Thursday, March 9, 2017

For My Father On His Centenary

I know now why we got off on the wrong foot, Dad. While you were at work, Mommy was teaching me (not by design, of course!) that the world was terrifying, and that if I dared peek out of my hiding place, the terror would surely overwhelm me. When the three of us went down to the beach in Santa Monica, and you tried to interest me in plunging into the surf with you, as you’d so loved plunging into that off the coast of your semi-native Wildwood, New Jersey, you might as well have tried to interest me into diving into a live volcano. Mommy couldn’t swim, so why should I believe I’d be able to? I was terrified into speechlessness when you put me on your shoulder and loped eagerly toward the ocean, though my not having drowned suggest that I must finally have mustered the ability to scream in terror. I could feel your disappointment in me. I felt it in myself. 
Whenever the subject of swimming bobbed back to the surface over the course of my early childhood, you mused aloud that maybe what you should do is take me to the nearest public pool and throw me in, as you claimed your own dad had done with you. A boy either figures out how to swim — and fast, by God! — or drowns! 
How many hours of sleeplessness do you suppose I got out of that one, Dad? Did you not see that, by no means through my choosing, I was your wife’s son, and that you were terrifying me? How could you, Dad? How fucking could you?
There was little solace for me on dry land. You won me a Schwinn bicycle in a supermarket coloring contest, representing your artist friend’s work as my own, but it was far too big for me. I was terrified into speechlessness again. We kept at it, though I made no progress whatever. I had no faith in my balance, and viewed our regular visits to the high school parking lot approximately as I would have visits to a dentist whose religion precluded his or her using Novocaine. You were disappointed in and ashamed of me, and I of myself. Why couldn’t I muster the courage for the purportedly fun things every other boy on earth could do, and loudly reveled in doing? From around six and a half I was already awash in self-loathing. 
It’s so easy for me to return there in my mind, Dad, I sitting on the curb on one side of the street, hating your disappointment in me, hating myself for having disappointed you, hating my beautiful new bicycle, and wishing that the world would end, you sitting on the curb on the opposite side of the street, smoking your cigarette, shaking your head, trying in vain to figure out what could possibly be so terrifying about a goddamned bicycle. It took me deliberately falling off face-first and knocking out my two front teeth to get you to give up on the idea. 
By the time I learned to do what looked, in a faint light, like a reasonable imitation of A Real Boy, self-loathing was who I was. Like Mom, I lacked the faintest trace of self-confidence (or self-esteem), and was generally terrified of the world — and contemptuous of you. Over the course of my childhood, how many millions of times did I see and hear her reducing you to rubble for, let’s say, not buying the specified least expensive, kind of apple in the supermarket on your way home from work? And how many times did you respond assertively, quietly but firmly suggesting that she do the purchase the fucking apples herself if she found your direction-following ability so woeful? Exactly as many times, Dad, as I heard you demand why she hadn’t managed to adequately heat the Van de Kamp’s frozen halibut or comparable gourmet delight we had for dinner with such gruesome regularity (because she effectively refused to actually cook). Not once. She taught me not to respect you, Dad, and I let her. 
I entered adolescence excruciatingly shy. Big surprise! I needed some good advice, along the lines of: Just tamp your terror down long enough to approach a few girls. You’ll find that most won’t be awful and dismissive, and it’ll get easier every time you do it, to the point where it won’t be so hard at all. What you told me instead was, “Play the field.” You might as well have told me to go out for the Olympic gymnastics team. Could you not see who I was?
Sex? It was swimming all over again! You were — not telling Mom, of course — going to take me to A Professional for my first experience. Out-of-my-head horny though I was, I couldn’t have found less exciting the prospect of losing my virginity to a prostitute you’d no doubt have done your cock-of-the-walk schtick for. What assurance did I have that you wouldn’t insist on actually looking on and shouting encouragement? More sleepless nights, Dad, nights of — how’s this! — trying to suppress my heterosexuality. Lots more. 
I wanted to play Pony (that is, post-Little) League baseball. I was the most avid, least gifted young baseball player in southern California. The league needed managers. Mom’s getting you to volunteer probably wasn’t that hard. You always enjoyed attention. It was a nightmare for both of us. My teammates hated me for having taken a roster spot someone with some faint hope of actually hitting a pitched baseball might have occupied. Their own pops, about half of whom were positive that, with the proper guidance, Junior would be the next Mickey Mantle or Don Drysdale, noted pretty quickly that no such guidance would be forthcoming from you, who didn’t know much about baseball, and who felt that everyone on the team should get a chance to play, even if it lessened the likelihood of the Dodgers or New York Yankees sending a scout to see Junior in action. Oh, the rancor you had to endure, and endured with characteristic good humor, for me. Fifty-five years after the fact, not a week goes by that I’m not overcome with guilt about that, Dad.
I had a Chile-like paper route that covered a preposterous amount of ground. Nobody could have handled it on his own. Every Thursday morning, without fail, you were up at 5:30 to deliver a third of the papers for me. You’d have done anything for me. I never doubted that.

