FEATURE by Nancy Bisberg-Rothstein
As far back as I can remember, I knew that my father was dead. That was all I knew about him. I could have asked questions like, "When did he die?" "How did he die?" or "What had he been like? but I didn't. my mother, Bella Benberg wasn't a talker. Whenever I asked her a question she turned her big round face to me and smiled her Mona Lisa smile, mysterious. No answer. I stopped asking. I simply didn't think about him at all. My mother never mentioned him nor did her relatives. There were no fond anecdotes or sad stories, no pictures in albums, no visits with his family. Did he even have a family? It was as if he had never existed.
It didn't escape my attention that everyone else had a father. My friend's fathers were nice enough men but it seemed to me that it was their mothers who did most of the work and made all the decisions. And I had a mother. The only difference I noticed about myself was that we were the poorest people I knew.
My mother couldn't have been more than 5 feet tall but there was nothing small about her. Her body was square like a cardboard box that had once held a TV. Her arms and hands looked as if they belonged to another, taller person. Her fingers were thick and shapely. Her legs, once crippled by rickets, faced each other from the knees down. She always sat on the edge of a chair, toes pointed in. On her face she wore a look of hopeless expectancy.
My mother didn't care at all about what anything looked like. She didn't adorn herself or our home. She wore no jewelry. Her clothing was usually askew. Her slip strap peeked out from below her sleeve, her stockings wrinkled and her clothes were stained. Her lipstick, which she wore only if we were going to a concert or a family dinner, was applied quickly, without benefit of a mirror and it wandered over onto her teeth. She was overweight most of her life but she never mentioned it once or went on a diet.
Likewise our home had bare walls and windows. We had no bedspreads or easy chairs or mirrors or lamps. The furniture was strewn about randomly. Our house always looked as if we had just moved in and were still in the process of unpacking. It didn't matter. Except for my friends, we never had guests.
My mother was painfully shy and like most shy people she preferred the company of children. She was never as happy as when she had a child or an infant on her lap.
Until she retired at the age of sixty-two, my mother worked in a dress factory, almost exclusively for Nicki Novelty Co. in the garment center in New York City. She operated a four needle machine that affixed rickrack to skirts. From early morning to late in the evening, five days a week, for over forty years, she sewed four bands of white rickrack on millions of black skirts and not once did we ever see anyone wearing such a skirt. We looked.
She complained bitterly to me about the shop and about the forty powdered lines she followed on the skirts. "That powder will kill me yet." she said and perhaps it did. She died of cancer at the age of seventy-four. She complained about her boss, "Mr. N." and in fact all bosses. "They eat up your kishkas (intestines)." she said, "and they won't even pay you enough to live on." She called herself a communist though she never joined the party. I agreed. We marched in every May Day parade, read the Daily Worker, went to the Soviet-American friendship rallies and lived in a two block communist enclave in the Bronx. We were dedicated to making the world a better place. We even had a deadline, ten years hence.
My mother did her best but it became clear to me by the time I was 4 years old that her best was not going to be good enough. I had better take care of myself. In fact, she insisted that I do so.
When it was our turn in the clinic or school or charity office, my mother put her long index finger in the middle of my back and pushed me forward.
"We're next." my voice trembled.
"What's your name young lady?" The woman at the desk was all face powder and dyed hair.
"Nellie Benberg and this is my mother, Bella Benberg."
"And how old are you?"
"Six", I said.
"It says here that you're seven." she said frowning.
If she knew why did she ask me I thought?
"Oh yes, I forgot, I'm seven."
Though she never explained why she did it, my mother gave every government agency different information as to our ages, places of birth, parentage and names. She was her own Ministry of Disinformation. She never let me in on it so I was always surprised and had to flounder around to cover my tracks.
"I was born in 1933 no I mean 1932, so I must be seven."
I became confident in my ability to survive any situation. In truth, I became insufferable. I was the ringleader of my own gang. I thought up lots of imaginative adventures most of which entailed lying, cheating, fighting and the risking of life and limb. I loved risking life and limb and cajoled my friends into doing likewise.
