The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.
A summer night, 1955. “Your friend Martin won’t come into his own until his father dies.” My father was looking somewhere beyond me, and seemed to be speaking more to himself, a forty-one year old scoutmaster, than to me, a twelve-year-old Boy Scout. Why, I wondered, did he choose that moment, right after a Boy Scout troop meeting as we stood by ourselves on the lawn of the grade school, to make this disturbing pronouncement?
It would take many years before I would understand that what my father had offered me was his excuse, also an oblique apology for the angry and sometimes abusive behavior I had experienced far too often as his young son. It was an apology that should have been made again, but to his adult son. It never was, at least not in words.
First published in the Jewish Literary Journal (Feb. 2017), this slightly revised version includes a short paragraph concerning an unpleasant incident with a tray of gauze-wrapped capsules.
In the last week of September 1955, my Uncle Hymie’s two daughters were told that twenty minutes before the fatal shot was fired, their father had called home to ask if he should bring anything from the market where he worked. Anything, that is, in addition to the pistol he had been cleaning in the office.
The explanation to children in the extended family was that there had been a robbery near where my uncle and his family lived. Elders offered the timing and content of the phone call as evidence that the death had been accidental.
In an attempt to have this interpretation become official, my father hired an attorney whose influence with the coroner could be helpful at the inquest. The reputation of my uncle’s family made it desirable for the coroner to rule the death an accident. He did. The report stated the pistol was defective and had backfired.
1975, Florida. On the afternoon of our first day together, I pull the swinging, cedar door, and we step into the merciless heat and humidity of a steam room. We are alone.
Father: “It’s not hot enough in here.”
Son: “It’s too hot.”
Father: “Only babies can’t take heat. I’m moving to a higher bench.”
Son: “You’re out of your mind. I’m moving to a lower bench.”
My father had invited me to join him at a Florida spa-hotel so we could enjoy a few days together, without my mother and siblings. I knew he was worried about me as I was experiencing a stressful transition in my domestic life. By this time, I was thirty-one, he was sixty.
July 1979. St. Louis. “Catherine, our luggage is going to Paris.” I said, as we walked down the concourse to board our plane to St. Louis to attend my brother’s wedding.
“I think we’ll be OK, really,” she said.
It had to happen. Our plane and the one to Paris were scheduled to leave a few minutes apart from adjacent gates. Naturally, our luggage went to Paris. That’s France, not Texas. Before our luggage could be located, searched for drugs, escorted through French customs, and, at last, returned to us before the ceremony, we spent a miserable four days in borrowed clothing, and complaining about the one hundred six degree heat, and the general inconvenience of it all.
At the requisite bachelors’ evening I wore a shirt I had borrowed from my father. It was yellow. I never wore yellow shirts. For some reason, I thought this one looked good, and it felt good to be wearing my father’s shirt. When he offered the thin gold chain to wear around my neck I resisted the cracks about Miami and old men with their shirts unbuttoned to their waists, and so forth. I put on the chain, and he put on his smile.
I read this as a guest on Lake Effect, a popular show on WUWM, Milwaukee Public Radio. I hope you enjoy listening, reading, or both.
Step I. Complain.
“Here’s the deal, Cathy. I hate fixing the Christmas lights on the crabapple tree, because it’s freezing in Milwaukee, and when I face south I can’t see anything because we live this far north and the sun is in my eyes, and the squirrels ate the wires of the lights, I guarantee you, because they’re squirrels, for God’s sake.”
“You don’t have to do it this year, you know,” she says. “Let’s just enjoy the holiday.”
“This time, I believe you, Cathy. I’m going to tear down all the wires from the crabapple and, instead, we can have a Christmas tree inside with lights, at the same time that our Chanukah candles will be burning. Your Catholicism, my Judaism. That’s all I need.”
"The simplest acts of kindness are by far more powerful than a thousand heads bowing in prayer." –Mahatma Gandhi
At age fifteen, I learned something important from a person I had assumed was the least likely to teach me anything about anything. It was summer, 1958, and I was working in my parents’ small, retail, fur garment business in the old commercial district of downtown St. Louis.
My father and mother were kind people; though they had little money, they shared it with others, and when they had more, they shared more. They believed this was the right thing, the kind thing, to do. Another way they expressed their kindness and social concern during all their years in business was by hiring a diverse workforce of part time, full time, and whenever-there’s-something-to-do employees, a number of whom might otherwise have been unemployable. They hired women, men, Jews, Christians, Muslims, blacks, whites, young and old, with a variety of sexual orientations and gender identities, years before “diversity in the workplace” would be accepted and expected, especially in a near-southern city like St. Louis.
