OMAHA BLUES A MEMORY LOOP
By JOSEPH LELYVELD
FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX Copyright © 2005 Joseph Lelyveld
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-374-22590-7
Chapter One MEMORY BOY
Long before I taught myself to hold them at a safe distance, my parents called me "the memory boy." If once I knew what they meant by that, the memory boy has long since forgotten, shedding memories and the stories behind pet phrases as so much extra baggage. The tag may have had something to do with my inability to forget the lyric of any song I heard as a child. But what I think it really described was a knack for recalling names and the order in which things happened: where we went on those rare occasions we went anywhere as a family, who we saw, who came to see us, what they said, and our verdicts later on, for as a family we were judgmental to a very considerable fault.
Shedding was an acquired skill, a way of getting on with life, which was what you had to do, I later told myself, once you closed your mind to the possibilities of therapy. "Getting on with life" became a slogan of my inner monologues; a catchword or, as I'd now say, admitting to wordplay, a catch cry. Even then, the knack for recalling names and the order of things survived, so long as they had little to do with me. It came in handy on college exams. It came in handy telling the stories of others, which is what I eventually did for a living. I could recall obscure facts, make intuitive connections, ask the right questions. And I could always move on to the next assignment, the next story, as journalists do. Moving on became my particular way of getting on with life, and even if I now acknowledge it as a form of psychic flight, it seemed a liberating, sometimes thrilling, way to live.
So I wasn't touched or curious or anyway receptive when, three decades after my parents' divorce, my octogenarian father sent me a packet of love letters between him and my mother that he'd hidden away. He thought his posterity might be interested in preserving them. Not me, his eldest son. I knew instantly that I didn't want to handle them or own them, let alone read them. So I disposed of them and then, characteristically disposed of the memory of how I'd disposed of them. Maybe I gave them to my mother; it might have seemed the honorable thing to do. I mention this close brush with family history now only to describe a reflex and to show how unlike me it was, several years later, to go scavenging in the basement of a Cleveland synagogue while my dad, its emeritus rabbi of great eminence, lay helpless in a nearby hospice, his speech and understanding already extinguished by a brain tumor, leaving only his sweetness to mark him as the man we knew while he faded out.
The foray in the basement wasn't my idea. I'd been sitting quietly with my dad in his hospice room on a Saturday morning; as quietly as you could given the TV din pouring from the surrounding rooms, a universal anodyne for the dying even more than the living in our land. There was no look of recognition in his eyes, but when I held his hand I felt the comforting pressure of his grip. More for my sake than his, since the words didn't register, I'd tell him I loved him, but that still left plenty of time for sour-sweet reflection on the paradox of this unfailingly loving father who was almost as consistently beyond reach. In the thirty-one years of his second marriage, which had now lasted slightly longer than the one that produced me and my two brothers, I'd found myself alone with him, talking directly, on only a few occasions at best (in truth, only one I could now clearly recall) before he started to die and I began making my visits to the hospice room.
Geography was partly to blame-for many of these years we were thousands of miles apart-but there was also the inevitable balancing he had to do between his two families. Understandably, he was protective of his wife, a vivacious but easily offended person, so conversation that tended to exclude her, especially conversation that dwelled on memories she didn't share, had to be avoided. Our meetings became performances; if they came off reasonably well, without hurt feelings, as they almost always did, I could expect a good review. But then in the previous twenty-seven years, the years since my birth, he had often been unavailable for reasons that were not dissimilar: my mother, a more complicated person than my dad, sometimes needed to be protected from her children.
Sitting in his hospice room near the end of my sixth decade and his life, I could pretty much count the number of times we had gone somewhere or done something together in the years of my boyhood: three camping trips, one doubleheader at Yankee Stadium, a few Columbia football games, seven or eight sets of tennis (until, finally, I managed not to blow a lead); a single family vacation on the Gulf Coast of Florida; the annual drives to deposit us at summer camp in Maine (and then to haul us back); a few times when I tagged along on his out-of-town speaking engagements; irregular visits to Shabbat services at a half dozen synagogues in Manhattan in the years he had no congregation of his own; and a test for a junior driving license that I had already failed by the time Dad, from the backseat, gently noted that I still had the parking brake on. "You've just gone through your third stop sign," I recall him saying, "so I don't think it will hurt your chances if I ask you to release it."
