn’t he also have been proud of your writing this entry and the others about him that preceded it? You have certainly honored his memory with your writing.

    “invalidated, confused and adrift” You, too? Little did I know that 60 would find me betrayed and out of my own art business, working harder than ever for less than ever in a giant corporation (how I have grown to despise corporate America), and trying to figure out who I really am and what I want to do with the rest of my life. And, I’m one of the lucky ones: I have a job with health benefits!