My father almost never had a good word to say
about anyone he knew, while my mother was nearly the opposite. But he reserved
a special hatred for certain people whom he had never even met. Heading the
list was Elvis.
One day, to see if I could provoke him, I asked my father
whether he favored using a portrait of the young Elvis or the more mature Elvis
on a postage stamp. And I got the desired result.
His face turned beet-red as he described what he would do to
First Id decapitate him! Then Id lock the door
and go a few rounds with him.
But Elvis is dead! I pointed out.
It doesnt matter! he screamed.
My father had a more nuanced reaction to the college students on
spring break, who often stayed near his Florida retirement community.
Students? he yelled. Those arent
students: theyre animals!
If you had a machine gun set up on the beach, would you
mow them down? I asked.
He scowled at me and then replied conspiratorially, That
would just be a waste of good bullets!
In comparison to my dad, my mother was sweetness and light. But
on rare occasions, she stepped completely out of character. When I was fifteen,
she brought me to her cousins wedding. Helen, who was pushing thirty, was
quite tall. By convention, the groom should be taller and somewhat older. Mike
was about six inches shorter than Helen. But what he lacked in height, he more
than made up for in years and then some.
This was the first time my mother had met him. She kept
referring to him as the little refugee. The man was flitting around
taking photos of all the guests. It turned out that he was a professional
photographer; he either didnt trust anyone else to take pictures, or he
was trying to save money. Perhaps he took the first wedding selfie.
Mike had a very thick accent, although he had been in this
country for decades. Still, it seemed unnecessarily cruel for my mother to keep
calling him the little refugee; even after I observed that
Your parents and their entire families were refugees. But she would
call him the little refugee till the day she died.
Years later, when my sister got married for a second time, my
parents, who were living in Florida, were unable to attend the wedding. A month
earlier, the bride- and groom-to-be visited our parents. The trip seemed to go
fairly well, although my sister suspected that Mother was somewhat less than
My future brother-in-law was between jobs. He had just been
denied tenure at a branch of the State University of New York, and was trying
to find another job. When they had a moment alone, my sister asked our mother
what was wrong.
Hes a fortune hunter!
Yes, but wheres the fortune?
Mark my words: hes after your money.
The wedding went off without a hitch. My sisters friend
Dorothy advised the happy couple who were in their early fifties
to wait a few years before you start having children!
After all the guests had left, my sister called our parents
and then put Alan on the phone with Mother.
Your daughter made a beautiful bride.
Why dont you get a job?
When my sister told me what Mother had said, I called her and
asked how she could say such a terrible thing. But she kept asking, Why
doesnt he get a job?
I love to use analogies, even if they sometimes dont
exactly apply. Remember how hard it was to get a job during the
depression? Of course she did. Well, in college teaching, its
just like it was during the depression. Alan is trying very hard to get a job,
but there are so few openings.
But she wasnt biting. If he wants to work, he could
find a job. It doesnt have to be at a college.
She really did have a point. But still, she had been so
rude to Alan. He was a very likable guy, and I was pretty sure hed find a
job even if it wasnt teaching in college.
My mother died just a couple of years later, still believing
that Alan was a fortune hunter. My father, who hated people for even lesser
offenses, had seemed much more tolerant. In fact, my sister and I had never
heard a word from him about Alan good or bad.
As things transpired, my mother had been right about
Alan. While there was no fortune to hunt, the man turned out to be monumentally
lazy. After settling down in my sisters home, over the next eighteen
years he managed to get just a couple of part-time jobs, and was quickly fired
from each of them. I would tell everyone that Alan had won an award
slacker of the year.
But that was the good news. He had no interests
except for eating large quantities of food and he turned out to be a
complete bore. It got so bad that when he entered a room, everyone would flee.
One day, many years later, I got the phone call I had long been
dreading. My father, who was now ninety-five, said that he could no longer care
for himself. My sister and I flew to Florida, packed up his clothes, and
brought him back to New York. As we were driving out of his housing complex, I
asked my father if he wanted to take one last look. No! Just throw
me in that dumpster with the rest of the garbage.
Back in New York, we settled him into an assisted living
facility, but a few months later, he needed to move into a nursing home. He was
angry virtually all of the time. In fact, when we visited, his greeting was
always the same: Just give me a gun and a bullet! This went on for
a couple of months.
He was increasingly frustrated with his physical and mental
deterioration, and often complained that he had become useless.
When people reached that state, he said, they should just kill themselves.
My father never told jokes, and in his later years, he stopped
telling funny stories. He never laughed, and seemed to have an almost perpetual
scowl. And then, when I least expected it, he said something so funny that I
almost fell down on the floor laughing.
He was sitting in the hall and saw me coming. When I was a few
feet from him he muttered, Just give me [two] guns and two
Why two guns and two bullets? Are you afraid
I wont miss!
Then why do you want two guns and two bullets?
He just glared at me as if I were missing the obvious. And then
he said, One for me
and one for Alan.
I couldnt stop laughing. When I told my sister, she was
less than pleased. He had said the same thing to her.
Several years ago I took on the job of family historian. I
managed to get almost everyones contact information; I was missing two
cousins. They were the daughters of Helen and Mike. Helen had died a few years
before, and I had been given Mikes number.
I called Mike, told him I had been to his wedding, and had put
together a family tree. I needed to add his daughters contact information
and the family tree would be complete.
Mike kept going on and on about his condominium and the swimming
pool, his accent even thicker than I had remembered. Look, Ill tell
you what, Mike. Im going to mail you the entire family tree, and then you
can just mail back your daughters contact information.
When I had not heard back from him, I gave him another call. He
had gotten the family tree, but instead of sending me the information I
needed, he wanted me to come to see his condominium with its swimming pool, and
then, maybe he would give me his daughters contact information.
I thought back to the wedding so many years ago, when he and
Helen had gotten married. And I realized that my mother had been right about
him after all. The man was a little refugee".