“Mac”

by A. Jay Adler on December 25, 2010
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“Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair.”

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

“Do you really think he was born on Christmas Day,” my mother said.

I was already fully adult, but felt instantly young and naïve.

“No one knows when he was born. We don’t even know the year.”

My parents, Meyer “Mac” and Helen Adler

My mother then went on, at my questioning, to share with me for the first time all of the details that were, together, her reason for thinking that my father was actually born in 1909, and not 1910. When he and his older sister Goldie arrived at Ellis Island, whatever meager documents they had – and later accounts to my mother from Goldie of events and years – seemed persuasively to indicate 1909. For this to be wrong, my mother explained to me, citing the accounts and the documents that once there had been, but that were no more, Goldie, a very vain woman, would had to have been making herself older than the two years she claimed to have on my father.

The information my mother shared with me, all of which in the years since I have completely forgotten, persuaded me, too, that my father was born in 1909. Since in those years, sometime in the 1980s, I was the only one of my parents’ children still also living in New York City, and much more involved in their lives at the time than my older sister or brother – I took an executive sibling decision. I made my father one year older. Remarkably, this act of pedantry applied to a whole life by the youngest child was accepted by all with only mild curiosity regarding the evidence. Even Mac, my father, accepted the additional year without complaint.

This situation prevailed for about fifteen or twenty years. Then, when my father was approaching his ninetieth birthday or so – let’s say ninetieth – I made casual mention of that upcoming milestone.

To which my father replied, “I’m not 90. I’m 89.”

Hm, I thought. I hadn’t (highly educated and sensitive individual that I am) realized that this was an issue, that Mac, had, for these whatever number of years, been harboring resentment against my diktat. And I thought instantly, without remark, that when your beloved father, a mostly very easy going guy, tells you directly and clearly that he is 89 and not 90 – well, you don’t argue with him. And what did I really know, anyway?

My father regained his year.

So this is to tell you, then, that today would have been Mac’s one hundredth birthday.

Mac

My father died on August 10, 2005, at the age of, ahem, 94, so he very nearly made it. After his death, I discovered documents in his keeping that indicated in one case a birth year of 1912, and in another, a judge’s decision that my grandfather Yoina (“Joe” in the document) had not been breaking child labor laws when he permitted my father to work in 1927 because it had been established that Mac was 17 in that year.

The story, the meager story, all through the childhoods of my sister, brother, and me, and into our adulthoods, was that my father was from a shtel in Russia called Orinin. He and Goldie had been abandoned by their parents in my father’s infancy. The couple divorced (who knows how, or if, really) and both emigrated to America (together? separately?) leaving the children in the care of their grandparents, my grandmother’s parents. Mac and Goldie left Russia when my father was ten, and wandered Europe for seven years before arriving at Ellis Island in 1927. Both parents had remarried in the U.S., accounting for the four American-born half brothers and sisters my father had in addition to Goldie. Beyond this basic story, little was added for many years. Mac simply did not talk about his past.

Instead, my father fully embraced his Americanness, and was thoroughly a New Yorker. In the 1930s he lived in Brighton Beach, attended concerts at Lewisohn Stadium at the City College of New York, slept on Central Park benches on summer nights, and dined in Sheepshead Bay (the first date with my mother). By the time I came along in the Eisenhower years, Mac had served in the army, then earned his citizenship in 1947. He had his Chevy, then his Pontiac Ventura, and he navigated the expressways, parkways, and turnpikes of New York City like any native man of the boroughs. Directions from Flatbush to the Grand Concourse were relished in their offering, precise and detailed in their possible variations like the recipe to a French sauce. Dad was a saucier of New York subways and roadways. We were an American family, and it was easy to forget that Mac came from a world that was unfathomable to the rest of us.