I was no better in school. I had already failed math by 2nd grade and to my great shame and mortification the teacher had announced it publically to the entire class. In 3rd grade when my teacher asked for two volunteers to color in her 2x4 foot outline pictures of flowers while the rest of the class did math, my hand shot up, "Me, me, please me." I already had a reputation in the family as being a "regular artist". My crayoned birthday cards were compared favorably to Rembrandt and DaVinci. My rendition of my Uncle Oscar smoking a pipe reduced him to tears. Since the Benbergs spoke only in superlatives I took all this with more than a grain of salt but art would come in handy now. For the rest of the year, while the class studied math, Eugene Royko and I would smile slyly at each other as we chalked in pansies and daffodils, roses and tulips. We were asked to do art projects for other teachers and we were happy to oblige. I loved the freedom of traipsing from class to class with my chalk, scissors and paper tucked under my arm. I loved it so much that when we ran out of projects I began to make them up.
"Miss Simalevsky asked me to do a poster." I would say to Mrs. Abrahms and off I would go to sit on the stairs behind the stage and read. "Mrs. Kadri asked me to do puppets Miss Newman." Soon no teacher ever knew where I was. My lies became so complicated and devious that the whole structure constantly threatened to collapse and drown me.
Teachers, my friend's parents and neighbors were always complaining about me to my mother. She would defend me to them but when we were alone she would spank me or hit me with a broom. It didn't help. I would listen to no-one. Before I even knew there was a word for it, I thought all adults were hypocrites. Especially my mother's family, the Benbergs.
My mother had three brothers and one sister. They were the only people we ever spent time with. Every holiday the Benbergs got together for dinner.
Sometimes the argument would start during the toast, sometimes we made it all the way to the soup. Politics, fashion, literature, it didn't matter what it was about, the Benbergs love to argue. Fingers were pointed, fists banged on the table, the dishes would rattle, the noodles would fly. If you had something to say and someone else was speaking you didn't wait for them to finish, you spoke louder. It wasn't long before everyone was shouting.
"I think" my mother cleared her throat "I think "
No one paid attention to her. Once in a blue moon she somehow broke through. They turned to her, listened as she tripped over her tongue in the unaccustomed spotlight and when she finished they went back to the argument completely ignoring what she had said.
On the long subway ride home to the Bronx she would be angry at herself.
"I should have said Next time I'll tell them." She got more and more upset as the train rattled on. I patted her hand.
"Yes Ma, next time you'll tell them." We both knew that she never would.
At some point during any of these dinners one or another of the Benbergs would take me aside and looking earnestly into my eyes would tell me that I should be nicer to my mother.
"I should be nicer" I thought, "You're the ones who should be nicer."
Though they didn't respect her, she was family and family loyalty was our first commandment. So when there was a school vacation and there was no one to take care of me I was sent to stay with one of my Connecticut Uncles. Usually Uncle Norman.
Although Uncle Norman had been the last to come to America, his rise was meteoric. He went from being a cutter to designing slips to owning Loverly Lingerie in no time flat. He made a killing during WWII when the government needed parachutes. He converted his factory from slips to parachutes and moved it and his family to New Britain, Conn. Uncle Norman and Aunt Sylvia settled into a large house in the richest part of town.
Uncle Norman was short and energetic and perpetually tan. He was the only Benberg who looked anything like me. We didn't have the Benberg nose; a long, straight Roman nose that hinted of royal blood. Our noses were short and flat. In profile it looked as if we had no noses at all. My mother told me that he looked the way he did because, in his youth he had been kicked in the face by a horse. I had no excuse.
Uncle Norman was debonair. He wore camel hair coats and something called "slacks". It was rumored that he had a mistress in his pied-a-terre on Park Ave. in New York City. Even more shocking was the fact that he read the Daily News. The Benbergs prided themselves on being intellectual but Uncle Norman liked to flaunt his boorishness. And his money. If he spoke to me at all it was to tease me. "How's your boyfriend?" he would ask even when I was only seven years old. I would blush and become tongue tied.
