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Babette Hughes Headshot

Blame

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"Listen," my uncle said to me, "your dad was just unlucky getting murdered like that." Look at Bugsy Siegel and Legs Diamond. Al Capone. Dutch Schultz. They're still writing books and making movies about those guys. And what about O'Hare for God's sake, getting a major airport named after him? A bootlegger's son! And how do you think Joe Kennedy got started? And the Bronfmans up in Canada with Seagrams? Bootlegging!" Uncle Marvin shook his head. "Your dad was just unlucky," he said again.

In long-festering rationalization and guilt, my father's sisters, Sally and Milly, and brothers, Marvin and Manny, had put out a kind of revisionist story. Blame was everywhere and nowhere; everyone pointed a finger at everyone else. His wife should have made him stop bootlegging... His brother should have kept him working in the bakery... His mother should have been more affectionate... His bootlegging partner should have... His sisters should have... His friends should have....

I imagined the finger pointed at me, too. Two years old, wetting my bed and spitting up my bottle, I was already responsible for murder. If I had been as lovable as the babies of unmurdered fathers, he wouldn't have risked his life playing chicken with the mafia. He would have wanted to stay alive to be my daddy.

The fingers all finally turned and pointed to my mother. It was her fault. She should have kept him home that night. She shouldn't have had her nose in a book all the time, who did she think she was? She shouldn't have spent so much money on that house, those clothes. She shouldn't have played those scratchy operas on the phonograph -- no wonder he was out all the time. She should have been a better wife, mother, person.

But no one pointed a finger at my father. By virtue of being dead he was blameless, his guilt buried six feet under, leaving the survivors to play musical chairs of guilt. I used to imagine him looking down from heaven or up from hell saying with his famous charm, "Listen, all I did was give the folks what they wanted, supply and demand, what could be more American? Who do you think were my best customers for the booze? Judges and cops, teachers and doctors and all the other pillars of society. Besides," he'd say, "nobody was upset when I brought in the money."

Years later, when I finally visited the cemetery in Cleveland where he was buried, I pointed my finger at his grave. It was his fault.

The woman in the office of the Park Synagogue Cemetery had looked up the site of his grave in a big dusty book, turning faded pages of neatly hand-written names of the long dead. Then she drew a circle around his gravesite on a map and handed it to me. After being lied to about his death all of my life it was the first tangible evidence I'd had of his existence and taking the map from her hand felt like a subversive act.

As I left the office, the glare from the sun was sharp on the tombstones, the air still as the dead. I wandered among the graves with the map looking for my father. It was an old crowded cemetery with the dead buried close together, laid out side by side, head to head, foot to foot, the tombstones reaching as far as the eye could see into the horizon. Finally a greens keeper going by in his truck stopped to help me. I showed him the map, he pointed and drove off. And there it was, ten feet from where I was standing.

LOU ROSEN the tombstone read, YOUR MEMORY IS DEAR. I wondered who ordered that lie. Surely not my mother who tried all her life to obliterate it.

I stood trying to imagine the burial all those years ago. My brother, Kenny, reciting the Kaddish in his six-year-old voice. Lou's weeping siblings. The bootleggers in their dark suits and fedoras. His killer, Lonardo. The detectives. The carpet of flowers on his casket. The crowds kept at a respectful distance by the police. I wept as if I had been there that day, as if I were finally burying him. My eyes and nose running, I mopped up my face and looked around in embarrassment. No one was there. Anyway, it was okay to cry in the cemetery. You were supposed to cry in the cemetery, and for a moment I felt part of the shared universe of daughters grieving for their lost fathers.

His dead neighbors were in well-kept graves, but my father's lay in black-sheep neglect, sunken and overgrown with weeds. I walked back to the office to arrange for the grave's repair and perpetual care. But I didn't go in. I didn't want to. It was too late to have a father. He was nothing to me or too much to me.

I got in my car and left.