05/17/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Desperate Fathers

My father's father was.

My father was.

I am.

My sons will be.

I yell at my children.

They are slight and vulnerable; I carry bags of groceries that weigh more than they do. People's pets are more formidable. But they still, on occasion, fail to satisfy my expectations of conformity. So I yell at them.

And when they repeatedly defy my authority I will change the timbre of my voice and I will fix them with steely eyes, daring them to continue their rebellion.

And I always win. Often I don't even bother to express to them reasons as to why they should submit to my authority, preferring instead to overpower their mini-insurrections with sheer bulk.

And then as they fume in their bedrooms in somber acquiescence, successfully subdued and appropriately meek, I bask in the efficient application of my parental prerogative, having effectively used those gifts which were passed onto me by my own father.

And then, as the tides of endorphins ebb, and the smoke of battle dissipates, it settles on me:

I have brutalized my children, subconsciously exacting control over the father who brutalized me, and who in doing so, subconsciously exacted control over his father who brutalized him.

My Father's Father Was:

Little is known of my grandfather's childhood, save the fact that he was an orphan growing up on the streets of Harlem at the turn of the 20th century. Difficult to grasp in itself, that simple description requires no further embellishment to explain why he eventually fell in with mobsters as a teen, ran drugs out of the back of a car, went to prison and why he was so faulty as a person and, later, as a parent.

And when he impregnated the gullible flapper who became his wife, it was into his jittery, malevolent arms a child was lain, who thereupon grew up the recipient of gristly, deformed wisdom, clumsily and rudely taught to survive in dissonant ways, taught inappropriate words for love, taught too often to fight; broken lessons imparted by a broken teacher, his education at odds with the other better world which beckoned from across an invisible divide to the vulnerable son, a world which prized gentility and patience over casual savagery and simmering despair.

The story goes that when he was teaching my 15 year old father to drive, he kicked his son's shins whenever he oversteered or ground a gear. He kicked his son's shins as a way of instilling in him what he himself had learned on the Harlem streets: with imperfection comes pain, a crude but effective lesson crudely and effectively administered.

And the story continues that over the years, with each sharp kick, with each crisply barked order, with each demeaning adjective murmured to motivate, jagged shocks bolted up the network of nerves and overwhelmed his brain until the young man's emotional reservoir was tainted by pain; so that whenever his emotions did flow forth they would do so disagreeably, bitterly.

My grandfather aged into linimint-gloved frailty, having lost the lethality which defined his youth. His mouth hung open, he waddled uncertainly, he sat in recliners and stared at a black and white television. And his son---my father---grimly catered to his fading tormentor's needs, his loyalty imprinted upon him like those permanent blemishes left many years earlier by the impact of his father's wingtips.

At the funeral service for my grandfather, his body lay in an open casket. When my father approached, he saw that the old man was wearing reading glasses. To my bemused father, this detail, more than death itself, seemed to sever any remaining connection with the tyrant, having reduced him to a macabre joke and leaving his son to bear his inherited burden wholly and alone.

My Father Was:

He enlisted in the army at the end of one war and at then again at the beginning of another, not because he was a patriot. It was a means of escape.

As devoid of detail as the account of his father's orphaning, the story of my father's enlistment suggests he had a survival instinct which defied all attempts to be snuffed out.

Escaping into war is not, on the face of it, a sound idea. Maybe it was a way of applying the lessons in survival he had been taught in an environment which suited his particular upbringing. Once again, details are few and one is left, if one cares, to make shapes out of the murk.

My father was almost always tense. His hands trembled slightly. He drank martinis at lunch and added beers at dinner. He raised his voice in a way that sounded like the sudden bending of sheet metal, a rusty, desperate screech which would send a shudder through everyone within hearing distance.

When he and my mother fought, my sister aged 9 and me aged 6, observed them, often huddled in quiet terror in our room which we shared. Sometimes he would grab my mother and thrust her around the living room. Sometimes she would flee the apartment and he would slide the chain on the door, afterwards retreating angrily into their bedroom. One time I woke up in the middle of the night to find my father in the dark, pounding on the front of our apartment door from the inside. Another time I woke up the morning after one of their fights to find that he had taken a crayon and written the phrase "#1" on every cabinet in the kitchen and on the wall of the dining room.

Eventually my sister grew to be unfazed, at least on the surface. About the time I was 12 and she was 15, she eyed my father with blasé disdain that seemed beyond the ken of a girl that age, like a kid who smoked cigarettes comfortably way before it was legal. She didn't startle as I still did when he lost his temper. And I suspect she viewed our mother with an equally preternaturally young sense of pity, and told herself she would never ever be caught in a relationship like that.

My sister, who thought she had eluded the contagion of my father's anger, had in fact ingested quite a bit of it. She began to brood and disappear into silent television watching; she smoked pot, hung out in the park in the rain with disheveled, long haired boyfriends and openly ignored the frantic warnings of my mother and the dire wrath of my father. She strode into her adolescence with taut, aggressive confidence, using anxiety as fuel for her defiance.