Behind her back we called Aunt Sylvia "the witch". She was thin, an anomaly in our family. Ever her hooked nose was thin. She always had a cigarette with a long, long ash parked on one side of her mouth and her face would be all squinched up to avoid the smoke. I was in awe of her ability to keep the ash intact. Uncle Norman and their son Murray were habitually sarcastic and unkind to Aunt Sylvia. I felt sorry for her though she made it clear to me that she didn't like me. This didn't stop me from having a good time with my cousin Honey.
Honey was exactly my age. She was a tall, gangly, good natured girl whose face was covered with freckles. When she smiled her eyes looked like little raisins in a pudding. I could easily convince her to do whatever I felt like doing.
What I loved most of all was the house, 36 Clover Street. It sat on at least an acre of land. At the back of the lot, in a copse of trees, there was a fully furnished two room playhouse. Everything in the house matched; furniture, carpeting, wallpaper and drapes. The den had a collection of the entire Modern Library series. When I would remove a book to read at night I would find the pages uncut. No one had read it.
I slept in the guestroom. It was the smallest room in the house. The other rooms were so vast that our entire apartment would have fit in any one of them. It had a dark mahogany four poster bed with matching bureau, a bedside lamp with roses painted on its glass and organdy curtains. Before falling asleep at night I would pretend it was my room.
One day when we were twelve years old, Honey and I returned home after hours of sledding in the neighborhood. We had had a lot of fun. Their boxer, Buster, had accompanied us and nipped at our toes. It was all so "American" I thought, as if I lived in Europe. Our hands and faces were red and stinging in the warm kitchen. I don't recall what brought this on. Had I been rude to Aunt Sylvia? Had I somehow insulted her? She squinted at me from behind her cigarette, one hand on her hip.
"You think you're so smart young lady? Well, you're not smart at all. You think your father is dead? Well, he's not. Your parents were never married. Your Father lives in New York City just like you."
I was stunned. Not only was my father alive but most importantly, my mother had lied to me. To me! Of course, I wouldn't give my Aunt Sylvia the satisfaction of knowing how deeply she had hurt me so I pretended that I already knew. I couldn't wait to get home and confront my mother.
"Aunt Sylvia said that my father is still alive", I reported to my mother. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Stony silence on her part.
"Why aren't you married?" I persisted.
She sighed deeply. Then in a matter of fact tone, "He's here in New York City. He spends a lot of time in the Automat on 57th Street."
She knew where he was! I couldn't believe my ears. She knew and we hadn't gone there to see him or bring him home. He could give us money. We wouldn't have to be poor.
"Anyway", she added, "He isn't a nice man. He knows where we are. He's a thief and a conniver. He's even been in jail where he belongs."
He's like me I thought. My heart sang. I was already well on the way to a life of crime myself. This was so romantic. No one I knew had a father who had been in prison. I itched to tell my friends.
Suddenly, my mother produced a photograph. All these years we had had a photograph? I was astonished. It was in black and white, a 2"X3" photo. There, sitting in tall grass some 15 feet from the photographer, were four people. My mother pointed to a man sitting in the back row with his arm around her,
"There, that's your father."
I examined the photograph in every kind of light but it didn't help. All I could make out was a tiny head, with no features. This was a criminal? I was disappointed. I still had no idea what he looked like.
When I was a teenager, neighborhood gossips would sometimes taunt me by telling me that they had seen my father in the Automat on 57th Street. Still? Did the man live there? Why were they telling me this? What did they expect me to do? I began having fantasies of going down to the Automat myself and confronting him at the table where he sat with his friends.
"Here I am, your daughter. Look what you threw away. Look what you're missing. I have nothing but contempt and scorn for you." He would beg me to forgive him. I would refuse. My fantasies were more than a little influenced by the movies. My melodramatic scenarios made me weep with self-pity. I might even have done it if not for my acne and general unattractiveness. Also, I wasn't at all sure I would recognize him.
