Three Years Ago, Part 13 of 13
On the left my paternal grandmother Ernestine holds my father while his half-sister Myra stands to the side; to the right is my paternal grandfather Abraham. I had no knowledge of Myra until I was an adult; I had always believed my father to be an only child. Myra had left the household when he was still quite young.
My knowledge of my father's family structure is spotty at best. Ernestine had been Abraham's second wife; he had been her only husband. Abraham had deserted the family. Ernestine had been a piano teacher and single head of household, though her death certificate lists her only as "Housewife". It also lists her as "Widowed," which suggests my paternal grandparents had never divorced.
During the time of my own estrangement from my father I did not know that he had not spoken to his own father for years. As we got to know each other during the last years of his life, my father told me how terrified and helpless he had felt as a boy when his parents had fought. Just as I had felt when my own parents had fought. Abraham, I heard, had possessed a particular liking for showgirls. My father, himself a performer, had gravitated toward my mother, who as a single woman had acted in Greenwich Village's Provincetown Playhouse.
On November 26, 2002, two days before Thanksgiving, my father committed suicide. This entry is the last in a series that presents journal excerpts from that time and the aftermath of his death, edited for privacy purposes and omitting numerous "to do" lists....
2/28/03 3:03 pm. Starbucks. I dreamt last night that I arrived at the FL house to find my father's housekeeper had outfitted it with more furniture. The house was much larger -- much more in the way of wood -- and it seemed she and her children had moved in. Prominent among the furniture were Victorian-style pieces covered in very intense blue or green fringed material that glittered. Interesting, though not my taste. One couch lay perpendicular to the wall between the living room and garage. The house had many more rooms, honeycombed.
Today my father would have been 85. Happy Birthday, Pop.
I have in-hand Daisy's and Red's medical records, returned those special food cans that were redeemable and donated the dented ones. Told the vet I'd miss him and his staff. Thanked him for everything. Saying goodbye is tough.
Yesterday Mary and I brought 14 more boxes of Media Mail to the South Station PO. I've cleared a space to put items she needs to look over, moved items from the south room into the living room for transport to the van. Mary worries about our going over the weight limit; I think we'll be okay. Both of us look forward to our April-May hiatus from each other, when Mary will tie up loose ends up here and I will arrange our belongings in FL. She'll do things her way, I'll do them mine. We'll both be working hard, but at our own pace, and in our own style.
Yesterday I shoveled the mountain of snow blocking a parking spot's worth of street in front of the house. I needed the workout, needed to see some kind of progress. There are a couple of inches of ice, but that can be sanded if need be. Left a note for the landfolks saying when we're renting the van, and that we truly hope to be able to load it in front of the house. Our landlord sounded much more accommodating this time around. Meanwhile, they've left a written confirmation that we are released from our lease the end of May.
I undergo a period of grieving. One that will give way to joy, and freedom -- that, at least, is the plan. But a grieving period that I need to undergo, releasing my 20 years here.
Mary and I talk about trying to make it one last time to Dance Freedom, after we've loaded up the van and before we depart on Wednesday. If we have any energy left. I hear music on the PA that I've danced to over there, and feel sad to be leaving such a wonderful resource. My life becomes stripped down to its basic elements.
The only person I was close to whose body I had seen in death had been Helen's. I did not look on the bodies of my grandmother or my parents, or the first Daisy. They were in the world, and then they were gone.
I think of E's recital of friends he'd known who had killed themselves: this one pointing the pistol at his jaw, muzzle toward the brain; that one holding it against the temple. And, of course, my father's method. E positioning himself on the bed, copying my father's position. Far from being repelled by this, I strive to learn from it.
(Our move is chronicled in "Why I Don't (Yet) Mind the Heat")
Letters I had never before seen were among the items I found as I went through the house after my father's death; these had been kept inside a ration book holder. On the left is a letter he had written to his mother from his posting in Europe during World War II, following his own father's death. For as long as I'd known him, my father's penmanship and writing style had been the same as it is in this letter from February 4, 1945. He was just shy of 27 years old.