My father and mother eventually divorced, as a natural course. With my father's eruptive personality out of the house, we were left to make our way without what had become a sort of unseen pillar---his anger. Things did not immediately become joyful, however. There was a shambling dullness and soon, the only person he had contact with was me, ever loyal in spite of or because of the violence which defined him.

Those years spent seeing him on weekends were not particularly unpleasant, just insanely dull. My father kept to a schedule from which he rarely deviated. He lived in a one room studio apartment decorated in the budget conscious and taste-free style of a newly untethered bachelor.

From the evening's dinner of beef stew he prepared which we ate while watching television, to the next morning's chores (taking shirts to the Chinese laundry, putting air in his car's tires, picking up newspapers for his mother, whom we then visited for breakfast) the weekly ritual became as ingrained in me as morning ablutions. Even down to the conversation, the entire 24 hour event took on the characteristics of a performance art piece, played exactly the same way every Friday and Saturday, except for no audience.

This routine, however stultifying, must have brought some military-style order to his psychological clutter, like he was breaking down emotionally impregnable events into simple, easily digestible chunks. The order made him seem calmer but his anger remained unarticulated, unanalyzed, and redirected inward where it would pool and eventually calcify.

I Am:

My connection to my father was one of blithe contentment. The few lame attempts at deeper connection with him ("What happened when you were a kid?") were met with brusque deflection ("What difference does it make?"). So, coward that I was, I immediately gave up and fell lockstep into his rigid patterns. It was easier than risking a confrontation where his legendary anger might be employed. And it was only for one evening and the following morning once a week---penance for sins I hadn't yet committed but longed to.

And yet, I knew that somewhere buried under his twitchy hide was a guy who really loved me, loved my sister and still definitely held a torch for my mother. I knew this because he told me so. It was so simplistic that it was almost too much to comprehend, his regrets and desires boiled down to the basic elements and then simply blurted out as an aside. I would just say that I knew but really I had no idea. At night, as he restlessly tossed on his daybed and I lay on my inch-thick foldout cot, the stereo played Frank Sinatra's "Songs For Only the Lonely" all the way through until, even in my sleep, I could hear the stylus arm lift off the scratchy record and the unit shut itself off with a tactile click.

Since the divorce, my father wasn't on speaking terms with my mother or sister. But after about twelve years, he seemed to mellow a bit. He stopped drinking hard liquor and switched to wine; he smoked low tar cigarettes; he still did his taut set of push-ups every morning.

He was able to pull some strings and get me a summer job at a hotel in the Catskills as a poolside cabana boy. I waited on middle aged singles in the searing summer sun, fetching towels and ice water, cracking my shins on the sides of chaise lounges until the blood ran down my paltry legs in red rivulets and the tops of my socks were limned in crimson.

Bloody shins.

He dated one woman for quite a while: an uncharacteristically sophisticated (for him) middle aged southern belle. I didn't analyze it, just went along as I did. They broke up after a while and he was fairly depressed about it. But then he reached out to my sister, who had also softened up somewhat. She still bore a wariness when it came to him.

I brokered a dinner with the three of us at a Chinese restaurant. When they met, my father hugged her and hugged her and she gave in but with some difficulty. They sat opposite each other. The conversation was strained and at one point my father tried to make a joke about his sex life. It wasn't creepy or even inappropriate so much as it was mistimed and unnecessary. I could see he was trying to connect to his first born child, his daughter, this young woman who was in many ways his doppelgänger. After that flailing attempt the evening crumbled and blew away. We finished eating, stood outside and they made plans to see each other again. But they never did.

One afternoon a couple of years after that I was at the gym when I got a message to call my mother. I got on the phone and she told me my father had had a heart attack in his office an hour earlier and died. Upon hearing that, I felt like the floor beneath me had given way and I had the sensation of falling down, down, falling through my own body, and destined never to find solid ground again.

I rushed over to where his body was---Roosevelt Hospital on the west side of Manhattan---and collected his belongings, handed to me in a paper grocery bag. They asked if I wanted to see his body. I said no.

His funeral was solemn and by the numbers but several things stood out: first, I was pleased by the turnout, as it hadn't occurred to me that he had a life outside of my perception of him as my father. A good number of his contemporaries paid him compliments and spoke about his kindness toward them, about his devotion to their careers, about his loyalty. They spoke of him in a way that made me feel I hadn't known him at all.

Second, when it came time for mourners to each take the shovel and sprinkle dirt into the grave, I decided to indicate my grief by melodramatically hurling several extra shovelfuls of earth onto the submerged casket, all of which landed with a dull, scattered report, immediately drawing attention to the strained, cartoon display and making me feel ashamed at my desperate attempt to focus attention on myself.

Third, the presiding rabbi was wearing make-up. An orangey foundation. And a fedora which he wore at a rakish angle. Like his father's, his ending bore a final sardonic tinge which threw the event into a kind of morbid parody, a last mocking shrug of the shoulders in response to the whole of this poor man's life and death.

