Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Day to Remember

My father was small in stature, only slightly over 5 feet tall. My mother said he suffered throughout his life with an inferiority complex due to his size. I faintly recall a childhood vision of watching my folks dance the waltz in a hall at a resort perhaps in Wisconsin, my mother's head clearly towering over my father's. She told me later that this was embarrassing for him since normal etiquette dictated the man be taller than the woman. Nonetheless, I felt proud watching the methodical and graceful manner of their movement as they glided across the floor. I felt gladdened by the shy, gentle smiles on their faces. Unfortunately, I was to witness such moments of tenderness rarely. More often my father was irritable, unpredictable, and verbally abusive. My mother attributed his irascible behavior to psychological damage as a result of his diminutive height, growing up fatherless, and from the stress of experiencing  anti-Semitism, which like molecules of mist sometimes thick, other times veiled, pervaded the air of the provincial town in which he was raised and worked like a carcinogen on the psyches of its Jewish inhabitants. She referred to my father as a "little Napoleon" and as "Commander-and-Chief". His viewpoint on proper behavior became the rules of the household and dictated my mother's, sister's and my existence totally. Infractions were, of course, constant and created unpleasant scenes, beset with shouting, crying, name calling, and physical punishments. To make matters worse my father suffered from hay fever and, during three seasons of the year, his nose was so congested that he could hardly breathe. This condition made him even more nervous. Little bottles of neosynephrine and boxes of q-tips lined the dresser in their bedroom and the sink in the bathroom. He could be found at any time placing moistened cotton sticks into his nostrils desperately hoping for momentary relief or needed sleep. Of course this treatment would sadly cause greater rebound an hour later.  My father once joked that during an especially bad Summer week a doctor advised him to flee from Chicago where we lived and travel to Wisconsin to breathe in pollen-free air. On the train he sat down coincidentally next to a fellow hay fever sufferer from Madison who had been told by a doctor to go to Chicago to breathe in the fresh palliative breezes from the lake!

My dad's physical and emotional make-up certainly helped produce the difficult, bellicose person he was, but that was the diamond's rough edge. On the smooth side there lived a remarkably sparkling man, who possessed indefatigable survival energy, keen insight, a sense of history, artistic gift, a quick wit, and intense love and loyalty for our family and the Jewish community. It was a challenge, to be sure, to be in his presence. As is often the case, when in the aura of special individuals, it is hard to know whether at any given moment their light will provide you warmth or searing pain.

Today commemorates my father's birthday. He was born on May 21, 1911. I have written a tiny snippet about the man's life, albeit one that is not necessarily entirely flattering. It described a couple of moments of the 1950's. A few leaves do not adequately depict the enormous foliage of a massive tree, or that one part of a ring in the trunk tells the story of standing tall throughout a lifetime of amazing storms. My father was a large guy in a small man's body who found his way through incredible obstacles, including but not limited to rescuing his family from the Holocaust and becoming a successful citizen in a new country. The thought of him today brings tears to my eyes. He died when I was 29 years old. He never lived to see my children, my professional achievements, see any of my creative accomplishments, nor hear my thanks and gratitude for all that he taught me. I feel a cool wind blow through me. I ease forward to listen and remember. It is carrying a tender sound vocalizing my childhood nickname, a low tone I haven't heard for years. It whispers, "Butzen, ya, you're okay."


  1. These pictures bring back memories for me too. In the lowest one, your father definitely looks younger than I remember him, so it must have been taken in the early to mid-1950s. The top two appear to date from the late 1950s to early 1960s. The middle one especially evokes your parents the way they looked when I first knew them. I notice that your mother is hunched over slightly in that picture to make her head more level with your father's--a gesture that strikes me as significant, and of course a little sad.

    Re "...when in the aura of special individuals, it is hard to know whether at any given moment their light will provide you warmth or searing pain.

    Yeah...right...no kidding. It will be a major accomplishment if I can manage to keep from biting my tongue off at that, so I'm not even going to try to say anything more tonight!

  2. What a beautiful memorial. My father was also small and probably suffered for it in much the same way your father did without the anti-Semitic component. But my father was not verbally abusive. He pouted. He made you feel as though you had hurt him badly when you did something of which he did not approve. Sometimes I wished he would yell and scream. :) But he was too gentle for such. Strong opinions and he could excoriate those he disliked but never in public - only with family and friends.

  3. This is a beautifully-written portrait of a man who was obviously complex and psychologically "bipolar." I would have trouble putting my father into a short essay.

  4. Yes, it is a beautiful memorial. Complex and "bipolar" was the first thing that came to mind when you described your father. Wish I could put together a wonderful memorial like yours. My parents got married shortly before my father left for World War II, so he was gone when I was born in March 1943. Arriving in Normandy/Omaha Beach on day 3, he fought in tank a destroyer battalion that spent the first winter fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. He died of kidney disease in May 1960 at age 50 when I was a junior in high school. Nothing but good memories of both mu parents so it's much easier for me. My only regret is losing my father when I was too young to appreciate all that he went through. It must have been very difficult for my mother. Thanks for your post and for giving me the opportunity to share a little about my father.


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