My Father, My Self

An Equation of Love, Fact and Friction

Two Generations: Essayist Larry N. Mayer with his father Edmund Mayer, circa 1980.
Courtesy of Larry N. Mayer
Two Generations: Essayist Larry N. Mayer with his father Edmund Mayer, circa 1980.

By Larry N. Mayer

Published June 08, 2014, issue of June 13, 2014.

(page 2 of 5)

His memory is still better than mine. He remembers everything I’ve ever done, both good and bad, and the times I’ve most hurt him. He tells me how cute I was as a little boy. How I learned to shave and tie a tie. He remembers how when he was pulled over for speeding on the Thruway, I called the state trooper “bad man.” He remembers my potential, my high school rank: 44 out of 900. The other night, while we were surfing TV channels together, he explained the motivation of William Holden’s character in “Bridge Over the River Kwai,” 56 years after seeing it in a Times Square theater.

I have heard his important stories dozens of times: As a post-operative 14-year-old inpatient of a hospital in Vienna, he hid beneath a blanket and rubbed the thermometer to prolong his fever and lengthen his stay, rather than be sent back to the concentration camp, where certainly he would have died. Even then, the future mechanical engineering student at City College — the future professor of physics — knew that friction created heat. As long as he had a fever, he was safe — as long as it stayed above 37 degrees Celsius he wouldn’t budge.

But now what would help him?

I remember that during a parents’ day visit to my fourth-grade class, he became furious at my teacher, Mrs. Taub, who had wrongly asserted during a science demonstration that “friction is heat.” Because in his mind, there was no room for error — clearly, friction created heat. And throughout that year, he never failed to remind me. Today I remind him, but he doesn’t laugh or smile. My sister, who lives with her husband and two boys about five houses down the street from my parents, peeks her head in the doorway and I announce to her that we are writing daddy’s obituary now. She looks horrified, shakes her head, and mumbles something about how sick this family is. She leaves a box of chocolate caramels on the coffee table next to me.

I don’t remember all his stories with the same nuanced passion and detail, or richness of history. It all seems incoherent and implausible:

“At the age of 8, escaping to Hungary, you jumped off a southbound railroad train being bombed by German planes?” I ask him. “You lay in an open marsh field with your sister, mother and father piled on top, while you recited the Sh’ma, and yelled out ‘I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die’!? The earth trembled beneath you? Literally?”

“Another time during the war, your parents sent you to play soccer all day in the Balatonboglár village park, so when the Nazis came to round up the family, at least you wouldn’t be home for deportation? Later, I think, you requested an SS officer escort you back to the concentration camp so you could be with your mother and sister? You stole a horse from an Austrian peasant? Hungarian? Russian? German?”

“Oh, yes, oops, and I almost forgot: You held onto the adolescent desire that if you were going to die it might as well be out in a grass field, under the golden sun of an open blue sky, having the time of your life?”

I will miss hearing those stories over and over, the consistency of details, the repetitive inflections:

“During one 200-kilometer death march from Hungary to Austria, you played chess — you strategized and called out moves in standard, international chess notation with a fellow Jewish prisoner, without chessmen or a board?”

“Another time, you were stripped of your pants to be proven a Jew, or as the Germans would say, unbestreitbar? Later, through the barracks window, you witnessed a Nazi officer apprehend your mother and sister in what remains the worst moment of your life. You thought it was the last time you would ever see them. Correct?”

My father speaks in a booming, singsong voice, with a touch of irony, cynicism, anger, and even once in a while, a scarcely audible tone of self-deprecation and humility. But no tears that I can see. “It was luck,” he tells me, “not more.”

Lately, the stories have been different. Clearly, he wants us to view him as more than a symbol of “the survivor” or “the suffering Jew.” He wants us to know that as a little boy he loved the General Napoleon, and could name all the kings and queens of Polish history in chronological order; how as the best student in his second-grade class of 60 students, he kept track of the constant invasions and ever-changing borders of the Polish homeland, and which kings were good for the Jews. How badly he wanted to be a soldier. How he loved Italian operas, soccer, philately, cheese blintzes, chess, Zionism, pierogies and Polish Christmas carols. Until a few days ago, he couldn’t resist a good cheesecake. As a child he studied classical piano. And after the war, he and his father had their sights set on Israel, although American relatives insisted otherwise. In 1994, he and my mother recorded their stories for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation database. “For young people,” he told them, “Education, not punishment, is the best solution.”

