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 3 of 5)

My bedroom faced West 225th Street and Broadway. I could see the muddy-green Harlem River Ship Canal, Columbia University’s Baker’s Field spreading out behind it, and beyond that, the Major Deegan and the Bronx to the east, and the Empire State straight ahead south. Beginning at 6 p.m., my mother and I would take turns craning our necks from the window, hoping to see daddy, toting his big fat briefcase filled with student papers, marching up the hill (she liked to make fun of his self-satisfied duck-footed stride), or circling around in his vinyl-topped red Oldsmobile in search of a legal parking place. My mother called cars death machines. I sensed she expected the police to call with news of a terrible accident. Either that, or 1010 WINS — “all news all the time” — would announce his tragic death every 10 minutes to the entire Tri-State area. I learned to live with a lump trapped between my throat and stomach. If he made good time, his mood and smile would reflect his good fortune. I would feel a sense of relief, spared another one of his prickly moods, or one of my mother’s long sessions of worry and unease, in which her generally happy demeanor transformed into what, until recently, my sister and I would call her “cancer face.”

But even if he was in good spirits, I was uncomfortable speaking in his presence. Afraid of being yelled at or criticized, I learned to hide in my room or say, “I don’t know,” to his questions. I found it difficult to show too much enthusiasm lest he tease me. If something was threatening or stressful, his natural inclination was to shut it down or yell at everyone in the vicinity. There was no room for anyone else’s anxiety or discomfort. For him, our aches were too painful. He dismissed most problems by saying, “No big deal.” When I failed to reach 1300 on the SAT, he said, “So you’re no genius, you’ll have to get a job like the rest of us.”

On the phone, he was alacritous, and always first to pick up. Once when I was attending college at SUNY Binghamton, I told him over the phone that all the premed science courses I was taking were irrelevant to my life. My father laughed: “He wants relevance,” he told my mother. “Larry wants college courses to be relevant to his life!”

My father communicated his emotions in three ways: yelling at you, giving you a big bear hug, then inevitably sending you a big check. In 1996, when I told him of my engagement to my soon-to-be-wife, Augusta, I spent the first 10 minutes talking to him about the New York Mets bullpen problems and who would be the setup man for John Franco. Finally, I summoned the nerve to broach the subject. Oh, he was ecstatic for me and her, and the whole family. And then he laughed. “He couldn’t just tell it to me straight,” he told my mother. “It took Larry twenty minutes to get to the main point. Well, guess what? Your son is getting married! Find for me the checks.”

For me, the most difficult thing was to look directly into his eyes. Like splitting an atom, or fusing two nuclei. Like looking into the sun. Especially when he was happy or proud, I felt blinded by a brilliance, a radiant light coming from inside him. A golden fire. The experience was so intimate and intense as to be feverish, nearly tearful for us both.

It is a Sunday afternoon, and still summer. My sister and Scott have finally earned a short break on Cape Cod after months of indulging their cruel illusions of hope. Although I have stayed with my parents on and off for most of the last eight weeks, I am also back in Massachusetts. My parents have not yet heard from Dr. Lichtman about Friday’s MRI. And even though it’s not Monday, the news is clearly not good because if it were, the doctor would have called over the weekend. Michelle insists someone has to be with mommy and daddy when they get the phone call.

By Sunday evening, after a four-hour ride, I am in Long Island, and my parents send me to pick up the Chinese takeout they have ordered. My father still has somewhat of an appetite, and my mother knows that to be strong she needs to eat. At about 9 p.m. I’m in the car, on my way back with the hot and sour soup, spring rolls, moo shu pork, and a small order of chicken in garlic sauce when my cell phone rings. It’s my wife, Augusta, and she suggests I pull over because she has something to tell me. Lichtman has just called and the results are painfully clear. My sister, her husband, and Augusta will drive together to New York, and be at my parents’ house at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning to tell them the truth. Until then, I mustn’t say a thing.

“You mean I have to eat dinner with them and pretend everything is all right?”

“You don’t have to lie,” she says, “just don’t say anything. Talk about other topics. Talk about the Mets.”

“I can’t do it,” I say. “I have no appetite. I can’t lie to my parents. I won’t be able to pull it off.”

“Do it for your sister,” she says. “We’ll be there early.”

