When I was in high school, my friend Benjie Rosenberg asked me if my father ever spoke a calm word in my presence, and I had to answer that I couldn’t remember any. A self-made man, my father, of the kind I suppose nowadays isn’t any longer possible. The son of Eastern European immigrant parents—his father from Bialystok, his mother from a village outside Kyiv—he grew up on Chicago’s west side, dropped out of Marshall High School at 16, and soon thereafter drove a laundry truck for a man named Kravitz. With no hobbies, interest in sports, politics, or anything else I can think of, my father put everything into his work. When Lou Kravitz retired, my father, then in his late 20s, heavily strapping himself with loans, bought the business, and under his relentless management Superior Dry Cleaning, as he renamed it, flourished. When he himself was forced to retire, under the lash of dementia at the age of 68, Superior Dry Cleaning had some 46 employees, including nine drivers, and a reputation as the best place in Chicago to clean suede.
Whether it was a mistake or not I cannot say even now, but I decided early on to go into the business with my father. I did so knowing that he used up most of the oxygen in the place. I wasn’t myself much of a student, though I managed to drag myself through Roosevelt University for a bachelor’s degree. At 22 there was nothing else I really wanted to do, or truth be told felt myself especially fit to do. I had worked part-time for my father in high school and through college and knew he could be difficult, tough, tyrannical even. Like his build—not exactly muscular, but with no fat on him—I knew there was no give to him, and even then that there could never be any question of his taking me on as a true partner, at least not of the kind with whom one discusses business operations, serious changes, important deals. If I wasn’t fully aware of this, I may have been even more wounded than I was the day I overheard him, on the phone in his office, in his gruff voice say to someone, “Take a vacation? Whaddya kiddin’ me? Who’d watch the plant? Working for me I got nothing but a bunch of idiots!” I was 32 at the time and had to assume I was included among those idiots.
I spent much of my early life not seeking my father’s approval, but striving to avoid his disapproval. I worried about letting him down and feared that I often had. I’ll always remember the day when I was 16 and I banged up the fender of my mother’s Chevy Bel Air while parking it on Devon Avenue. I made no excuses, told my father it was all my fault, and promised that it wouldn’t happen again. I expected him to fly into a rage. Instead, he was surprisingly calm, saying, “All right. No use of the car for one year.” When I say I shall always remember the day, it is because my father, mercilessly, kept to his punishment and I went without the use of a car for precisely a full year, a serious deprivation for a teenage boy in Chicago. My not marrying, though he never mentioned it, was, or so I thought, another way in which I sensed I disappointed him.
Mercy was not my father’s specialty. Not long after I went to work for him full-time, he fired one of his drivers, a fairly recent immigrant named Estaban Reyes, whose route included Pilsen and other Hispanic neighborhoods, for showing up to work late twice in the same week. “He’s without sympathy, your father,” Reyes said to me while clearing out his locker, “cold-hearted, a mean man.” I had no answer. But I never forgot those words.
Being a father—parenting, as we now call it—didn’t all that much interest my father, though he was somewhat more protective, if not necessarily more understanding, of my younger sister Judy. As far as I can recall, despite all the time we spent together driving up and back from his plant, my father and I never had anything like an intimate conversation.
He came most alive at 3236 South Halsted St., the address of Superior Dry Cleaning. My father worked six days a week, usually arriving at his plant around 6 in the morning and returning home at 7 at night. He loved the action, attending to screw-ups, mollifying customers, breaking in new workers. I don’t doubt he even enjoyed his anger when things went wrong.
Why my father bothered to have a family at all was far from clear, at least to me. We took no family vacations when I was young. We celebrated no holidays together. Unlike most of the boys I grew up with in West Rogers Park, my father never demanded I go to Hebrew school, which seemed a good deal at the time, but has since come somehow to seem a hole in my boyhood. My father never denied his Jewishness—with a name like Irving Denenberg, how could he?—but I could never see that it consisted of anything more than a few scraps of Yiddish and being constantly on the lookout for antisemitism.
Just before they took him down for his bypass surgery at St. Francis Hospital at the age of 57, my father pointed, his thumb over his shoulder, at the Crucifixion on the wall above his bed and said, “If I don’t come out of this operation alive, I want you to take that cross off the wall and shove it up this guy Murphy’s tuchas!” Murphy was Dr. Tom Murphy, a locally famous cardiac surgeon of the day. Although my father survived the surgery, I remember thinking at the time that these would be the perfect last words for him to have uttered. What his actual last words were, I never knew.
