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The Octopus

Iíve spent more than the last decade of my life busting my butt for a piece of positive reinforcement from a ghost.

The ghost is, of course, my Old Man -- my father. He died in 1990. I canít say I really liked him all that much when I was growing up. He begot me rather late in life, when he was 37 years old. He had worked for the Social Security Administration since its inception in 1935, rising to the rank of Supervisor in one of the card punching (later, data processing) sections. He was a High School graduate, a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, and FDR was his hero. He was born and raised in New York City, and was a typical citizen of that town Ė very loud and very aggressive. And he was very physical in his affection and style of relationships Ė maybe coming out from his Eastern European roots. I mostly avoided him if I could. He frankly scared the bejeezus out of me Ė a looming, booming monster towering over my skinny little frame. But he did feed me, put a roof over my head, helped pay for most of my education, and did what he could to make sure that my life-thread could weave itself into a better tapestry than his own. At least, those are the things I grant to him in my kinder moments of reverie.

He contrasts with my mother, raised on a farm in upper New York State Ė very conservative, very serious and very miserly with words, as were all of her many kin. Didnít like to be touched, or touch back. She was an RN and worked damned hard all her life. The histoplasmosis she acquired as a little girl from the chicken feathers on that farm, with a little help from a lifetime of physical and mental stress, finally did her in when she was 69. She was tiny in her visage and quiet as a mouse in her manner; a mouse, to the huge, hulking and boisterous bear that was my father.

Based on their dialogue as best I can recall it, she thought he was a fool and hated him, and he loved to "bait" her ceaselessly. I know it couldnít have been like that always. Iím sure she stayed with him for the "sake of the children", plus having no other viable options to consider. Later, I think suffering his behavior just became a habitual endurance to her, akin to some incurable, perennial pain like arthritis. For his part, he would never have left her Ė that would have amounted to cutting off his nose to spite his face. He may have acted the boisterous fool, but he was really fox-smart. During my time with them, their conversation seemed like a never-ending replay of "Archie Bunker".  I just wanted to disappear into a crack in the floor, whenever they would start up one of their bouts of bellicosity. Cringing in my bed, I found that none of my blankets were quite thick enough to muffle out the sound of my fatherís bellowing voice when he got it into high gear. It was an unbearable thing, that somehow had to be borne.

My recollection of the details of my childhood is vague, at best. Iím sure thereís been a good deal of repression going on inside me to cause that. But one tangible article in our household that comes to mind instantly on demand is something we kids named "the Octopus". This was a leather whip with a number of separate fronds joined to a central hub that had a hole in it, there to latch a finger through. It looked like some archaic scourge, an artifact you would find in an museum exhibit about "Tools of the Inquisition". It was something my Polish grandfather had used to put the "fear of God" into his kids, and he had given it to my father to do the same. Lord only knows how many times it had passed down in this manner. Or how often my father had felt its sting.

My older brother felt that whip a lot. With his defiant, bad-assed, rebellious spirit, he probably deserved it most of the time. Iím sure a few of his whippings were suffered for my little unseen and misidentified sins Ė but thatís what big brothers are for, right? Though the Octopus was used repeatedly and often on him, it never changed his behavior, nor tamed his defiance. With his thick skin, my brother was impervious to that sort of thing. I always envied him that Ė God rest his soul. He passed away a couple of years ago.

My father used the Octopus on me once Ė once and once only. As my mother had warned him beforehand, "this child is different". They both experienced the truth of what she already knew, when I "shunned" both of them for a long time after that whipping. I gave absolutely no acknowledgement of their presence, their apologies, their expressions of love, their ultimate pleadings, or for that matter, their very being. As a skinny little kid, what other power did I have? They never physically disciplined me again. And following that event, they never really influenced me again. They had become more like entities to be avoided, or -- if that were not possible -- to be tolerated only. My true parents, from whom I had expected unending, unsurpassable love, kindness and caring, had died and left me. I was probably seven or eight years old at the time.

You may have heard the saying about how certain types of people collect personal slights like they were postage stamps. My stamp collection was very small indeed -- but extraordinarily well-maintained! That one single stamp still resides in my book, perfectly preserved over these last 50 years.

Now hereís the thing: I foolishly expected a higher standard of behavior from my parents than I did from "normal" people. That lasted longer than it should have. Sure, to a small child, parents are always God incarnate. But when you start to grow up, it ought to become clear at some point that parents are people too Ė just normal people, trying to "scratch it out" and make it by, like everyone else. You can forgive normal people their transgressions Ė or at least, you can neutralize them through rationalization. My father was not a God, not anything special. He had proved that to me, early on. But I could never bring myself to forgive him his human failings. I shut him out, indicted for the crime of being less than perfect -- and in doing so I forfeited any hope of a more healthy, more mature relationship with him later.

It was expected in my family that at the age of eighteen or so, the children would leave the nest and make their own way in the world. I left at seventeen to attend college, lived on campus, and moved into my own place immediately after graduating and getting a job. I visited my folks occasionally, but not extremely frequently. I was cordial with my father, but hardly intimate with him. I was much closer to my mother. Many years later, I did cry at her funeral. When my father died, some ten years after her, I gave him no such tribute.

I think back. He did inspire some very good habits in me: the love of reading, an appreciation for art, a desire for inquiry and learning. These were passed down very early on, during frequent and wonderful trips to the local library. By the same token, he embodied some negative behaviors that I swore I would avoid at all costs. I will refrain from recording them here. The point is, both sides of his soulís coin, ultimately bequeathed to me, were of equal value in building the positive aspects of my own character. So why donít I just put the damned chips away and close the book?

I canít fathom, given our early semi-dysfunctional relationship, why I cared at all about what my father thought about me or my activities later on in life. Even so, while he was alive, everything I did seemed to become motivated by what I thought he would say about it. But my take on it was that nothing I showed him was ever quite good enough for him. Granted, he always generously acknowledged my creative acts and projects, and seemed genuinely interested in them. But he would unfailingly critique some detail or aspect that was not (to him) quite up to par, something he might have done better, had he done it. My God, most of these things were subjects that he didnít really know anything about, or ever had any experience in doing! Perhaps I was just trying to get him to say how proud he was of me and my accomplishments Ė whining for love and attention like a lost puppy. But maybe, in truth, it was indeed just a constant, perverse and never-ending bout of father-and-son competition, after all. I really shouldnít have been caught up in it. I couldnít help it; I couldnít seem to extract myself from it.

I know, in an intellectual sense, that his reaction was simply the New York City street kid, dog-eat-dog competitive instinct in him -- to never acknowledge that anyone could do anything better than he could do. That was his background, and that was his mode and code of survival. Fine. But I never could translate that intellectual knowledge into a gut-felt, internal rationalization, thus to simply let it be, let it flow.

As I said, my father died in 1990 -- but it might as well have been that he never died at all. Iím still plagued by his mute criticism. I continue to hold everything I do up for his evaluation. But thereís no answer, no reply Ė except sometimes for a faint phantom voice buzzing in my head. If I listen closely enough, it has the hint of a New York City accent. It drives me crazy; it drives me to try again, and again, and again to get things perfect Ė which, in the absence of any other hypothesis, is apparently what he wanted of me. But I canít ever get anything absolutely right. It seems apparent to me now that what I gained from faulting him for being less than perfect is the relentless self-recognition of my own imperfections. Itís another unbearable thing, that somehow has to be borne.

And to think that I have the foolish temerity to wonder what became of that nasty old Octopus!

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