Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I was pleasantly surprised to learn this week that I fetched a Best Creative Non-Fiction award for this story. The award was given to me on April 26 at a reception at Bergen Community College. Some of the other pieces that were read were truly something. Get a copy of the Labyrinth (through the English dept. at BCC), which contains my story and the others. The judge was Professor Parras of William Paterson University. My great thanks to him for this honour.

Fashioning my Dad after Myself:

An excerpt from the book

By Lynda Kraar

Voltaire once said, "If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him."

Inspired by these words, I spent my entire life inventing my father - giving birth to him and raising him, giving him form and function. I came up with a guy of medium height, irresistibly gorgeous. Dazzling blue eyes, olive skin and golden hair. And on the seventh day I rested.

I did not know what to want or expect from another human being in terms of emotion and intellect. As an only child, I did not understand, know or care about intimacy or feelings. I only knew how to entertain myself, and when bored, how to find something that could entertain me. This would become my modus operandi as I grew up. Years later, after I grew breasts and got my period, I would bed, marry and divorce men who matched that description perfectly. But this is not about me - this is about my father.

My mother detested my father, but not enough to leave their so-called life together. It was entirely mutual. Neither of them could get over an event that happened so long ago that there was no longer any sense in raising it. What happened back there was of no interest to me - I had one mission and one mission alone: to build myself a father. The fact that they were finding great fulfillment in vengeance, abuse and sadomasochism might have been interesting to the neighbours, but I had bigger things on my plate.

The clay from which I molded Dad had a few natural elements of its own: He was a nervous man with a short fuse. He had been a prize boxer as a kid but retired after he broke another kid's jaw, although the taste for blood never left him. He was a clotheshorse with a penchant for fast cars. Not one to tolerate the cheap crap that was being manufactured and sold as menswear, he made most of his own clothes - suits, pants and jackets. He had a way of charming women and keeping them around despite his domestic circumstances. He brooded a lot. He had his own bedroom. His sleep was fitful. He had nightmares. He would awaken, screaming. He kept an axe under the bed and a stash of money between the mattresses. He had no books, no notebooks, no pens: just a stubby little pencil that he sharpened with a kitchen knife over the sink.

You couldn't pin him down, my dad. He carried himself like a prince, but he brawled like a street fighter. You could keep him around polite company, but not for very long. You could see in his beautiful eyes that he was capable - very capable - of going over the edge.

What choice did I have? As self-appointed alchemist, I carefully measured out doses of fiction intermingled with fact. My father would be a creative soul. He would write, draw and sing. Some ingredients were based on the early things that I remember best about him - his love for operatic tenors, his expertise at creating clothing patterns and then executing them with perfection. He was great at drawing caricatures, an art form that would carry over to me, and which would eventually have me threatened with expulsion from school.

I willed my father to come home and read to me; to adore me; to listen to me; to fuss over me and take me to the corner store for an ice cream cone.

That's how it might have gone down; however, Divine Intervention came in the form of my mother, who could simply never forgive him for cheating on her with a German girl in the first year of their marriage, and who would never stop loving him until the day she died. For those two sins he paid and paid and paid. And so did she. Thus, it was no surprise to me when, on his death bed, Dad asked me, "Where's Mum?"

I thought about it. I could have said, "Oh, Dad, we didn't have the heart to tell you that she died two years ago. She was so sick, poor Mother! The Almighty (Blessed be He!) took her from her sick bed in the living room of our house in the middle of the holy of holy nights, the Sabbath. The Sabbath, Dad! She was a saint! You blew it!"

Instead, I gave him the one answer that drove him crazy, that he hated to hear - the answer that stirred his toxic mind to caustic rage: "She's at the Y."

From that pathetic little cot, with all the fire and bile and piss he could muster, he gave me that look that I remembered from the first - rabid eyes filled with venom, like a cobra ready to strike, eyes that were now in their nineties and defied the slowdown of his other vital parts. In that moment, in his eyes, how well I remembered Dad.

