Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Past Imperfect

Another sign that you're getting old: In the car on the way to school this morning, my son mentioned my father (who died many years before he was born), and we somehow touched upon what he did for a living (he was a sheet metal worker). Sam asked if he liked his job...and when I began to answer, I started to cry. I guess I never really thought much about it before. His life was interrupted by the whisperings of war and persecution to come; he left his parents and brother in Europe, where they perished. He ended up doing whatever he could to survive by himself, and then later, to support a family. I remember hearing him eating breakfast in the dark at 5am, and leaving at 5:30 for a long subway ride into Manhattan, and then another subway back into another part of Brooklyn (we lived in Brooklyn, but the area he worked in wasn't directly accessible from our neighborhood). The shop was freezing cold in winter, sweltering in summer. The clanging of metal on metal was deafening. In 1975, I came across documents showing what he had been making in 1973, when he was laid off after so many years, and also his age, which was always a huge secret (my family had a lot of secrets, one of which later proved to be pretty shattering). His salary was $6.50 an hour (still not a whole lot even in 1973), and at the time I found the documents, he was 65 years old. I was 15. I freaked out at that last revelation, and erupted into the kind of hysterics of which only a teenage girl is likely capable, screaming "I've been cheated!" over and over again.

Now, of course, I realize that if anyone had been cheated of anything, it was my father. But he never complained. I suppose it takes a certain amount of living, along with both parents gone, to realize that our parents weren't necessarily happy with their lives. Certainly, they weren't perfect, and I'm not about to follow in the footsteps of those whose who, looking through the misty lens of nostalgia, tend to find themselves rewriting history. (My family was famous for what one cousin referred to as "throwing another length of footage onto the life editor.") But they did what they had to do, and they did it for their children. Meanwhile, whatever hopes or aspirations they ever might have had receded into the distance, never to be revisited. And as they are no longer here, neither will I be someday. I can taste not only my own mortality, but my own failings, my own imperfections. And they all taste like tears.