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."