Excerpt for Missing Father: A Daughter's Search for Love, Self-Acceptance, and a Parent Lost in the World of Mental Illness by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


A Daughter’s Search for Love, Self-Acceptance,

and a Parent Lost in the World of Mental Illness


A Daughter’s Search for Love, Self-Acceptance,

and a Parent Lost in the World of Mental Illness

Shauna L. Smith

Compassion Press

Copyright © 2017 Shauna L. Smith

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form or by any means.

Do Not Stand at My Grave And Weep
— Mary Elizabeth Frye

The Land of Dreams
— William Blake

Photograph from the author’s collection

Smashwords Edition

ISBN: 978-0-9965457-2-3

Disclaimer: As this is memoir, my memories, on the elusive spectrum of reality and imagination, fact and fabrication, are my responsibility alone. With the exception of a few family members and friends, names and places have been changed and descriptions altered.

Published by Compassion Press, Ca. 2017

Printed in the USA

Cover design by Stefan Danielski

Father, O Father! what do we here,

In this land of unbelief and fear?

The Land of Dreams is better far

Above the light of the Morning Star.

— William Blake

Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light.

— Groucho Marx



Part One / Broken

Part Two / Gone

Part Three / Found

Part Four / Here

Part Five / Done




The World Wasn’t Made For People Like Him

THE BRASS RING on the merry-go-round, Coney Island boardwalk, circa 1948: I am with my Father, stepping up to the painted horse, the original paint, not yet dried up, flaked, or diminished by time, the horse held down by a pole hammered down its back with only a slow movement to the rhythm of a repetitious, uplifting melody, up and down, up and down, the motions reflecting my Father’s moods, his slow, jarring decline as the years and his life took away his veneer and the substance and music of his being.

Mother was there too, taking the pictures; probably it was she who told my Father to lift me onto the stilled horse and bend down beside me. We are leaning in, a precarious balance between us, for a photograph moment before the music restarts and the merry-goround resumes its circular up-and-down dance. My Father and I are smiling for the camera. Say cheese. Cheese. Snap.

One of the times my Father was high, he bought a blown-glass merry-go-round that I wish I still had to show my children. I seem to remember the delicate horses having tints of pinks and blues, yellows and greens. I don’t know what happened to any of the treasures he bought on impulse—wallets and purses, decorative dish towels, perfume bottles, belts and scarves, a broach of a woman in a rose color, silver pins, one a spoon and one a fork, socks, smoked oysters and other exotic foods, and once a live baby duck that died in our apartment after a few hours.

When I read The Glass Menagerie in high school, I could see the small figurines as if they were in front of me, in my Father’s hands. And I couldn’t stop the sadness: Laura, the glass horses and unicorn, and my Father, all unable to find a place on earth where they could be safe. Once broken, impossible to repair.

Robert is the one who rides next to Kira and Chanti on the merry-go-round near our home.

He stands tall and proud of them as they hold onto the reins like the myriad other small children who patiently waited in line for their turns to brave the carousel dance. And I snap the photos as the music brings me back in time to a kaleidoscope of memories and forward to a future I hope will be less volatile for us and our children.

I DON’T REMEMBER very much before I was five, or everything seems inconsequential before then, or perhaps is repressed. Until one day and night, when it began in full force.

I was sitting on the maroon couch in the living room of our three-room apartment, watching the impossible. My Father and Mother were screaming at each other in turn, like in the Punch and Judy series on television, their faces distorted and full of hate. I don’t know what the words were, just that they faced each other in rage, apparently unaware of anything but their fury, not at all aware of my five-year-old presence sitting stunned and silent on the old velvet maroon couch. All of a sudden my stomach felt exceedingly heavy in my body and as if things were spinning inside. I didn’t want to vomit. I tried hard to swallow back the bitterness, and succeeded for a while. My eyes started tearing, however, from the anxiety and the strain, and finally, uncontrollably, I threw up all over myself and my jumpsuit, ugly colors all over the jumpsuit, the couch, and the bare wooden floor.

Mother strode over to me in the midst of her fury at my Father and smacked me across the face, engulfing me into her frustration and rage. I ran, alone, into the bathroom to take off my clothing and clean myself up while they renewed their fight. I heard something being thrown as I started to return and instinctively went over to Mother to protect her from whatever had happened. She, however, pushed me aside, sat down on the chair, and wept. I felt at that moment the most intense hatred for her that I could imagine and I know I have kept this toward her to this time, together with a beginning knowledge that she would never be able to surmount her own problems enough to afford time for me, certainly not at the times when we were both under pressure. Mother was, unfortunately, under stress a great deal of the time, and I soon learned not to count on her for comfort, although always I secretly hoped she would be able to give it to me gently, lovingly, of her own accord.

At any rate, I was stunned at her contempt of my sympathy as I understood it, and went in to see my Father, now in the bedroom. He was sitting on the bed with his hands on his face, and when he saw me he said the words: “She hit me in the ear. She hit me with her shoe in my ear.” I can hear the words now, pounding in my head. We looked at each other in a bond against her that came of rejection by her. I had not understood what the words meant – how could Mother, who was shorter than my Father, kick his ear?—but I understood his distress and despair. Only years later was I able to puzzle together that she took off her shoe and hit him with it. The bizarre image of Mother kicking my Father in the ear haunted me through countless nightmares.

