Richard Meltzer with his sister and father. He assured me (as often as not) that I was the most important being in his life.
  • Richard Meltzer with his sister and father. He assured me (as often as not) that I was the most important being in his life.
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Perhaps it’s a question of semantics, who knows, but I feel incredibly relieved to be done with “family,” “home” — these are things you grow up to leave and be done with, at least as much as school. To claim, as some would, that select human add-ons after the split — a lover or a spouse, say, or bosom buddies, sidekicks, or semi-regular drinking companions (and you’ll notice I’m not mentioning offspring) — constitute not only family, but a “purer” version of family based on choice and real need, and that we “all” need family in some configuration…I see such assertion as wordplay, I see it as the fucking BUNK.

The first member of my family, my original, actual family, the one I was born into — my so-called “blood” scene — I was able to dispense with was my father: dear old Dad. It was impossible, it was frighteningly easy, it was all variety of arcane, jagged, stress-filled whatever, but I did it — though of course I haven’t really dispensed with him at all. I’ve never been able to really talk this out, not by the numbers, let me see if I can ’splain it now…

My father is dead, he died, but way before that he sort of died, became something quitelike dead, for many intents and purposes, so palpably you could just about put a date on it: two dyings, and which should we count? (At 80 and 40.) And there’s maybe even a third dying, a child-size giving up in a major way, when he was five, but I wasn’t there to see it. We’ve only got his word for it, and it’s hard these days to take anything he said literally, any more than wine red seas or looking glass ties, or even seriously (more than a speech by Clinton or Reagan).

Who was he? What was he? I haven’t a fucking clue.

As I find myself reconstructing things, by the time I was four (and my sister was one) it was clear to my parents that they each lacked the energy, the stamina, the basic wherewithal to deal whole-hog (for more than minutes at a time) with two children. One had been plenty, two was a terrible blunder — whudda ya do? The plan from then on was for my mother (with an assist from her mother, who lived with us) to handle my sister, “raise” her, all of that, and my father to handle me. We would all be together, more or less, at mealtime and Christmas and on family outings, but that was it.

My sister, it would turn out, was the lucky one. For me, what the setup meant was the old man had full, unrestricted license to own, operate, supervise, to some degree nurture, but above all manipulate me, lead me by a ring through my goddam nose, and crowd me to the point of suffocation. For the next six-seven years, he wouldn’t fucking leave me alone.

Of course he LOVED me (and I loved him) and all such biz — but that part was maybe the worst of it. A sentimental slob, a ’40s romantic in desperate need of a compliant LOVE OBJECT, he inflicted his ardor on me in direct proportion to what he wasn’t getting from his wife, assuring me (as often as not) that I was the most important being in his life. A sensitive little prick, I grieved for the guy in his loneliness, enabling him to box me in all the more. (While he wasn’t getting his quota of wifelove, I was meantime getting even less in the way of motherlove, although years later, when I asked my sister what that had been like, she said with a smirk, “You didn’t miss much.”) Those times when his game got to be sooo heavy that I went to the old lady for help, or even a second opinion, she’d tell me what amounted to Hey, he’s just my husband. If you’re gonna be FRIENDS with the likes of him, you’re on your own, kid.

What I got from this not ungenerous acquaintance was, hell, he showed me how to draw and paint, well enough that I understood color and perspective by the time I was six, taught me all about dinosaurs and starfish and igneous rocks, read me stories from seminal science-fiction collections, dealt me stamps and coins and all my hobbies — every one until rock and roll. He also fed me more bullshit than a captive audience should have to endure.

Like he told me, without my asking, where babies came from when I was only like seven, but he also made sure I knew it was “illegal” to poke around if you weren’t married — you’d go to JAIL, he said, and for too many years I actually believed him. (Finally I realized he’d been married a virgin and didn’t want me having any more fun than he’d had himself.)

Every weekend, he took me to the movies, something I’d much rather have done with folks my own age. During the 20-block walk to and from the theater — we never took the bus — he would deliver a lecture, or a meditation or monologue. En route to Revenge of the Creature and This Island Earth, he filled me with crap about the terrible Commies (never accept an apple pie from strangers: Communists have been known to lace them with HAIR), then afterwards, as the sun went down, he hit me with a grim blend of science and sci-fi, i.d.’ing clouds, explaining the coloration, and concluding, “This is how it will look at the end of the world.” (Say what?)

Above all, he regaled me with tales of his glorious premarital past, like the time he and some pals had been to a NUDIST CAMP — what wild and krazy s.o.b.’s — and this other time (drunk!) they’d swum out to a yacht moored off Sheepshead Bay and spent the night. (How pathetic to hear this hokum — at a moment when his only friend was ME.) In the late ’30s, as “press agent” for a semi-pro football team, he allegedly phoned in “game reports” to the Brooklyn Eagle. Yet when we watched a game together (before instant replay) and I asked him what a draw play was, all he could say was, “Draw play? I know what a screen play is.”

This article is part of the Father's Day issue. To read additional articles from this issue, click here.

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