“I go nowhere without de mamme!” my father—tatte he prefers—proclaims, your mother, stubbied index finger poking, tattooing the heavens above. Restaurants, dinner parties? Not unless they go together, “Mit de mamme!” Movies, for sure, not without her. Concerts, of course not. Baseball games, never…even with her. To shul only, each morning 6:45 a.m. alone he drives, weaving crabwise around manhole covers to protect the car shocks. Alone.
Ten years ago, she died.
“Come to California to visit me,” I ask. And I dare not add, “To alleviate your loneliness.“
“Not without your mamme!”
She, now dead ten years, moldering.
My father does not live in America. Never did. Only his body, a Golem, roams its streets.
The Golem was sculpted by a medieval rabbi—Judah Loew ben Bezalel, who was the late-16th-century rabbi of Prague. Bezalel, his patronym, means “in the shadow of God,” named after the First Temple’s architect, who hid in the shadow of God as He intoned the dimensions of the Temple. This Pragueish Rav Bezalel made from clay and mud of the River Vistula the Golem. Placed the name of God in his lips, which brought him to near-life. Like God breathing into Adam’s nostrils. But the Golem goes awry, wreaks havoc on the Jews, regrets his life, which is snatched from his lips by the Rabbi. “Why,” the Golem might have wondered but could not speak, “Why did you give me life?”
In 1951, my father arrived from a German Displaced Persons Camp to Rochester, NY, home to Kodak, later, even Xerox, where he stayed to this very day. Xerox moved to Greenwich, Ct.; Kodak collapsed into itself, like some dying star, of its own weight. But, my tatte roams, haunts, emptied streets.
* * *
Instead of California visits, my father measures my love, not in teaspoons, but in phone calls and Rochester visits. He won’t phone. “A good son calls!” He has an unspoken formula, measure for son-love: a call at least each two days, better one. Duration? Expect half an hour, better an hour. “And, put your feet up on the desk and listen. Not these short calls you make, as if you were too busy to listen. You’re a doctor? A doctor listens! You, du verstehst…a krenk!” He laughs, knowing that I get the sting of the last sentence: Literally, “You (a physician) understand an Illness.” But figuratively, spat out, spittle spraying, “You understand…nothing!” I see in my mind’s eye, his forefinger twisting an exclamation into the heavens.
I visit Rochester in February, the city bundled in lofted mounds of downy snow. I call from the airport, to remind I’m coming. I arrive. Push open the door from the garage. My father is on his knees polishing the linoleum squares, black and white, of the kitchen floor. His waving buttocks face the entry door. “Only car Carnauba paste wax I use! Right hand rub in, left hand polish out.” So he greets me.
He shouts facing away, his buttocks emphasizing each beat.
“You see! This! This is how you clean a floor. Like this I cleaned the floors at Camp.”
(Kemp!, he pronounces in Yinglish. He expects I should know he talks of Auschwitz, his life’s nightmare.)
“At night, the guard would let me clean the floors on my knees. Then, polish them with sandpaper. For this, he would give me the privilege to dish out the soup next day. Why, you ask, a privilege? If you dish out the soup, you get the scoops from the bottom with more solids. Sometimes I had enough even for two bowls for myself. I shared one with the guy in the bunk above, even though he would delouse at night and drop the lice down on me. Where I learned from polishing floors on your knees!? From Kemp.”
Kemp. He was a guest of the Nazis in Auschwitz.
Ten years before today, before her death, he was standing on these over polished squares, leaning against the kitchen white Amana stove where he was making Manischewitz vegetarian or pea soup, made from the dried plastic sleeves and stirred, Koch-lefeled, stirred, for an almost forever. My mother, now legless from the diabetes, lay in the living room in a hospital bed, but still cogent. She lost bits of herself over time, like a macabre play on a children’s song, Inch by inch, toe by toe, how does your body go… He could not see her, nor she him. I stood at the juncture of the ell, both their sets of eyes fixed on me. I was their fulcrum, each tilting against the other’s love for me. My mother hollered past me to him, “You don’t know how to make a soup! You don’t know how to clean! From nothing you never knew!”