I read this piece as a member of the Milwaukee cast for the 2017 Listen to Your Mother program.
I. In an alley, 1951.
A neighborhood kid pounds on our screen door. “Myles, your mom fell down in the alley.”
I am eight…and frightened. We rush into the alley where my mother picks up the last of the scattered groceries.
“I tripped, but I'm all right,” she says, looking weary, even vulnerable.
We eight year-old boys carry the grocery bags, and walk her home.
When memories like this one appear, it’s like opening a wallet and seeing the worn edges of an almost-forgotten photograph. I slip the memory of my mother out of the wallet, study it for a moment, then put it away, yet again
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor
Seventy years later, some still insist it couldn’t have happened. It did…and I should know. After all, it’s my own pants we’re talking about here.
The year it happened was 1947 C.E., more or less. I’m four years old, or a bit to one side or the other of it, and I walk up the flight of black metal stairs with raised dimples on the treads for traction, and hand rails fashioned from black pipe. The exterior, exposed staircases are on the outside rear of every two or three story apartment building in the neighborhood. Kitchens are entered from the landings on each floor.
I enter ours, and am not surprised to see my mother–she lives here and was home a half hour earlier–though she’s surprised to see my pants; i.e., the front of them, a bit below the waist.
“How did your pants get wet, Sweetheart?” she says to me, beginning the sort of inquiry that mothers must have engaged in since Homo sapiens first began wearing clothing that included something like pants.
“Josh Lester tee-ceed in them,” I say.
I wouldn’t have said anything else. Two things to keep in mind: Josh Lester was a neighborhood kid my older brother’s age, seven, or a bit to one side of it or the other; and “tee-cee” (best translated as “pee”) was used, in our family’s oral and written English, as a verb or noun.
“Josh Lester tee-ceed in your pants? Sweetheart…how did your pants get wet?”
“Josh Lester tee-ceed in them.”
“I have a lot of practice,” he said, flashing that great smile.
I noticed his heavily muscled forearms, and the callouses on his knuckles
and other parts of his hands.
“And you’re really good at it,” I said.
1988. I was one of those forty-five year old guys, in a nice suit and tie, on my way to one of those “really important trips” to New York. Upgraded to first class and assigned the seat I had requested–aisle, bulkhead, with maximum legroom–I knew I’d be comfortable and wouldn’t have to climb over anyone in order to use the restroom.
Along with the other first class passengers, I boarded the plane early, stowed my suitcase, and thanked the flight attendant who handed me a cup of coffee as soon as I took my seat. I could not have been more content, considering I was drinking TWA coffee, and not an espresso in an outdoor café.
When the flight attendant approached me, she said, “We have a problem, sir, and you can help us solve it. We need you to change your seat, and I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”
“So am I. Why do I have to move? There are other seats open in first class.”
“We specifically need yours.”
“I did everything I could to reserve this seat, and now you’re saying you need it for one of your special customers?”
“That’s correct, sir.”
As I began to say something more, I noticed what was happening behind her, by the entry door. A man my age, mid-forties, was in the aisle. He was several feet tall, and his read reached not far above the arm rests of the passenger seats on either side of him. His body began, or ended, at the few inches that remained of what once had been his legs. He propelled himself by pressing his fists against the floor, boosting his torso about six inches, swinging forward as far as his arms and momentum would permit, landing on the floor, and then repeating the series of well-practiced, moves, all the while smiling at anyone he saw watching him, myself included. Ashamed of my self-absorbed interaction with the flight attendant, I moved to the window seat.
Circa 1950, six years old, maybe seven, St. Louis. I loved Mrs. Iris Banks, and she loved me. While my parents were at work, she helped raise my brothers and me in our all-white neighborhood. In her mid-thirties, her face had a delicate beauty; her brown skin was luminous, her cheeks tinged with light pink. She was thin, even slight, and wore simple cotton dresses with pads in the shoulders. Her black hair was parted in the middle, and gathered in a loose bun.
Iris was, in a way, part of our family, and one special effort was made for me to be part of hers.
I was a little boy on a summer day when my mother was home, and Iris Banks brought her niece to our apartment. We were the same six or seven years old, and our two families had decided we would play together. She wore a pretty, white dress, and her black hair pulled back in braids. Her Auntie Iris and my mother told us to walk to the drugstore, sit at the counter, and have something cold to drink, in circa 1950 St. Louis, when people the skin-color of my playmate and her Auntie Iris were permitted to sit only in top balconies of those “white” movie theatres that admitted them.