Though my mother, Helen, was born of parents also from Russia, she herself had been born and raised in New York, and while Mac’s accent, to the end of his life, was so thick that others would sometimes confide they could barely understand him, we hardly heard it at all. In a way, it was easier to forget his origins precisely because, beyond his silence about them, they were so extraordinarily foreign to the America in which we lived. He wasn’t just born in another country – he was born in rural pre-Revolutionary Russia. He might as well have been born in the nineteenth century. I studied the era, like the Napoleonic or the industrial revolution in England, in college history classes. How could my own father actually be of it? It was not easily accomplished as a child, without some assistance, to turn from Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo to the peasantry under Czar Nicholas II.

Mac, Helen, Yoina, my grandfather, and Aunt Goldie

Yet the signs were all around. There were the names and the accents, of Goldie and her Polish husband Chaim. Mac’s mother, Minnie who had abandoned him all those years before, and to whom he struggled to no avail to be a loving son loved in return –  she was probably in her late 60s in my earliest memories of her, but she looked, to a child, a hundred, and with her square, weathered face, her stocky build, and her kerchiefed head, she could have been, during her regular Sunday visits to our Queens apartment, any Babushka plucked the day before from a field in Podolia. And by then she had been living in the United States for nearly fifty years.

There was another sign of where Mac had come from and what had been before us all: his anger. Though we all knew the enormity of his love for us – his love and our mother’s was the atmosphere we breathed – Mac’s explosions of temper when frustrated, provoked, or disobeyed were like that of Moses smashing the Tablets. They towered over the family life. But we children could not then conceive the abandonment, the dangers, and the hardships that had forged that anger in him.

As it happened, too, as some children will experience, I lived through a period of deep disappointment in my father. When I was a child, he doted on me as the last born, unintended and then embraced with love all the more for it. And he was, indeed, my Moses. As a very young child, in the Catskills, I would not move my bowels all week until my father arrived for the weekend to hold my hand on the toilet. When in pain from some mishap, I cried “My daddy! My daddy!” as if invoking a presiding spirit. The earliest extant photo of me is as an infant cradled in my father’s arms on a New York City beach.

Then, briefly, at the age of fifteen, I saw my father differently. He had had me relatively late in life, so was ten to fifteen years older than the fathers of my friends. He was short and slight, at his largest 5’4” and 140 lbs. He was, aside from the deep practical education he had gained in politics and world affairs, almost completely uneducated. He could barely sign his name in English, and this he would do only unobserved. He could not teach me sports or guide my intellect, and the quiet caution before any form of authority that was the product of the hateful and murderous world he had survived in his youth, but that I did not yet understand, I perceived as an embarrassing timidity.

But this would soon pass, and how it would turn by the end of his life. Thirty-six years ago today Mac was having the heart attack that nearly killed him at sixty-four. The doctor’s said he had been walking around having it for days. In his life he had learned to bear much pain in silence. After he recovered, having seen his life, he told me, “differently now,” my father became a changed man. Over the remainder of his years, I saw him become very mildly angry perhaps a couple of times. He took pleasure in the love of his family, in daily walks, the sun on his face, and the renewal of the world around him. I have never known another person to so heal his own afflictions and transform himself.

Over time, during my adulthood, more details of Mac’s early life came out, dribs here, drabs there, like the leak of memory seeping through cracks. Orinin had not been in Russia, exactly, but Ukraine, though the latter was then ruled by Russia. There had been, in addition to his grandparents, an Aunt, Aikah, who had cared for him as a child. She survived the Holocaust and emigrated from the Soviet Union to the U.S. in 1980, when she and Mac had not seen each other in nearly 60 years. Another aunt and an uncle had not survived. Mac did not recall his grandmother’s name, so I concluded that she had died when he was still quite young. His grandfather’s name – my great grandfather – was Zakiah. Zakiah was a liveryman, and he would often taxi people the ten miles to the medieval city of Kamianets-Podilskyi. At the end of the day, it was my father’s job to water the horses. My father was perhaps not 10, but maybe about 12 when he and Goldie left Orinin on their own, rowed across the Zbruch River into Poland in the dark of night.

