Kaddish For The Part Of Myself That Is Most Like My Father
My grandmother smelled like a mixture of lipstick, day-old perfume, cigarettes, casinos, and death. We sat around the Formica table in her kitchen in Brooklyn Heights, two glasses of orange juice between us.
“He always came home, like a sunset,” she said. A cigarette dangling from her lips, her voice shook when she spoke. My grandfather died just two days earlier. “It wasn’t always such a beautiful sunset,” she continued.” But still, it was a sunset.”
She said she wanted to give me some of Hyrum’s things. I agreed, and followed her down the hallway into her bedroom, where I always felt uncomfortable. I looked out the window into the tiny, square, fenced in backyard. The swing set Hyrum erected for my sister and I so many years ago still existed there. Now, it sat dilapidated, rusted, unusable, although the seat of the swing itself still moved crustily back and forth with a strong enough wind.
My grandmother handed me Hyrum’s electric razor, and its black leather case. “What am I going to do with his razor?” she asked. “It’s not like a crowd of men, or even your father, is coming for dinner and a shave.”
“I don’t use electric,” I said.
In the end, I took the razor. Then, she stood at the threshold of their closet and handed me item after item. She gave me his gray suit, a tuxedo, two long rain coats, several golfing shirts I would never wear, a few cashmere sweaters. I wondered if she expected me to step into Hyrum’s shoes, quite literally. She wouldn’t have to say goodbye if only I wore his clothes. Perhaps the best assurance I would not follow in my own father’s footsteps rested in a magical metamorphosis across the generations into Hyrum. Hyrum, for all his grouchiness and penny pinching, possessed a stellar husbandly track record. If I inhabited Hyrum’s possessions, perhaps I would not do to the next generation what my father did to me. My father took off when I was eleven with one of the guidance counselors from my sister’s school, and never returned. My own girlfriend, Jane, left me only a month ago after she learned I met a woman in a Manhattan bar one night.
To get to the bagel store, we didn’t take Hyrum’s Cadillac. He always bought a white one, for somebody once told him that Cadillac’s of that color had a higher resale value.
My grandmother handed me the keys to her brand new Honda Accord. She spoke of the car with pride, how fast it could go, and the gas mileage. She even turned on the stereo so I could experience the superior sound quality. For a minute, before I pulled out of their garage, we listened to Sinatra, ‘Summer Wind.’ Sinatra’s big, crisp voice acted as a welcome distraction from the business at hand.
At the bagel store, the proprietor, Arnold Feldman, in a white apron, rushed to my grandmother, threw up his hands in disgust, and said, “Terrible, terrible.” He took her hands, and they stood for a moment like this, face to face.
“For 58 years I always had an escort,” my grandmother said.
“But you still have your handsome Neil here,” Feldman said.
“Hypertension,” my grandmother whispered. “I told him. No more with the anxiety. Did he listen?”
“Come, come,” Feldman said, and he led my grandmother into the back room. I stayed alone in the front of the store, sat at a small, round table and looked at the newspaper, but from my vantage point, I could see them. My grandmother lit a cigarette right next to the machine that mixed the dough for the bagels. “He always came home,” I heard her say.
“Once on Valentine’s Day, he gave me a chocolate,” Feldman’s wife said. “That was twenty-seven years ago, but it feels like yesterday.”
“Always paid his bill,” Feldman said.
“This one, out there,” my grandmother said, and she pointed her thumb in my direction. “Young people. With the infidelity. With the unemployment. With the computers.”
“But now he’s the man of the family,” Feldman said.
Back at my grandmother’s apartment, we found my mother in the kitchen washing dishes. My mother, Bernice Gluckman, in warmth, in relentlessness, even somewhat in the puffy, big way she wore her hair, existed as a next generation, later installment, non-biological sequel to my grandmother. Both drew people to them with a spirit that probably stemmed from the overcrowded, working class Brooklyn neighborhoods they both derived from — my grandmother from Brighton Beach, and my mother from Flatbush. They were not mother and daughter, but through the years of shared love and heartbreak and loss over my father, and now Hyrum, they had become intertwined, at times almost interchangeable.
“Won’t Jane be at the funeral?” My mother asked. She turned from the sink to face me. She wore jeans and hiking boots, the uniform of her social worker job.
“Let him have a bagel in peace,” my grandmother said.
“Sadie, Sadie,” my mother answered, defensive. “A mother needs to know.”
“It’s not like he’s the first man to have wandering eyes,” my grandmother said, raising her voice a bit.
