One day in late October 1944, I was astonished to find my father, whose workday ordinarily began at seven and many nights didn’t end until ten, sitting alone at the kitchen table in the middle of the afternoon. He was going into the hospital unexpectedly to have his appendix removed. Though he had already packed a bag to take with him, he had waited for my brother, Sandy, and me to get home from school to tell us not to be alarmed. ‘Nothing to it,’ he assured us, though we all knew that two of his brothers had died back in the 1920s from complications following difficult appendectomies. My mother, the president that year of our school’s parent-teacher association, happened, quite unusually, to be away overnight in Atlantic City at a statewide PTA convention. My father had phoned her hotel, however, to tell her the news, and she had immediately begun preparations to return home. That would do it, I was sure: my mother’s domestic ingenuity was on a par with Robinson Crusoe’s, and as for nursing us all through our illnesses, we couldn’t have received much better care from Florence Nightingale. As was usual in our household, everything was now under control.
By the time her train pulled into Newark that evening, the surgeon had opened him up, seen the mess, and despaired for my father’s chances. At the age of forty-three, he was put on the critical list and given less than a fifty-fifty chance to survive.
Only the adults knew how bad things were. Sandy and I were allowed to go on believing that a father was indestructible – and ours turned out to be just that. Despite a raw emotional nature that makes him prey to intractable worry, his life has been distinguished by the power of resurgence. I’ve never intimately known anyone else – aside from my brother and me – to swing as swiftly through so wide a range of moods, anyone else to take things so hard, to be so openly racked by a serious setback, and yet, after the blow has reverberated down to the quick, to clamber back so aggressively, to recover lost ground and get going again.
He was saved by the new sulpha powder, developed during the early years of the war to treat battlefront wounds. Surviving was an awful ordeal nonetheless, his weakness from the near-fatal peritonitis exacerbated by a ten-day siege of hiccups during which he was unable to sleep or to keep down food. After he’d lost nearly thirty pounds, his shrunken face disclosed itself to us as a replica of my elderly grandmother’s, the face of the mother whom he and all his brothers adored (towards the father – laconic, authoritarian, remote, an immigrant who’d trained in Galicia to be a rabbi but worked in America in a hat factory – their feelings were more confused). Bertha Zahnstecker Roth was a simple old-country woman, good-hearted, given to neither melancholy nor complaint, yet her everyday facial expression made it plain that she nursed no illusions about life’s being easy. My father’s resemblance to his mother would not appear so eerily again until he himself reached his eighties, and then only when he was in the grip of a struggle that stripped an otherwise physically youthful old man of his seeming impregnability, leaving him bewildered not so much because of the eye problem or the difficulty with his gait that had made serious inroads on his self-sufficiency but because he felt all at once abandoned by the masterful accomplice and overturner of obstacles, his determination.
When he was driven home from Newark’s Beth Israel Hospital after six weeks in bed there, he barely had the strength, even with our assistance, to make it up the short back staircase to our second-storey apartment. It was December 1944 by then, a cold winter day, but through the windows the sunlight illuminated my parents’ bedroom. Sandy and I came in to talk to him, both of us shy and grateful and, of course, stunned by how helpless he appeared seated weakly in a lone chair in the corner of the room. Seeing his sons together like that, my father could no longer control himself and began to sob. He was alive, the sun was shining, his wife was not widowed nor his boys fatherless – family life would now resume. It was not so complicated that an eleven-year-old couldn’t understand his father’s tears. I just didn’t see, as he so clearly could, why or how it should have turned out differently.
I knew only two boys in our neighbourhood whose families were fatherless, and thought of them as no less blighted than the blind girl who attended our school for a while and had to be read to and shepherded everywhere. The fatherless boys seemed almost equally marked and set apart; in the aftermath of their fathers’ deaths, they too struck me as scary and a little taboo. Though one was a model of obedience and the other a troublemaker, everything either of them did or said seemed determined by his being a boy with a dead father and, however innocently I arrived at this notion, I was probably right.
I knew no child whose family was divided by divorce. Outside of the movie magazines and the tabloid headlines, it didn’t exist, certainly not among Jews like us. Jews didn’t get divorced – not because divorce was forbidden by Jewish law but because that was the way they were. If Jewish fathers didn’t come home drunk and beat their wives – and in our neighbourhood, which was Jewry to me, I’d never heard of any who did – that too was because of the way they were. In our lore, the Jewish family was an inviolate haven against every form of menace, from personal isolation to gentile hostility. Regardless of internal friction and strife, it was assumed to be an indissoluble consolidation. Hear, O Israel, the family is God, the family is One.
Family indivisibility, the first commandment.
In the late 1940s, when my father’s younger brother, Bernie, proclaimed his intention of divorcing the wife of nearly twenty years who was the mother of his two daughters, my mother and father were as stunned as if they’d heard that he’d killed somebody. Had Bernie committed murder and gone to jail for life, they would probably have rallied behind him despite the abominable, inexplicable deed. But when he made up his mind not merely to divorce but to do so to marry a younger woman, their support went instantly to the ‘victims’, the sister-in-law and the nieces. For his transgression, a breach of faith with his wife, his children, his entire clan – a dereliction of his duty as a Jew and as a Roth – Bernie encountered virtually universal condemnation.
That family rupture only began to mend when time revealed that no one had been destroyed by the divorce; in fact, anguished as they were by the break-up of their household, Bernie’s ex-wife and his two girls were never remotely as indignant as the rest of the relatives. The healing owed a lot to Bernie himself, a more diplomatic man than most of his judges, but also to the fact that for my father the demands of family solidarity and the bond of family history exceeded even his admonishing instincts. It was to be another forty-odd years, however, before the two brothers threw their arms around each other and hungrily embraced in an unmistakable act of unqualified reconciliation. This occurred a few weeks before Bernie’s death, in his late seventies, when his heart was failing rapidly and nobody, beginning with himself, expected him to last much longer.