I sat by my Father and he put his arm around me and we stayed there for a long while in silence, comforting each other. I felt so close to him then, as if I would never leave his side. He did not yell at me for throwing up or for being around or wanting to be with him, even though he, too, was under incredible pressures, even though he, too, was being choked by broken dreams.

I dreamed that night in yellows and blues, a dream that recurred every few nights for at least a year. I was walking on the yellow land, alone and just being, when I heard sounds and, turning, saw all variety of wild animals, lions, tigers, and a rhinoceros coming at me ferociously and pitilessly. Terrified, I began to run and saw water so I sped on the earth till I fell into the light blue liquid and began to swim desperately for survival. Then I saw them – the crocodiles and alligators, coming up for air and heading for food among the rocks and growths. I tried to turn back but the animals were there on the shore and I began to scream, finally waking up in a deep sweat, shaking and grateful to be alive, until I would remember that the days were not that much unlike the nights.

I WOULD SIT at the old typewriter we had and press the keys to write small letters of caring to bring with me to the hospital. I couldn’t go inside in those days, being too young, and, though I usually stayed with my grandparents, sometimes I was allowed to go with Mother and wait on the hospital grounds to see him, either from the window, screened in by wire, or downstairs for the half- hour of visiting time. Depending on his mood, my Father was either very witty, sometimes devastatingly so, hostile, or deeply depressed. When he was high he would go over to people and share with them the news that he felt wonderful; in fact, he would say, “I haven’t had so much fun since my wife fell down the stairs.” I didn’t understand the words very well or the meaning of his ecstatic moods covering his feelings, but I did get caught up in his high spirits and engaging energy and felt happy being with him. It was incredible. He would sleep only two or three hours a night then and be rested and vital the next day. I always felt a tiny part of me reserved from him, though, during those times because of a distance I could not place, an odor that was about him as he ignored self-care, and the peculiar glaze in his silver-blue eyes.

I would talk to people on the grounds, on benches, or walking with their heads down, while I waited to see if my Father would be allowed to go out with Mother. They would say, “Hey, little girl, what’s your name?” or “Do you have any money, little girl?” and I would sometimes talk with them or listen to their stories. Some people I saw consistently through the years, and I identified with them more than most people I met outside who I never felt I quite belonged with. Here were people who in their way had nothing to hide, nothing to pretend about, and I often liked being with them.

Though when I got older I feared greatly that I would naturally find my place there and, terrified, refused to acknowledge my kinship. One enormously fat man in a wrinkled white shirt would always be there swinging on the swing, his eyes vacant, drooling at the mouth, while his slovenly mother, hardly a visitor, pushed the swing, humming to herself. She would occasionally speak to him as if he were a child, telling him to hold on tight or button his sweater, but he never seemed to hear her from his half-hold on the world, and she would place his hands on the ropes, or close his sweater for him.

When my Father was high, he would wave to me from the third or fourth floor porch behind the wires and call down to me, and I would wave back. Once, when he was very high, he started pretending he was a monkey eating a banana and climbed up the fencing that was screened straight up to the next floor. I didn’t think he was very funny then, because there were several other visitors there and they seemed appalled that he was climbing up the screening, shouting, “Look at me—see I’m a monkey in a cage, look at me everybody!”

I didn’t let on that I didn’t think he was funny, though, and when they let him come down he smiled at me sheepishly and picked me up gently in his arms, swinging me high around and around the world. It was easy then to stifle the hot shame. Besides, he had lots of friends at the hospital who liked him, and he would introduce me to them in such a wonderful way, as if I were an adult.

“Tom, this is my kid—put it there—Tom used to be an artist, and he’s got—do you believe—a PhD!” He would put his hand to the side of his face in a gesture of wonder mixed with incredulity—“A lot of good that does him now, huh? Degrees don’t do you much good in a nuthouse.”

Then he would take me with him to another inmate, starting much the same kind of introduction.

One of his biggest laughs was to go over to someone who was depressed, put an arm around them and say, “You look wonderful today, sweetie, just wonderful,” and at the first glimpse of hope from the sad face, add, “Who’s your embalmer?” and usually the glimmer would disappear.

I really don’t think he did this to be mean or was even aware of the person’s pain. When my Father was “normal” he never did anything cruel, and perhaps this is part of the problem. I think he had so much pent-up feeling, so much anger and frustration, that it would all come tumbling out of his mouth unintentionally, covered up by exaggerated humor and boisterousness, and whoever was around became the hapless victim. Except for me, as far as I can remember. Except for me.

Mother generally took these times quite well while she was there, though she would be anxious and abrupt with me when we left. She would always get dressed up and be very clean and made-up when we went to the hospital to make sure she looked different from the patients, something that so many visitors never seemed to attempt to do. She spoke to people there but not “overly” much and was usually liked by the visitors, patients, and staff. They would tell my Father frequently what a wonderful wife he had and how lucky he was. But I had other information, and I knew better. Though I could not speak, I swear I always knew.

LOOKING AT THE date—10/2—I think of my Father always answering the question “What time is it?” with “Ten to” and when asked “Ten to what?” responding, “Your own business.” Did he hear that from Milton Berle or Sid Caeser or his hero, Groucho Marx? Some were his own jokes, personal, clever, and to the point, but most I suppose were derivative—no: copied. I don’t like to think that a lot of his humor wasn’t his, that some belonged to studio writers and some to his symptomatology, for he had special qualities which I felt left no room for pretense or phoniness. Yet much was untrue and fragments of what could have been.