Reaching back to that spring, when I was sixteen, I could also count a more cherished car memory. My dad and I were returning from Boston in the new powder blue Mercury convertible he'd gone all the way to Nebraska a few weeks earlier to purchase at dealer's cost; the top was down, and in keeping with the then universal belief that nothing could be more healthful than full, direct sunshine, we were wearing only sunglasses above our waists. The way I now fondly recall it, we were two characters in a buddy film zipping along at close to eighty miles an hour until Dad was pulled over by a Connecticut state trooper who, scanning his license, spotted the clerical title. There wasn't a hint of irony in the trooper's voice when he said, "I see you're a man of the cloth." Cloth was scarcely in evidence but we were sent on our way with a caution and no ticket, only to repeat the encounter ten minutes later with a second trooper who also let us go after remarking, with the same sacerdotal figure of speech, that my dad was "a man of the cloth." Thereafter, every time we told the story, we'd wonder whether the two troopers ever had a chance to compare notes back at the barracks. In my mind, that drive down from Boston remained a farcical high point of our relationship.
Later, when I was gone from the nest and in the first year of my own marriage, there had been the fearful hours we passed together in a hospital corridor, from past midnight to dawn, waiting to see whether my mother might recover from what I learned, only then, was her third suicide attempt. Wearily and quietly, Dad spoke of his touch-and-go struggle over the seventeen years since the first one to sustain my mother and their marriage, wondering now whether the effort had been misguided. In despair, as she hovered between life and death down the hall, he even wondered whether we had the right to try to reverse the choice she'd made only a few hours before.
Taken altogether, is that a lot of closeness or a little? I have a friend who has no direct memory of a father killed in World War II. He might consider it a lot. At the moment, I was struck by how much more it might have been, by the opportunities I'd let slide. I wasn't consciously drawing up a balance sheet on our joint venture as father and son, but it was hard not to be aware that the hours I was now passing in the hospice room with what remained of him gave me an unusual dose-too late, of course-of a closeness I'd long missed without fully realizing it. This was family history too, and it was only now, as I was beginning to let down my defenses, that a visitor to his room that Saturday asked whether I knew about the camp trunk in the temple's basement full of his first family's-my family's-effects; a much larger archive, it turned out, than the one I'd earlier spurned.
The visitor, a devoted friend of my dad's, led the way. He had been on the synagogue's staff and still had a key that we used to enter through the back. It wasn't exactly a heist, but we carried it off as a clandestine operation. A small Saturday morning congregation was praying in a chapel near the main sanctuary as we made our way quietly to the basement. Never having lived in Cleveland, I'd probably been in the building where my dad had held forth for three decades fewer than twenty times, which was most of the times I'd been in synagogues in my adult life, and I hadn't set foot there for several years. For me, religion was always something my dad did, and I did, if I did it at all, mainly to please him. I was usually moved when I had the opportunity to hear and watch him, but mine was a filial rather than a religious response. I basked in the warmth of his devotions, not my own. Without him, the experience of communal prayer, the only kind I practiced, was at best a matter of heritage, vaguely soothing in its way; at worst a matter of creepy sociology, leaving me with a sense of myself as standing outside the circle, a mere observer-a feeling that carried an annoying trace of guilt over my inability to find compelling meaning in words I'd heard since I'd first heard words. I had never gone to services on my own impulse, and needless to say, I was not on a religious errand now.
I recognized the labels on the battered old trunk, which sat on a shelf at about the height of my shoulders. I had to stand on tiptoe to peer inside. On top was a framed watercolor, a quiet Jerusalem landscape, signed by the artist "To Toby and Arthur," that had hung in our living room long ago. With the dissolution of that union, it had lost its place on Dad's wall. I swiftly appropriated it and then dug deeper through mounds of clippings, report cards, speech notes, typed correspondence, and family mail-letters from three boys in summer camp over many years and letters between our parents, scores of them, in periods in which they were apart before long-distance phoning became easy and affordable. The encounter with the archive, the detritus of a family, wasn't at that moment Proustian. It was suffocating. I closed the lid sharply, meaning to stick the genie of reminiscence and helpless disappointment back in its box, and returned to my station at my dad's bedside. Nevertheless, after he died several weeks later, I arranged to have the contents of the old trunk shipped to my Hudson Valley house, where, after a rough sorting, I left them to molder for another six years.
