And making new friends meant subjecting each and every one of them to all the old “material.” (“Mind if I smoke?” was a surefire set-up line for the awaiting punch, “You wouldn’t care if I burned!”) A galling aspect of this was that anyone hearing it for the first time tended to be bowled over. Among his grown-up friends, he was viewed as the life of the party. But those who knew him only socially did not get to see the black moods, the volcanic temper, the late and drunken homecomings that became such a regular feature of those years. Membership in AA did not magically transform his children into tots again, and it did not last long.
We grew distant. I had seen the ineffectiveness of my older brother’s tactics, nose to nose with clenched fists. I chose a subtler and more frustrating approach: “the silent treatment,” as my father fumingly called it. And I started a trend among my siblings by addressing him and referring to him as “Father,” as if I were the scion of some Old World autocrat in a Hollywood period piece. He hated this, but no disrespect could be proved. We saw few things eye to eye anymore, and those were not the things that would form the basis of discussion. Martin Balsam, for example — my father was always partial to character actors, having been one himself — was held to be the equal, but for “the breaks,” of Marlon Brando, then a favorite of mine. The assigned reading of a Saturday Evening Post cover story on Brando’s misbehavior during the shoot of Mutiny on the Bounty, and a parenting-help pamphlet entitled “It’s Hip to Be Square” did nothing to quell the teenage rebel.
When at last it was time to go away to college (emphasis on away), my father insisted on driving me clear to New York, a long eight years since our previous visit there. After we said our goodbyes, I stood at the door of my dorm room listening to a frightful dry chuffing sound as my father fought off tears at the elevator. What was required of me here? What could be said or done? While I was still working on that, the elevator came and took him away. From then on I returned home less and less frequently, preferring to stay on campus even over Christmas holidays. With graduate school in California, I stopped going back even for summers. The last time I saw my father alive, I cannot recall what had brought me back, but I passed along my idea of a peace pipe: a suggestion that he see The Sunshine Boys at the downtown Gopher theater. Old vaudevillians. One-liners. George Burns. If my father was not the ideal audience for this, who on earth was? He came home in one of his black moods, believing that I had deliberately and spitefully sent him off to something I had known full well would depress him. I am now very wary of recommending any movie to anyone.
This article is part of the Father's Day issue. To read additional articles from this issue, click here.