Discover more from Poor Man's Feast
my father, my friend
On Love and Ritual Gone Awry
If it is possible to hold one’s breath for fifteen years, we did.
We took in oxygen in small sips, as if to make it last, like one would drink water while crossing The Sinai on foot.
There were silent meals in Queens with tension pulled as tight as a tuned guitar string, remedied by the appearance of a small black and white Xenith television that sat at the end of the dinner table like a guest who would not stop talking about Laos and Nixon. There were the serious conversations — We need to have a talk, he would start — about drugs or Son of Sam or sex or maybe you like girls or whether or not they would be able to afford to send me to camp that summer. There was him, cigarette in one hand and Scotch in the other, hanging over the terrace gate at nine at night, waiting for my mother to step out of a yellow cab after another in a long line of work-related dinner dates; I finished my homework and waited with him, our stomachs churning and knotted with betrayal. That was towards the end, after the bankruptcy, when she just didn’t want to be home anymore — not with me; not with him — and she had begun seeing her boss and the man she would marry, three years after the divorce.
We held our breath for fifteen years, my father and I, until she asked him to move out one September morning in 1978; he exhaled, and I didn’t.
After the divorce, he arrived at my high school on Friday afternoons, picked me up outside the front steps, and we spent the next few days together, until he brought me home to Queens on Sunday night, as late as possible. Sometime my mother was there, and sometime she wasn’t. If not, he’d walk our sweet dog, whose pack was disintegrating before his eyes; he would go within a year from being a robust and jovial Airedale to a bag of bones draped in wiry fur, and would die the following spring. If my mother wasn’t there, my grandmother was. More than once, my grandmother, frustrated by her daughter’s utter detachment, turned her ire on me. More than once in those days long before cell phones, my father arrived home in Brooklyn, got a weeping call from me, turned around and came back to get me having just dropped me off two hours earlier. It was a long trip from Coney Island, and he was willing to do it.
It would take me years to realize that, having both survived my mother’s wrath, we sought refuge in the same things, and that in those things, inevitably, there lived a glass or two, and a lesson.
A man of anger and frustration whose temper could flare like a Roman candle, he became a different person after the divorce; he was palpably happier. Living with her had been like dropping a lit match into a tank of gasoline, and while I know that he felt like a failure — there were no divorces in our immediate family — he was exhausted after fifteen years of relentless pique, of the manipulations and the futile hope for domestic peace and affection. After he left, I was tentative and depressed, so he made sure I did the things he knew I loved to do: he dragged me to every acoustic music concert in New York, to every bluegrass festival so that I could play with other musicians, to the US Open, to dinners everywhere from The Praha and Lion’s Rock on the Upper East Side to The Five Oaks in the West Village and Randazzo’s in Sheepshead Bay, to live folk performances at The Eagle Tavern on West Fourteenth Street where one night, very late, we watched Emmylou Harris get up with her big black SJ200 — the one with the rose spray-painted on it — and, after a large-venue concert somewhere else, play to a small crowd of flannel-shirted hippies drinking pitchers of the cheap Genesee Creme Ale that my father bought them and me. I was sixteen; we were making new friends, and it felt good, and a little bit like I had been dipped in warm honey.
He taught me everything he knew that he felt was important; he showed me what happiness looked like, what humor sounded like, what sustenance tasted like. It would take me years to realize that, having both survived my mother’s wrath, we sought refuge in the same things — most of them, anyway; he was single and had a lot of dates with women who all resembled Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman — and that in those things, inevitably, there lived a glass or two, and a lesson. We had survived the unthinkable together — this gorgeous, tempestuous woman he had married and who bore me nine months later — and a domestic implosion that nearly killed us both.
My father was a man of his times, and I have stacks of photos of him that are straight out of central casting. There he is in 1944, at the US Navy officer’s club in Corpus Christi; he’s twenty-one. There he is, in a lounge with his friends at a Warwick New York dude ranch, during his bachelor days. There he is, at a cocktail party for advertising executives in the early sixties and newly married to my mother, who is pregnant with me and, as the story goes, does not yet know it. There is never anything excessive going on in any of the photos; they’re purely evocations of environment — time and place — and that is all.
My father always loved a good cocktail; at the officer’s club and the ranch and the advertising parties, he drank single malt Scotches and gin Gibsons. As I got older, I watched as he began to favor the latter because, he explained, clear alcohol would reduce one’s chance of hangover. No one in his family drank — my aunt and uncle would have a thimble-full of sherry before going out for dinner, and rarely drank anything else, nor did his devout parents — and when he eventually stopped when I was a sophomore in college, after his first heart attack, he did so without a blip. No more cigarettes, no more Gibsons, just like that. Keep smoking, keep drinking, the doctor said, and you will die. So: he stopped.