I got back to them by a roundabout route. Having run to the edge of a mandatory retirement age for bosses at the only newspaper at which I'd ever worked, I found myself with only myself to order around. The first assignment I gave myself as a reborn writer was one I'd talked idly about all my adult life. It was to write about Ben, the closest adult friend of my boyhood, to delve into the life story of an all but forgotten man and find a way to tell it; to make myself, in that sense, his biographer. Ben had been born in what was called Indian Territory before it became part of the new state of Oklahoma. He talked about the great Oklahoma land rush as if he'd been part of it, although it was already history when he came into the world, and about Choctaws and Cherokees as if he'd grown up with them. He never explained how he became a rabbi but was happy to talk about how he gave it up, how he was run out of his first pulpit in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to take a vow of silence in the case of the Scottsboro boys, nine black youths charged with the rapes of two white women, a case that repeatedly went to trial in the thirties and was not finally resolved till the last "boys" in Alabama's prisons were approaching middle age; by that time it had long faded as the sensational issue that Communists and others had made it in northern cities and around the globe. In my imagination, incited by a scrapbook of clippings Ben kept in the lower right-hand drawer of his desk at the office overlooking Times Square, crosses were burning on Montgomery lawns as he fled, casting lurid shadows.
I knew that Ben had later found his way to Hollywood, where he made a new life, and that somewhere in that passage he left his family, acquired a new wife and a new name too. He had been Benjamin Goldstein. He became Ben Lowell. I knew that he had at least one daughter by his first wife and that she now rode horses somewhere in Pennsylvania. I knew that he hadn't seen her as often as he wanted, and that his inexplicable readiness to spend afternoons and evenings accompanying an eleven- (later twelve-) year-old sports fanatic to ballgames might have something to do with this gap in his life and the likelihood-alluded to slyly by my mom and gradually made apparent by the fact that we saw a lot of Ben and little of Mrs. Lowell-that his second marriage hadn't been going too well either.
I didn't know why he decided to leave Hollywood and become a rabbi again, working for my dad in the national headquarters of the Hillel Foundations, a movement that maintained centers for Jewish students on college campuses. And I didn't tell myself then what now seems obvious, that he had begun to assume a role in my life that my dad, who was often on the road like his traveling salesman father before him, was usually too absent or too busy or too preoccupied to fill. For a couple of years, Ben was the one adult in my life who seemed consistently and reliably available. We started going to games in the fall of 1948, a year the Yankees finished third behind the Indians and the Red Sox. We must have gone to several baseball and football games over a few months because I remember feeling virtuous when, as a concession and a break from our custom, I agreed that my brother David, then only seven, could accompany us that same autumn to a Columbia-Syracuse football game at Baker's Field at the northern end of Manhattan Island. It was the last game of the season and the seniors who had ended a previously indomitable Army's thirty-two-game winning streak the year before would not be returning. For decades to come, Columbia football would be a joke, but that year few human activities mattered more to me. Ben, who never pretended to be a fan, would listen with good-humored patience while I provided a precociously detailed briefing on Gene Rossides and Lou Kusserow, the Columbia stars whose dorm rooms I'd been dropping in on every so often for about a year on my way home from school.
Becoming a juvenile groupie of Columbia varsity teams had been, I now suppose, a desperate attempt on my part to nail down an identity and context for myself after a series of uprootings including a whole year when my parents were separated and I lived with grandparents. Columbia was consecrated ground in the family photograph albums I had pored over. It was the scene of my father's undergraduate triumphs, on which my mother would sometimes dwell with markedly more enthusiasm than she had come to show for his achievements as a rabbi. He had become the first Jewish editor of the Columbia Spectator after the expulsion of an editor who had crusaded against the overemphasis on sports in an era in which Columbia actually made it to the Rose Bowl (look it up). My dad continued the crusade, unable to imagine that his young son would become a small barnacle on the sports establishment he was assailing. And that wasn't all; as an undergraduate, he also found time to make the freshman wrestling team; to play soccer, not then a varsity sport; to be the leader of the Glee Club, take small parts in plays, earn the Phi Beta Kappa key he always wore on his old-fashioned watch chain, and lead a dance band he called the Columbia Ramblers, featuring himself on a four-string banjo and vocals. Columbia was also where my parents met and fell in love and where my glamorous mother was now striving for a doctorate with a thesis on how the character of Shylock had been interpreted by great and lesser Shakespearean actors from the Elizabethans down through Edwin Booth and Henry Irving to John Gielgud. (Continues...)
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