Try to clear my head, to think of things in steps instead of the entirety in images and flashes. Some one incident to hang on to, latch on to. Mother, telling me about the chief psychiatrist at Brooklyn State Hospital in 1948, a wonderful man who explained that the cause of mood swings was unrelated to her, and that electric shock was the treatment of choice. Mother had her hair done softly around her face then, her dresses were mid-calf and flowing, and she did not ever question authority.

The fact that my Father had been living with Mother and her parents, not working, with a child and a senseless life in his early thirties did not enter into the diagnosis that was made. Mother’s higher educational status, a degree from college at a time when this was uncommon, and his education only through seventh grade, the bickering and criticism of her parents directed mainly at my Father, were not considered in the diagnosis. His parents’ early deaths, not considered. Only the symptoms were discussed, only Mother’s leaden feeling of guilt, not his, only the easy way out of an embarrassing situation: electric shock. Shock treatments in the days when they were agony to have, when people screamed having them as others waited in line in the filthy halls for their turn, shock treatments administered to my Father, once and again, and once more, and on and on for seventeen times in a month’s period, till the glazed, manic look filled with vitality and passion and rage and humor was stricken from his face and he was left quiet, acquiescent, and beaten.

Who knows what was the cause? Surely in part a marriage of two unsuited people with basic weaknesses in both, each wanting what they could not give. One of the most damaging clues in letters I found in Mother’s apartment years later, letters written when they were engaged, written with barely a fraction of knowledge of each other or of themselves. Two lonely people needing so much they never heard what the other was saying in their long-netted words.

One from Mother:
Dear Sam,

I am most happy that the frequency of your letters is increasing. However, the contents of your last letter have me a little worried. Are you as cold as your letter makes me feel? We have below zero temperature here too, but I don’t find it so bad when I go out. My dad goes out every day. He’s outdoors a lot. He says it’s pretty bad—but not so awful. Do you find that approximately the same temperature is much worse in Mass. than in NY? And do you think it is due to the difference in climactic conditions?

Perhaps you ought to dress warmer? How about buying some woolen socks and gloves; also a pair of high boots to keep the snow away from your feet. It would be a good idea also to get a cap with earflaps to keep from getting head colds. And I do hope you’re wearing a warm scarf!

You are now starting your third week of work, are you not? It is too bad Kozy had to quit so soon. Couldn’t he stick it out a little longer so that he could cover his expenses?

By the way, how did he go home—by train? What arrangements did you boys make with him about the car?

By the way, what did you mean by that crack about my keeping a copy of my questionnaires so that all you have to do is answer yes or no? Are you too tired or lazy or is it too much trouble to answer me? Or is it too cold where you are? If it’s too cold (I refuse to believe the first reason) you should do something about moving into warmer quarters. You are not living in a cold place, are you? If you are—I wish I had you here on my knee to administer a thorough spanking. Move out of there IMMEDIATELY. Get a WARM place. And be sure to keep your hands, feet, neck and ears warm when you are outdoors. Then you won’t have to worry about being cold. And don’t be afraid to spend money on these things. They are “necessities.”

Of course, it would be best if you could get the truck-driver’s job so that you would be out of the snow. Have the chances of your getting it increased? How are the rest of the boys standing it? Don’t let anyone discourage you & make you lose the one chance you have of at least getting into a union. Did Irving ever come down? If he is having trouble keeping his hands warm, tell him to wear a glove on his left hand and just cut off the tips of the fingers from the glove so he can hold the nails.

As for myself—I am quite happy in my new work. At the end of my second day, I can safely say that although my supervisor is not a peach and is rather a fussy thing she is 50% (even 75%) improvement over Miss Roseman. The work I am doing is much easier so far. I am not rushed. I actually get plenty of rest in between. The people I work with are very….

It is hard to go on. Clear within the lines, the comparisons, criticisms and suffocation. All interpreted by my Father as nurturing; in retrospect, maybe even meant that way by Mother.

IN BETWEEN THE months of desperation, my Father and Mother, walking leaning slightly on one another, arm in arm, in a late fall afternoon. Mother is about thirty-eight and she is wearing a coat of cheap brown fur but she looks lovely in it. She wears brown opera pumps. Her hair is mid-length and brown, set in a casual style that complements her slightly squared face. My Father has on his hat, gray with a darker gray band, which he always wears, a charcoal coat and dark shoes. He holds Mother’s arm in his protectively and they continue down the street lined with a few thin trees. Their faces are relaxed and they do not speak, even to chat, nor do they continue their unfinished quarrels. I sit on the fire escape, eight years old, doing homework, watching them dignified by their closeness.

Weekends, evenings, go by gently. Watching shows like You Bet Your Life with Groucho, The Hit Parade and The Ed Sullivan Show on our seven-inch black and white television, the lights down and the couch comfortable. My Father, sitting on the left, leaning on the side of the maroon couch, Mother next to him, leaning on his chest, and me on the end, feet curled up on the sofa, snuggling into Mother’s arms. Hardly caring what is showing on the screen. Taking in the moments of peace and contentment, gaining strength from them to withstand the coming pressures. Feeling solid, feeling included in a unit, having a taste of the treasures found in a good family. Getting a sample that would make us yearn for the goodness, moments of closeness and quiet communication we once shared. Giving me a base to work from to have this enrichment, not just on occasion but as a daily nourishment, as I felt in my heart it could be.