To get to the drugstore, Iris Banks’s niece and I had to walk down the alley behind our apartment building. The alley was a favorite hangout for neighborhood kids, none of whom were around that day. There were ash pits for bonfires, dark garages for hideouts during Cops and Robbers, and tons of rocks which became golf balls to smack with a bent, left-handed club we had found near a trash can. The alleys were linear playgrounds, pathways to safe places where, on ordinary days, no harm was done to anyone.
When I was one-and-twenty
I heard a wise man say,
‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free.’
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.
When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
‘The heart out of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
’Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue.’
And I am two-and-twenty,
And oh, ’tis true, ’tis true.
When I Was One-And-Twenty — A. E. Housman
In the Galilee, Winter, 1964, sixteen years after what Israelis call the War of Independence, and Palestinians call the Nakba (The Catastrophe.) Four of us from our kibbutz in the Jordan Valley drove for an hour in our jeep each morning for three days to work in our commune’s large wheat field in the Galilee. We said we were driving to “Lajjun,” close to the Jordanian border; but what is left of Lajjun are remains of the former Palestinian village. There was a cluster of adobe and stone dwellings near the field, but the village, for all intents and purposes, was depopulated of Palestinians during the 1948 war.
Though my knowledge of Lajjun was limited, I was uncomfortable knowing we were working on what must have been Palestinian land before 1948. But, we had work to do, and I was one of the people who did it. Step by step, back and forth, dunam after dunam of the wheat field, we walked, four abreast, in the cold and damp Galilee winter. Each of us in the foursome carried a gallon tin can filled with kernels of wheat, not for human consumption. Each kernel had been coated in poison, a beautiful shade of fuscia. As my co-workers did, I stopped every few steps, dipped a little spoon into my own gallon can, removed a few of the kernels of wheat, bent from my knees and waist, and dropped the colorful and tasty snacks into the tiny entrances and exits of the tunnels of field mice. After only two hours of the first day of this repetitive and boring work, I craved relief from the ache in my knees, back, and what was left of my brain. My initial feelings of compassion toward the little field mice, had transitioned to, “Kill the little shits if they insist on decimating our wheat field.”
Having lived in two countries with national health care programs, Canada and Israel, and having lived in the United States with its “best health care system in the world” that permits, if not encourages, private health insurance companies to profit on human suffering, I remember with fondness the real socialized medicine. I was lucky enough to have experienced it while living in a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley in 1963-64, and again for several months in 1966.
While there, I worked in our orange, grapefruit, and pomegranate orchards, in our extensive fields of bananas, and in our elaborate complex of fish ponds where we raised and harvested tilapia. During the only three days I spent assisting in our communal kitchen and dining room–washing dishes and performing various other cleaning and food preparation tasks–I discovered I had fifteen different "mothers and grandmothers" I never had known were mine.
And then there were the chicken coops.
Prologue.–Circa 1950, age 7
Tomorrow night, sixty-six years later, 2016.
From the time I was a toddler, perhaps even from my birth in 1943, I have enjoyed the exalted status of “Our Grandmother’s Favorite.” My cousins never fail to dwell upon my relationship with my mother’s mother whenever we reminisce. “You always, always were Grandma’s favorite,” one will offer; another will wonder, “What can you even say about it?” and hear in response, “Why even try?”
There are times when her words seem to echo a meditation or prayer, something that might have been spoken best in Latin, in the convent, at mass.
Act I, A Beginning. University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1975. We discovered that both of us loved to walk…together. I was thirty-two, Catherine was twenty-seven. We had met a year earlier while employed in the same department.
We walked through the numbing winter cold, in the spring when everything bloomed and all seemed possible, and in the early summer when we lingered under catalpa trees late at night as the flower petals fell around us in a soft, white veil. In the hot, mid-summer days and cooler evenings, we walked in the arboretum where, years earlier, Catherine had recorded the habits of Arboretum wildlife, while remaining silent for hours. She had demonstrated this patience early in her life, and nurtured it later, during her years in the convent as an aspirant.
With each walk, we grew more comfortable in our shared silences. I learned from her to honor those times when what is most important is listening to the sounds of the heart. And we held hands. And began to fall in love.
On an early summer morning, before Madison became busy in its way, we set out with no destination in mind. We stopped for breakfast at a diner, then walked until we stopped somewhere else for lunch, and continued walking until we ate dinner at a third place. By then, the sun was setting; we decided our dessert would be a walk in the nearby arboretum at the end of what had been a perfect day.