by Howard R. Wolf
When, in 1978, I sent my brother–who has lived in Portugal for more than 40 years–a book I had written about our family, Forgive the Father: A Memoir of Changing Generations, he replied after a few months: “Forget the family.”
He thought it best, for reasons that would take a lot of explaining, to live wholly in the present. Although we had grown up in the same tumultuous household, he had chosen to leave the terms of his youth behind him, where I, it turned out, became something of a memoirist and chronicler of my time–my own life, the life around me, and the relationship between the two.
I understood why my brother might say what he had said, but I wondered if it was in fact possible to “forget the family” and whether it was wise to do so, even if it were possible. So far as I could tell, then and now, one’s family and one’s experience as a member of a family (or one’s awareness of an absence) are essential components of one’s past.
To forget the past would be the equivalent of denying or erasing one’s history. On a personal level, it would be a form of self-imposed amnesia; on an historical scale, it would be something like the “airbrushing” of events that Milan Kundera describes at the beginning of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, or the manipulation of language and consciousness in George Orwell’s 1984.
But even if I am correct in saying that we have a moral and psychological obligation to honor the documentary truth(s) of our family histories, the issue isn’t quite settled. We must ask the questions Thomas Wolfe asked:
“Which of us has known his brother?
Which of us has looked into his father’s heart?
Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent?
Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?”
Thomas Wolfe, whose Look Homeward, Angel had a great influence on me when I was 17, raises two very important questions here: the extent to which we can know the content of someone else’s mind and heart, and the extent to which any of us can escape the confines of our own consciousness. Needless to say, the two issues are related. Can we really know another person?
We must, in some fashion, create and construct the identity of those most dear to us. This is to say that we must, as we get older, re-imagine and re-invent the actuality of those very people whose presences were so vivid and powerful to us in our formative years.
Our past is, in an important sense, a literary event.
In fact, we can’t look at its lived complexity, even if we have hundreds of photographs, 16 mm footage, or digital recording capacities. We are condemned, or liberated, to talk about it, to write about it; to share our experiences with those who were “there” at the time; to correct memory in the light of “evidence”; to adjudicate understanding in the light of conversation; we have no choice but to comprehend and feel the reality of the past through the reality of the present.
And there is another great problem, one that Shakespeare saw (what didn’t he see?): Change. We never can step into the same consciousness twice, our own or someone else’s. As Shakespeare writes in The Tempest:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade
But does suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
The father I wrote about in my early work is not the father I would write about ten years later. And the father I would write about today certainly would be different in the light of his death on April 28, 1998. As the past shapes the present, so the present shapes the past.
Who was my father as I understood and continue to try to understand him in the light and shadows of these questions? Let me try to summarize his life in (for me) a few words. My father, Abraham, son of Lithuanian immigrants who came to New York City through Ellis Island around 1906, was born into poverty in 1908. A second-born son who lived all his life in the shadow of his willful, brilliant older brother, he had a touch of the poet about him and dreamed of escaping the hardship of his family’s early years in America. He defined escape in terms of travel and beautiful women.
He told me once that he had signed on with a German freighter at age 13 or 14, but never made it to the dock because his mother hadn’t awakened him. In the early 1960s, when my mother went to France to visit my brother who was writing a novel on a farm in the Dordogne, my father showed me a secret box of photos: glossies of show-girls he had known in the 1920s and 30s. One had a boa wrapped around her swan-like neck. “They were beautiful,” he said, “and I loved going to the Latin Quarter with them, but I never would have left your mother.”
He never did escape, and he never found a way to express his romantic longings and his generous nature except through making money and giving it away to those he loved. When he went broke through a series of bankruptcies in the early 1950s, when he didn’t have enough money to send me back to college one year, he became a somewhat broken man and retreated into himself as the years of Florida stretched out and became a kind of exile for him.
But he didn’t give up. He learned more about the bond and stock markets than most Harvard MBAs and left my mother well-off enough when he died in 1998. In his last days, he seemed calm to me, planted in his lounger before the TV, paying attention to the financial markets.
He knew that he hadn’t become the King of Seventh Avenue, but he knew also that he would die in a comfortable home with children and grandchildren who would care about his good wife after he was gone. I had fought him tooth and nail about many things, but he knew at the end that I had been grateful for his struggle to keep the family afloat.
Hemingway says in The Snows of Kilimanjaro: “However you make your living is where your talent lies.” We also might say: “You are what you possess.” In helping my mother go through my late father’s files and drawers before she died in 2011, I discovered a few items (artifacts) that speak volumes about the mysterious man who was (is?) my father, items which I filched and took back to Buffalo as if they were relics from the Tombs of the Pharaohs:
A photograph of my father, lean and mustachioed, twenty-one perhaps, astride a horse–if not Count Fleet, a smart-looking horse nonetheless. This “young man,” who now could be my son, does not look like the person who carried samples and swatches in the canyons of Manhattan’s Garment Center for half a century.
I recall, looking at it, that he would go to a dude ranch for a few days from time to time, that he once owned a small stable and liked to listen to the songs of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. I realize, looking at this young man who lost his youth to the necessities of survival and family responsibility, that my father may have been a romantic of sorts; that he was looking for, but never found, the light at the end of 37th Street where the street meets the Hudson River. He might have preferred to be a singing cowboy with a saddle bag instead of a salesman shlepping samples of ladies coats.
My father wanted to go west, but never got there. I traveled for him.
There is a color-slide of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It must be, I think, one I gave to him when I returned from a year in Europe in 1956-57. At first it occurs to me that this slide is a symbol of the human struggle, of our family: leaning, but not fallen; but now, in writing this mini-memoir, I know (or would like to believe) that it is a sign, a trace, a bit of evidence that my father, who seemed so often to be trapped in the material circumstances of his life, did pay some attention to my life and journeys.
There is a photo of a ship, Olympia. Greek, I suppose. It must be a photo taken by some family member on some voyage, but I can’t be sure. But I wonder, looking at it, if my father thought of it as the “ship he had missed,” if he still harbored notions of setting sail.
I wonder if it ever occurred to him, as he listened to the hum of the air-conditioner in South Florida, that I had traveled for him on the Georgios Express, that I thought of him as I stood at the bow of the ship as it heaved its way from Pireus to Naxos through the Cycladic Straits.
I would like to think that he knew that I was his stand-in, that the “map games” of my childhood (when he asked me about the location of far-away places, but not Far Rockaway) had taken me to distant shores, even as I always would come home in writing at the end of the day.
Why didn’t I ask him?
Why didn’t he tell me?
Why do we fail to say so often the most important things to those we care about the most?
This is, belatedly, my asking, my telling.
Howard R. Wolf, Emeritus Professor of English at SUNY-Buffalo, has written many essays, memoirs, poems, and, recently, plays, including Homecoming at the End of the Day and Exiles by Starlight at the Ritz Tropique.