Jack the Father was a middle-class and Jewish man, with so much overlap between these categories that it was a mystery which trait derived from where. His own father, a Yiddish-speaking immigrant who ran a junk store in a Negro neighborhood in Brooklyn, passed on the storekeeper ambition to his eldest son. But studious Jack Marcus, keeping separate from the warm and raucous family kitchen to study for exams, also aimed himself at a profession.
This was in the cold winter of the Depression, before ordinary people developed the extraordinary expectations and self-images that characterize us now. A methodical, honest, hard-working man, Jack set out soberly to achieve attainable goals: earn his pharmacy degree, own his own store, marry, have children, support his family. He and my mother, who also embraced the goal of building a simple life of substance, saved their pennies. At last, the owner of one of the many corner drug stores in which Jack worked nights and days as a relief pharmacist, decided to retire and sold him the business, thereby becoming in our family chronicle a minor but essential benefactor.
In those good old days, my father did not require any larger ambition. He did not dream of a chain of drugstores or a giant Super-Pharm nor did he crave public recognition or riches. Diligent family breadwinner, he anointed my mother queen of the household, in charge of decoration, menu and child-rearing, while he was king of his store. In short, he husbanded: worked hard, lived frugal, invested his money and didn’t make a big fuss about anything.
I felt his warm, if distant, affection for me. As I grew, however, I came to wonder if, beyond the store’s demands and his love for his role there, his efficient wife’s melodramatic agitations had helped to make him choose long hours away.
For the mother indeed had a hint of hysteria in her nature. She cared too much about things that made no difference, or insisted about things that would have made no difference if she had not insisted, and she worried creatively – proactively – when any member of her family left the house, let alone crossed a street or took a subway to Manhattan.
But Man-Jack – I believed growing up – remained a calm alternative center of reason. Possessing actual knowledge about how things worked, he could serve as an authority suited to certain questions or requests that a young man might have. He could even, sometimes. calm her down or at least help her to consider if she was pushing too hard, though he rarely intervened to save his sons from her.
It even seemed, at first, when at the age of 18 or so, I did the worst thing I ever did
in my whole criminal life – determined during my freshman year at Brooklyn College to move out of “the house” into an apartment of my own – that he understood I was not destroying Western Civilization or risking my life, which was the mother’s understated point of view. Away in the store, he hadn’t witnessed the years of furious fights between me and her, though he received full briefings from the enemy late each evening upon his return home. Maybe he hadn’t even noticed that I had stopped speaking nearly as completely to him, too. (How could he notice if he wasn't there?)
Since he acknowledged that she was sometimes difficult, I considered his implacable opposition to my plan a kind of secondary infection from weeks of exposure to her view, rather than an independent illness, and I felt moved despite myself by his intermittent pleading on her behalf (“Danny, come on, be kinder to your Mom”). Though poised for flight, at his request I suffered through a private meeting with my – up to that time – favorite friend-of-the-family, blue-eyed Mitch, who had been a pilot in the war and whose age (a dozen years younger than my parents) and goatee were considered to credential him as enlightened friend-to-teenagers.
But Mitch turned out to be another of the people I was running away from. He pointed out that my plan was “impractical,” as if expecting me to agree that being practical was the goal of life, and cautioned me against taking “such a big step” without money, as if lack of money would deter a freedom fighter. “How will you pay the telephone bill?” he challenged. Were these people crazy
? I had to wonder.
So I followed the rage of my private truth and stormed out into an apartment on St. John’s Place, so far from Flatbush that it was on the wrong side of Eastern Parkway, in a building housing brown and black people, and I lived there for weeks with no furniture except an old art-deco armchair left by the previous tenant, in which I cuddled sweetly with my darling Amy in the afternoons and slept in alone uncomfortably at night.
But by the time, a month later, of the father’s unexpected knock on the door – I had no telephone, after all – I’d found a part-time job and purchased from a nearby second-hand store a formica table for the kitchen and a mattress for the bedroom floor. I was set up.
He was 50 years old that year and dressed in his behind-the-counter outfit, dark trousers and a pressed white shirt. He was a few inches shorter than me, five-eight or so, clean-shaven, round-faced and, on this Sunday off, unsmiling. No doubt he was ill at ease, a man who liked quiet and hated confrontation. Now I see, too, the irony that I faced him across the threshold dressed like him – black chinos to match his charcoal trousers and a white shirt like his, with the cuffs rolled up, as if a son is merely a father’s mutated clone.
“Can I come in?” he said – politely, but I heard the edge in his voice. It was the first time in our lives that he stood in a place that was mine and not his, and he didn’t like it.
So he stood in the bare kitchen beside the formica table with its two old chairs, their stainless-steel frames rusting, the red oilcloth peeling off the foam seats. How are you? Okay. Mom and I are worried about you. I’m fine. Do you have something to drink?
