These days when I write an e-mail to one of my few remaining elderly friends after a long hiatus in our correspondence, I usually begin with a question: “Still there?” I ask. I did so recently, with some trepidation, when I wrote my best longtime male friend, a Norwegian author and playwright, who will soon be 96. I was relieved to find out that he still was (“there,” I mean), and not only that, he astonished me by telling me that he had just published his latest novel! He claims that it will be his last, but I’ve heard that from him before. He will probably still be writing on his deathbed after completing his century.
Although my venerable Norwegian friend has ten years on me, I’m both amazed and appalled that I am still here, taking up space. And I fear the worst. Possibly you remember that in one of my blogs of a few years back, when I was a mere 83, I realized with a shock of unadulterated terror that I didn’t fear death, but living too long. I seem to suffer from a sort of phobia of senescence. And the other day I learned that I have good reason to worry. I took the trouble look up the average life expectancy for men who are 86 years old. Five and a half years! Horrors! Good Lord, though I have my doubts about the adjective, do you mean to tell me that if I am merely “average,” I might still be here, blogging my way toward infinity when I’m in my nineties? Say it ain’t so, Cecilia!
But as I wait for my seemingly interminable demise, I actually find myself in a Proustian mood these days in search of my own lost time. In my case, however, I don’t need to dip a madeleine into my tea in order to evoke memories of my first years. No, as you will see, my madeleine is actually a stick of Wrigley gum. However, before we get to that, let me revert to an even earlier time when I made my debut at 8 pounds, 7 ounces, on a Friday the 13th, in the year that Babe Ruth hit his last home run. Any guesses, baseball fans?Yankees, sensing that his luck had run out, had cast him off to the lowly Boston Braves (yes, it would take many years until they made their southern pilgrimage to Atlanta), where he became a pitiable sight at the plate. For the few months he played during the year of my birth, he hit a pathetic .181. But there was one day in May when he was again the Babe of old. He smacked three home runs that day, and never hit another. By the next month, he was gone. It was time for him retire and become a legend.
But of course the Sultan of Swat, as the Babe was often called, was not exactly on my radar when I was still in diapers. It would be some years before I would become, at least for a time, an ardent Yankee fan and crazy for baseball. Meanwhile, I needed to figure out who I was and who were these big people who were feeding me my baby food?
My mother years later also told me an amusing story about why she had named me Ken, rather than Irving or Hyman or Ben, or some other traditionally Jewish first name. It turned out that both my mother and her sister, Miriam, were ardent fans of a then popular radio program called “One Man’s Family.” Her favorite character on that show was someone named Ken, so I was named after my mother’s fictional heartthrob. This program was actually set in Sea Cliff, which is a ritzy area in San Francisco, near the Palace of the Legion of Honor. Guess why Miriam named her son Cliff?
But, actually, my memories of my mother during my first years on the planet are quite vague and indistinct, but I seem always to have felt her love and that of Miriam who would become a kind of second mother to me, as mine often suffered from depression owing to an unhappy marriage.
So perhaps it is time now to talk about the man who was the cause of so much of my mother’s unhappiness, my father, Phil….
He was holding my left hand when I spotted it. A clean, unopened stick of chewing gum illuminated in a shaft of brilliant sunlight. With my right hand, I bent over and picked it up. Life was good. I was three years old, and I was with my father.
He was an artist, or at least that’s how he identified himself. A pen-and-ink man, mostly, though I know in later life, he became a well-known illustrator for a New York newspaper. His special talent was for drawing ballet dancers, and, for a short time, he was known as “the American Degas.” But during my early years, to get by he had to take what jobs he could. I know he worked in advertising for a while, and I also believe that for a time he held a job in an architect’s office as a draftsman (for years afterward, I used a draftsman’s board he had left with me). He was a sometimes journalist as well. I know he had some musical talent as well because, as I later learned, for a while he earned his keep playing the piano in bars. He must have had an interest in classical music, too, since the only possession of my father’s that was passed down to me was an annotated copy of the sheet music he had purchased in New York of a Beethoven rondo (Op. 51. No. 2).
When I was still very young, I can remember my father taking me on his rounds—just him and me. I can remember his taking me to his office, I can remember the radio he had there and his desk, though not much else.
Case in point: I also vividly recall that one day he took me to the home of a woman with platinum blonde hair and left me in the foyer to play with that woman’s Scottie. It was only years later, when I was an adult, that I realized that my father must have been conducting an affair with this woman, and that I was probably serving as his cover. I believe my father had many affairs in his life, though a lot of this is speculation on my part. Indeed, as you will see, my father is mostly my invention since he left so few traces and nobody in my family was much inclined to talk about him after he left. He did leave his mark on me, though, all the same.
The little I know about my father’s character and his life while he was overseas during the war comes mostly from my aunt Mariam, who, as I’ve said, was effectively my real mother during those years and who was just about the only relative in my family who, years later, was willing to try to answer some of my questions about my father. Among other things, she told me that without the slightest knowledge of drugs, he managed to bluff his way into becoming a pharmacist’s mate while in the Merchant Marines. Apparently, my father was used to conning people. For example, my aunt also told me that my father had boasted about being able to pass off and sell some of his artwork by pretending he was an Australian painter whose name happened to be similar to his but who enjoyed a much better contemporary reputation. In other words, Phil was something of an imposter. He also apparently loved to tease or just straight out lie to people. Once, my aunt said, a barber had asked him how many children he had, to which my father had answered “eight.” According to my aunt, he never let on that I was his only offspring, and bragged about his trivial but telling deceit afterward.
The war years passed, and apart from an occasional letter from him, my father pretty much passed out of my life as an active presence. But suddenly, during the spring of 1945, as the war in Europe was drawing to a close, I learned that we — my entire family — would be moving to Brooklyn, New York, for the summer. I had actually been taken to New York once before, in 1941, for a short time, but living there for an entire summer would be another matter altogether, especially now that I was nine years old. Ostensibly, the reason for this trip was that my uncle George’s sister had just died and he needed to be there to support her family. Only years later did I come to learn that there was another reason for us to travel there at that time.
Therefore, my mother must have listened with complete stupefaction to the shocking proposal my father had come to New York to make to her. He had so loved being in Europe, he told her, that he wanted to return after the war to make his home and his living there—and he wanted my mother and me to join him as soon as possible!
Of course, I have no idea how my mother actually responded to this preposterous proposition, but I like to imagine it was something along the lines of — “You want me to take my only begotten son and myself to Europe while it is still on fire and people are starving and in rags there? Are you completely daft, Phil?”
In any event, my mother, for once, made a definitive decision for herself. She would of course have none of it. That didn’t stop my father, whose penchant for Bohemian adventurism had obviously only been enhanced by whatever opportunistic contacts he had made during the war. Enamored of Europe, he was bent on returning there to study and practice the art of painting. Thus it was, even without my knowing it then, that my father left me for the second time, this time for good.
I would never see him again. He died young, at 41.