I used to think of my father as a gentle giant. Just in case it seems strange to you to think of a man who was about five feet tall as a giant, remember how tall I was during those formative years. Short though he was, he was a powerful man. In his youth, he was nicknamed The Bull. He used to talk about his early teens when he worked in his mother's store. He would stack hundred pound flour sacks; "toss them up", he would say. I had no reason to doubt him since I once saw him lift and hold up the rear end of a car while a neighbor changed a tire. His head was bald, surrounded by a fringe of black, and later grey, hair and his neck was the neck of a football player. The name Bull suited him.
Gentle? He wept at the movies; something that used to embarrass me. He cried easily. Somehow, he had never picked up that Anglo-Saxon stiff upper lip stuff.
He only raised his hand to me once in violence.I remember it in exquisite detail. Pop had a second-hand store. It was during the great depression. Peoples personal effects, which had been place in storage, were auctioned off when their owners couldn't pay the storage fee. My father would buy unopened trunks for a dollar or two, from which I reaped all sorts of goodies; exotic shells and corals, yards of books, and a pair of earphones. The earphones were the old type, built much like the older telephones, with a coil and a diaphragm. I would touch the wires to a flashlight battery and it would make a click in the earphone. I had rediscovered the basis of telegraphy. What kind of sound would it make if I increased the current? I attached the wires to an electric plug, put on the earphones and was about to plug it into the wall socket when my father saw me. He ran over and knocked me and the earphones down. Then he just stood there, ghastly pale and trembling. I don't know what would have happened and neither did he. For sure, I would have gotten more than a big click.
Once, I woke him out of a sound nap. I can only guess what he was dreaming, but he awoke, arms flailing and frightened the devil out of me. My mother simply stepped in front of him and said "wake up!", which he promptly did. I remember these two incidents, because they were so at variance with his character. Strange, isn't it, how a child remembers the unusual incidents, while the ordinary important stuff fades into the background.
My favorite game was where I would bend over with my hands between my legs and he would grab them and pull me head over heels. That and riding on his strong shoulders. He taught me to play cat's cradle and we manipulated that loop of string until we had exhausted all of the possibilities and could end the game at will.
He seemed to have almost infinite patience, but not quite. He finally took his tape measure away from me after I had wrecked his other two. That was all that he did, took it away from me; plus a very mild reprimand. I could touch almost anything that wasn't dangerous. I suppose that when Allen visited with him as a child, that my father treated him with the same, or more, tolerance than I remember from my childhood. I was never as permissive as my father. Since I thought of him as a marshmallow, I had resolved that when I had children of my own, that they would have some paternal discipline. As a consequence, my children think of me as an authoritarian martinet. No one can say that I was a marshmallow like my father. It reminds me of a saying among psychiatrists that, if a patient is early, he's apprehensive; if he's on time, he's compulsive; if he's late, he's resistant. I've never heard of anyone saying that their father was just right: not too strict, not too lenient. As long as I'm confessing, I also resolved that I would reserve the lectures and guilt trips I had experienced, for life and death matters and that a slap on the butt was adequate for minor transgressions. My kids, now grown with children of their own, see me as having been a physically brutal father. My best friend in high school remembers my father as "one of the most accepting people he knew", while thinking of his own father as a tyrant -which he was not. As a consequence, he disciplined his own children as little a possible; with predictable results.
Even during my obstreperous adolescence, when I thought of Pop as a tyrannical savage because he didn't quite let me get away with murder, he was patient; confident that I would grow out of it. I remember an incident when I was furious with him. I don't remember what it was about; but in red hot rage I said "Pop, the only thing that you have been in my life is a prick!!"
He looked at me out of the corner of his eye; "Aha, I see that I got out what I put in."
It cracked me up, ending my anger.
I suppose that he wasn't always that way; gentle and kind. He must have had another side which I never saw. He had been a merchant seaman, a coal miner, a Wobbly organizer. Wobblies were members of the International Workers of the World, the I.W.W, and they had a reputation as a pretty rough crowd -sort of the Hells Angels of the labor movement in the early nineteen hundreds. One doesn't survive in those occupations without being tough.
