Honor Thy Father?


I hated Father’s Day when I was a kid. In the stormy family stew that was my almost-daily diet, “Father” meant “Sid,” and that meant trouble.

My mother left Sid when I was 2, and took my older brother, Jerry, and me with her to my grandmother’s apartment in Queens. Angry battles between my parents erupted with Vesuvian force as they fought about everything including court-ordered visitations that Jerry and I endured with Sid. We never knew when he might appear at Grandma’s door, pounding furiously or climbing through her first-floor windows if we didn’t let him in “NOW!” He never forgave my mother’s desertion, but he aimed his rage at safer targets — Jerry and me.

I was barely 4 when Sid put us on the outside fenders of his car and sped down Northern Boulevard. A few months later, he sent us (non-swimmers without lifejackets) off in a rowboat that drifted in a bay while he stood on the shore. Another time, he smashed Jerry’s eyeglasses and beat him up in a public park because he didn’t answer a question. Gaping bystanders stared but didn’t intercede because Sid insisted he was “just disciplining my boy.” Even so, family court judges reduced but would not eliminate the visits. By the time I was 8, Jerry and I saw Sid only one hour a month, in the presence of a guard hired to watch us.

“Name the Ten Commandments!” Sid demanded. He often complained that we lacked religious educations. Quickly I rattled off no killing, stealing, or wanting what your neighbor had. But I deliberately skipped “honoring” your parents, which I didn’t understand at all. (Did that mean him?)

The visitations ceased when I was 15. Sid faded from my life, but his specter lurked around the edges of my consciousness. Now and then, he sent me mildew-stained copies of old court records and brief notes, but he never apologized for his actions. I wouldn’t respond because Sid’s punishment was never to know anything about me.

Eventually, after I joined a synagogue and began to study Jewish history, I learned about Amalek — the collective name of the tribe that attacked and harassed the Israelites during their 40 years of wandering in the desert. And I realized that Sid was my Amalek — the evil malevolence you never spoke of but would not forget.

Decades passed until, through the flimsy grapevine that endures even in ruptured families, I heard that Sid was in a retirement home in California, and I decided it was time to show up. Maybe confronting Sid half-a-lifetime later would help me overcome my fears and sort things out. Only after I made flight reservations did I see I’d be there on Father’s Day.

Seeing him was a shock. In my mind, Sid was still 40something, with meaty hands and a smile that could turn into a sneer. Minutes passed before the scraggy old man comprehended who I was. “Susan?” he asked. “My Susan?” He lurched and embraced me, crying, drooling and laughing at the same time. I let him hug me, but I couldn’t hug back.

All afternoon, he tried to correct my “misconceptions about the past,” he said. “You were so young. I was your father; you had no reason to fear me. …”

No reason? I was exasperated. But my nightmarish recollections only produced cockeyed retorts: “Your memories are distorted.” “Your mother brainwashed you.” “I didn’t kidnap your brother; he was confused.”

He begged me to call him “Dad,” but “Sid” was the best I could do. “Are you married?” he asked plaintively. “Do you work? Do you have children?” He had missed out on everything.

I had grappled with the Fifth Commandment long enough. Even if I could never forgive Sid’s terrible, unhinged anger and violence in the past, I felt pity, now, for this pathetic 87-year-old man. I couldn’t “honor” him, but I could behave honorably. So I began to tell him about my life and my family, especially his grandchildren.

I never saw Sid again, but until his death, 16 months later, I wrote to him occasionally, and shared more stories. I didn’t write to make Sid feel better, although I’m sure that I did. Mainly, it was good and healthy for me.

Susan Gordon is a regular contributor to the Back of the Book