Richard Meltzer with his sister and father. He assured me (as often as not) that I was the most important being in his life.
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.”
A lifetime Democrat, he voted for Eisenhower over Stevenson, on the grounds that “Ike was my commanding officer” — yeah, right. In 1940, the story went, he’d joined the army to “save England from the Blitz” (as opposed, more likely, to escape the clutches of his unhappy pappy), only to slip on the ice at Fort Ethan Allen, Vermont, tear a cartilage in his knee, and get classified 4-F a year before Pearl. Usually the story was preamble to his long-range plan for keeping “our” military heritage alive: I would sign up for ROTC (“Better to be an officer, Dick”) when I turned 18. I was in fucking kindergarten when he first served me this scenario, and not a day went by that I didn’t cringe at the thought of growing older (subtracting from 18 to figure how many years I had left).
Though the Meltzers as a unit never participated in the rites of any organized religion (other than Postwar Capitalism), Ol’ Man Meltz — though it might’ve just been a riff, y’dig?, tossed off in the same manner he read me sci-fi — occasionally fed me passages from the Bible (flaming pits and all), scaring the PISS out of me, and sometimes pretended to still be a Catholic — he’d been one for seven months. In 1935, to join an Irish frat at Brooklyn College — his way of being anything but a Jew — he took vows or whatever you do, ate no meat on Fridays, went to confession — the whole number — for as long as he could keep it up. It was easier to be an Irish Catholic, he surmised, than an Irish drunk. In all the years I knew him, he’d only sip beers and feign being drunk — what an actor. (He also collected beer mugs.)
Yet I lived to tell it. As so-called fate would have it, the weight of the whole thing proved too much for the old fuckeroo to continue to bear. When I was ten or eleven, the charade began to unravel. First to go were our trips to the movies. Maybe it was Creature with the Atom Brain, maybe The Creeping Unknown — something broke the camel’s back. One weekend he announced, flat out, that he’d had enough of the shitty flics we’d been going to — “half baked” was his term — and if I wished to see any more such trash, he wouldn’t be along for the ride. Huh whuh? — fuck you — as if this silly dance was MY idea! At first I felt betrayed…then a feeling of RELIEF set in.
In short order, he threw in the towel on father-son, on family altogether. Though for all appearances he went on behaving pretty much as he had, it was minus the constancy, fervor, commitment. From an imitation of life he moved to an imitation (and a weak one at that) of an imitation. The baggage of parenting, always a wretched cartoon, is more than any adult human, especially in postwar America, should have had to abide (a crack habit seems easier to finesse), and my father (what’s the word, lame? a loser? a dork?) was not made for it nohow.
In his labor-intensive — but ultimately finite — run with me, he lacked the killer instinct, strategic foresight, and parental finishing touch to be truly dangerous. If he’d known what he was doing, I’d’ve become a serial rapist (or a commodities broker) when the dam finally broke. (Call me lucky.)
Soon after giving up on the family thing, he gave up, in just as big a way, on Life Itself, even if, in his overachieving whitecollar mode, he probably passed to colleagues as animate for quite a while. No, he didn’t give up striving — or even bullshitting — just caring.
But with the pressure thus off, and decades to spare, he would still never become someone I (or anyone) could exactly “talk to” — he never mastered smalltalk or became approximately Real. Which today feels sort of tragic — or something — but that’s the fucking breaks.