I've often referred to it as my father's gold pocket watch. I'm not so sure it is gold—maybe brass. Twenty-three jewels, whatever that means. Maybe I wanted to make it more valuable, more precious. I wanted my dad to have given me something important. I wanted to know that he was proud of me. The watch would have done nicely, brass or not. It has the emblem of the Army Air Corps embossed on the back, a fierce-looking eagle. I know Dad treasured it—he always kept the watch brightly polished and wound it frequently.
My father was a very quiet and mostly contained guy. I respected him but was also very scared of him. I sensed that his silences contained much more than dignity. There was rage in there, also, which occasionally burst free. I was often the recipient because I'd been "bad" or disrespectful, or because my mother wanted me to be punished. After these outbursts, explosive and frightening, Dad would act like nothing had happened and went back to reading his paper until Mom called us in for dinner. I've spent a good deal of the rest of my life (and a small fortune) in psychotherapy, to try to understand the impact my dad and these beatings had on my life. No, I haven't yet figured it out. For a long time, I assumed the gulf that grew up between us was my fault. Dad was simply disappointed in me. In some deep and unfixable way, I had let him down. I wasn't good enough, smart enough, had not become a doctor like him, had moved away from Philadelphia, had married a non-Jewish woman. The list went on and on in my head.
For some reason, I never thought Dad deserved any of the blame for our fractured relationship. His endless silences allowed me to fill in all that blank space with my self-doubts and confusion. Never did it occur to me to hold him at least partly to blame for the lack of closeness or affection that plagued my childhood. Be a man, I told myself. Get over it. Move on. And I did—or tried to. Moved all that pain to some place in the back of my brain, where it silently continued to eat away at my psyche. Hell with it, I thought, I've got my kids to raise now, and I'm not going to be anything like my father with them. And I wasn't, for the most part. I talked to my two daughters all the time and always tried to be open and honest with them. Of course, that can sometimes bring its own problems. The pendulum swings both ways, you know. I for sure wasn't a perfect father, but I know that I tried and continue to do so.
I recently went back to Philadelphia to visit relatives. My mom and dad have long since passed away, so I don't get back there very often. I made sure to include in the trip a visit to my one remaining aunt, the last of my mother and father's generation. She still lives on her own in a lovely house that she struggles to keep up, but her mind is still sharp as a carving knife. Over the course of our conversation, we got to talking about her memories of my family when we were all still young and living at home. "You were a really quiet child," she told me. "I always wondered why."
"I think I was scared to talk around the adults," I told her. "Dad didn't like that."
"Yeah, your father was a piece of work. A real son of a bitch."
I was stunned. In all the many years I'd been alive, I had never heard anyone say such a thing about my dad—not my mother, not my siblings, not me. And yet, at the moment that she said it, I knew that it was true.
My aunt went on. "Your father looked down on everybody. Made everybody feel like they shouldn't open their mouth. It wasn't just you, Butchie. He was a mean man."
Strangely, it was a relief for me to hear what she had to say. I wasn't wrong about him after all. And I could stop beating myself up about it, stop making excuses for him. I walked out of her house feeling different, somehow—like I could breathe again, stand up straighter, think more clearly.
I'm not going to let go of the few good memories I have: the baseball games Dad took me to, the time we dove into the surf together at Long Beach Island, that one conversation about girls, but I'm also going to remember the other times and accept what they were. He was a son of a bitch.
Dad never did give me that gold pocket watch that I coveted. There wasn't anything in the will about it. So, after he died, I claimed that watch. Snatched it right off his dresser. Didn't even ask for my mother's permission. I have it displayed now in a glass case and like to show it to people. I always tell them, though, that it was a gift. "Dad wanted me to have it," I say.