My Father, Mother and I, walking along the Coney Island boardwalk, among thousands of people but intrinsically alone. Little conversation, always little conversation. Would we not have been better off with some talk of the oppressions of the weeks? Yes, but still I recall and cherish those days, walking easily together along the boardwalks, streets, parks, shores of the city in harmony of a sort difficult to convey or duplicate. We would stop for ice cream, full of raspberries or pecans, thick and whipped and flowing over sugar cones; and thin, light pizza slices, hot and saucy out of the oven, with mozzarella cheese sizzling on them, counting out four or five pieces of red dried hot peppers. And sometimes cotton candy, floating in pink swirls, evaporating in our mouths like steam or smoke, then play-fighting with the now empty paper cones.

Then stopping at the Penny Arcade, trying to make the bumper cars stay on the road as they moved in random maddening directions; playing skeeball, winding the balls at an angle down the alley to hit the side and fall straight into the holes, each higher and higher and higher and smaller and smaller, as the point value increased. My Father consistently getting the high forties and fifties, Mother flubbing it more often than not, and me trying valiantly and with some success to come near to my Father’s score. Saving coupons for years, and never using them, for the places went out of business before we ever collected our winnings, but it did not matter for we had our stash which grew steadily larger and more exciting, and it was worth its value in fantasy.

And there was Nathan’s, where a gaunt Italian man with vitality and sweat running down his face would recognize me each year, conspiring with me in the game of smiling sweetly to get what he said were the most luscious frankfurters, their skin dark brown and split open. My Father would send me through the heavy crowd to get franks for us all, agreeing that I could get the best ones, and he and Mother would wait by the fire hydrant as the crowd jostled them back and forth while I milled my way through the mass of people intent on their own orders. Once in a while we would go into the back room and eat at a table, giving the waiter our order, sometimes fried shrimp in a cup or hot chopped lobster salad on a bun; and lots of fries, and a fishwich sandwich to give us more quantity and cut down on the expense. We often had to wait a half-hour or more before finding seats and we stood silently by the door, feeling affluent as we watched the wealthier people at the tables relishing their informal meals.

Moments. Rare, precious moments.

SIRENS, SIRENS, SCREECHING in the night. The sound flooding through bones and teeth, into skulls, tearing at the eyes. My Father sleeping, snoring softly on the white, ironed sheets, his face strained in the small hall light. Mother tiptoeing out of bed, hushing me into the foyer and the kitchen. Waiting. Hearing the sirens close their screams and the car relax. Steps, steps up to our door. No. Not yet, please not yet. Mother opens the door and they come into the kitchen. She shows them the papers, signed by two doctors. I bite my fingernails and wait. And still my Father sleeps, snoring softly in his heavy dreams.

They approve of the papers. They are large men, not unkind looking. They have done this before and are not heroes nor are they hardened. Matter of factly, they ask if Mother wants to go in to wake him or if they should. She hesitates, then says that she will. He is not dangerous or anything, she explains, but would probably get pretty upset. She walks back into the bedroom and the policemen and I remain silently in the kitchen, the police taking out cigarettes, sitting around the green flowered tablecloth.

We hear some mumbling. I know Mother is trying to be firm and not show her fear and indecision. Some rustling and low conversation. I am chewing my nails as if I could swallow my hands whole. Suddenly my Father is there. He is dressed neatly in a white shirt open at the collar and suit pants; Mother is still in an old maroon robe.

“Hello, I’m S-S-S-Sam Levy, how are you doing?” My Father puts out his hand to the closest policeman who has stood up to meet him.

“Fine,” answers the cop, taken aback by his apparent good nature and essentially healthy appearance. “You?”

“Good,” my Father says. “Sorry about stuttering just now. I don’t do it very often. Only when I talk.” Conspiratorial smile to the two policemen. They grin back. Mother looks ragged in her old robe, anxious and depressed.

“What’s the story, anyway?” my Father asks.

“Well, it’s like this, sir. We’ve got papers here, you know, and we’ve got to . . .”

Do I only remember it this way? I was so young. Were they really startled at his composure, despite his stuttering; unnerved at his gentle frankness? I know they looked over the papers again, and apologized to my Father, looked quizzically at Mother and me.

And were they wrong to suspect the doctors’ judgment? Could my Father, given time and understanding, have gathered together his thoughts and dreams and somehow made it out of the crisis without being incarcerated in the deathlike steel place, without being drugged past sensibility, without having unresolved memories shocked out of him, without compassion or choice?

So much being done with chemicals in this enlightened age, to control loosened thoughts, to limit incongruous behavior. But are there no alternatives?

What would my Father be like today, had someone held him gently and accepted his pent-up fears, or shown him ways to reach out and gain what he could not obtain by himself instead of taking him into the backroom of the hospital, lining him up, and laying him like an animal roughly down on the steel chair, placing rubber clamps on his head and above his ears, and sending jolts of electricity painfully, mercilessly through his brain, without his consent or approval, tying him down in a fist of contempt and brutality?

