There’s something about families.
Memories of mine go back to a time when my mother died of cancer after a 2 year—the usual 2 –year punishment period God or the Great God Cancer seems to require. When Ida was ill and dying the fault lines between the two sides of the family, hers and Chaim’s, were revealed. Not to me, I was too young to understand. But over the years my father communicated his attitude to some of the others pretty clearly. He was bad at hiding things like that. I suspect that long before, when he first arrived on the scene from Poland, this close knit family of 2 brothers and 3 sisters put up defenses. There is a picture of all of them sitting together on a couch and in front of it for a photograph: father, mother, Ida, Aunt Sara, Aunt Lilly, Lilly’s husband George, Uncle Dave, Aunt Fran, Uncle Jack and Aunt Rose all together in the center looking at the camera, with my father sitting in a chair off to one side, immersed in the New York Times. So when we no longer visited Aunt Lilly and I felt uncomfortable going to stay with Uncle Jack and Aunt Rose, I got the message. What I didn’t get was the sense that a Great Crime had been committed and my father was the criminal.
There was no doubt in my mind (now) that Chaim was initially resented by the family. The problem was he was both needed and resented. There were many reasons to resent him. He was smart, really smart. He was charismatic and successful (not in terms of money or business, but influence. People came to him for impartiality and advice, valuable commodities in the rough and tumble garment business. And they came for who he knew, even more valuable. A natural and confident speaker with a sense of humor; even in his Yiddish accented English, he could hold a room. In Poland he had been an organizer from an early age. A militant, he roused crowds and had a certain fame. Women liked him as well as men. Because he had influence people came to him to find jobs too. As did the family. He was a fixer. So he fixed them up. With hard to get tickets to shows, basketball games too as well as jobs. He loved that. He made connections. Problems happened when the jobs did not live up to expectations.
Then they became his fault.
The Great Crime, never stated, always implied, and him impugned, was an affair with, as far as I can piece together, one of the sisters, or the wife of one of the brothers. When did this happen? Before Ida was ill? When she was ill and dying? Over the years the whispered conspiracy was mainly kept alive by Aunt Fran with Uncle Dave an unwilling (I suspect) co-conspirator.
Hence a poisonous silence, and with it hostility, hostility inevitably bequeathed to the next generation, my cousins.
How could they avoid it. Chaim was the bogeyman.
Of course this is ridiculous. But families are. Whatever is supposed to have happened happened 70 years ago. One is tempted to say, to Fran especially, the keeper of the bitter flame, it’s time: get over it. Actually one can’t say that to Dave because he died last year at 91. And one can’t say it to Fran, who is 90 and in the Hebrew Home For the Aged in Riverdale, ironically two blocks from where I did most of my of my growing up.
Ida died in November, 1980. Chaim died a month and a half after Ida, an indication of how connected and interdependent they had become. So I am left alone to defend him, but from whom? I resent it, and I resent them, the whole family, which means their memory. I no longer care if they are blood relations. But meanwhile something’s happened which may give some credence to the Great Crime.
One of the ubiquitously marketed DNA products recently revealed a half sister. Her parents were good friends of my father’s. I remember them well. She was born in the early ‘50s, around the time or just before my father married his second Ida, the woman we considered our mother. We had dinner with my new sister and according to her they were all good friends: Ida, Chaim and her parents. They double-dated, went to restaurants and shows, exchanged dinners in each others apartments.
So was my father someone I knew? Did he, the object of sympathy of all those women who surrounded him, seek out solace in that terrible time when he was left with 2 small children, no wife and no job?
Whatever. It seems they’ll never tell me the Great Secret and for me it’s too late. I don’t want to know.
There is a post script. After our mother’s death Marcia and I were shunted from place to place while Chaim tried to figure out how to keep us together and go to work in a new job. We went first to his sister, Aunt Rachel which we hated. Rachel felt incredibly old, 19thCentury, and foreign (she spoke with a Scottish accent having spent decades in Glasgow on way from Poland to the Bronx). But now I realize she must have been in her 50s, perhaps 60. Later we were put in the care of Dorothy, who one day took us to Harlem to us visit her family. Everyone was black and I thought she was going to leave us there. The next year Chaim married the second Ida. Years later Ida told me she believed (and I believe) he did not marry her because of love—that or some kind of affection may have come later—but to look after us. (The opposite of the evil stepmother, Marcia summed her up perfectly: “She was a beautiful soul and we were lucky to have her.”) The rumor was that after the first Ida died some of the family had tried to adopt us. Who, I don’t know. I am sure that would have been for the best of reasons but I am also sure he would not have taken it that way. Taking his kids away? Chaim would have hated the idea. He would have been unforgiving and unforgetting.
And Chaim, like Aunt Fran, would never let go an injury.