My father in silence, shrugged, mouthed to me, “What can I do. I still love her.” I was the prism through which their feelings were refracted, bent. But unlike Newton’s prism, I was internally bent by their rays of hate mixed with something intense, short of love.
But today, as he rises from his knees, his worshipful cleansing of the tiles, he pronounces,
“Now, we go to visit de mamme. Leave immediately, clean up the grave, prepare for spring planting!” He grabs my suitcase, sends it scudding across the gleaming floor, like a puck across ice.
In Rochester! In February! In Rochester, in February, the snowdrifts rise to four feet and more. As a kid, walking to school in winter, I wished the snow upwards, ascend heavenward, reach four feet, so that school would be cancelled. I’d measure day-by-day: up to my nose, my brow, topping my head. Now, forty-five years later, snows bid my boy-wishes. Four feet, schools cancelled. But not death.
The Rochester Jewish cemetery is located in Irondequoit, on the banks of Lake Ontario, near Charlotte Beach, pronounced Shar-lot. All these Indian names. No Indians. Also, no Jews alive there; only dead ones. Live Jews are south, one hour away: Brighton, Pittsford. Not a one-hour drive for my father. For him, two hours.
Why two, you ask?
He explains, “I’ll show you. I drive local roads, not freeways. Slowly. Freeways make accidents. The Olds is still good, no accidents. Good rear-wheeler, with sand and cement bags in the trunk to anchor it. I don’t want them to take my license. I’ll drive so there’s no accidents!”
The trunk weighted down with sandbags, he drives ass-dragging a lowrider. He drives as if to delay death’s reckoning. We are weighted down not only by sandbags. Only at the cemetery does he have to speak of her in past tense. Until then, she’s present.
With tatte, conversation is one-directional, eruptive. Declamatory statements he makes.
“Me, I don’t need no funeral, no casket! Throw me over a fence when I’m done! I want to be in a crematorium; was good enough for my family at Auschwitz! Good enough for me! Yeah, I told them, the rabbi and the minyan, burn me into ashes! Up the chimney like I smelled in Auschwitz. The stink’s still in my nostrils. The rabbi didn’t like that. You think I give a damn for the rabbi?”
(He speaks like Jackie Mason, also with the same bile, but no humor.)
“You? You don’t say nottin’? What kind from son are you? You should say to me that I’ll live until one hundred twenty! I shouldn’t talk of dying. Like Shulamit, the cantor’s daughter, a good child. She sold her business, moved from Boston, moved in with her widowed father to care for him. Tells him he will live forever.”
“Would you believe me if I said that, Dad?”
“What are you, nuts! A college-educated dope I have for a son. Education-Shmed- ucation. Kemp was education! Of course I wouldn’t believe. Maybe tomorrow I die. Maybe today.”
He is in a rush to meet death head-on, I will soon see.
The road texture is slurried rock salt, ice, and grime, a slush tinted with the grayish shades of a once-industrial town. Death’s ashen gray blankets this dying town. My father’s old rear-wheel Olds fishtails along the Genesee River. (“Once was Genesee Beer made from these waters,” he intones, like a beer-maven, a brew aficionado, although he never drank the stuff. We swim, slaloming upstream, like salmon to the cemetery, to a death locale, off an unplowed side road, off another side road, and another one, surrounded by tiny, irrelevant houses. Unlike salmon, we will not spawn, but perhaps come to final rest upstream.
As we approach death’s repose, I notice that some houses facing the graveyard bear mini-mirrors, convex; a Chinese belief, to reflect back dead spirits; no haunted welcome here. But we are haunted.
Infuriated as he scans a sea of snow-swallowed tombstones, my father declares, ”No one cares—no one!—to dig a pathway into the cemetery. No one has ever cared for anyone in here. Not even the caretakers; nothing but careless-takers.”
This father, volcanic, never tall, stunted in Auschwitz, now shrunk further by time. But in spite of size, an active volcano, ready to erupt. Spews lava, tephra and ashes. When such eruptions reach the stratosphere, they reflect the sun’s light and heat; induce volcanic winters for those of us on earth. Stunted father can reach the stratosphere when he erupts; casting shadows of his internal winter on mortals in his penumbra. On me.