Once in Poland, before the war, he played a game of “house” set in a royal palace with some neighborhood “gentile children” from his building, who rather than let him be king or prince assigned him to be their pet dog on a leash. He was the youngest after all. It had nothing to do with his being a Jew, but his mother was horrified: “You will never be the dog again, not my son, not little Edmund, understand?” And he never was. But as my mother has asked, was he ever just a little boy?

When I ask him for one word to describe himself, he says, “Honest.” And until recently, I’ve lied to him only once, about a time I spent the night in a Long Island jail after being pulled over for drunk driving, in his car! My blood alcohol level had reached 0.12. Of course, when he found out the truth, he gave me hell and more (something I wish on no one) and then, of course, paid for my lawyer.

I help myself to a chocolate caramel; my father can no longer look at them. Hunger makes him weak. Food makes him sick. Even cheesecake. His temperature, usually normal, spikes in the evenings. And if you ask him what’s wrong, what hurts, or how he feels, he grumbles, “Nothing. I’m miserable, that’s all. I’m a very sick man.” I offer him a half glass of his blue Frost Glacier Freeze Gatorade, a shade darker than his eyes, the only thing, the only flavor, he will ingest these days. He sends me upstairs to find a manila file of biographical clippings he’s put together to help compose his obituary. His faith and belief in me remain steadfast.

Since April, my sister Michelle and her husband Scott have driven my father to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center once a week for his treatments, shuttling back and forth to the pharmacy for endless prescriptions, and spending a considerable amount of time on the telephone and in person, talking with, questioning, probing, negotiating and yelling at various doctors and healthcare workers. The worst was one late night in June after my father had been rushed to some second-rate medical clinic in Smithtown, Long Island. A higher dose of the drug Gemzar had triggered a fever, acute pain and nausea, causing him to faint at the kitchen table while talking to my mother. Hours later, not wanting to wake her, he called Michelle and Scott at 3 a.m. to save him from this hospital that wouldn’t give him a Tylenol or Advil, let alone the morphine drip and antipyretic for which he had been waiting for five hours: “They’re going to kill me in here,” he screamed. “Get me out. I don’t need this kind of help!”

But the real anguish began much more recently, two weeks ago, prior to my parents’ 58th wedding anniversary. My father had gone in for his second MRI on Friday morning. He seemed calm, and as my sister reports, he said he wasn’t nervous. He was clinging, as were we, to the miracle results of early July. He wasn’t afraid to die, he told her.

As I make my way up the creaky stairs to get the binder of facts and statistics from his room, my brain begins to churn over a small detail my sister burdened me with this morning. A very short time ago — perhaps when he first started his weekly treatments — my father confided his feelings to her.

“He thinks maybe there’s still friction between the two of you, that somehow you resent him, or perhaps… don’t love him?”

“And?” I asked. “And? You said?”

“And I told him he was crazy.”

When I was a kid and we lived in Upper Manhattan, communication between us was a clumsy, indirect affair. He had very little patience for my childhood antics and needs. Perhaps he was still reeling from little Barney’s death in 1963. I know he had Holocaust nightmares, which often kept him up from 4 a.m. till his 6 o’clock cup of instant coffee. Yet whenever he asked me for a small favor, a simple thing like bringing him a cold glass of seltzer so he could relax after work, I would (a) find some double meaning in what he said, (b) misinterpret his request, and/or (c) bring him the wrong thing. Other times, and purely by accident, I would spill the soda on the carpet, or drop the glass so that it shattered on the floor, and he would say something in Yiddish that amounted to my being an unbelievable shlemiel.

Two statements I heard loud and clear in reference to me were: (1) “He can’t do you a favor without giving you a 20-minute song-and-dance,” and (2) “Everything he touches, he breaks.” His mood when arriving home from work set the emotional tone for my evening. I waited anxiously to see if he would smile, or bring me some small present like “First Day of Issue” postmarked covers of envelopes and postage stamps. He loved the colors, the precision of design, the neatly stamped dates. Most evenings, he was tired and irritable. His round trips to work in Long Island often took two hours or more; he was perpetually ensnared within the rush hour traffic of the Cross Bronx Expressway. “I’m the only idiot in the world who lives in the city and commutes to the suburbs!” he would say.

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