My father was 11 years older than my mother, who was a great beauty. She was, in fact, one of the Chez Paree Adorables, a chorus girl at the leading nightclub in Chicago during the 1930s and ‘40s. Leah O’Brien was her maiden name. She was kindly, my mother, good-natured. What she saw in my father I never knew, and, now that she, too, is dead, I regret that I neglected ever to ask her. He was older, clearly intent on success if not yet well-to-do; perhaps she saw a secure life in her marriage to Irv Denenberg. Secure, I suppose, it turned out to be. So far as I know, he never mistreated her, or cheated on her, or even yelled at her, as he eventually did at just about everyone else, but handled her as what I imagine she ultimately was to him: a precious possession.
Our mother was in sole charge of raising my sister and me. She shopped and cooked for us; went to school meetings when required; offered bits of advice on dressing and table manners. She was a good-enough mother, and a shield of sorts for me when I was a boy against the harshness of my father. She was also a good wife and stood by him when the onset of my father’s dementia became evident, though she found his mental breakdown crushing. Toward the end, she moved off to live with my sister and her husband and children in Scottsdale, Arizona.
In his middle-60s my father began struggling with words—more specifically, with finding the right words. Aphasia is the technical name for it; it must have been brought on by a small, undetected stroke, but, as with so much about dementia, one couldn’t be sure. I could sense his tremendous frustration when it kicked in. He might begin a sentence well enough, then, poof, his mind went blank.
“Fred Petersen, the driver who covers Albany Park for us, the son of a bitch is ...” and the word refused to show up.
“Delinquent, Dad, is delinquent the word you’re looking for?”
“Not goddamn delinquent,” he said. “Another word. Something else.”
I would then run words by him—“slow,” “in arrears,” “stealing,” “stupid”—until we found one that approximated the word that eluded him. When this happened, which it tended to do four or five times a day, I noted his hands clench into fists, anger in his eyes. “Poor bastard,” I thought, recognizing that calling one’s father a “bastard” is probably more than a little out-of-bounds.
One day at work I had a call from Phil Goldenson, of Goldenson’s Drug Store, down the block from our plant. My father bought his cigars from Goldenson’s. I myself used Goldenson’s to fill prescriptions for my asthma meds.
“Barry,” Goldenson said, “I don’t know how to tell you this. It’s very awkward. Damn embarrassing really.”
“Tell me what, Phil? What’s wrong.”
“Barry,” he said, “your father has been stealing candy bars from me. When I lean below the counter to get his cigars, he gloms a candy bar or two. I’ve caught him at it more than once, though I don’t say anything. I don’t get it. He’s a wealthy man, what’s he need to steal my candy bars for?”
“I’ll explain it to you one day, Phil,” I said. “But for now, just run a tab. I’ll come by and pay for whatever he’s taken.”
When later that evening, I called to report this to my mother, she said she wasn’t entirely surprised to hear it and that I didn’t know the half of it.
“He’s lost lots of ground, your father,” she said. “Not only can’t he find certain words when he needs them, but he can’t follow the simplest plot on a television show, he can’t find the clothes he needs in the morning, he misplaces everything. Last week he couldn’t remember his brother Harry’s name. You must never tell him I told you this, but two nights ago, struggling to find the word “similar,” he broke down and cried. I’d never seen your father cry before. I found myself crying with him.”
“Have you suggested he see a doctor?”
“I have, but he’s unwilling to do so. He thinks most doctors are jerks and crooks. You know there is no forcing your father into anything. I suppose we’ll just have to wait until things get so difficult for him that he will have no choice but to seek help.”
Fortunately, by now I knew the business well enough to take care of day-to-day matters, to troubleshoot where it was needed, and to do so while deceiving my father into thinking he was still running things. I continued to bring him payroll and other checks to sign. I would report scraps of business information to him. When things went wrong, as they do in every business, I handled them on my own. My father kept to his old hours, though now I picked him up mornings and drove him home at the end of the day, because my mother was afraid of his getting into a serious car accident. Oddly, he didn’t object. He also seemed, slowly but certainly, to lose his old anger. On our drives to and from work, he talked more and more about his childhood on the old Chicago west side. He reminisced in a way he had never done before in my hearing about his own father, who worked in the produce market on Fulton Street. He remembered the heaviness of his mother’s cooking.