For a while, I would visit his grave, making pilgrimages whenever I found myself in town. Then, I just stopped going. I felt bad about that but at least the epitaph I chose for his stone---"Son, brother, father, soldier"---would bestow a bit of simple nobility upon him in the eyes of cemetery workers and the occasional passing stranger. Sometimes I think it was more than he ever earned when he was alive.

And three years after that, my sister died after a resurgence of a cancer which she had emerged free of years earlier, but which had returned to seek revenge for her triumph and, as always, won in the end. After all the things my father endured, I am glad he was spared his daughter's death. There would be no conceivable war for him to escape to after that particular hell.

My Sons WIll Be:

Now sufficiently armed with experiences to qualify as someone who's "lived", I try to do so happily and wisely, though invariably my happiness is mired in narcissism and my wisdom is, at best, risible. I struggle to be constructive with my time, though I submit to laziness more often than I create something useful and lasting. I have tried to use my father's and sister's life and death as an opportunity to objectively analyze myself, to foresee and, if need be, modify behavioral patterns.

After a first marriage fraught with naivete and nearly warped into insensibility by alcoholism, I managed to find someone who is sufficiently well adjusted to withstand my genetic predisposition in certain areas, and who herself has battled to overcome hereditary deficiencies, and for the most part won.

In 2001 we had our son Jack and in 2003 we had our son Alfie. It's not necessary to describe with loving detail the by-now familiar trope of comically flummoxed parents coping with devilishly cute newborns or hilariously destructive toddlers rampaging like tiny, diapered Godzillas.

Likewise, I won't go into the reflexive guilt associated with giving one son perhaps the most common name in the English language and another son the name of a well known Cockney womanizer and roué. This is about how my children step out of line and are old enough to incur a penalty for such actions.

I describe my boys as monkey-pirate-Hobbit-drunks, mainly to get a laugh. They have, as befitting their age and agenda, boundless energy, unquestioning confidence and perfectly natural disdain for authority. They are also springs of unadulterated love, expressing that love effortlessly and generously.

And there has never been anything in my life that has given me more pleasure, more sheer joy, more meaning than my sons. It is inconceivable to me that my grandfather for all his asserted hostility and my father for all his overwhelming anxiety did not feel the same about their children. Even on a purely fundamental tribal level, they must have felt that sense of belonging to a greater, loving totality embodied in and emanating from their offspring at some point before succumbing to the baser impulses which assured nothing other than cold, mean survival.

And within me is my grandfather and father's bestowal, a core sample describing scattered periods of adrenaline surges sandwiched between intervals of biochemical calm. This sample is taken from a rather challenging geographical region commonly known as "father".

Father has an anger problem. It erupts in a nova of rage, sometime after I have tried to tamp the first indications of its presence down or when a trigger I have labored to avoid finds me anyway and fulfills its function. Trigger tripped. Kaboom.

Forgot to flush the toilet? Yell. Didn't turn off a light? Yell. Dawdling at bedtime? Yell. Mind you, the yelling only comes after anywhere from three to eight comparatively calm suggestions which gradually become warnings which then morph into a full-throated threat.

Occasionally the boys will fight, which is, I am told, perfectly normal. But when one exerts brute force, applying a choke or gouging a facial feature, my disciplinary response is triggered and, in an effort to staunch such behavior, I insinuate myself with Old Testament fury.

The flaw in this response is obvious. But while in its thrall, it is a different matter and reason and judgement are wrung from me like a dish rag and I pounce. One or both of them end up crying and I suddenly see myself in the teary aftermath perpetuating, once more, the prerogative of the father to punish the sons for their ultimate supplanting of him; Kronos consuming his children.

In order to do everything I can to dilute the gift of misery I am destined to bequeath to my sons I will tell them everything about myself, omitting no details regardless of how banal or boorish, so that when I eventually veer away from reason and love into the preordained brutality of which I am already showing signs they will know and be able to chart their own courses away from that squall. And I also show them love. I hug them. I kiss them. I tell them of my pride in their accomplishments, both big and small. And I mean it. I could not live without them. And the other darker feelings I have described, they manifest themselves less and less and make up a small fraction of my relationship with my sons. But I highlight it here because it is a potent, terrible fraction.

At it's worst, it is a legacy of petty vengeance visiting itself upon each successive generation, one that is supposed to teach an understanding of boundaries and gain a working appreciation of order, to instill loyalty to one's own kind.

But in reality it is an ego-driven attempt on the part of the father to beat back his own insignificance, to establish a presence which would resonate long after he dissolved into dull memory. It is a vain attempt to matter.

I do not know if my father and grandfather had similar thoughts but just could not help their impulses. I hope not, as that would suggest something ungovernable, unalterable about the violence. Perhaps it is necessary for the father to make himself detestable in order for the son to take his rightful place in the world until he, too, must abase himself and become an unattractive, unreasoning thing, the better to be cast aside and disposed of to make way for his successor.

Still, I will redirect my angry impulses when they are inevitably triggered toward what I view as the real scourge: anger itself. Clearly, it's a self-defeating conceit. But maybe it will begin to shred the genetic tether which binds father to son in the cruel struggle for significance. And give my sons---my precious sons---a chance to someday do the same.