My great grandfather Zakiah Meltzer

I can recall with utter clarity the first time my father described to me, as we drove along Woodhaven Boulevard in Queens some time during the 1970s, the pogroms that swept through Orinin – how Zakiah would lead the family quickly up a hill through the trees and across the Jewish cemetery to the home of friendly Ukrainians, who would hide the family indoors. Once, lucky enough to be spared his life, Zakiah was caught and knocked to the ground by a Cossack on horseback, to have his leather boots stripped from his feet. I remember staring into my father’s eyes and imagining the world that lived on the other side of them, the images flickering there like a moviola projecting back in time.

Revelations might come in sudden, casual disclosures, but they were never, even then, easily achieved. For instance, one morning in Mac’s late 80s, I was visiting for the weekend breakfast he made for me and served me – bagels and lox and eggs and onions – and going over the daily newspaper together as we had since my childhood. There was some story I don’t recall of events in Nairobi.

“I’ve been there,” Mac said.

“Where?”

Where. Nairobi.”

“Nairobi. Kenya. You’ve been to Nairobi, Kenya. When the hell were you ever in Nairobi, Kenya?”

When. On the way here.”

“What were you doing in Nairobi?”

“They took us there.”

They. Who’s they? They took you there from where?”

“How do I know? A Jewish organization.”

“From where?”

“Where would they take me from? – from Russia.”

“Russia? But you’d already left Russia. You were in Poland.”

(A little impatient.) “I came back.”

“You came back from Poland to Russia? You never told us that.”

“Of course.” (Of course.)

“Where’d you go from there?”

“From Russia?”

“From Nairobi.”

“To London.”

“London. Now he’s been to London. By ship?”

“What then, by horse?”

“Where’d you go from there?”

“Then I came here.”

“I thought you came from Bremerhaven.”

“That was the second time.”

It wasn’t simply a matter of turning on the recorder and letting him speak.

After our mother died, I spent more time trying to draw Mac out. One afternoon in Marina del Rey, California – the state to which, over sixteen years, the whole family had separately moved – sitting on a bench and gazing peacefully at the sun-starred Pacific, Mac told me about the small lake where he took Zakiah’s horses to drink. He would lead the horses into the lake to refresh them, then grasp a tail to be pulled for a ride through the water. At night once, by the lake, the full moon hanging hugely over him, Mac became scared, and he ran through the trees to try to escape the moon, but each time he turned he found it always there.

When, in early 2005, Julia planned a travel photo workshop in Transylvania, so close to Ukraine, I began to research in earnest. On a trip to New York, I spent hours in the New York Public Library’s Dorot Jewish Division collection. Though I had never found reference to it anywhere before, in one small book I finally saw the name – Orinin. Somehow the memories of my father had seemed the dream of ages. Now, objectively, it was real. Not only had there been an Orinin – it still existed. And I learned more.

During the ten to twelve years of my father’s parentless childhood in Ukraine he lived through the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, the first great Ukrainian Famine of 1921-23 and one of the great waves of pogroms by Cossacks, all in the birthplace of Hasidism and in one of the centers of Zionist organizing and resistance. The area of Kamianets-Podilskyi was at the front line in World War I, the Austrian military bombarding KP on August 5, 1914. When the Cossacks retook the city, they attacked its Jews, many of whom fled. During the first three years of the Revolution, until 1920, KP changed hands among the Germans, competing Ukrainian forces, and the Bolsheviks. When the Bolsheviks occupied KP in November of 1920, the majority of Kadima, the Zionist student organization, escaped to Palestine. During the Civil War, both the Ukrainians and White Russians conducted pogroms against the Jews. In the Civil War period of 1918-21, it is estimated that 100,000 Ukrainian Jews died in pogroms. During the famine of 1921-23, between 1.5 and 2 million Ukrainians, including Jews, died of starvation or epidemic disease. My father could not say how his grandfather had died. There were many possibilities.