Is it easier now than it was then, now that it does not hurt physically as it once did? Is it less brutal, less cruel, now that it blocks out sections of the mind painlessly and swiftly? Do people know, do they know, that the chance of recurrence of the manic cycle increases with shock treatment and that the person, unless he is one of the lucky ones who changes permanently, (perhaps to avoid the aversive thing) is more likely to deteriorate after shock than without it, never able to express the feelings endured over years of unhappiness?

Where would my Father be now had they let him go free?

Do they know of this:

that the ravings of a maniac, his terror and tears,
can be stilled
with the shock of a human heart
better than the shock of wires;
with the chemistry in the eyes
of one who cares
better than the chemistry of drugs;
with the restraint of the nuances
of your mouth
better than the restraint of an
old shirt, tied from behind.

WE USED TO take long rides into the country, or what seemed like country, compared to the Brooklyn streets. We always had a car; even while in debt my Father would invariably find a great used car to buy, through some fantastic deal. We had a Hudson, a Buick, a Chevrolet. Cars were one thing that my Father had the ultimate control and say over. Mother couldn’t drive and wouldn’t learn, which was typical for women in those days. It worked well for our family—the overwhelming sense was of my Father’s impending if not actual failure—he needed any competencies he could gather.

My Father knew every car on the road, model number, year, details, from the front, side, rear. He probably would have known it from overhead or under—though he knew nothing mechanically. He taught me patiently the names and styles and by the time I was eight I knew most of them, and he would show me off when anyone else was around. It made driving for long hours fun and I never got sick or tired or bored when we drove together. Car identifying was supplemented by other games, like finding the most taxis, buses, trucks, old men, signposts, and stray animals.

Sometimes we would find a place to stop and Mother would take out a picnic basket of sandwiches and potato salad or pieces of roast chicken, and we would pour salt all over whatever came out of the bags, getting covered with grease and mayonnaise and ketchup—even Mother at times participating unchecked. These weekends seemed the sweetest times, a respite between the drudgery of other days and the terror of other nights.

I wish I could have understood at the time what was happening to our small world when it went upside down. It was a great mystery, shrouded in despair and intensity. Mental illness, relationship problems, were not dealt with openly. Rather than admit that there was something wrong, we moved to another apartment on another street, and kept our secrets limited to hushed phone calls, allusions and behind closed doors, until violence and emotion eventually erupted through the suppression.

IT IS DIFFICULT to remember when I first found out that my Father was what society and the doctors and my mother called crazy. I know that Mother said that my friend at camp had a father who was crazy, as distinguished from me who had a Father who had had a nervous breakdown. That is, her father was really nuts, whereas my Father only had a problem. This was also a problem to be kept secret at all costs. My Father would scream as if his brain would split trying to make Mother understand how he felt, and she would be furious, not at his words, or his tone or his demands, but at the thought of the neighbors hearing his voice in the apartments down the hall. As if they did not know that we were coming apart from within with no control; as if they cared.

I never told a soul. I never thought to tell. It was something I carried with me every day. I would see people’s fathers and know they were whole, and yet would think that my Father was better than them, and I would always think how glad I was I had my Father, with his gentle humor and wondrous silver-blue eyes and endless patience with me in my fears.

One day I broke this pact of secrecy. I had had a homework assignment for class and my Father was very high the night before and I had not done the work. My Father and Mother had been fighting way into the night. The next morning I went to school and when the teacher called on me for a response based on the homework I had none. I was instructed to write “I will do my homework” five hundred times, and also hand in the homework by the next day, but what distressed me was that I was aware of how bad he thought I was for not doing what I was supposed to do. When the class let out I dawdled in my seat getting papers together while he was gathering papers on his desk. Everyone had left and I began to shake, could not stop the trembling. Yet I went over to his desk and faced him. His complexion was grayed and sallow and he had not shaved. He was not a happy man and did not take care of himself properly, though he could not have been more than forty years old.

“I want to tell you why I didn’t have my homework . . .” I said to him, not looking at him, but seeing his loose skin by his jaws and his hostile eyes behind the thick glasses he glared through.

“Well?” he said abruptly.

“It’s my Father,” I began, unable to stop shaking, unable to stop my words which I knew I should control. I pictured him removing his glasses and his eyes changing to kindness. I pictured him putting his arm gently around my shoulder and saying softly, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He would forgive me for not doing my homework, would understand the pain of the night before, the pain of the long, incomprehensible years.

“He . . . he’s had a breakdown. He and my mother were screaming all night, and I—I just couldn’t do my homework . . .” I kept my eyes on his desk, trembling, how I could not stop the trembling.

I was aware that he was still putting his things in his briefcase. Then I was aware that he was further away. And then I saw that he had left, that I was alone by his desk, alone in the room, standing by his gray metal desk, trembling, alone and trembling.

THINGS WOULD APPEAR to be going along fairly routinely, when in a matter of hours my Father’s eyes would change from their gentle silver-blue softness and begin to glaze over. His face would sweat more and his smile would become too intense. His arms would not lie correctly at his sides but would seem to move as if fastened too tightly at the elbows, his whole arm from the shoulder moving when only his arms or hands should have moved. He would need only two or three hours of sleep at night and wake up as intense and excitable as when he went to bed—my Father, who would ordinarily sleep ten hours easily and deeply. Then would begin his preoccupation with learning several things at once. He would ask me to borrow books for him from school or the library and I would and even try to go over lessons with him, but he would become frustrated at the first few words and go back to endlessly speaking of all the things he planned to do.