Years passed. I got married and had four daughters of my own. I told them their grandfather was dead.
By the time I was thirty-six years old I had already been divorced for a year. My fifteen year marriage had been so intolerable that even though I now had sole responsibility for four children, two dogs and a cat and had once again fallen below the poverty line, this situation was an improvement. My ex-husband had moved out to California to find himself, but I knew exactly where I was.
We lived in a large, comfortable apartment that covered the top two floors of a two family house in the Bronx. I was as busy as I would ever be in my life. In an effort to improve our economic condition I had enrolled in Lehman College. I was going to be a teacher.
Our house had become an unofficial center for single mothers. I was involved in the newly emerging "Women's Movement". Committed to being an artist by then, I painted huge canvasses whenever I could (usually in the middle of the night) and belong to two artist groups, the Art Workers Coalition and WAR, Women Artists in Revolution. My life was an endless series of crises. I was always either yelling or laughing. All day long children would stream through the house. Our house was an alternative playground. The noise level was horrific. My mother would come daily and sit Buddha like in the midst of all the activity. To her, this was better than a show.
One day, in the kitchen I heard her say something about having had a dream about her father.
"What Ma? You had a dream about your father last night?'"
"No", she said impatiently "Your father called last night." I was speechless for awhile. I hadn't thought about him in years.
"My father called? What did he say?"
"I don't know", she said with no small satisfaction. "I hung up."
"You hung up?" The first communication in 36 years and my mother hung up.
"Why?", she asked "Do you want to talk to him?"
"Well," I admitted, "I am more than a little curious about what he might have to say for himself."
"Don't worry," she said, "He' ll call back." And he did. My mother reported that my father now lived in California but would be visiting New York City and was anxious to meet all of us. He and my mother made arrangement as to time and place. That night I told my daughters, now ranging from six to fourteen years of age, that their grandfather was alive.
"Is there anything else?" they asked.
"Well, as a matter of fact there is. Buba (grandma) and Grandpa were never married. Neither were your other Buba and Grandpa."
"No, that's it. They seemed satisfied.
A month later I received my very first letter from my father. He had a beautiful handwriting. He told me that he loved me dearly and always would. He signed the letter, very formally I thought,
"Your father, Eli M. Unzerwald."
Eli! I thought his name was Benjamin. That's what it said on my birth certificate. Out of the blue I had a father and his name was Eli.
On the day of his visit, months later, we got all dressed up. We were very excited. Time dragged until noon, the expected hour. We heard my mother slowly pull herself up the stairs. She was alone.
"I can't remember.", she wheezed. "Did I tell him I would meet him at Allerton Avenue and Bronx Park East? Or did I tell him that I would meet him at Pelham Parkway and White Plains Road? Well, so it'll be another time."
Another time? It had taken awfully long for the first time. The children looked crestfallen. All dressed up and no place to go.
"Okay", I said, "Let's find him."
Down into the street the girls and I marched. We approached every old man we encountered.
"Are you looking for someone?", we asked sweetly.
Some of the old men seemed afraid of us. All of them were startled. I began to worry that we might give someone a heart attack. After an unsuccessful half an hour we decided to head back home. My mother was right after all, it would be another time.
Then, a block from the house Josie shouted,
"There he is. I know that's him." All I could see was a tiny figure in the distance.
"If you think that's him then you go." I said, "I'm bushed."
We watched her run up the block. Now there were two tiny figures in the distance. Her high, reedy voice floated back up the block to us,
"It's him. It's him."
We took him back to the house where my mother waited. He was a mere sliver of a man. He looked as if the slightest breeze would knock him over if he hadn't been holding tightly onto his cane. His ears were enormous. His eyes were blue (so that's where I get my blue eyes I thought) and he had only a few wisps of hair left on his head. All in all I wasn't impressed.
He walked even slower than my mother did. The girls danced circles around my father and me as we made our way home. We must have spoken but I have no memory of what we said. When we got to the house and he looked at my mother peering down from the top of the stairs, he said,
"Well hello Bella. You're looking well."