When a man dies, people seem to feel the need to weave together a kind of hagiographic treatise. Is it not enough that a person has lived and strived, loved, struggled and triumphed — helped himself and provided for others? Is it not enough to tell people that my father’s favorite movies were “Moonstruck,” “A Fish Called Wanda,” “There’s Something About Mary” and anything starring Fred Astaire; that his favorite operas were “those by composers whose last names end with an ‘i’”; that if he hadn’t worked as a college professor, his dream job would have been center-forward for the United States mens’ national soccer team; and that his favorite childhood memory was being reunited with his own father in Budapest after World War II?

Once my father complained to my mother that I never called him Dad or Daddy; in fact, he grumbled, I never called him anything. It’s true, Daddy sounded like a little baby, Dad sounded too casual and familiar, too intimate, and calling him father was out of the question. In his defense, the word was not part of his native vernacular, and in Polish he called his own father Tato. So to me he went without a moniker, except for when my sister and I affectionately referred to him as Ed or the absolutely unacceptable Eddie. There was the occasional “Da.” But clearly, it was about comfort and intimacy. Too close was too pressing. And with this, he was equally an accomplice. Although he telephoned me once a week (if I didn’t phone him first), when he left a message, he became stiff, enunciating slowly and clearly, “Larry, this is your father speaking.”

A few years ago, while we planned a family vacation to Mexico, in an effort to be carefree, he left a voice message in which his mouth seemed to become paralytic and twisted while trying to say “Dad.” His attempt at the one-syllable word morphed into a near-diphthong as the short “a” sound took a 90-degree turn toward the short “e.” The final “d” took on the apprehensive quality of a voiceless dental fricative, and instead of saying, “Hi, Larry, it’s Dad,” his legacy forever stands as “Hello, Larry, this is Death speaking.”

Edmund Mayer’s obituary folder is stacked neatly on the top of the computer printer along with his financial statements from the last 10 years, and medical reports and insurance statements from 2013. He has saved a light-hearted campus newspaper profile of himself, “Getting to Know Edmund Mayer”; a short, more serious article from his 1998 retirement; a curriculum vitae from 1964 when he switched from the aerospace industry to academics; a letter he wrote to his boss in 1973 respectfully requesting that he be considered for a distinguished teaching professorship; an ancient letter of recommendation; and an old, typed memo, confirming that he had earned an 11% raise. For whom has he saved these files? To remember what exactly? I wonder if, from all these yellowing pages, I can piece together the life of a hero. I now know that between 1963 and 1967, his salary went from $8,942 to $12,093. Is this the measure of his life? Is this why he became enraged at me when, as a teenager, I proclaimed to one of his friends that I thought my father was a rich man? And why had he never told me he had written several chapters of a United Nations-sponsored publication called “The Use of Wood in House Construction in Developing Countries”?

I snoop around the room, looking for mementoes, and examine the various photos of his grandchildren, which he himself has carefully printed and framed (a recent hobby of his); a set of books by and about Garry Kasparov; two books on poker, “The Big Deal,” and “The Bigger Deal”; books about the church and the Holocaust; and a sad-looking portrait of me, painted by a Polish artist in 1995. Where did all this dust come from?

“Larry, are you coming downstairs?” my mother calls up.

My father’s desk faces the double windows that look onto a semi-barren backyard slope of brambles and small trees, the hill rising to a narrow swath of suburban wood. Late at night, if you loiter by this window and don’t move, you might spot one or even two red foxes lurking near the sliding door and feeding on the leftovers my mother sets aside for her cats.

My father loved his work, but after he retired, it seemed as if he never looked back. Until two weeks ago, if you peeked into this room, you’d see the back of his oversized head as he fiddled with the color settings on Picasa, upped the volume on Spotify, read bad jokes from his friends on Hotmail, planned trips for himself and my mother on Travelocity, or played chess online with people the world over. At one time, he was almost a chess master. I remember that in the early 1970s, his rating reached an all-time high of 2130. I was very proud and asked him when he would reach 2200, which denoted master. “I can’t concentrate,” he said. “If you people didn’t cause me so much stress and aggravation, I could do it.” Even now he is ranked one of the top 10 online players over 75.

My mother calls again from downstairs. “Larry, are you coming?”

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