In October, 1994, my father came to visit us in Teaneck, New Jersey. We had fled Manhattan after the birth of my second baby the previous January. Mom thought it was a great idea for Dad to see his granddaughter for the first time. My then-husband, Seamus, was the star crime reporter at the Bergen Record. We felt the ticking of the clock with the new baby in the house, and we realized that Dad was not getting any younger. The visit presented two perfect opportunities - Dad would be able to buy a hank of superwool to make himself a pair of pants, and we could tape an interview with him each night of his visit.

As a child, either I was absent the day Dad talked about his family, or else too indoctrinated by my mother to pay attention to his words. He had come from a huge family - a very old Polish family that had stayed in the region of Radom for centuries. You could recognize the clans because they all shared the same first names - all named for the long-departed patriarchs and matriarchs.

Every morning during his visit we took Dad to Butterflake bakery for a fresh rye bread, and then to the supermarket for cold cuts. When Dad asked me for an iron so that he could press his shirt and pants, I produced whatever I had in the house. After his bitter protests, we had to go out and buy a real steam iron. Mine, apparently, was for sissies. He had to have his Nescafe, real butter and real jam preserves. The food I had prepared was too nutritious, too colourful. Dad was from the "sauté until grey" school of cooking. Meat had to be overcooked and bland, as did potatoes and all manner of root vegetables. He had no patience for whole wheat anything, fresh fruits or roughage - "Grass is for sheep. I'm a man!" Every so often, when Miriam - four at the time - would get on his nerves, I would see the guy I remembered come out. I did my best to make sure she stayed out of his way and that she did not run with scissors when he was around.

The next night, as we taped the second interview, I learned that Dad might have been beaten by his father as a child. His father never got over the loss of a little girl who died of tuberculosis. No other child was good enough for him. Certainly, his mother was accustomed to the beatings. She might have sent my father, her fair-haired, beautiful child, to live with relatives in the city of Lodz, then a burgeoning, tuberculosis-breeding industrial center like the Lower East Side. It was clear that my father was not a scholar. By the time he was in his teens he was officially illiterate. He compensated by fine-tuning his street instincts, and he went into the world of trade with a vengeance. He described his glory days in the 1930s as a young man living alone in the big city.

The next day we heard about his wife, Genia, whose name I inscribed on his headstone at the cemetery because I was so certain this woman did not have a single relative who survived the Nazis. Genia was pregnant, and Dad was smuggling outside the ghetto walls with a few contacts he had there. He would sneak through the elaborate sewer system and come up through a manhole on the Nazi side. It was very quick. One or two Poles would be there, and the trade would be done. The whole tragic lot of them could have been murdered on the spot if they were found out. Then Dad slipped back into the sewer and came up a manhole that was located near a convent that bordered the ghetto. In 1942, during the worst of the ghetto liquidations, and with a pregnant wife, Dad was busted by a Jewish cop and put on a deportation list.

It was already a miracle that he was not rounded up and shot, as so many others were. It was even more miraculous that he outwitted the authorities who tried to send him into the trucks that were killing loads of Jews with carbon monoxide poisoning as they were being transported to the crematoria and pits that were designed expressly to do away with dead Jewish waste. My lucky father ended up in Auschwitz after some hard time at the Poznan labour camp. There he encountered his old friend Morris who worked in the kitchen. He would eventually get Dad a job there, too. While most prisoners were dying of starvation, my father did not do too badly. Touched by the finger of God once again. No wonder my mother hated him so.

"It wasn't too bad," Dad would say.

"It wasn't too bad," my mother would mock. My mother, who had lost everyone from her little clan and blew her chance for restitution and reclamation by signing the wrong document at the wrong time. She was never able to appeal her claim. On the other hand, Dad received slave labour cheques and restitution from Germany that sometimes totalled tens of thousands of dollars. In addition, there were some family members around, even if they did not talk to each other. Let the record reflect that some did - I do not want to piss off those cousins and risk losing them, too.

