My father died yesterday, age 93, after many years of increasing dementia and disability. He was not at all the same person he used to be, except in certain elemental ways. He would still laugh at his longtime favorite sayings (“here’s your hat what’s your hurry?”, “I’ll never forget old whats-his-name”) and his laugh was legendary, always the loudest in any group setting. His life was long and complicated, with many roads taken and many roads not.
As a radical intellectual of Jewish heritage he found his academic career blocked and stymied by McCarthyist blacklists in the fifties, after having served in the Air Force in WWII and gone through college and graduate school on the G.I. bill. His promised teaching positions at Harvard and then Columbia suddenly dried up and he found himself at a small woman’s college where he remained for decades. Author of several inscrutable books of fascinating premises, he found eventual fulfillment in the founding and leadership of a Gestalt Therapy Institute, a position of influence and localized renown. Beloved and respected in his field, he was a person of great value in many lives. Warm, compassionate, thoughtful and sensitive, he was essentially a good man.
Not that he didn’t have his flaws, among them a rocky marriage racked by his own dishonesty and betrayals, yet a marriage that lasted until my mother’s death, a total of nearly 70 years. Gestalt therapy pulled them through to an old age rich in companionship and care, along with a crusty accumulation of assorted grievances and general crankiness. My mother would scold him for desiring a cookie, for instance. We teased her for her tendency to say things like “you can’t possibly be hungry. You had a tomato yesterday!”
My father was a sports enthusiast, to the point where his doctor forbade him from watching the Eagles on TV. He was an avid tennis and badminton player, a basketball player in his Indiana youth, and a tenacious competitor. He enjoyed licorice and imported beer. He was also a relentless flirt, known for commenting on the physical attributes of nearly every woman he saw. A man of his times, he spared himself from most effort involved in child rearing, though he had four sons. He contributed little assistance with laundry, cooking, cleaning, shopping, baby-sitting, helping with homework, communicating with teachers, et cetera. Yet he considered himself a feminist and certainly respected and assisted many women professionally, whether he slept with them or not.
An avowed socialist and atheist, he was fiercely anti-war, anti-racist, anti-corporate, pro-union and worked locally to support radical charities in the local community. We were an odd family, commie pinko jews-of-a-sort in a well-off very-white and segregated suburban Republican-dominated area. There were hardly any families like ours for miles around. We should have been somewhere else; New York City most appropriately, and probably would have been were it not for the blacklisting.
My parents had their friends but very few family friends (the main ones moved away from the neighborhood when I was very young) and no relatives nearby. They rarely entertained at home or had casual visitors. It was a large and largely quiet house, especially as we grew and peeled off one by one. And in growing up, all of us boys were mainly attached to our mother. She was the involved parent, and the one you could talk to. If my father ever came to speak with you, you knew it was going to be like an unwanted therapy session, where he would grill you on how you were “feeling” and of course you could never tell him. You “felt” that he wouldn’t understand. His own father had been either distant and uninterested, or violent and full of rage. My father was terrified of his own father and I don’t know if he ever overcame that, truly.
I used to say that I never needed a father figure because my father *was* my father figure. Now, at the age of 62, I have no idea what I meant by that. Was it just words, some kind of cute writerly thing that meant nothing? It is true I never sought out any older men for acceptance or validation, but then I never sought out anyone for that, and never got it from anyone either, except from my own wife and child. Did I never need or want it, or did I just give up at some point? I have no idea. The person I am now looks back at the people I used to be as if they were strangers. I don’t know what the hell they were thinking, or what they thought they were doing. All I know is that the results of my earlier deeds and choices led me to where I am now, to who I am now – assuming I am actually anyone and not just a busy mathematical equation that keeps adding variables and re-calculating day-by-day, to no end whatsoever, an equation that is never complete and never resolves.
My father as well was a mathematical equation. You can plug in his strengths and weaknesses, accomplishments and failures, insights and blind spots, wise and foolish actions, plus the impacts of all the external forces that acted upon him, minus the opportunities denied, times the hours and days and months and years, divided by the struggles and resistances encountered. There is no determination of a self.
He believed very strongly that radical change in the world was essential. People could not be healed until society was healed and society could not be improved until people themselves improved. He was very much influenced by radical thinkers like Franz Fanon, Paul Goodman, John MacMurrary and Paolo Freire. He was idealistic, optimistic, and quite often depressed by the indecency and ignorance of the actual world of humans. He was, however, spared the knowledge of the current presidency and its shameful vileness and idiocy. He was happy in the end, pretty much, the kind of happiness that only comes with a freshly scrubbed brain.
I loved my father. He only beat me once, and I deserved it. I respected him even though he lied to my face. He sometimes let me down but I certainly let him down as well. He smelled of Old Spice and gave us all crew cuts every summer. He made me rub his back but we did difficult jigsaw puzzles together. His interest in music was limited to the chamber/classical kind. He never read fiction and really didn’t understand why anyone would. He loved to laugh. He often sang (too loudly) the same old wartime shanties he’d learned as a youth in the brothels of occupied Germany. Most of the family trips he took us on were to civil rights or anti-war demonstrations in D.C. or N.Y.C..
His most lasting legacy, for me personally, was the year he took us all to live in Bologna, Italy for a year. He was on a sabbatical and writing his first book (Psychoanalysis: Radical and Conservative) and he used to walk my little brother and me to our elementary school every morning. That was the time I felt closest to him (I was ten years old). I will always cherish him for that great gift.