My mother pulled off her yellow dishwashing gloves and set them on the table. And then after a moment of silence, a quiet space that seemed to alarm them both, my mother said, “I raised my Neil to be different.”
“Five years ago, my Hyrum was on Lexington Avenue,” my grandmother said. She had only smoked her cigarette about halfway down, but she pulled another from the pack and lit it off the one in her mouth. “He goes to see a friend for coffee,” she continued. “What they talk about, it’s their business. He says goodbye to this friend, and heads out to get a cab. He looks up, and there is Daniel. 10 feet away. His son that he raised. Yes, Neil’s lousy father. My vagabond son. What does my Hyrum do? He turns and walks in the other direction. He finds a cab and comes back to Brooklyn and tells me this story. I almost killed him. A mother sees her long lost son, what does she do? She talks to him. She cooks him some food. She takes his clothing to the dry cleaner. A man sees his long lost son, what does he do? He gets into a taxi on Lexington Avenue! A woman is always connected. Always! A man is full of struggle.”
I thought my mother might react to my grandmother’s story, especially the part about how my father was in New York, but all she said was, “Why so many bagels? Are we feeding an army?”
“I’m not senile yet,” my grandmother said, almost yelling. “I still know how to order a bagel.”
“Who’s saying you’re senile?” my mother asked, defensive.
“Do you want people to starve?” my grandmother asked, and she opened the fridge, perhaps to demonstrate an inadequate food supply. “Neil will eat bagels. Francine will eat bagels. Jane — if we can ever get her back — will eat bagels. The rabbi will eat bagels. Perhaps people starve in your kitchen, not in mine.”
“Yes, people starve in my kitchen, how did you find out?” my mother asked.
“Nobody’s starving in my kitchen,” my grandmother answered. “Besides, Arnold Feldman, the gentleman who owns the bagel store, gave me these bagels, no charge.”
“That’s because he has a crush on you,” my mother said.
“He’s unavailable,” my grandmother said.
“He’s had an eye on you for years,” my mother said.
“Because he gives me bagels?”
“Men,” my mother said, with some disgust.
“Take me to the bank,” my grandmother said.
What existed in Hyrum’s safe deposit box? Hyrum owned a business, and invested in the stock market for years. He’d always been frugal, almost to the point of penny pinching. Hyrum told me once that life after death was a metaphysical class system. It frightened him that in death he could end up back in the working class, right back where he started, in Brighton Beach, errand and coffee boy for his Uncle Sid’s upholstery shop. He’d worked his way up, planned, saved, moved out of the tenement into a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, bought mutual funds, tailored his portfolio — but it all meant nothing, he once said, for once he left this earth, he was going right back to being a poor, immigrant schmuck!
My grandmother’s eyes, sad, without sleep, somewhat puzzled, reminded me of Jane’s the morning she left — and of my mother’s the day my father called from somewhere in Detroit to reveal he was never coming back — and so without having to be asked again, I went and put on Hyrum’s gray suit, with his red tie. It didn’t really fit right. Every few seconds, I had to reach underneath myself and pull out a wedge of the pants from my butt crack. The jacket, tight in the underarms, short in the sleeves, made me feel a little like Frankenstein. My grandmother, afraid the I.R.S. would tax whatever existed in that safe deposit box, wanted us to walk into the bank together, like husband and wife; I’d then sign my grandfather’s name to the register. I’d tried to explain to my grandmother how we could easily and legally remove the contents of the safe deposit box, but she insisted on her plan.
At the bank, she took my arm and we marched inside. We went to a desk manned by a woman, who looked around my age.
“Yes,” she said, and smiled at my grandmother and I.
“Box 423,” I said.
“Your name?” she asked.
“Hyrum Gluckman,” I said. And my grandmother squeezed my arm a bit, and moved a little closer.
The woman behind the desk smiled again. Her smile seemed curious. Had she known Hyrum? She studied me for another tense moment. And then, from within her desk, she pulled out a document, which looked formal, legal, and asked me to sign my name on a line at the bottom. I signed, Hyrum Gluckman. And just like that, she handed me a key, and ushered us inside a big, steel bank vault.
My grandmother put her handbag down on a long, rectangular table, and I fumbled with the key at box 423. What could be inside? I pulled the safe deposit box out and placed it on the table. Inside, as I expected, sat a stack of bonds, stock certificates, and deeds. Tucked beneath Hyrum’s accumulated treasure, wrapped within a rubber band, was a stack of old photographs. We only looked at them for a minute before tears came to my grandmother’s eyes and she thrust the photographs into her handbag. I saw several of my grandparents on their wedding day, some scattered photos of Fran and I as kids, and one of Hyrum’s brother in an army uniform. I recognized an image of my father with a smile on his face, a Santa Klaus hat atop his head. He looked radiant, content, a family man in the traditional sense. Hyrum kept this image under lock and key all these years. He’d preserved that specific happy moment. Perhaps that was the way Hyrum preferred to remember my father.