He would begin questioning religions and God during these periods, something he would always avoid at other times. He would go over to people on the street and ask what they thought of their religion and get them into a discussion. I would hold onto my Father’s arm in awe at his nerve, directness and sociability. People would find this interesting at first but soon he would challenge the basis of their beliefs and we would be in for a street quarrel. He would begin joking when people were in dead earnest and take minor jokes as offense, so I never knew exactly what to expect when we went out together. During these periods, however, he made me feel as if I were his closest friend and I would follow him around feeling, alternately, pride and embarassment.

The really damaging things my Father did at these times, from Mother’s point of view, were related to money. Money had no value in itself to him, though Mother was scrimping to make ends meet as his low-paying jobs were short-lived and her salary as a woman at the Board of Education, despite her doing upper level work, was stable but small. When my Father was high, he would bring home trinkets for Mother and me, little items that were curious but of no utilitarian value. I remember our mantle covered with blown glass figurines that he had impulsively bought during manic states. We had glass swans, elephants, giraffes, fl owers, fla mingos, boa ts, jew elry, a lighthouse, and the blown glass merry-go-round that I imagined moving to music, as I sat alone dreaming by the never-lit fireplace. He bought candy boxes in all sizes and shapes for me and Mother, wallets, knick-knacks, bracelets, clothing in odd sizes. But these were the small things. The large items that got us in debt were the car for which he wrote an $800 check that bounced and Mother had to pay for, several expensive coats, furniture, sets of dishes, encyclopedias. Not only that but he would mock Mother by tearing up dollar bills right before her eyes, later pacifying her by taping the less damaged ones back together.

Between his highs and lows, he went sporadically from welding to selling to cooking to various independent ventures, back and forth through unskilled trades. Selling seemed to be what he did the most and possibly even enjoyed. When he was selling Wearever products, he would speak to groups of potential customers, bringing along free sandwiches as part of the sales technique. We would make the sandwiches early in the mornings for him to take to work. We would form an assembly line at the flowered green tablecloth, and one of us would lay out slices of white bread, then ham or salami, sliced American cheese, lettuce, slap on mustard or mayonnaise on the top white bread slice and carefully close up the sandwiches. My Father would cut them diagonally, and then carefully wrap them in waxed paper so they looked neat and professionally made.

These were some of the sweetest times, as my Father would joke and tickle us while we worked, and even Mother would relax as she counted and laid out slices of meat and cheese. But my Father was not very good as a salesman; the days of good hauls were far exceeded by the days of sandwiches given away for nothing. Mother used to say that he wasn’t “cut out” to be a salesman, he was basically too honest, and also he took losses and gains personally, and I think she was right. I think shyness was part of the reason he never quite fit in that role. Also, he would get mixed feelings about whether or not he should be spending his time doing this when he had other abilities, if he could pinpoint what they were, and Mother fed this fantasy because of her own hopes. Mother married my Father with the assumption that he would return to school at night, at least long enough to finish high school, but in reality he never wanted to and never did.

IT WAS FATHER’S Day and I went from store to store looking for the perfect card to buy for my Father. My hair was straight and tangled from being twisted in my fingers, or chewed between my teeth. My hand-me-down clothes never fit correctly or went together right. I walked into stores with my head low, and my posture sloped, wanting to find a card for my Father that he would cherish. He would come over to me and ask, “What’s this?” and I would shyly hand him my card, the one I finally picked out, soft lavender crocuses and irises in a bouquet, small leaves and swirls of brown-green, and in fine curved type, Happy Father’s Day. And inside, the poem that said what I had in my heart to say to my Father, that I loved him more than anything in the world; that I thought he was special in a way no other Father could ever compare with. He would take the card gently from my fingers and slowly draw it out of the envelope on which I had scrawled, “I love you, Daddy” and he would smile at me, and how his face would light up when he saw the delicate colors and the elegant design. He would put his arm around me, bending down to my height as he opened the card and read the loving lines. How his face would shine, in the way it used to shine as he joked that I must have picked up the wrong card by mistake. “Uh, uh,” I would deny, embarrassed, and he would lift me up and give me a bear hug and forget all his troubles and failures for the few precious moments we would have.

How I cherished the card I bought two weeks before Father’s Day. I carried it with me to school and looked at it under my desk as the teacher’s voice droned on. Finally the day arrived, and I took Mother’s arm and went with her to the bus stop to get the Clarkson Avenue bus to go to the hospital. I could hardly contain my excitement at seeing him as I had not seen him for more than a month. Mother spoke to me constantly on the way to the hospital. She was anxious about us going and about my excitement that she picked up beneath my silence. She tried to explain to me that my Father was very depressed, that he was becoming very quiet and was content to sit around and think his sad thoughts. She told me she did not think he would talk much to us, and that she doubted that anything could make him feel better. And she went on about her thoughts and her own nervousness. I should have listened more closely, for I would have expected less from him, but I did not believe it could be true. I knew she always thought the worst about anything, and that she did not know how to love deeply, she was so involved with herself. I knew she did not have the patience with him that he needed, could not give him the tenderness he yearned for. How, then, could I have believed the coldness of her words? I knew him so much more than she did, inside where it mattered. There was so much love inside of him that he would open up like a flower on a spring-warm day when he saw my feelings given to him in quiet totality. He would lift me in his arms and smile as he had not smiled for so long.

