When I turned fifty in January, it was big for one reason: my dad had died at fifty.
Had it not been for that, I wouldn’t have cared much. Age doesn’t bother me but this milestone bothered me a LOT.
Many of you will understand. Over the years I have collected stories from sympathetic people who get it. They too live with ghosts: siblings who died young whose unlived lives occasionally walk into the room on an anniversary and afflict them with love and sorrow and survivor guilt. Veterans who sit in impenetrable silence after the Memorial Day service, barely able to speak of the thick presence of spirit around them of men who died in battle while they went home. Was it they who died with their comrades or is it that their comrades are living in them, taking up such subtle residence in their own lives that they go unnoticed until bidden forth and openly acknowledged in prayer and ritual?
An entire graduating class of students who will never walk by the diploma on their wall without a pit-in-the-stomach remembrance of a classmate who accidentally strangled on the monkey bars or died when the bus returning from the field hockey tournament overturned on an slick road. Time is not linear, it is series of overlapping and intertwined playground slides.
I don’t want to live an unhaunted life. I believe it is our duty to the dead to carry them as they carry us within the multiple dimensions where souls and time swirl in some intricate pattern that Einstein never imagined but possibly intuited.
My father died at fifty. He had had heart problems that were exacerbated by his Type A+ personality, his uncontrollable (and now, I see, utterly ridiciulous and narcissistic) rages, his workaholism and his “bum arteries.” It was also the 1970′s and early 80′s when the end of his story unfolded and cardiac care was in its infancy. When he had open heart surgery he had to travel from Connecticut to Ohio, and his recovery was long and serious, endured by the whole family around a rented hospital bed in the living room. He was considered an invalid, and a ticking time bomb.
Nowadays, the Carl Weinsteins of the world go in for a triple bypass and come out a few days later with instructions to return to normal activity as soon as possible. I’ve seen men in their seventies have quadruple bypass surgeries and live happy subsequent decades of golfing and Sunday prime rib dinners.
My father died at fifty and it was a personal tragedy for me. There are greater losses and more serious injustices in the world than a child of 17 losing her father on a Tuesday afternoon in April. But we do not tell our stories to compare suffering. I should know better than to even mention the relative scope of my loss. Pain that crushes, crushes. This loss crushed me. It is my “original wound,” as Henri Nouwen put it.
As the decades wore on, I had time to “heal,” or to put the loss into perspective, and more importantly, to dismantle the private religion of Weinstein worship in which I had grown up and been ordained. My paternal extended family has a gift of huge charisma, self-mythologizing, warm grandiosity, pride and (thank God) self-directed humor. We are an intense tribe, a sarcastic one, and a loyal one. We are as colorfully dysfunctional as any family. I have come to understand that the devastating persecution suffered by our kin in Europe — and the slaughter by the Nazis of those Weinsteins who did not emigrate to the United States — is the foundation of the American Weinsteins’ zealous commitment to survive, thrive, contribute to society, and tell our stories.
I learned only recently, in fact, that a branch of my Romanian family escaped the pogroms and fled to Paris where they lived well and happily for decades until they were rounded up by the Vichy government and sent to Dachau. On my most recent trip to Paris I had “just happened” upon the very small memorial marker near the Eiffel Tower Metro that identified the place where Jews were rounded up before deportation and “happened” to mention it to a family member. Didn’t we have relatives who escaped Romania for Paris? Yes, and they fled from virulent Romanian anti-Semitism right into Hitler’s gas chambers.
How had I never heard this?
These stories were too traumatic to tell, so we told stories of success: educational, professional, personal. We romanticized ourselves and our domineering papas watched their children with eagle eyes for evidence of the talent, brilliance, poise, beauty and integrity we were damned well expected to have. We were Weinsteins.
Being a Weinstein is no longer my primary identity. It is one of the many things that I am.
In 1983, Carl Davis Weinstein “succumbed,” as they said in his obituary, at fifty. His second child turned fifty in 2016 and celebrated her birthday and then released a sigh of relief that it was over. Continue reading