"You too", she answered just as casually, "How have you been?"
Never mind that we had not heard from him by letter or by phone for thirty-six years, that he had never sent one penny for my upkeep. They chatted as if he had been away for the afternoon.
"Fine, fine except for my leg "
"Nu, and how's Herschel?" she asked. The whole thing seemed like a dream. We all went out for chinese food. I paid.
I didn't know what to call him. Eli didn't seem right. Nor did Benjamin. Certainly not Dad. I asked him why he had never been in touch.
"Aha", he said as he pulled a small address book from his pocket, "Here, look at this. I always carry this." And in his book, in his beautiful handwriting, under "N" was my name, Nellie and my birthday March 13th. No year.
"So why didn't you ever send me a birthday card? I asked.
"I knew your mother wouldn't like it." he said. "After she left me I understood that she didn't want anything to do with me." It was all your mother's fault he implied. I'm innocent.
Back at the house he batted away the children's attentions and the dogs sniffing at his feet. He was much more comfortable eluding my questions, talking in circles, saying nothing. Suddenly I realized that the reason he had come was because, now eighty-one years old and sick, he wanted me to take him in. He wanted me to take care of him. What chutzpah! I told him that if I took anyone in it would be my mother, though I had no intention of doing that either.
For the next several hours I tried politely to get my father to leave. It was clear he was not going to give me an honest answer to any of my questions. He wouldn't take the hints. Finally, I had to order him to leave the house. This is the way you speak to a father? I fainted.
I needn't have worried about hurting his feelings, he came back the next day and for several days after that. One day Laura hurt herself in school and I wasn't home to tend to her immediately. He accused me of being a bad parent, of not taking care of my children properly. That did it! I drove him to the Port Authority bus terminal in the pouring rain and put him on a bus to California. But not before promising him that we would visit him the following summer.
From November of that year to May of the next I received eight letters from my father. He apologized for his "rapid departure and inhuman actions" toward my mother and myself all those years ago. He stressed that it had been very hard on him to live with this guilt. He referred to himself as "one old broken up me". He begged me not to let my children "become the victims of it all". He berated me for not writing often enough, "Please stop sending me your "You Hoo" cards"" and he asked for pictures of the children, "my long lost family". He repeatedly promised to send money for the children, detailing who should get what. He even sent me a Mothers Day card. His handwriting deteriorated. He became more strident. He wished us well "in spite of the attempts by the Commanders of the warring industries to control the world". He now signed his letters, "your father, Eli M.".
Shortly after my father's visit I had transferred to the Adult Degree program of Goddard College. I worked at home and kept my teacher apprised of my progress by mail. Twice a year, during Christmas and summer vacation, I was required to spend two weeks at the campus in Vermont. For my first visit, my mother stayed with the children. This proved to be hard on everyone. When I returned my mother was waiting at the top of the stairs in her coat with her bag packed. She flew out of the house. The girls complained that she had followed them around the house all day with dishes of food begging them to eat.
For the upcoming school visit I planned to leave the children with their father. He had remarried and now lived with his movie star wife on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. The children had already been there. But first, for three weeks, we would explore the west with my cousin Nora and her three sons. On our way to dropping off my children at their father's house, we would spend the morning with my father.
At the end of July, at the end or our camping trip, we arrived in Los Angeles sunburned, covered with scratches and bites and exhausted. We had had a wonderful time.
My father lived in a single room occupancy hotel on Hoover Street in downtown Los Angeles. It had once been the Jewish section but was now changing. Mexicans were moving in. I asked for him at the desk and when he came down I introduced him to my cousin and her family. Although he knew my cousin was coming, he seemed taken aback. Peering up at her he said,
"I never thought I'd see you so big." We didn't know if he was referring to her height (she is six feet tall) or the fact that she was no longer a child.
"I never thought I'd see you at all." she snapped back.