But back in the seventies, when it was just the two of us — he was in his fifties, and I was in high school — we clung to each other and counted the weekdays until we could be together again for long dinners of Beef Wellington, Coquille St Jacques, Holsteiner Schnitzel at Luchow’s, and the perfect wines to pair them with. When it came time for me to look at colleges, he drove us in his little Subaru wagon from Queens into Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and then back to New York again. Colleges were rated not only by academic excellence but reputation for partying; he wouldn’t even let me apply to the University of Colorado because he feared I’d spend four years on skis and inebriated. When he took me to Williams College for my interview and we stayed for the weekend, we toured the campus on a Sunday morning, blithely stepping over piles of empty Smirnoff bottles in a dormitory notorious for its drunken parties. I wanted desperately to go to Smith, but my father was displeased with the fact that it was a progressive women’s college (albeit with a long and extraordinary academic history) and one had to drive a few miles into Amherst to even see a boy. It hadn’t crossed my mind, and I didn’t care if I never saw another boy again. I wanted to apply anyway, so during a family party, he enlisted the help of a favorite, older cousin to try and convince me not to.
We are quite sure that Elissa is heterosexual, he explained to her in front of me, in a voice that sounded faintly clinical. The three of us sat in my aunt’s hushed, mahogany-paneled library and sipped our tiny glasses of cream sherry.
And you know this HOW my cousin said, and the conversation ended.
In the late seventies, there was stigma everywhere. Not a soul in my family was gay. There were no rule-breakers and no one even remotely unconventional, and if his daughter wound up being a lesbian, my father would be deemed, he told me years later, a failure in the eyes of his very traditional family. First bankruptcy, then divorce, then a lesbian daughter.
Things happen, my aunt might have said, in threes.
When I finally left for Boston University in 1981, he implored me to mind my liver — I had had a virus that attacked it a few years earlier; my mother doesn’t remember it — and when he helped me move into my first off-campus apartment in 1984, he took me shopping for cookware and a set of twelve Duralex Picardie glasses. Before leaving, he deposited in my avocado green refrigerator a bottle of Bombay Sapphire and a jar of cocktail onions, just in the event, he said.
Learn how to make a good Gibson, he added, on his way out, but I never did.
When my father finally settled down again, with a woman who would become my stepmother-by-proxy — they never married but were together for twenty very happy years; I loved her and I still do — we routinely gifted each other alcohol: it was the nineties, and he had taken to having a small, nightly glass of syrupy white zinfandel so sweet he could have poured it on his pancakes, so I bought him a case of it on Father’s Day. After I returned home from a week-long trip to Aspen with cousins, he asked them what I liked to drink, and a little while later a case of Avignonesi Vino Nobile di Montepulciano showed up in the package room of my Manhattan apartment building; I was in my early thirties by then, had attended cooking school and worked at Dean & Deluca, and drank good wines on a nightly basis. When my mother made one of her unannounced visits to my apartment on the East Side, waiting for me to get home from work or a date for hours in my lobby — sitting on the fake Biedermeier loveseat that stood perpendicular to the elevators, chewing on her lips over one imagined transgression or another — I shook like a cornered animal until her explosion was over and she left, opened the cold, blue bottle of Bombay that my father had given me when I moved in, poured a glass over ice, and called him to come pick me up the way he had when I was a teenager. He and Shirley arrived twenty minutes later from their home on Long Island; I’d feed the cats and pack a bag, and stay overnight with them, drinking wine on our arrival and Bloody Marys before an early game of tennis the next day, and then I went back to the city and quietly beseeched something, anything, for peace.
By the time of my father’s car accident in 2002, he preferred getting his buzz by waking early in the morning, saying a prayer of thanks — nothing formal; just a simple thank you to anything that might be listening; he had long since become an agnostic who believed, as do I, in the presence of a Higher Power although he was not sure what or who it was — and walking around the tennis courts as the sun was coming up, before his community was awake. The last time I saw him drink anything stronger than half a glass of watered-down white zinfandel was when I introduced him to the woman I would go on to marry; I had just come out a few years earlier. He and Shirley instantly loved Susan, and when she made him a perfect, dry Gibson from his own bar on the night they met — we were all complete wrecks — one drink made him stagger; he was embarrassed and apologetic, and when she made him a second, I think I might have finished it, but I don’t recall.
I miss my father every minute of every day; Father’s Day is never easy for me, even as I am about to celebrate my sixtieth year, and mark my twenty-first without him. We saved each other — I certainly don’t think I would be sitting here writing this had it not been for him — and finished each other’s jokes, silently knew what the other was thinking, loved the same music and the same writing, had the same world view and sense of humor. When I cough, or laugh, I hear him, distinctly and clearly. And when I wonder what he would be thinking now, looking down as I navigate a world without the anesthesia that saved both our lives for so very long, I imagine he’d say what he always did when I woke him in the night as a young child after nightmares of falling, falling through time and space with no net beneath me: I’ve got you, Liss. Breathe.