It was the final day of summer vacation, 1967. The next day I’d return to the Yeshiva, an orthodox Jewish seminary for boys – a world away from Peoria. My Dad offered me my first official driving lesson (though a friend had given me an unofficial one that ended poorly for a lawn). He drove us to Bradley Park and we exchanged seats in his Oldsmobile. He gave me some instructions and then cleared his throat and paused.
He told me that even though Mom was a great person, he had not been happy for a long time and was going to move out. He told me that it had nothing to do with us kids……I guess the standard stuff that I would repeat one day to my own kids a generation later. Mostly, I remember sitting together in the car surrounded by the park – and the sense that nothing would ever be the same. He asked me what I thought. I said, “Ab, you’re breaking up the family.”
It was a line he has repeated to me many times since. It seared him and lodged itself in his otherwise challenged memory - a flashing neon landmark in the fog of guilt he carries within. It flashes in rhythm with his image of Josh holding his arms out at the front door to block his entry when he arrived to pick up my brothers for their semi-weekly dinner. Josh said, “You can only come in if you’re going to stay.” He plays these scenes over and over on his mental jukebox with so few selections.
I’ve tried to imagine him at this point……39 years old, in a relationship dotted with battles like a general’s map; Mom yelling and him silent, stewing, gripping fork or steering wheel as tightly as his fingers could squeeze. He wanted a happier life……a partner who was quieter, thinner, and more accepting of his need to control. It was the outset of his short-lived experimental period, before the second and third marriages, the religious fundamentalism and consuming fixation on the stock market. He’d grow his hair a bit, date, and have unlimited nights to play poker.
For me though, it was an unexpected ending to everything I’d taken for granted in my first fourteen years. Childhood, family, parental icons, and home……the walls and wallpaper of my life. I’d had a recurring dream as a child - where masked men stole our dining room table while everyone but me was asleep upstairs, but my parents had said it was only a bad dream.
The following afternoon I was back in Chicago at the Yeshiva, unpacking my stuff in a new dorm room with new roommates. Wearing our yarmulkes, milling among bearded Rabbis and pious peers with tzis-tzis strings hanging over their pants, carrying heavy holy Talmuds on their way to the Beis Medrash hall of study and prayer.
I hadn’t spoken to anyone about what had happened. I planned to seek out Dennis at the end of evening prayers. He was a college guy who had become a mentor late in my freshman year. He didn’t fit the Yeshiva mold at all. In fact his family had converted to Judaism. The college guys were encouraged to take someone under their wing and I guess he recognized another outsider when he befriended me.
I made a beeline over to him when the prayers ended and we walked outside together. I told him what my dad had said and waited for some kind of big brother advice and protection…..some kind of invitation to stay close. He was quiet for some moments and closed his eyes before letting out a sigh.
“Gee, everyone is going through some big problems. My girlfriend’s dad has cancer.” He paused again. I waited, but he didn’t say anything about my situation. I said, “I’ll see you later.” and walked off alone. I walked along Carpenter Street in the night, just occasional headlights cracking the darkness. After a couple of blocks I saw a tree with some low branches and grabbed hold of one. I climbed the tree’s limbs and found a decent perch where I felt enveloped by the branches and above the rest of my life.
That’s when the first sob surfaced, a big one that must have been waiting in a long line behind all the ones for skinned knees and spankings. It was a wrenching cry, the tears falling down my cheeks, the sobs like a series of ocean waves. When it finally ended I sat up there awhile in the empty calm. One or two last softer wails made their way out - looking to catch the others. My tank was empty. I climbed down and walked back.
Over the next three years, I never brought up the divorce with any students or Rabbis. I managed to think things through as they came up and even reassure my parents when one of them needed it over the phone or during vacations. I went about my life unaware of how the divorce might be woven into my actions and perspectives.
How many times have I heard a partner in my relationships say they feel frustrated by my lack of needs. I'm told, “Everybody has big needs. Express them goddamnit!” My guess is that if you walked down Carpenter Street, you could find an old tree with outstretched branches - that is still holding them for me.