Nora remained downstairs with the children and I went up to see my father's room. The shades were drawn. It was a large, sparsely furnished room. Everything seemed to be brown, even the air. It smelled of illness. My letters and the photographs were pinned to the walls.
We quickly left for the nearest park. While the children played and my cousin took pictures, I listened to his litany of complaints; he was old and sick, the Mexicans lived like animals, he was lonely and nobody cared.
We met his brother-in-law for lunch at one of the many cafeterias that sprinkled the neighborhood. My cousin and all the children sat at one table, the two old men and I sat at another. The men positioned themselves on either side of me. Each one's "bad ear" was next to mine. We shouted at each other all through the meal. I had to repeat to one what the other had just said. I longed to be at the next table with my cousin and our lively children.
At last it was time to leave. My father feigned surprise.
"What! You're not staying for the summer?" he asked. Where did he think we would all stay? In the brown room? What did he think we would do for a month? I tried to let him down kindly.
"I explained in my letters. The girls will be staying with their father. He's expecting them. I'm going to school." Tears came to his eyes.
Nora, the kids and I piled noisily into the van. As we drove off my father and his brother-in-law were standing forlornly on the corner. They swayed together gently, like old balloons with the air escaping.
"Goodbye, goodbye", the children shouted. My father and his brother-in -law waved feebly.
I felt guilty.
The movie star seemed annoyed when I showed up with my cousin and seven children but she graciously invited us to use the pool. The children splashed and swam as we three adults sat stiffly in lounge chairs. When my ex arrived home she excused herself and went into the house. Immediately we heard raised voices traveling from one room to the next. When the volume increased my cousin took her children and left. Sitting alone, trying not to listen to my ex and the move star arguing, I pondered my options. On the one hand, I had been invited to dinner and to rest until it was time for me to leave for the airport. On the other, I was hating every minute of my visit.
I called for car service. It took forty-five minutes for the cab to get to the house. By then I had said my goodbyes to the kids and was waiting by the curb. The movie star and my ex were still arguing. I threw my stuff in the cab and got in, but before we could take off, the movie star flew out of the house, my ex trailing behind her. Tears spilled from her eyes. Her breasts spilled from the top of her dress.
"No, don't leave", she pleaded. "I want you to stay for dinner." For five minutes she cried and she wailed. She took my luggage out of the trunk,
"You must stay for dinner."
By now even the cab driver thought I should stay. I didn't want to wait another forty-five minutes for a cab so the movie star invited the cab driver to stay too. We both accepted.
The cab driver sat in the living room while we ate. We had tuna fish prepared with green grapes. Everyone seemed very uncomfortable except for the cab driver. He was as pleased as punch.
In the following two years I managed to get my BA and an MFA. Now that I had my credentials I had to find a job. I sent out 100 resumes; one to every college within a two hour drive from the Bronx. In return I received 40 rejections; 38 form letters and 2 gentle rejections from nuns at Catholic colleges. They had actually read my resume. I was so touched I considered becoming a Catholic. Finally, a friend helped me to get a position as an adjunct lecturer in the Education Department at Brooklyn College. It wasn't what I had envisioned myself doing but I was elated. At last I was going to be paid for my work, albeit poorly.
During this time I had received only four letters from my father. His health and handwriting were failing. He sent us a check for $500 and promised more. Again he berated me for not writing enough. In his last letter he enclosed a bank book in the amount of $1,000. The account was in his name and mine. I received a postcard from his landlady, a Mrs. Cruickshank, asking me to write to him or call her. I wrote but got no reply.
Years later, when the girls had grown up and left the house and I had remarried, my husband came across the bankbook in a drawer.
"What's this?" he asked. I told him that my father had sent it years earlier.
"What happened to him?"
"I don't know." I said, "I assume he died but no one ever contacted me."
My husband decided to track the story down. The hotel no longer existed nor did Mrs. Cruickshank. The bank was reluctant to give out any information but at last someone took pity on us. Matter of factly, the bank teller said,
"I'm sorry, but that account has been closed."
So it has I thought, so it has. I never saw or heard from my father again.