My father does not live in Amerikeh. Never did. Only his body, a Golem, roams its streets.
In 1951, my father — tatte he prefers — arrived in Rochester, NY, home to Kodak, later, even Xerox, where he stayed to this very day. Xerox moved to Greenwich; Kodak died of its own weight; my father roams emptied streets.
Tatte goes nowhere without my mother. Restaurants, dinner parties, not unless they go together, with my mother. Movies, certainly not without her. Concerts, for sure not. Baseball games, never, even with her. To shul, he drives alone.
Ten years ago, she died.
“Come to California to visit me,” I ask. And I do not say, “To relieve your loneliness.“
“Not without your mother!” Now dead ten years.
Instead, I visit Rochester in February, the city bundled in lofted mounds of downy snow. I call from the airport, he should know I’m coming. When I arrive, my father is on his knees polishing the linoleum squares, black and white, of the kitchen floor. His waving buttocks face me at the door.
“You see! This! This is how you clean a floor. Like this I cleaned the floors at Camp. (Kemp!, he pronounces it in Yinglish) At night, the guard would let me clean the floors on my knees. Then, polish them with sand paper. Next, he would give me the privilege to dish out the soup. Why, you ask, a privilege? If you dish out soup, you get the scoops from the bottom with more solids at the end. Sometimes I had enough 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. What 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 stove where he was making Manischewitz 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, 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 today, as he rises from his worshipful cleansing of the tiles, he pronounces, “We will go to see mama. Leave now, clean up the grave, prepare for spring planting!”
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 prayed they would 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, 45 years later, snows bid my boy-wishes.
The Rochester Jewish cemetery is located in Irondequoit, on the banks of Lake On- tario, 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 hours, you ask? He explains, “I drive local roads, not freeways. Slowly. Freeways make for accidents (Exsidents, he pronounces it.). The Olds is still good, no Exsidents. Good rear-wheeler, with cement bags in the trunk to anchor. I don’t want them to take my license. I’ll drive so there’s no Exsidents,!”
He drives draggingly as if to delay death’s reckoning. As if 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. He makes declamatory statements.
“Me, I don’t need no funeral, no casket! Throw me over a fence when I’m done! I want 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 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’s 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. My father’s old rear-wheel Olds fishtails along the Genesee River. (Once was a Genesee Beer, likely made from these waters.) 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; a Chinese belief, to reflect back dead spirits; no haunted welcome here.
But we are haunted.
Infuriated, 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 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 so not to stumble backwards.
“Like this, I talked to him. Like This! With mein finger into his heart. I said to him, Your heart is of stone! A Kevorkian you are! A 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 82 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 in his poem:
“There was Earth in them, and /they dug.
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 compared to him, the veteran snow digger, the Golden Shovel knight, a Shoveleer, this diminutive, antique Hercules cleaning Aegean stables. Trained 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.
We reach the 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 prayers. 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 could melt stone.
At the end, as we leave, he commands, “Don’t turn your back!”
“Back away with respect for the deceased, as the High Priest in the Temple did when leaving the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, lest he be struck dead.”
The eight-year-old silver Olds is in perfect shape, with 25,861 original miles. The chrome gleaming even in winter.
“Each mile I made,” he says triumphantly, “is mine own.
We go to Charlaine’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 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 drives back home. Back to Lodz. Breath in Hebrew, in Yiddish, is neshima, a cognate with neshama, soul. Yes, that’s it. This tatte inhales wandering souls.
For, my father 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. 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.
Copyright 2020 N. Szajnberg