The aphasia seemed to clear up somewhat, but his memory otherwise grew worse. One day at work I noticed he had neglected to put on socks, so I ran out and bought him a pair, leaving them on his desk when he went into the office bathroom, so as not to embarrass him by confronting him with his oversight. I reported this sock business to my mother, who promised henceforth to inspect his clothes more thoroughly before he left the house.
I knew things were getting worse when he asked me, in confidence, what my mother’s, his wife’s, first name is. Some days I was fairly sure he didn’t know exactly who I was.
The breaking point came when late one morning he left the office to pick up a couple of cigars at Goldenson’s, and returned four-and-a-half hours later in the company of a policeman.
“I believe this gentleman works here,” said the cop, a corpulent gent, Irish in the best Chicago tradition.
“He owns the place,” I said.
“My partner and I found him knocking on the door of the Adler Planetarium, which is closed on Mondays. When we asked him his name, he wasn’t sure he knew it. I discovered this address in his wallet.”
I looked at my father, who had a strange vacant look in his eyes.
“Thank you, officer,” I said. “I’m very grateful to you. May I buy you and your partner dinner?”
“Sure,” he said, “if you like.”
I gave him a 50, and when he left I took my father to his office.
“You all right, Dad?” I said.
“Not so great,” he said. “Where the hell am I, anyway?”
“You’re in your office, here, at Superior, your place of business,.”
“Maybe,” he said, “I dunno.” And he dropped his head on his desk.
Things now had clearly gone from worrisome to impossible.
My mother and I found a place, Claridge by name, on Farewell Avenue, between Clark and Ridge, that dealt exclusively with dementia cases, and installed him there. He went peaceably enough, but it was sad nevertheless, this self-made man, this tough guy, fiercely independent since the age of 16, defeated by a devastating and inexplicable attack on his mind.
Soon after my father went into Claridge, I met with Dr. Lawrence Harris, the physician in charge, and asked him what trajectory my father’s dementia was likely to take.
“Difficult to say,” he said, “hard to generalize about the course of dementia. Sometimes death follows soon after it kicks in, sometimes people live a decade and longer with it. Some people seem quite happy with their dementia, others never cease struggling with it. Some patients quite mild in life before dementia turn violent once it kicks in. We had a patient here, three years or so ago, who threatened masturbation if he didn’t get his way, and I mean masturbation in front of whomever happened to be in the room. On the other hand, some patients seem to slip free from their old rigid ways and find contentment, even something approaching happiness in dementia. I wish I could be more specific about your father’s case, but just now I can’t.”
Claridge had 21 patients, with a full-time caregiver assigned to the seven patients on each of its three floors above its administrative offices. Each patient had a private room with a bath. The food seemed decent, the staff accommodating. I decided I would drop in to visit my father every Sunday. On my first three visits I found him depressed, not much interested in talking. I stayed 20 minutes or so, then left. One Sunday, upon departing, I saw in the lobby a woman, in her 40s I would guess, with a rather attractive face, hugging a large beige teddy bear.
The fourth Sunday, arriving around 9:00 a.m., I discovered sawdust on the dining room floor, the tables and chairs backed up against the walls. When I inquired what the sawdust was about, I was told by the assistant director, a woman named Alice Ferguson, that they had had square dancing the previous night.
“Square dancing! Did my father square dance?”
“Yes,” she said, “and he seemed to enjoy it.”
My father square dancing! Imagine Henry Kissinger square dancing, or Bill Belichick! I couldn’t get my mind around it.
When I knocked on the door and entered his room, my father was sitting in a wing chair.
“Good to see you, Maurice,” he said.
“Maurice, Dad? I’m Barry, your son.”
“Whatever. I’m glad you’re here. Tell me again, what do you do for a living?”
He hadn’t any idea who I was, or, for that matter, who he was. A different mind, clearly, had inhabited my father’s body.
“I’m in the dry-cleaning business,” I said. “Have been for years.”
“I’ll bet you often get taken to the cleaners,” he said, and laughed. A joke, a pretty lame one, sure, but my father had never before, in my hearing at least, made a joke. It also occurred to me that I had never heard my father laugh before. He went on to ask me some rudimentary questions about the dry-cleaning business, about profit margins, Hispanic workers, and other matters that made it clear that he had completely forgotten that his entire life was spent in the business. He asked if I were married, and when I told him I wasn’t, he said he, too, regretted that he had never married.
