My earliest recollection of him is the chocolate covered pineapple chunks he stashed in his top dresser drawer. When I discovered this, every morning I'd sneak into my parents bedroom and dig in. Most of the time the delectable tidbit was there. I never knew if he left it there for me to find, but that expresses most of my relationship with him.
There was a lot of shouting between my parents at the top of their lungs and both not stopping until exhaustion. I was too young to understand their quarrels but I think they were mostly about money. My sister, four years older also had to put up with them but she and I never talked about them. I suppose they seemed like normal parents. Didn't they all scream? I'd sometimes listen in while my mother and her sister across the street denigrated their men to each other.
My father worked two jobs and little time for us. Mother's poker game rotated from house to house; on poker night, she would send him and me out for a movie or what not. Alas, I always felt stiff with him and didn't trust his judgment. I remember once he wanted to go into a bowling alley to watch the action but I adamantly refused because such places were reputed to be centers of crime. Dumb me.
I felt his absence as I grew older and wanted some kind of relationship with him, but I didn't understand that two jobs made that unlikely. At sixteen, I got a job as a waiter in a summer camp. My mother used to write about all the distress in her life, hardly much fun for me and I asked her to get him also to write to me. After several begging letters to her, I received mail from him consisting of one paragraph in which he hoped I was well. Feh!
You might not remember that I was a deplorable high school student and almost failed to graduate. But, I did and as that time approached, I could only think of enlisting, nothing else loomed. My idiot uncle Jack, a well-educated man with a stick up his butt said the only place for me was Yale and I jumped through their admission hoops until receiving their inevitable rejection. Then, my father swung into action. He found a college placement agency and they determined I could get into a military school or Florida Southern College. And, he determined to send me to stenography school so I could take notes. I chose the Florida school and discovered it was mostly a rehash of my senior high school year. That, plus transcribing every lecture got me straight A's and then my father arranged for me to go to Syracuse University. Clearly, what he did for me transformed my life. Mother was silent through this phase of my existence.
Still, my father remained something of a shadowy figure. Whenever he answered the phone, he'd say,”Hi Bert, I'll get your mother.” She would gossip about relatives whom I hardly knew existed and when he was not in the room, she would tell me about his failings. She never spoke about his heroic efforts to keep us in shelter and food during the thirties, something she might have been proud of, but she never failed to complain.
After WWII, two friends and I decided to buy a car and drive to Mexico. Alfred was nineteen, I eighteen and Big Bert (bigger than me) was seventeen, the three of us hardly aware of what the country was like. My father opposed the idea and offered to buy me a car I could have at school, but my mother thought it a good idea so off we went. In retrospect, I sometimes think he was wiser.
After graduation, the Korean “Police action” started and I was drafted. All during that time, my mother again wrote letters that complained about my father and about my sister. My sister she thought was “crazy” and my father not only incompetent but also unethical in his treatment of friends. It got so that I tossed some of her letters unopened and I had learned not to expect any communication from him. If you get the idea that I mostly raised myself, you'll be correct. I felt very alone in the army and turned to drink . . . and boy, did I drink.
When I got home, I went to graduate school and met my future wife; someday I'll write about that disaster. My parents, in despair that I had no prospect of marriage urged that I pop the question. I did and the rest is misery.
All along the way, though we had not a relationship to speak of, my father made sure to provide help. When Marilyn developed cancer and could not work, my father was ready to provide us with whatever we needed so we could keep going.
Things continued pretty much the same way until my mother died. I remember leaving Brooklyn to go to the airport. My father stood on the sidewalk and said, “Don't forget me. Don't forget me.” That shocked me, that thought had never crossed my mind. Over the next year, every Sunday, I'd call him, we’d speak for about an hour and I discovered the man he was and he, I hope, discovered me. We covered a spectrum of topics including my nephew, sports, local politics, national politics and he always knew what's what. Well, he died and for the first time in a million years, I cried.
When I think about that fellow, my father
Who never, never, seemed eager to bother
To complain about his wife
And their years of bitter strife
Ah, she stood between us, my matriarchal mother.