My grandmother pointed a finger in my face, and then took her finger and used it to stab me in the chest. “He always came home,” she said again. “I never had to worry.” With that, she scooped up the entire monetary contents of the safe deposit box, all that Hyrum had spent years saving, nurturing, hiding, all the papers and bonds and deeds and certificates, and shoved them against my chest. “You take it,” she said. “You give some to your sister, and you use the rest to start a family.” And when I tried to protest, she ordered, “Get the car.” Thus, I stuffed the bonds and deeds and certificates into the pockets of Hyrum’s suit and we made our easy getaway.
Later, I sat at the kitchen table, and spread cream cheese on a bagel. I loosened Hyrum’s tie, unbuttoned his pants. I wondered what I might say to Jane to get her back. I wondered what Hyrum said to Sadie as they sat around the same table 58 years earlier.
The next day, I sat on the couch in the living room across from Rabbi Tannebaum. In a black suit and black tie, a yarmulke fixed atop his head with a bobby pin, he looked like a Rabbi. My mother sat to my left pressed up against me. A box of tissues rested on her lap. My grandmother sat on the other side of me with a cigarette and a ginger ale. My sister sat next to the Rabbi. Franny, a junk bond trader on Wall Street, usually dated men my father’s age.
“Give me a cigarette,” Franny said to my grandmother.
“The doctor said no more,” my mother added. She gave me a pleading look, as if I alone had the power to extinguish 60 years of nicotine addiction, three packs a day, Merritt Ultra Lights, the long ones.
When I am an old man, I thought, perhaps by then my erosion will be complete; covered by the oceans of the past, the present will be not much more than an island, inhabited by birds, some sea lions, perhaps a lone shipwrecked former version of my self. Perhaps this is where we all go, to the oceans of our selves, submerged in our past, present, future, which all becomes one.
“Everything you’re feeling is natural,” Rabbi Tannebaum said. “This is a time for family, for togetherness, for gentleness.”
“58 years, I always had an escort,” my grandmother said.
“Neil couldn’t even commit to 58 days,” Franny said.
“Where’s your boyfriend?” I asked.
“At least I didn’t become Dad,” Franny said.
I wanted to respond to my sister’s remark, but before I could find my words, my grandmother, a cigarette dangling from her lips, suddenly said to the rabbi, “Send Hyrum away good.”
“Of course,” Rabbi Tannebaum said.
“When I was a girl, after Dad left, it was Hyrum who took me ice skating,” Franny said.
At the funeral my mother stood in-between my grandmother and sister: all three Guckman women interlocked arms, thus standing unified, a solid, unbreakable, inter-generational chain. I both admired and feared their bond. I considered wearing Hyrum’s gray suit, as a symbolic gesture — an acknowledgement that as the lone surviving male Gluckman, I was now, technically speaking, the new patriarch. I dismissed the idea though. I feared it might upset my grandmother. Instead, I wore a simple, black suit and a black tie.
Rabbi Tannebaum recited a prayer in Hebrew. I looked at the three Gluckman women. For a moment, I could not tell where one began and another ended. In their black outfits, they all seemed to blend into one another. I felt both an integral part of their unbreakable collective and simultaneously vastly different, adrift from their togetherness.
Arnold and Rose Feldman, the couple who ran the bagel shop in Brooklyn Heights, each wept throughout the short service. It was fortunate the two other Gluckman women kept their arms interlocked with my grandmother’s. When the small team of undertakers – overweight, hairy men in tee shirts – lowered Hyrum’s casket into the ground, Sadie’s legs collapsed and the other Gluckman women supported her, quietly yet firmly held her there, until she could again stand on her own. I looked down at my grandfather’s casket. I felt the cold wind rip through me. Then, I looked beyond the women in my family and saw Jane standing alone underneath a small tree about a hundred yards away. She lifted her hand and waved to me. I yearned to touch her hand, to run my fingers through her soft, black hair. I looked back down into the hole in the ground, and prayed for the wisdom to bury all my anger toward my own father and replace it with pity, compassion, almost anything besides that constant self –sabotaging fire inside me. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, I watched as the Gluckman women turned toward Jane, welcoming her into their arms.