“You know what they say,” he added, “married, single—neither is a solution,” after which he laughed heartily.
“Good to see you, Marvin,” my father greeted me on my next visit. “Thanks for dropping by.”
“It’s Barry, Dad,” I said. “My name is Barry.”
“Don’t know where I got the idea your name was Marvin. I guess maybe you look like a Marvin. And what’s this ‘Dad’ business?”
“I’m your son,” I said.
“Really?” he said. “I had no idea I had a kid.”
“You also have a daughter, Judy, she’s married with two kids, lives in Arizona.” I didn’t bother to tell him that his wife, my mother, had followed Judy there, and used to call me regularly for news of him.
“So,” he said. “I’m a grandfather, then. You live and you learn, I guess.”
Changing the subject, I asked him about the woman who walked around the place hugging the large teddy bear.
“You mean Patricia?” he said. “She lives in terror that people want to kill that stuffed animal. Nuttier than a fruitcake. I feel sorry for her, poor woman. But tell me more about yourself, Gary.”
“Barry, the name is Barry.”
“Call me anything you like,” I always say, “except late to dinner,” he said, and once more laughed that strange, hardy laugh. Well, perhaps it wasn’t as strange as all that, except I found any laughter strange coming from the father I had known all these years. So, too, expressions of sympathy, such as he had expressed for the woman and her endangered teddy bear.
I was out of town for two weeks. When I returned for my next Sunday visit I noted that my father had had a television set installed in his room, and was watching a Cubs game. In the past, he had mocked sports, referring to it as trivial and empty, the greatest time-waster known to man.
“C’mon in, Larry,” he said, answering my knock on his door. “Cubs versus Dodgers. Should be a good game.”
“I didn’t know you cared about baseball,” I said.
“I like it a lot. Baseball’s a more subtle proposition than I ever realized.”
A man who tells and laughs at his own corny jokes, is sympathetic, likes sports, none of these were among the qualities of the father I had known through my childhood, boyhood, and young manhood.
I decided to stop correcting my father about my name or reminding him that I was his son, and instead to take him as he was. I now visited him later on Sundays, when there was usually a Cubs or Bears game on his television set. One Sunday I brought a deck of cards and tried to interest him in playing gin rummy. But gin required memory, which he didn’t have, so instead we played blackjack for pennies, which he seemed to enjoy. He told me that he looked forward to my visits. “See you next week, then, right, Harry?” I found myself pleased to be with him, spending—what is the cliché—the “quality time” I never had with him when I was a kid. Who knew you could like your father?
Early in September, I took my father to Wrigley Field, where he had never been before. (I thought of the irony of my doing so, for as my father he ought, 30 or so years ago, have taken me to my first baseball game, which of course he never did.) I arranged to get two tickets for a Cubs-Brewers game from my friend Ted Kaufmann, who had kept his excellent season’s tickets—11 rows off the field, on the first-base side, even with the visiting team’s on-deck circle—through three marriages. Although he couldn’t remember any of the names of the players, my father remarked on the lush green of the field and on the ivy outfield walls; being among the crowd seemed to please him. When, in the sixth inning, he had to go to the bathroom, I said that I did, too, for I couldn’t of course let him go alone, lest he get lost and never return. Throughout the game, he called me Sidney.
“I really enjoyed this, Sidney,” he said when I returned him to Claridge. “I’m grateful to you.”
“We’ll do it again next year,” I said. I had ceased addressing him as Dad, for it only confused him. Next year, for my father, never arrived. He died three weeks later of a heart attack in his bed. I came to Claridge to pick up his belongings, which were still in his room. On the way out, in the hall, I ran into the woman Patricia, hugging her teddy bear.
“Sorry to hear about your daddy,” she said. “He was a nice man, warm-hearted, kind.” She couldn’t have known it but she had canceled out almost precisely the harsh words about my father spoken many years before by Estaban Reyes, his fired employee: “without sympathy, your father, cold-hearted, a mean man.”
The world is a strange place, I thought, one in which I seem to have had not one but two fathers, both the same man.
Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, of Gallimaufry, Essays, Reviews, Bits, published by Axios Press.