I waited on the hospital grounds, sitting on a wooden bench near the entrance as Mother walked into the hall. He was better than he’d been, and they told Mother that he would come down to us by himself, so she waited with me on the bench in the warm sun, nervously fixing my hair which was quite beyond fixing, and straightening her pink tailored suit over her firm stockinged legs. Finally we saw him at the door and we walked over to him, he toward us. Mother was first and he kissed her on her mouth. I stood by him and waited for him to see me, hands trembling holding the lovely lavender card. How could it be that he did not notice me standing there, trembling in anticipation of being held in his arms? Mother extricated herself from him and spoke, said that I had a card for him for Father’s Day that I wanted to give him and he looked at me blankly for a quick moment, not meeting my eyes. He shook his head and turned as if he did not understand what she had said to him.

My heart pounding in my chest, and seeing lights glazing in front of me, I stepped toward him, and tried to hand him the card. But he waved his hand in front of it and unsmiling moved away. Mother went with him and spoke to him but I saw my Father shake his head and go on. I stood there not believing, and Mother turned and shrugged without quite meeting my eyes, as they walked down the path. I turned abruptly and sat back down on the bench and waited. Until visiting time was over, I waited for my Father, and when it was over he went straight back up to the ward, never saying good-bye to me. He never came back to say good-bye.

I SPEAK TO Mother about the past; inevitably I offer her a voice. After all, she probably knows more about it than anyone, although part of me denies it. I have vague remembrances about a bread route, the bread route that there was so much bitterness around. Tell me about it, Mother.

“That was so awful,” Mother says, “I can hardly remember it. Most of it is blocked from my memory. How I could have been so stupid as to believe your father, I’ll never know.

“This guy he’d never laid eyes on before sold him a bread route . . . for $1200! $1200! He couldn’t have gotten twelve cents from anyone else. It was for a route somewhere in Far Rockaway. You were supposed to deliver orders—challah, rye bread, pumpernickel, rolls, bagels, even lox and cream cheese, to people’s homes.

“Your father didn’t even get a truck or a van for the money. Nothing tangible. That’s what’s so ridiculous about the whole thing. All he got was ‘goodwill,’ what they called the referrals. All we got for $1200—I’d earned that money by the sweat of my brow and borrowed for it, too—was a list of names from the other guy’s delivery list.

“I should have known better. But this guy convinced your father and he convinced me. Your father was manic then already. I didn’t recognize the symptoms—I should have, but I didn’t. Boy, was I stupid.

“So your father was supposed to deliver all this stuff, in our car, naturally, early in the morning when it was still dark so people could have it fresh when they woke up, but right from the beginning he didn’t follow through and deliver what he was supposed to. He didn’t get up in time and he made mistakes in the orders. It was impossible from the beginning. Your father got more and more confused and agitated and eventually he said he would only deliver things if I went with him, and for a while I did, even though I had to go to work right after, with hardly any sleep. But I hated to see all that money thrown away.

“I’ll never forget the last day of the bread route. He was definitely manic by then. He was screaming, getting into fights with people, and this was practically in the middle of the night. People were threatening to call the cops. He was speeding, driving on two wheels, giving me the bread to deliver at his stops. I couldn’t stand it—I had no control over him. Finally he left me at one stop. Just drove off after I told him he was sick and needed to go back to Brooklyn State. He said, ‘You’re crazy, not me,’ and left me standing there. The man we were delivering food to had woken up and was there when he left and I told him, ‘He’s sick, I’ve got to help him.’ I’ll never forget what he said: ‘What are you worrying about him for? Take care of yourself. Be glad he left.’ He even got me a ride home—a cab or a friend—I can’t remember.

“The next night I pulled up the shade in the hall after your father fell asleep, as a signal to Pauline—remember her, she also had a husband with a lot of mental problems—and she called the police for me and we finally got him back in Brooklyn State.”

MY BEST FRIEND Diane’s father, Jack, a calm, redheaded man with gold-rimmed glasses, suddenly became high strung, angry and irritable. His doctor prescribed medication for high blood pressure and later gave him antibiotics when he discovered he had a urinary infection. But by the time he was correctly diagnosed with kidney failure, it was too late.

Jack’s sudden temper outbursts and frequent intrusions into my private adolescent conversations with Diane would get me very nervous, and my nervousness translated into hysterical laughter. Jack would get furious at my laughter, certain I was laughing at him. I used to feel terrible guilt when I saw him, especially when we learned that he was seriously ill.

My Father and I used to spend a lot of time at Diane’s do-whatever-you-like home, to escape Mother’s rigidity. So the day Jack began to pass out in pain, my Father, who was hanging out, singing fifties songs with Diane’s brother at the piano, was the logical one to drive Jack to the hospital. For some reason, my Father wanted Diane and me to go with them and we sat in the back seat while Jack sat next to my Father, his face red, holding cotton up his nose to stop the bleeding that had begun.

I was anxious and upset during the drive and I could not control my hysterical giggling, although I tried to muffle it with my hands. My Father told me sharply to be quiet, but Jack said in a calm and uncannily clear voice: “She is just a child. It is all right.” Hearing his soft voice was a great relief to me and I relaxed, feeling that Jack wanted me to know that he understood and forgave me.

