Lessons Across Generations: My Father, Nostalgia and Old Movies

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.

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Author: civil westman

Driven to achieve outward and visible things, I became a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer. Eventually, I noticed the world had still not beat a path to my door with raves. Now, as a septuagenarian I still work anesthesia part-time, fly my flight simulator to keep my brain sparking and try to elude that nagging, intrusive reminder that my clock is running out. Before it does, I am trying, earnestly, to find a theory of everything - to have even a brief "God's-eye" view of it all before the "peace which passeth all understanding."

19 thoughts on “Lessons Across Generations: My Father, Nostalgia and Old Movies”

  1. CW, I typically say I’ll get back to your posts with a better comment because I frequently feel inadequate to respond intelligently.  I love your point about the dead and the fictional being relegated to the same plane of non-existence, with all of the attendant weight, or lack thereof, of ink or for that matter air filling in the gaps left by a chisel in granite.

    Your posts on your father and that relationship make me think of my father and that relationship, which is similar in some ways.  Aren’t they all?

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  2. Dear civil westman,

    All of your expressions, all of them, are those of a person who is two things:  (1) a child of survivors, and (2) a man of great sensitivity, great capacity for love, and great capacity for loyalty.

    The reason for your mental suffering, the reason you have felt the imperative, all these years, to think these things  through, is precisely your capacity for and diligence in pursuit of love and loyalty.  The hurts you bear are honorable ones. It is impressive, truly an inspiration, to learn how you figure these things out and deal with them.  Good job. Keep writing to us, and may the burden become lighter every time you write.

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  3. My father was stubborn. He got it from me.

    CW, I appreciate the thought that go into your pieces. They make me think. I related to this piece because my father felt if he liked it everyone should like it. It was a given.

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  4. “The sins of the fathers come down through the generations.”

    I am convinced that a significant fraction of our emotional state consists of coping mechanisms that are the product of genetics and epigenetics, but which coping mechanisms get triggered is a phenomenon influenced by environment.   It’s complicated.   I think in some families I see similar traits passed down, while in others I see opposing or tangential traits that seem to develop in reaction against characteristics of the parents or other stresses.

    So you are definitely influenced in your mind by vectors that happened a generation before you were born, or even in the generation before that.   You may exhibit an annoying trait of your own parent, but you may just as well exhibit an annoying trait of a grandparent or great-grandparent.

    God give us to each other in the context of families.   Some families get pushed or pulled out of shape by calamities that befall them through no fault of theirs.   The effects may take many generations to even out.

    Thanks for the lesson in looking at parents and grandparents with forbearing; remember that they were influenced by factors they did not control, and they may have had little conscious input to the way they reacted to circumstances of their upbringing.  Things that happened in their youth echoed into your own youth.

    Bear all things in love, etc.

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  5. Oh, CW!  This isn’t the first time your posts have made me cry.  I want to read the book you describe.

    I thought especially of my parents-in-law.  I often churlishly resented my mother-in-law’s “gifts” because I felt  they weren’t for me,  but for someone she wanted me to be, or for someone she wanted to be.  I did eventually come to the point of realizing that yes, she was doing it for her own pleasure—and I was happy and grateful to be able to facilitate that. Why on Earth not?!?  But: what took me so long? 

    But in your penultimate paragraph, why are you saying thoughts of human transience are near blasphemy?  Expressions of that sentiment are numerous in the Old Testament: “Your fathers, where are they?And the prophets, do they live for ever?”

    Or was it comparing a living or dead human to a fictional creation that is blasphemous?

    You’ve summoned your father back and introduced him to us.   Do you believe there can be any life after death except for such remembrance?

    (I read a book called (I think) Farthest Field, about Indian soldiers who fought with the British (instead of for Indian independence) in WW II.  . The author felt those men have been erased.  There are two deaths, he said, one physical, and one when no one still alive remembers you.  At that point,  the dead are irrevocably exiled to the farthest field.)

    Anyway: nice to meet your mother and dad. You’ve made them vivid—certainly the mot juste in this context.  Peace, shalom.

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  6. Hypatia:
    Oh, CW!  This isn’t the first time your posts have made me cry.  I want to read the book you describe.

    I thought especially of my parents-in-law.  I often churlishly resented my mother-in-law’s “gifts” because I felt  they weren’t for me,  but for someone she wanted me to be, or for someone she wanted to be.  I did eventually come to the point of realizing that yes, she was doing it for her own pleasure—and I was happy and grateful to be able to facilitate that. Why on Earth not?!?  But: what took me so long? 

    But in your penultimate paragraph, why are you saying thoughts of human transience are near blasphemy?  Expressions of that sentiment are numerous in the Old Testament: “Your fathers, where are they?And the prophets, do they live for ever?”

    Or was it comparing a living or dead human to a fictional creation that is blasphemous?

    You’ve summoned your father back and introduced him to us.   Do you believe there can be any life after death except for such remembrance?