Julia and I left for Transylvania in August 2005. The night before our departure, I had dinner alone with my father. I was going, at last, to Orinin. He had not seen it in perhaps 85 years. How he wished he could go with me. But he was ill from a freak accident that had fractured a vertebra, and he struggled against apparent indigestion to share new details with me. He described the layout of the town to me, in order to help me locate the house in which he lived, attached to a barrel factory. At the lake where he took the horses, there a small waterfall, and it was to that spot that he would lead them to drink.

I did not make it to Orinin on that first attempt. I was called home from Budapest by my brother. I made it back in time to speak with my father one last time, and to be at his side with the rest of the family when he died. His penultimate thought, the next to last time he was conscious, was to think of his children, and to tell my brother of cash he had hidden away. His last act was to stare up from his tubes at my brother, in the middle of the night, and to shake his head. He chose his end as he chose the character of his last decades, as he had not been able to choose his youth. He lived his long old age and faced his death, with humor, grace, and stoic courage.

Two months after Mac died, Julia and I completed our journey to Orinin. What had been the Jewish houses along the main street are now occupied by Ukrainians. There are no more Jews in Orinin. I did the best I could to figure where my father’s house, apparently gone, had been. I attached to a tree a brief account of Mac’s life, and with Julia, and Vitaly and Vasily, our interpreter-guide and our driver, standing by, read it aloud. Then I buried at the spot a time capsule with the account of Mac’s life and photos of his family. I visited the old Jewish cemetery, where presumably my great-grandfather and great-grandmother are buried. There is no way to locate their graves because the stones had long since been overturned and stolen, many used by the Ukrainian wartime mayor to build his new house. On the steps of it are still the inscriptions in Hebrew. We were given the account of the days in August 1941, one month after the birth of my sister in New York City, when nearly all of the Jews of Orinin and Kamianets-Podilskyi were executed by the Nazis.

Vitaly found the current mayor for us, who welcomed us into his office. With Vitaly’s help, I interviewed him. At one point, our subject of discussion led him to interrupt and show us photographs of Orinin’s recent celebration of Ukraine’s fifteenth anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union. I thumbed through the photographs and then stopped, showing them to Julia. Several young women, in traditional garb, were standing by a small waterfall.

Now I interrupted.

“Please, tell me. Where is this?”

At the lake, the mayor told me – just at the edge of town.

“I need to go there,” I said, looking around. “Can you take us there?’

The mayor led us in two cars through the center of town, past the monument to the Great War. We made a right and passed the dirt fork where I believed my father’s house had stood. After only another minute or so of driving, we stopped on a low ridge above the small lake. Off to one side was a new mill. On the other was a tree-covered slope leading up the Jewish cemetery. The remaining open landscape was as it must have been for centuries.

We walked to the far end of the lake. There, at the hillside, was the waterfall. Amid all the growth and rock, there was only one clear path, foot worn, down to the fall. The others stayed behind as Julia and I walked down to it. This was it. There could be no other spot. This was where, 85 and more years behind, my father would have led the horses. This is where they would have dipped their heads to drink. This was where, at 7 or 8 or 9, the boy who would become my father, if he survived, had stood.

Suddenly, Julia turned and walked away. And I was alone with the thoughts the seeds of which had been planted when I lay on the sofa as a boy myself, the ache in my growing bones so deep.

“Rub my feet, daddy,” I would plaint as Mac, this man from some other place, but my father, took them in his hands and healed me.

I imagined as intensely as I could. The soft summer day. The bird calls and rippling waters in the vast rural quiet. No strife in these moments, only the pleasures of the earth, and a boy’s simple wishes. The horses nodding their heads in the cool flow from the fall. And then my father patting one on the haunch, tripping forward behind the horse as it entered the water, reaching for the tail and grabbing it, the boy already caught in the slipstream that has no beginning and that has no end, but for now holding tight to the tail, his eyes half closed in delight and forgetfulness, being glided through the water.

AJA

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