It was not like him to be aggressive, but without waiting he took two strides and pulled open the refrigerator door. They had taught me that you never
open the refrigerator in somebody else’s home. He was communicating something subtle and brutal about his attitude to my separate household.
The cupboard was bare. The silver shelves shone under the yellow sun of a single bulb. No food, no drink. He shrugged and pushed the door closed, letting me know I was ridiculous. Independent? Self-sufficient? “You don’t even have a bottle of water,” he said mildly.
“I have a sink
,” I spat back like a child. “Do you want water?”
It was no equal battle; I was still a boy wanting my father’s approval, quivering with anger but shamed in his power, that soft man with his round face set in stone. He drank standing up – to sit down would have recognized me as a sovereign nation, perhaps. “Mom and I want you to come home.”
He meant for a talk, to have lunch with them. I refused, then faltered, then gave in. We drove across Brooklyn to the small country called Family, where they were the totalitarian rulers and I was the rebel son. They – she – insisted that I sue for peace, confess my error, come back, study hard, stop hanging around with slutty girls and friends who didn’t have my best interests at heart.
My father sat silent at his side of their formica kitchen table while she raged and wept. Why did I insist on creating a breach in our family? Who was I pleasing, these friends of mine? Didn’t I see where these so-called friends were leading me? Did I not know that I shamed our family by moving out? Who ever heard of a young person leaving home like this?
She meant no negotiation. And I, who now had an apartment, a girlfriend and a high and angry heart, wanted my own life and didn’t see, no matter how she explained it, what was reckless or cruel about that.
In some other, more sophisticated world where parental love is not a cage, they might have tried to discern what I was aiming at and even helped me get it, but that was not our world. If they’d had a shrewder strategy for corralling me again, they might even have offered to help me.
“We have your best interests at heart” – that was her only bribe. They didn’t offer to let me decorate by personal whim the upstairs bedroom where I’d slept, to come and go by my own agenda, to stop treating me like a child too dumb to decide on my own friends. Like Tootle the Train Who Wouldn’t Stay on the Tracks, the Little Golden Book I clamored as a child to have read to me over and over, they saw themselves as trainmasters putting up red flags everywhere in the field where Tootle dreamily wandered until poor Tootle saw his best and only bet was to get back on track so they could train him into one hell of a Fast Flyer. With his best interests at heart, the trainmasters tricked and controlled him until they could be proud of him. (Please
read it again?)
But it didn’t matter what they offered – I wanted nothing. Taking meant submitting. Anyway, there, with her, my every choice and habit would be a target for judgment and I would always be found wanting; every corner of mine would be a corner of hers, my dresser drawers a place where she put away my clothes and puttered in my treasures, while he was at the store, mild and invisible, no help at all.
My father sat there speaking hardly a word. He did not understand how his absence and passivity, my mother’s love like a glove on the life force, her hurt and loneliness, and my damaged and incalculably unique Self inventing itself inside me as I ran – where all these had led me.
Though he supported his family nobly with everything we needed, he did not know exactly how to be a father, only how to be a husband. My mother loved him for his perfect husbandry, seeing as a necessity of livelihood his absence six or even seven days a week at the store, like an absentee landlord to his own homestead, with nothing much to say to his sons.
Which made me a boy raised by a woman, tutored in obedience, acceptance, waiting, capitulation – and therefore in anger and ambivalence, as well.
It is more than 40 years since that Sunday morning when I went home to eat bagels and plant the flag of my independence in their midst. The 1950s were over, that dismal decade, and while 1961 was not yet the Sixties, the scent was in the air; school, parents, all the old lessons were monumentally “irrelevant” and something new beckoned – adventure, “experience,” the wide open path. So I left again, filling another duffel with books and clothing to take into my new life, my eyes turned away from the hurt and weariness on their faces. My mother’s agent, he had brought me back to her, or tried to; then he drove me back to my new home, as he had promised he would.
Did he really believe I was ruining my life? Could he truly not sympathize with a young man’s desire for freedom and insist to her across the barrier of the hysteria and humiliation she felt, Don’t worry, nothing bad will happen, give the boy his head and see where he gets to?
Apparently not. Either he was tainted by her paranoia or he too believed that death flew on freedom’s wings. Once, giving me a driving lesson, he told me, like a proverb, “It’s important to keep up with the flow of traffic.” I understood this was his philosophy of life, a second great lesson, after Tootle, in the art of transportation.
One can be crushed to death by one’s father, as Kafka was. Or one can be under-weighted and misdirected, left to wander between a rejected convention and an unattainable freedom. You see dogs on leashes like that, dragged in one direction while pulling in another.