21 January 2015

Merge Into Life

The first time I ever got behind the wheel of a car on the highway was on my way to my grandma's funeral.  Grandma had died, six years after her beloved Charlie, the heroic grandfather doctor of my youth, a man (if not known or conjured by John McPhee as one of his "heirs of general practice") true and good.  Grandma had despaired after Grandpa died.  At his cold, snow covered grave on a February afternoon in 1973, she threw her body to the ground only to be pulled back by her sons, her heirs, and then, haltingly set about to remove herself from the world until she figured out that an assiduously waged campaign of low-grade depression could drain of her of the essentialness, the immediacy, of the will to live.

She died quietly, with others of her generation already gone, with the many mysteries of her life and how it unfolded, from there, in Russia (then still unlocked from the shackles of fascism and communism and anti-Semitism and dislocation and war and migration and settlement and citizenship and the acquisition of an identity necessary yet not quite chosen) to Milwaukee:  hospitable--yet foreign in its banal, benign blandness.  

Not for me, of course.  I loved my childhood.  An American boy, I was infatuated with my busty Jewish bubbe; enamored of my dashing, virulent, healing grandpa; enlivened by sport; and aroused by the redolence of our suburban yard, teeming with the arboreal urgency of possibility and renewal.

Grandpa's death both devastated and shaped me.  It's when I first saw my father cry.  My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Bernstein, upon my return to class after his funeral, read his Jewish Chronicle obituary aloud to the class in order to demonstrate Grandpa's mythic greatness and model to my fellow students that we support one another in times of need.  The pedagogy of Jewish death and mourning, brought to bear into the public school classroom.  We had arrived.  Our customs as a people were on the way to being Ever-Present.  Grandma, having thrown herself down to that ice cold, cold ground stayed with me like a song, part Yiddish folk tale, party Johnny Cash.  She wailed and mourned.  

In the six years between their deaths, Mom and Dad got divorced; Dad lost his job; Mom re-married; Dad, too late, expressed regret; and I had found out about books, girls, basketball, politics, weed and Richard Pryor.  A lot goes on, I guess.

As it was, we drove divided to the cemetery on the south side and because I needed some road work behind the wheel.  I drove Dad's 74 red Chevy Impala convertible (top down, heater blasting) to the Second Home Cemetery which required for this novice in mourning on ramps, off ramps, signaling, merging and, a gesture I would never quite learn to moderate to this very day, acceleration.  It seemed like just a moment before I was in the back of that car on a warm summer night, eating custard on the way home from a ballgame, stars flying by overhead like a warp-speed observatory show, luxuriating in the tender innocence of the father-son dyad.  A flash-forward to the cold, cracked concrete, salt-covered highway barriers and ugly orange collision cones, signifying fallibility, boundaries and danger.

Death, the ineffable expression of finality, our guide.

But Goddamnit if I didn't want to drive that car.  And Dad gave me the keys as much to teach me as a relinquishment of the throne.  Unspoken:  Not a usurpation but a betrothal.  A marriage to the story of our people, he seemed to say, which has eluded me in my quest to escape the mad, red-hot hatred of anti-Semitism, I give to you.  I couldn't tell the story, son, he seemed to say, passive, in silence beside me.  But you can.


So I did.

And so I have.  Merged into family.  Identity.  History.  When I played point guard in grade school and high school, Dad would sit in the stands and shout at me, "Drive, son, drive!"

Ah, it's all metaphor, isn't it?  The ancestors; the parents; the keys to the car or the castle.

And who are we but those who ask, who dare to question, who take the risk of peeling back the layers to understand.

There is of course, a danger to the inquiry.  "You peel back an onion too far, son," my dad said, "And you're left with nothing."

So you have to eat.  To sustain yourself.  I get that.

At Benji's in Milwaukee it was corned beef; hopple-popple; chocolate phosphates.  I'd sit there with Dad in the early divorce years, the Bucks game on the tv screen above the counter, Benji's goyim slicing meat in the ways of our people, Dad kibbutzing his cousins who were also there, consuming the peculiar culinary identity of our European forbearers.

Today in New York, in the comfort-countered home base of Russ and Daughters, it's mostly fish and eggs.  But as equally sustaining as the food is, there is another element:  the reification of Jewish migratory narrative; the celebration of hospitality; the humorous, self-reflective, honoring of the past in the present; and the very act of being, the paradox of the permanence of change.

My lunchmate was talking about the Holocaust and DP camps; about Yiddish and German and English; about Lodz and Munich and New York and Israel.  And I was talking about Israel and New York, and White and Black, Rich and Poor, and Justice.  And underneath the table, my foot was on fire, pedal to the metal, going full speed ahead toward understanding.

Like even in mourning, you can drive to a funeral in a convertible:  wind in your face; brisk and cold; and then, in an instant, you can do what you've never done before which is to merge into life.

Merge into life.

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