This tatte did the following to the doctor of the Intensive Care Unit: When my mother lay in coma, amputated, dialyzed, intubated, respirated. This, my father did when the doctor had suggested it might be the end.
“To die?” my father exploded. “Everyone is going to die! You will die too, you know! Doctor? A doctor in Auschwitz you could be!”
My father demonstrated to me what he did to the six-foot, starched-white-coated MD. Each eruption was punctuated by a stumpy forefinger stubbed into the center of my sternum. I brace, right leg posed back like a fencer, so as not to stumble backwards.
“Like this, I talked to him. Like this! With mein finger drilling into his heart. I said to him, Your heart is of stone! A Kevorkian you are! A Mengele! And I knew Mengele!”
Like the earth, my father is hard shell on the surface; inside he is molten stone, made of fury. This fiery lava meanders, seeking fissures to relieve its pressure. Shifts tectonic plates to realign, from life to death. Like some Pompeiian episode, he leaves his victims shocked and frozen in stony ash.
Finally, he parks up a curb to let other cars slither by—no sidewalks here, the dead tread no pavement. He gets out, pops the trunk, hands me two snow shovels, yanks a 50-pound bag of sand onto his shoulder. And says nothing.
He slumps ahead. Wrapped in the shadows of pre-war Lodz, muscular and spirited, this eighty-two-year-old slouching man will dig his way to his wife’s grave through a mountain of snow, no matter how far it will be. I imagine the suicided poet, Paul Celan, soil in his eyes, excavating to meet the dead, as he wrote:
There was Earth in them, and
O you dig and I dig, and I dig towards you,
and on our finger awakens the Ring.
Celan wrote in German, the voice of his parents’ murders. But he lived in Paris, drowned in the Seine. Mais, c’est ne pas un poème; I fear us expiring en route.
Tatte signals with an arm gesture, like some captain in the field, that I take point position to attack that virgin white snow impeding our visit. I dig and look back surreptitiously with shovel throws over my left shoulder. I see myself rescuing him, resuscitating him upon a snowy grave.
Within, I curse. Without, I dig. I feel insignificant next to him, the veteran snow digger, the Golden Shovel Knight, a Shoveleer, this diminutive, antique Hercules cleaning Aegean stables. Trained first as a mechanical engineer (the one Jew accepted to the Warsaw Polytechnical Institute), then slaving as a machinist, tatte follows, no, corrects my path. He removes patches of snow I throw amiss and straightens the path’s sides. His eyes, plumbing ninety degrees, admonish me to make the snow ramparts straighter. As meticulously as with the sheet rock he once laid for our living room walls. If I don’t remove all the snow to reveal frozen turf, he scrapes further, as if to get as close as possible to his wife.
I am winded. Imagine a headline in the local Gannet, Democrat and Chronicle, “Fifty-year-old Physician Resuscitates Eighty-year-old Father in Snowy Cemetery.”
Or more likely headline, “Eighty-two-year-old Father Resuscitates Forty-year-old Physician Son atop Mother’s Granite Tombstone.”
We reach the grey, chiseled granite with my mother’s portrait enameled. He collapses. He embraces it. Her. His face buried in his right forearm, his shoulders lurching with sobs, but silent. I hear muffled prayers, “Yisgadal v’yiskadash, Sh’mai Raba…” He turns to my older sister’s neighboring pink monument, erected ten years earlier, and he weeps as if he would forever. As if his tears would freeze his lids shut like in Dante’s ninth circle of Hell.