Mother dear,My father told me that he had worked diligently to develop his neat, backward-slanting handwriting; I don't know what it had looked like before. The only letter I have found from his father is dated August 18, 1944, scrawled in pencil. I don't know if that had been my paternal grandfather's normal handwriting or a result of the tuberculosis that had killed him. I found the differences in both their penmanship and their use of language striking:
I just received the sad news, this morning, of dad's passing, on Jan. 9, and now I understand fully your letters of Jan. 11 & 14 in which you asked me not to write anymore to Denver. You know, I had the feeling, continuously, since reading dad's last letter to me, which was dated Dec. 14, that something was wrong -- his last words were, "how I wish I could see you once again" -- You didn't wish to worry me. It is your character to keep the burden of trouble all on your own shoulders and spare me completely, as you always have done since I was old enough to remember. But bad news has a way of spreading quickly. So you see, I had to hear the news from someone else. I know how you feel -- I hope you will never know how I feel. You have lost a husband, and I, a father. He wasn't the best, as we both know, but he wasn't the worst either, and we shall feel the loss of him deeply. I am sure that, in the last few months there must have been a closer bond of family love and devotion between the 3 of us than ever existed before. None of us are hundred percent angels or hundred percent devils. For myself first, I beg the good God to forgive me for my many bad sins to him, and to you -- I am a very stupid child, and most of my sins were the result of my insisting on being blind to our trouble. I feel now a heavy share of blame on my head -- isn't it always that way when it is too late to do anything. And I pray for him, that the many wrongs he committed toward you be forgiven, because he now knows better than either of us, what was right and what was wrong. May God forgive him and allow him his place, where there is no more troubles of any kind. And now, all my concern is for you. I hope you try to keep your chin high, for my sake, and remember that you and I will soon be re-united in a happier world. It was a terrible sickness from which he suffered, and it is best that we look upon his passing as a merciful act of God.
A Jewish chaplain gave me the news this morning at 10 AM. It is noon now. I understand that he died in Denver, and his body was shipped to New York, which accounts for the 5 days between death and funeral -- from Jan. 9 to Jan. 14. The chaplain performed what rites he could under the stress and strain of war. He told me that it would be impossible for me to sit shiva, and that I would seldom be able to recite the Kaddisch, because it is so difficult to find a minion here. But then he said that this was not really necessary. He made me to sit with my shoes off for a short while, and then he pinned a piece of tape to my clothing and tore it down, because they can't tear clothing here. He recited some prayers in Hebrew and Jewish, and told me to attend services whenever it is convenient for me to do so. He gave me the name of the Jewish chaplain in the next place where I expect to be. And his name is Chaplain Goldstein. He is a captain, and a very fine and learned man. He asked me not to mourn too much, and that is what I want to pass on to you. We mustn't forget, nor must we mourn to excess.
There is much I would care to know, but knowing how it would pain you to put them into writing I shall not ask. I am glad that Aunt Beck was with you during the trying days, because I know her presence was a great comfort to you. I hope she is still with you now.
Please don't worry about me -- It has been a heavy blow, and a shock even though I suspected it, within me, but the worst is past. It is all in life, and your own health and well-being is uppermost in my thoughts now. You are all that matters, and if anything should happen to you I shall not want to come back alive -- so for my sake you must take good care of yourself. You must not work hard or aggravate yourself with those awful pupils. You must try to eat well, things that will give you health and strength -- and if you find anything the matter with you, you must not wait to consult a doctor, or a dentist, or a plumber, or a carpenter, or whatever it is you need. If I know you are fine, all this is like nothing to me.
Just keep thinking of me, and our happy reunion. You realize of course that if I were in the states when this occurred I could have gone home and put my arm around your shoulder, but unfortunately there is 3000 miles of ocean between us now, and something bigger is going on, so this letter will have to suffice, as my comforter, and I'll be a little late putting my arm around your shoulder, but it won't be too long.
I think this is the first Air-mail letter I have written to you, and will be anxious to know what day it reaches you. It is, perhaps, a day or two slower than V mail, but there is so much more I can say than in a V mail, or in a cold, bare wire, which was my first intention.
I repeat again mom, cheer up and get all sad troubles out of your mind. Write me often, and all, everything that you do everyday. What you do when you are home -- if you get much company or visitors, if you go out visiting much (you should, indeed) and how the lessons are, how many [students] you have and how they progress, and how often you see Uncle Morris, Yetta Tornchin, the Ports, what you eat -- all those things that seem so unimportant to you are my whole world. Let me know about them.
I kiss you on the cheek, and say, "so long for now" -- be a good girl -- You've gone through so much hardship that you should be able to take it like a soldier. I know you do.
All my love,
Your loving son,
I hope you are well and enjoying yourself. I suppose it is needless to ask how it feels to be back in N.Y. and home, as I still have some imagination left, and know that the time will all pass much too quick for you.
I was getting worried as I had not heard from you in quite a while and when I got your letter 2 days ago telling me of the new developments I felt greatly disturbed by the news, but somehow I still feel that the whole thing will be over before they have a chance to send you across as you yourself can see by the news every day. Anyhow son if I ever done any serious praying in my life I am doing it now.
Has your friend Seymour Zeldin also been picked to go across and is he going in your unit? If the war in Europe ends as I think it will very shortly it will be a sort of a pleasure trip [for] you more than anything else and quite an experience for future remembrance.
There is not much to report about myself. I feel a little better than I did but as yet I can't seem to be able to regain any of the weight I lost although the doctor assures me that I will in time. Well kid take it easy. Have a nice time and try and not to worry as I feel sure that everything will come out all right for you. Lots of love and best wishes and God bless you. Pop