I had driven my father over to see Bernie and his wife, Ruth, in their condominium in a retirement village in north-western Connecticut, twenty miles from my own home. It was Bernie’s turn now to wear the little face of his unillusioned, stoical old mother; when he came to the door to let us in, there in his features was that stark resemblance that seemed to emerge in all the Roth brothers when they were up against it.
Ordinarily the two men would have met with a handshake, but when my father stepped into the hallway, so much was clear both about the time that was left to Bernie and about all those decades, seemingly stretching back to the beginning of time, during which they had been alive as their parents’ offspring, that the handshake was swallowed up in a forceful hug that lasted minutes and left them in tears. They seemed to be saying goodbye to everyone already gone as well as to each other, the last two surviving children of the dour hat-blocker Sender and the imperturbable balabusta Bertha. Safely in his brother’s arms, Bernie seemed also to be saying goodbye to himself. There was nothing to guard against or defend against or resent anymore, nothing even to remember. In these brothers, men so deeply swayed, despite their dissimilarity, by identical strains of family emotion, everything remembered had been distilled into pure, barely bearable feeling.
In the car afterwards my father said, ‘We haven’t held each other like that since we were small boys. My brother’s dying, Philip. I used to push him around in his carriage. There were nine of us, with my mother and father. I’ll be the last one left.’
While we drove back to my house (where he was staying in the upstairs back bedroom, a room in which he says he never fails to sleep like a baby) he recounted the struggles of each of his five brothers – with bankruptcies, illnesses, and in-laws, with marital dissension and bad loans, and with children, with their Gonerils, their Regans, and their Cordelias. He recalled for me the martyrdom of his only sister, what she and all the family had gone through when her husband the bookkeeper who liked the horses had served a little time for embezzlement.
It wasn’t exactly the first time I was hearing these stories. Narrative is the form that his knowledge takes, and his repertoire has never been large: family, family, family, Newark, Newark, Newark, Jew, Jew, Jew. Somewhat like mine.
I naively believed as a child that I would always have a father present, and the truth seems to be that I always will. However awkward the union may sometimes have been, vulnerable to differences of opinion, to false expectations, to radically divergent experiences of America, strained by the colliding of two impatient, equally wilful temperaments and marred by masculine clumsiness, the link to him has been omnipresent. What’s more, now, when he no longer commands my attention by his bulging biceps and his moral strictures, now, when he is no longer the biggest man I have to contend with – and when I am not all that far from being an old man myself – I am able to laugh at his jokes and hold his hand and concern myself with his well-being, I’m able to love him the way I wanted to when I was sixteen, seventeen and eighteen but when, what with dealing with him and feeling at odds with him, it was simply an impossibility. The impossibility, for all that I always respected him for his particular burden and his struggle within a system that he didn’t choose. The mythological role of a Jewish boy growing up in a family like mine – to become the hero one’s father failed to be – I may even have achieved by now, but not at all in the way that was preordained. After nearly forty years of living far from home, I’m equipped at last to be the most loving of sons – just, however, when he has another agenda. He is trying to die. He doesn’t say that, nor, probably, does he think of it in those words, but that’s his job now and, fight as he will to survive, he understands, as he always has, what the real work is.
Trying to die isn’t like trying to commit suicide – it may actually be harder, because what you are trying to do is what you least want to have happen; you dread it but there it is and it must be done, and by no one but you. Twice in the last few years he has taken a shot at it, on two different occasions suddenly became so ill that I, who was then living abroad half the year, flew back to America to find him with barely enough strength to walk from the sofa to the TV set without clutching at every chair in between. And though each time the doctor, after a painstaking examination, was unable to find anything wrong with him, he nonetheless went to bed every night expecting not to awaken in the morning and, when he did awaken in the morning, he was fifteen minutes just getting himself into a sitting position on the edge of the bed and another hour shaving and dressing. Then, for God knows how long, he slouched unmoving over a bowl of cereal for which he had absolutely no appetite.
I was as certain as he was that this was it, yet neither time could he pull it off and, over a period of weeks, he recovered his strength and became himself again, loathing Reagan, defending Israel, phoning relatives, attending funerals, writing to newspapers, castigating William Buckley, watching MacNeil-Lehrer, exhorting his grown grandchildren, remembering in detail our own dead, and relentlessly, exactingly – and without having been asked – monitoring the caloric intake of the nice woman he lives with. It would seem that to prevail here, to try dying and to do it, he will have to work even harder than he did in the insurance business, where he achieved a remarkable success for a man with his social and educational handicaps. Of course, here too he’ll eventually succeed – though clearly, despite his record of assiduous application to every job he has ever been assigned, things won’t be easy. But then they never have been.
Needless to say, the link to my father was never so voluptuously tangible as the colossal bond to my mother’s flesh, whose metamorphosed incarnation was a sleek black sealskin coat into which I, the younger, the privileged, the pampered papoose, blissfully wormed myself whenever my father chauffeured us home to New Jersey on a winter Sunday from our semi-annual excursion to Radio City Music Hall and Manhattan’s Chinatown: the unnameable animal-me bearing her dead father’s name, the protoplasm-me, boy-baby, and body-burrower-in-training, joined by every nerve-ending to her smile and her sealskin coat, while his resolute dutifulness, his relentless industriousness, his unreasoning obstinacy and harsh resentments, his illusions, his innocence, his allegiances, his fears were to constitute the original mould for the American, Jew, citizen, man, even for the writer, I would become. To be at all is to be her Philip, but in the embroilment with the buffeting world, my history still takes its spin from beginning as his Roth.
Photograph © Charles F. Cummings New Jersey Information Center