Sister? I’ve had practice for such death rituals. Ester, a year older than I, died post-op of a massive pulmonary embolism, bloody froth at her lips, bubbling out life breaths. Her funeral, I recall too well. (Will memory stop?) I arrive with two daughters, jeune fleurs, I think the French phrase for the budding of early puberty. Knowing my mother, I corral my daughters to the back of the small crowd hunkered together from winter’s breath. The coffin is removed and I ask to bear a corner, but the Orthodox rabbi gestures, even as he mumbles some prayer, gestures vehemently, “No!” Murmuring between psalms, “The sibling cannot bear the coffin!” I asked to see her once before the earth falls upon her forever. This too forbidden. As we approach the grave, the straps waiting to bear the coffin, as the coffin begins is inching descent, my mother wails out, looking frantically around, my sister’s name, and her brother’s, and the brothers and sisters whose ashes remain unburied in some Polish ground, she wails to the sky as if to rent the snow-bearing clouds above. Prepared, the funeral guy has brought a webbed folding chair graveside into which she faints, briefly, then resumes her wailing. I, concerned for my daughters, rise on my toes to glimpse their saucer eyes in amazement, mouths agape. And, my intrusive thought: “This is Ester’s funeral, mamme, not yours!”
Well, hers came soon enough, bit by bit her dying away.
These memories my father, tatte, interrupts, as we begin to leave.
He commands, “Do not turn your back!”
“Back away with respect for die toite, the dead, as the High Priest in the Temple did when leaving the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, lest he be struck dead.”
I hear his warning to me: that I be stricken dead in my snowy tracks, if I turn away from these dead.
We wend back, walled-in by the canyon walls of snow we have created. Tunneled to the eight-year-old silver Olds, which is in perfect shape, with 25,861 original miles. The chrome gleaming even in winter.
“Each mile I made,” he says triumphantly, “is mein own.”
“We go to Charlene’s Restaurant, OK? Not kosher, but they got salads and fish. You still eat salads? But you! Like you’ll live forever. Hah!”
After an hour’s drive, he signals for a left turn to cross three lanes of oncoming traffic. He turns, then, just over the double yellow line, stops. Stops the car, the unblemished, chrome-streaked Olds perpendicular to on-coming traffic exiting the expressway, spilling towards us. His knuckle-white hands grasping the wheel at ten and two o’clock positions. And waits. And waits another beat again.
I call to him, “Dad, the traffic! Make the turn!”
He’s silent. Looks stone-cold ahead.
The oncoming drivers, mouths agape, stop just short of my door. Only then, my father completes his turn.
He speaks, extols, “Music we need. Music!”
The radio he twists on, but it speaks of today. News. Even oldies-but-goodies crooners make him grimace. So he reaches into the back seat—driving, steering as he looks backwards (as he looks into a past)—to grab his “Chazoinem” tape with his favorite old cantors, masters of Yiddish mourning melodies and plaintive poetry.
When the cantors wail, my father breathes, the deepest breath I have heard today, and, as if revived, drives back home. (Like that first breath God blew into Adam’s nostrils?) Back to Lodz. Breath in Hebrew, in Yiddish, is neshima, a cognate with neshama, soul. Yes, that’s it. This tatte inhales wandering souls. His Golem remains lively by inhaling lost souls, even as he is not fully alive. Nor is she fully dead, de mamme.
My mamme; or his, burnt to ashes in Auschwtiz?
When the SS broke into their Warsaw apartment, my father stepped between his diminutive mother and the SS man’s Marschstiefel, spit-polished black leather hobnailed boots. For this, for my father’s protective act, the SS raised a chair and whipped its legs across my father’s face, breaking his nose and knocking out his upper front teeth. After the war, in the Displaced Persons Camps, an American military dentist made a bridge with gleaming gold-backed glistening porcelain, restoring tatte’s mouth, but not his life. Also, the nose stayed stove-in.
For, my father, tatte, does not live in America, never will. He lives in his own tense, Past Perpetual, home to memory, wailing at the Present, a keening loop of who is dead and what is dead and won’t remain dead. He does not live in America, but in a place where Auschwitz will not happen. The Present jolts him awake from his truer dreams. What my father, mein tatte, wants is sleep and dreams of the dead. Who cannot rest.
Nathan Szajnberg MD was the Sigmund Freud Professor of Psychoanalysis at the Hebrew University. He is author of two novellas, Breathless and JerusaLand and several psychoanalytic books.
He is married to Yikun and father of Natti, Didi, Uri and two daughters, Sonia and Lily.