What I knew about his past was what he chose to tell me. He had lost his father at seven, and had left home to seek his fortune at fifteen. His father had been a Chassidic Rabbi and, as was the custom then, also had a trade; he was a merchant. Pop had been reared in the traditions of orthodox Judaism. What turned him from the faith was the death of his father. "God killed my father, so I reject him." he told me, in a long conversation that we had about a year before he died. I found out that he was neither an Atheist or an Agnostic; but an angry Orthodox Jew( My God, My God, I believe that you do not exist!). But he reared me as an Atheist, and I have remained true to my lack of faith.
He was accepting of all kinds of people and all religions. He loved the Bible and would spend many an afternoon discussing passages with the local black Baptist Minister. Yet, when I gave him a Jerusalem Bible, because I thought that he would like the translations of the Old Testament, he gave it back to me because it had a cross on the cover. It was still a goyishe bible. Never mind that it is probably one of the best English translation of the Bible and has some of the loveliest language; it was somehow contaminated.
He ate pork and used to tease my mother when she asked him what he wanted for breakfast: "Bacon and eggs!" Not that my mother was orthodox, but the smell of pork of any kind made her ill. In fact, even the thought of the smell of pork was enough to make her ill.
Once, when my father and I were walking on the beach,
he dug up a clam, opened it and devoured the contents.Then he
gave me one to try. I still can't even get near a raw shellfish.
It didn't just taste like snot, but cold snot.
Two weeks before he died, Laura, I and Allen visited my father and mother. He took Laura and me aside and told us where he kept the spare cash hidden, showed us what he wanted us to have, and, in essence said a fond goodbye to us. I realized this when, two weeks later, he died of heart failure on the way to the hospital.
When I am troubled, or have done something that I am very proud of, it is his image that I conjure up. For me, he is is my all too human God The Father. He comforts me and restores my soul. I am sure of his love, and I need no other personal God.
He was a militant Atheist. When the subject
of God came up he would declare angrily that "there is no
God!" I was always torn by his and my Atheism. While it was
a source of strength and made me a better, more objective scientist;
it was also a source of a good deal of pain. I remember the agony
of standing alone as a child, separated from my fellows. It was
not something that I wanted my children to go through, so I did
not push Atheism as my father did, although I didn't hide it.
I allowed my children to be exposed to points of view with which
I strongly disagreed. I thought that truth would prevail. Now,
when I look back at it, I think that I might have been mistaken.
As I write this, I think that my expectations for Allen were as
ridiculous as were Allen's expectations for himself. I expected
him to follow in my footsteps, only without the specific varieties
of pain and suffering that I had endured in my childhood.
It is just beginning to dawn on me that other people do not think or feel as I do. Why did it take me sixty years to reach this obvious conclusion? I would guess that it is because no one ever told me; and truly original thoughts come very rarely -even to me. I think about the Nazis and how many people truly believed that Hitler and his party were the saviors of Germany and the world. Those millions weren't just pretending in order to save their skin -they truly believed. And all of those followers of the Ayatolah Kholmeini weren't pretending; they truly believed! I have a friend who is one of the most reasonable and thoughtful people I know. Yet, he is sure that when he dies he will go to heaven. So what? You don't find that unusual; there are lots of people who think that way. They think that way because they were taught to do so in their childhood. Unlike Santa Claus, fairies and elves, most of us are never separated from our most cherished illusions. Am I the exception? Of course not; I merely have different illusions from most folks. And, like everyone else, I am not aware that my illusions are simply that -illusions. I am that idiot who tells a tale "full of sound and fury; signifying nothing". Do chimpanzees have illusions? I'll wager that they do, but they are not verbal.
I believe that if one can understand the evolution
of something, that one can understand the whole thing. Just as
mutations give geneticists insight into the normal, so cultural
sports do the same for our understanding of the cultural norms.
My father rejected God because he believed that God injured him.
He was not a just God as he had been taught to believe.
God was reduced to Santa Claus for him. Yet, inside, he never
lost his belief. No one erased his aboriginal programming. A new
belief, Atheism, was superimposed. So he brought me up to not
believe in God, thus starting a new religion. Had I been Madeline
Murray O'Hair, and sure that I was right and everyone else was
wrong, I might have helped to found the Atheist Church. Since
I don't have the courage of my lack of conviction, my lack of
belief will die with me. My children will not carry it on -certainly
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