That was one of the most careful rides I have ever taken. My Father drove slowly and was in every way considerate of Jack, and gentle as anyone could have been. But two days later, the once vital young man was dead, and a short while later my Father, great in an emergency but depleted of his emotional reserves, was committed to the Third Floor, East Wing of the Ward.

MY FATHER’S OLDER sister, my Aunt Ruth, always brought sandwiches when she visited at the hospital—homemade chopped liver, chicken with celery and mayonnaise, pastrami, or thick slices of brisket on Jewish rye bread. She would bring enough for all of us and my Father and I and sometimes Mother would share the small feast. Aunt Ruth was generous with the little money she had, sending all of us three or four dollar bills for birthday presents through the mail faithfully each year.

We would sit out on the porch area of the third floor, crowded with other visiting families, looking through the fencing at the people outside. If my Father was very depressed, he would not speak at all, except to nod his head and perhaps whisper fine if we asked him more than once how he was. Mother sometimes spoke of her work or held his hand and Aunt Ruth would talk about her thyroid condition or her other health problems. Before we got to the hospital and while we were there I obsessed over what I could say to my Father that would evoke a response.

When Mother and he were separated and he was compliant enough to go out alone on a pass, I would take the subway to meet him on Sundays. My preoccupation with how to have a conversation grew worse at these times because we would have interminable periods of silence, which would paralyze me for days after.

We would go to Coney Island on the warm days when he was in Brooklyn State and also after he was released, during the times he lived alone in a cheap rooming house in the city until he had proved to Mother that he was “ready” to come home, a vague standard that included having a menial job and being appropriately submissive.

We would walk along the boardwalk, past rides and games and food, and sit for a long while on wooden folding chairs, listening silently to the auctioneer pushing steak knives, razors, or stockings, without ever buying anything, my Father convinced it was all a rip-off. When the auction was over, we would take some newspapers out of a wastebasket, and sit on a bench for a long time looking through them, still not speaking. I had so many thoughts that I never dared let out. I remember taking a notebook and writing some of my feelings down, feeling I would suffocate with words in my throat.

Sometimes we would go down to the beach and I would lie down with the sun on me and he would then lie down, too, his head on my stomach, putting the newspaper pages over his eyes and fall asleep, time passing with no direction or purpose. What can I say to my Father when he wakes up that would matter, I would think, over and over. It seemed there was nothing that could be said that would break through the thin shield of normalcy we worked so hard to fabricate, and so I remained dumb, yearning to speak. I knew some of his feelings, the exhaustion, hopelessness, dependency, the overwhelming sense of failure. But how to speak with him of these: this I never knew, or could, or did.


AN ABOVE-GROUND SUBWAY station on the BMT line, Brooklyn, New York, 1955. There are a few people around—an elderly woman sitting on a bench, two teenagers talking by a pole, a man standing reading the paper. The afternoon sun is warm and the usual subway smells are minimal. Residential buildings can be seen in the distance to the left of the platform.

A young girl with straight, long, thin yellow hair and glasses, in a white blouse and navy skirt, her school clothing, with a worried look, and a man in his forties, in a blue shirt, gray pants, a jacket and red sneakers, jaunty, walk down the stairs at the back end, from under the signs that say Culver line and EXIT in black letters on a green background.

The father is talking nonstop to the young girl who is staying close to his side. He is clearly agitated. They wait for the train to arrive.


Hey, how close do you think I can get to the edge of the platform without falling over the edge?


(Caught off-guard)



Don’t what me. What do you think?

Without waiting for an answer, the man moves toward the edge of the platform.



The girl moves slowly toward him till she is on his left, but a step further from the platform.


Daddy what?


I’m sure you can get really close. You don’t have to prove it.


I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m just asking. How close?

His red sneakers move to the edge of the platform. He stands there for a moment and then gradually moves his foot inch by inch closer to the tracks below.


(Strained but trying to remain calm externally.)

Daddy please just come back and talk to me.


Bet you’re getting nervous now. Your mother telling you stories about the third rail hot as an electric chair. But it won’t get me. I’ve got balance. See?

The train light begins to be seen around the bend from a far distance. The sound can barely be heard. No one pays attention to the strange man and young girl at the back end of the station. This is New York.


Ok, Daddy. You’ve proved your point and made me nervous. The train’s coming—now can you please back up?


(His tone daring his daughter to do something)

Hey, the train’s not even close.

Tears are in her eyes, the train is in clear sight, the screeching sound is getting louder, the whistle is beginning to blast in their ears, and the girl panics.


You’re right Daddy. You can do anything. And yes now I’m scared. Really scared. Please come back here. Just one or two steps back . . .

The man laughs triumphantly, puts his hand to his cheek, steps back from the track seconds before the train looms in front of him.



See you don’t have to worry about me. I can outsmart any one, even a train. And nobody tells Sam Levy what he can or can’t do.

The girl, visibly shaken, lowers her eyes, says nothing.


Am I right or am I right?


Yes, Daddy. You’re right.

The train stops and the two go through the open doors of the last car, find a corner seat and ride toward the City, to spend the day walking the streets of Times Square.

I LISTEN IN horror to my Father and Mother arguing in the hospital.

“Damn it, Lil, how could you sign for shock treatments when you promised you wouldn’t. You lied to me, damn you!”

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