It was inevitable - I had to grow up. I had to knock down the Dad that I had created. I had to accept the fact that nothing was extraordinary in Dad's life except everything. He did not belong to me - he belonged to the world. Dad had a heart attack in the weeks before his retirement from the sweatshop where he worked, along with scores of other Holocaust survivors who had come to Canada, their new homeland which begrudgingly accepted them in the 1950s. The doctors opened him up, and he had a heart attack on the table so they closed him back up again without finishing the job. A few weeks later he fell out of the cherry tree in the backyard because he did not want the birds to kill off his harvest.

Throughout his life he won at the slots. He went to Florida for months every winter where he shacked up with his Ukrainian girlfriend from Chicago whom I heard about from friends of my parents who saw them together. She knitted for him two sweaters which he wore until he died. Even in his last days, when I'd ask, "Dad, where did you get those beautiful sweaters?" he would answer with a furtive grin, "I got 'em." His brain was mush, he was soiling himself, he did not know what day it was, but he was going to guard his friend's honour until his last gasp.

Mom stewed in the meantime, grappling with her own sexual identity. Dad never stopped playing cards with his gang. He never stopped fighting and occasionally giving someone the taste of his killer left hook to the jaw. He was no longer permitted to drive. He continued to make his own clothes, trim his nose hairs and wear a tie every day.

My mother was in complete denial that there was anything wrong with Dad, although it was clear to my family that he was losing it. For twenty years we had told her that he was forgetful, that he was leaving the stove on, and that he allowed the asshole cokehead neighbor to rip him off for $11,000 for a roofing job that was never done. The sonofabitch just kept coming over and asking him for payment, because they knew Dad didn't remember anything from one day to the next. The bastard even drove Dad to the bank for the cash withdrawal-- $1,000 on a weekly basis, for eleven weeks straight. Nope, said Mum. This was only a ploy to piss her off - her words - because he hated it that she went to the Y. Poor Mom, she so desperately wanted Dad's attention.

After a lifetime of neglecting her health, the cancer that had silently thrived in her colon for at least a decade metastasized. No two ways about it - eleven years Dad's junior, a community activist and our matriarch, my mother was going to check out first. There was no time for drama. My husband Marty and I came up with a plan: Dad needed to be put into an eldercare facility.

That good time did not last very long. The morning Mom died, May 7, 2005, I took Dad out to our favourite restaurant, intent on never telling him what had happened, and prayed that none of her old friends would approach us, asking how my mum was doing:

"She died a few hours ago. Dad, can you please pass the salt?"

The next day we celebrated Mother's Day at the Mount Sinai cemetery where we feted my mother with a well attended, dignified send-off. Meanwhile, Dad was charming the nice Filipino women who worked there on the weekends.

The world was different now. Our family continued to visit him, to put him in the car and listen to his favourite Jan Peerce or Mario Lanza recordings: "Now, that's a singer," he would say.

We took him out for real food. He allowed me to take him to the second-hand clothing store where I bought him a wardrobe of matching separates, all the best name brands. Even at the age of 93 I could not stand the thought of seeing him wearing shmattas. There was nothing wrong with his eyes. He liked the Banana Republic chino tailoring. There was a little excitement when his roomie, an old cadger and one-time tailor named Sam, took his gigantic shears and ripped the pants to shreds to make them smaller, hand-stitching them in the back. Should these guys even have scissors and needles? The attendants confiscated the entire cache.

I was considering not burying my parents next to each other until there was once again a Divine Intervention, this time not from my mother, but from God. Not to be outdone by the righteous woman who earned the privilege of been called up on the holy Sabbath, Dad passed away on September 15, 2007. It was the Sabbath of Return - the really big, important Sabbath that occurs between the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. That would have pissed off my mother to no end. Do the faithful ever get to see God this close up? The Almighty made it by far the most festive holiday that Dad had ever experienced, and the most heartfelt one for those of us who were at his side, waiting and wondering about what He has in store for us.

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