    (I read a book called (I think) Farthest Field, about Indian soldiers who fought with the British (instead of for Indian independence) in WW II.  . The author felt those men have been erased.  There are two deaths, he said, one physical, and one when no one still alive remembers you.  At that point,  the dead are irrevocably exiled to the farthest field.)

    Anyway: nice to meet your mother and dad. You’ve made them vivid—certainly the mot juste in this context.  Peace, shalom.

    You definitely caught what I was getting at – comparing the transience of real from fictional lives in books and movies. That was the part which felt perhaps blasphemous to me. The book you cite describes a part of the thinking I left out: that only for a brief time is anyone remembered. Even famous people are remembered for only fragments of their lives, by their works, not for who they really were as they were known to others. I don’t mean to diminish their works though. Preservation of knowledge discovered and passed down through writing (up until now, at least. Writing may be supplanted by other forms of recording knowledge) is how humanity makes progress, after all. It is the transience of individual self-awareness – one’s own consciousness – I dread most. The evidence of which I am aware suggests that consciousness after death is the same as consciousness before birth. The universe and all we imagine within it exists only for that brief time in between. And I must say that I have a strong perception that time is passing more quickly for me than ever before.

    Having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness. Knowledge of their mortality left them shorn of defenses against this knowledge. We all, I suppose, live out this same dilemma as our childhood innocence is lost. It occurs to me that some parents are able to ease this transition for their children and so present a childhood model of God, which grows into a living faith. This did not happen for me and I have searched in vain for salvation from this existential fear most all my life.

    My religious upbringing is well described by another moment with my dad: Around age 8 or so, I told him I was afraid I was not going to get ‘A’s in Sunday school. He said, ” Don’t worry about your grades in Sunday school. You just get ‘A’s in school during the week.” Thus spake my dad, in whose image, I’m afraid, I created my childhood God.

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  7. Thank you all for commenting. All your comments are affirming and I find such acceptance from those to whom I reveal my inner self – the fellow who really lives in my skin – to be the greatest balm which can be applied to the wounds and abrasions of life.

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  8. It’s an honor and a pleasure to “cyber-know” you, CW.  Many men with your life accomplishments: Doctor, Lawyer, pilot! would not engage in much introspection, let alone share it.

    (But, uh: Sunday school?  Which tradition were you educated in? I’ll be so bold as to ask, out of my interest in your posts…)

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  9. Hypatia:
    It’s an honor and a pleasure to “cyber-know” you, CW.  Many men with your life accomplishments: Doctor, Lawyer, pilot! would not engage in much introspection, let alone share it.

    (But, uh: Sunday school?  Which tradition were you educated in? I’ll be so bold as to ask, out of my interest in your posts…)

    Reform Judaism, though my first wife was organist/choir director at an Episcopal church and I enthusiastically sang in her choir for a few years beginning age 21 when we eloped. I found that Christianity appealed to me, especially the sacred music. The mass also made more sense to me, structurally, than Jewish worship services, which I never really understood. Briefly along the way, I was interested in Buddhism, but never practiced. Today I am lapsed from any participation, in part because my present wife (I introduce her as “my last wife”) will not go near any church. She was raised in a ‘fire and brimstone’ Methodist church in WV and remains near-phobic.

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  10. Hee hee, I sometimes like to introduce my husband as “my first husband”…

    …sounds like your “last wife”  and I are sisters under the skin!   Right down to the childhood Methodism…

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  11. MJBubba:

    civil westman:
    I was afraid I was not going to get ‘A’s in Sunday school.

    There is going to be a quiz.

    Yuh.  And it’s Pass/Fail.

    But what I was  wondering about is: a report card in Sunday School? I had never heard of that….

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  12. Doesn’t CW write beautifully? I envy his ability.

    He makes me chuckle because I can see myself in his writing. This is a gift because when I see myself clearly I can make good decisions.

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  13. Hypatia:

    MJBubba:

    civil westman:
    I was afraid I was not going to get ‘A’s in Sunday school.

    There is going to be a quiz.

    Yuh.  And it’s Pass/Fail.

    But what I was  wondering about is: a report card in Sunday School? I had never heard of that….

    I have given quizzes on occasion, but not grades.   They are just to let the parents see the responses.

    We do have confirmation class, however, which really is scored.

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  14. MJBubba:

    civil westman:
    I must say that I have a strong perception that time is passing more quickly for me than ever before.

    Don’t we all feel this way as we get older?

    I haven’t heard tell of it, but my own experience is shocking. The 90 day interval between prescription refills seems to fly by. A year ago at this time I helped a sick friend extensively. It feels to me like it was only weeks ago. It is finally driving me to be grateful for every day, especially these days without sickness or knowledge of any life-ending illnesses!

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  15. MJBubba:

    civil westman:
    I must say that I have a strong perception that time is passing more quickly for me than ever before.

    Don’t we all feel this way as we get older?

    When I was twenty I pondered to my father that it seemed to take forever to get to be ten, but not as long from ten to twenty. He said “Hate to tell you this but it keeps accelerating.” He was right as usual.

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