I discovered The Beatles and wanted to replace Ringo. The Malibu Optimist Club awarded me a scholarship, with which I immediately dashed out and bought a drum kit. Early on, I had to admit to myself that drumming was one of those things in life I desperately wanted to be good at, but for which I had no perceptible aptitude. But evening, I came upstairs after a practice session during which I’d dared imagine myself getting just slightly better. You told me that you, as non-musical a person as has ever lived, and no drummer, could go downstairs that minute and play better than I. It was the only instance of your being gratuitously cruel I can remember, but I remember it to this day, pretty much every time I sit down to play. How I hated you for saying that, and for it’s probably having been true.
I actually got a pretty girlfriend, and then, when I went off (eight miles away) to college, an even sexier one. When I was 19, I undertook to travel up to the Bay Area alone (a very big deal for one as sheltered and timid as I) to keep her from going back to her old boyfriend during Xmas break. Managing the trip made me feel quite the hotshot. I got off the homeward bound Greyhound bus several miles north of Santa Monica, intending to walk the rest of the way and surprise you and Mom. Behold: the return of the intrepid wayfarer! When you came home annoyed with me for having let you go into Santa Monica and wait at length at the bus depot (in fairness, there were no smartphones in 1966), I called you a bastard. Behold the intrepid young wayfarer’s daring, insulting one of the two people who loves him most in the world! To this day, I wish I’d bitten off the tip of my tongue instead.
Citing a thousand comparable instances of my having repaid your kindness and devotion with snideness and contempt, I could easily drown my computer keyboard in my tears. I don’t condemn the little boy who treated you disdainfully because it’s what he saw the dominant person in the household — Mom — do. I condemn the hell out of the man happy to remain that madwoman’s echo chamber even in adulthood. 
When I was 45, and nearly immobilised by the depression and self-loathing born of the awful early years of feeling myself unable to do anything right, I was treated by a psychotherapist who said I was unlikely ever to put a dent in my eternal depression if I didn’t confront you and Mom, and tell you about the agony neither of you had seemed to notice I was in as a kid. Mom had worked as a volunteer counselor, and was a firm believer in psychotherapy. You, on the other hand, had been appalled (that is, apparently shamed) when I’d first sought it, my freshman year at university. But it was you who actually heard me out, and who apologised without reservation. Mom couldn’t bear to hear what I had to tell her. All those years she had me believing that I needed her to protect me from you. And here it turned out to have been the other way round!
After retirement, you’d seemed intent on dying of boredom. I persuaded Mom (who of course made decisions for both of you) to have a second look at Europe in 1987, the year my first marriage collapsed. Immobilised, as ever, by catastrophic expectations, she wouldn’t go unless I came along, for fear of your having a stroke or something in a place where she’d be unable to summon help. I went along, making clear at every turn what an extraordinary favor I was doing the two of you. (I literally shudder with self-revulsion remembering this, Dad.) When you arrived in San Francisco, and I saw how carefully the pair of you had packaged and organised your travel documents, and practiced producing different ones on request, I loved you both so much I nearly swooned. But then the vindictive side of me kicked in, and I became the snide asshole you knew and loved faithfully, no matter my obnoxiousness. Every day it occurred to me that I’d never have a better chance to tell you how much I loved you both, and how your love had made possible my own boundless love for your then-3-year-old daughter. I never quite got around to it. I was too busy being sarcastic (and, for the record, hating myself for doing so). I will never forgive myself for that, Dad.
When I’d been about to turn 27, and an avid Coca-Cola collector, you impulsively bought me a beautiful Coke machine from a gas station. When Mom got wind of your having done so, she reacted as though you’d taken all my younger sister’s college money and blown it at the track. How dare you have done such a thing without consulting her! How dare you…exclude her! As though you’d have withheld for a millisecond co-credit — or, indeed, al the credit or the wonderful gift’s purchase! 
Fucking madwoman, and the ruler of our family until the end.
After your immobilizing stroke, Mom was of course certain there’d be a fire if she “allowed” you to return home, and that she’d be unable to drag you to safety. Far better, she thought (and you agreed, of course) that you be consigned to the same malodorous “convalescent hospital” in which her own mother had died a couple of years before. I took you around to other such facilities hoping at the very least to persuade you to agree to somewhere less depressing. Of course you would not, as it simply wasn’t in Gil Mendelsohn to spend money on his own comfort or pleasure. I would phone you, and your nearly deaf 92-year-old roommate would answer the phone. I’d sooner have relived the worst days of “learning” to ride my bike than hear your desperate frustration as you tried to make the guy understand that the call might be for you, and that he had to pass the phone over. But wasn’t I Mom’s surrogate until the very end, Dad, and didn’t you wind up dying in that ghastly malodorous hellhole?
I’m sorry, Dad. God, am I sorry.

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