I have just finished reading an historical novel called The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish. It is an imaginative and beautifully-written story full of lessons in human nature, framed by juxtaposition of events in the small Jewish community of London beginning in the year 1657 with those of a pair of historians in the same city in the year 2000. Writings of a Hebrew scribe in the former period are discovered and analyzed by two historians in the latter. The tale oscillates between events as they happen in the 17th century and reading of them in the 21st. Much of human foibles and nobility are compellingly on display in this saltation between these eras. I will endeavor to review this superb book at a later date. For now, it serves as a catalyst of my recalling a troubling – but ultimately meaningful – encounter with my father, which occurred about 25 years ago; 15 years before his death at age 90 in 2010. It is noteworthy that the name Kadish is (depending upon one’s preferred transliteration) is reminiscent of “Kaddish,” a Jewish mourning prayer traditionally repeated daily for 11 months and then annually on the anniversary of a parent’s death.
My father was born in 1920 of Jewish immigrants who had fled life-threatening persecution in Ukraine. He was an aggressive man of many overcompensated insecurities. In particular, he often recited episodes of near-destitution during the depression. As a kid, in addition to being Jewish, he told of being overweight and the target of frequent bullying. In retrospect, I understand his concept of child-rearing as having been informed by a goal of “toughening me up,” in an attempt to spare me the suffering of his childhood. Such absence of inter-familial boundaries, I think, was typical of parents of his origin and generation. My mother’s rendition of this principle could be heard in the following imperative: “I feel cold. You go put on a sweater.” The emotional terrain of much of my childhood was thus frequently a dilemma – a choice between threats of abandonment (if you don’t do as I say, I will have nothing to do with you ever again) or enmeshment (you must remain a mere extension of me, an appendage – allow me to control your every act and thought). As a therapist once put it, “Your family sure put the ‘fun’ in dys-fun-ctional!” Nonetheless, I eventually worked though most of these challenges to personal growth and stopped blaming my parents for my problems. I only regret that it took me nearly 50 years to do it.
A particular episode – on the cusp of my finally letting go of my intense resentment of him – occurred when my father flew to Pittsburgh from his home in New Jersey to see my son, his new infant grandson. During the visit, we went to the video store to rent a movie (it was the VHS moment of video history). While there, he recounted his enthrallment with Jose Ferrer and insisted we rent a movie (I can’t recall the title) of his. Being that, at that time I was still hypersensitive to his ever-controlling ways, I angrily refused. After separating in the store to conduct separate searches, we got back in the car, where he told me he had purchased the movie for me but that it would take a few days for it to arrive. I became very angry and told him to stop trying to control me and my life; that I had had enough of it. He, of course, was bewildered and when we got back to my house he packed, called a cab and left for the airport. Months later, after we were on speaking terms again, he told me he expected me to come after him, apologize and bring him back from the airport. That, in my mind, was never in the cards. It was a shame that, having become hyper-sensitized to his micromanagement of me (and everyone around him), I could not recognize his ineptly-put desire to share with me something meaningful to him. I am saddened by my actions even as I write, having thought this through many times. It was one of many irretrievable losses in our relationship.
Something in The Weight of Ink reminded me of this video store episode, by way of symmetries apparent between the characters separated by three centuries. As it turns out, although separated by time, there were many parallels and similarities between them, as they (like me) attempted to both live and to understand their lives simultaneously. My father, in his last years, reminisced in most every conversation about episodes in his life and even about movies which had touched him. These days, now that I am about the age that he was when the above incident took place, I find nostalgia (= ‘pain of [returning] home’) to be my most powerful emotion.
The desire to re-live certain moments of my life – only this time with the full knowledge and understanding that only retrospect can give as to their importance and meaning – is sometimes nearly overpowering. Similarly, some movies, mostly classics I watch on TCM, are poignant to the point of painful. The power of many of these is amplified by the realization that the actors and actresses – so vibrant and vivacious on the screen – are all dead, some for many years already. This realization, in turn, leaves me with a profound sense of mystery and longing to comprehend the cycle of life, death, remembrance; in its wake the ultimate knowledge that all will eventually seep into the sands of time like a single ocean wave washing upon the shore, only to be forgotten entirely. Even this testament of a noble fictional character’s existence, like the ink weighing upon the pages of Kadish’s book, will one day return to dust. Do any of us, then, have more claim on history by virtue of being flesh and blood persons than a conjured character in an artful book or a touching movie? The protagonist in the book wrote of such existential doubts, which were in her time blasphemy punishable by death. If they are still blasphemy, the punishment is internalized. Uttering this thought is making me feel somehow guilty.
Regardless, as beautifully portrayed in the book, it seems that some human longings repeat themselves down the generations. My dad went from someone who wanted to spare me life’s pains – albeit not very effectively – to sharing some of his vulnerable longings. He didn’t have much of a model. His dad was the strong, silent type I don’t think either of us ever got to know. Given my grandfather’s early experiences in Ukraine, that was completely understandable. I regret that it took me so long to accept and understand both aspects of my dad. I am glad that – for both of our sakes – before he died I was able to accept him for who he was, not necessarily what I had needed him to be when I was a child. By becoming able to give him the very acceptance I wanted from him, I was able to exorcise the anger I had wrongly thought the only way to assert my separate existence. This made, finally, for a most human connection between us across generations, in part by virtue of my having the same nostalgia for my youth and love of old movies in my dotage that he had in his.