The sins of the father

Why, almost 50 years later, is my mother still protecting the man who abused us both?


Alice Elman
April 29, 2003 7:27PM (UTC)

My mother idolized her father, Chaim Melech Rifkin. Before I was born she painted his portrait in oils and hung it on the wall in the dining room next to the one she did of herself. He had small deep-set eyes like my mother's. In the painting he wore a fedora, the crown dimpled to the touch of thumb and middle finger, the brim dipped over his aquiline nose and closely cropped gray mustache. His skin was luminescent, as if lit from within. My mother's face had that same radiance. For her self-portrait she had gazed into the mirror and painted soft reddish curls heaped atop her head. The red of her hair was echoed in her lips, only the shade was a deeper crimson, like blood.

I called him Zeyde, the Yiddish word for grandfather. He was old by the time I knew him, short and frail looking, a yarmulke on his head. We lived with Zeyde and his third wife, Celia, in the upstairs of a brick two-family house in the Bronx, which he bought when my mother was 7. Celia was a tall, robust woman who towered over him. Her thick jowls set her face in a fixed frown.

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Soon after their marriage Celia and Zeyde stopped getting along. They slept in different rooms. Celia had the large bedroom with two single beds in the back near the bathroom. Zeyde slept in a little room at the front of the house, right above the stairs.

At dawn he would pray, sitting in a hard chair facing the sun-glazed window. Fixed on his forehead over his yarmulke was the black square box and leather strap of his tefillin. The box looked hard against his skin. One leather strap continued in a spiral tightly wound down his arm and ending in his palm where it was wound again and again. In his left hand he held a prayer book. I thought he was tying himself up to God.

One afternoon Zeyde called me into the little room. He was lying on his side on top of the borscht-colored bedspread. He patted the bed in a space next to him, gesturing for me to lie down. I didn't want to. I wasn't tired and I hated naps. But I was 5 and did what I was told. Lying down on my side with my back to him, I could see his worn leather slippers side by side on the floor. Large oxygen tanks for his asthma stood in a corner. His bubble-gum pink teeth smiled scarily out of a glass on the bedside table.

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He brushed his hands lightly over my eyes as if to shut them. I closed them and pretended to sleep. I seemed to lie there forever, and then I felt his hand beneath the elastic of my slacks. I closed my eyes tighter. His fingers moved beneath my underpants and down in between my legs, tickling me. I squeezed my eyes shut, afraid to open them. Zeyde was being bad. Me too. I felt sticky where his fingers were. Finally, he took his hand away. Then he took my wrist in his hand. His grip was strong, not like an old man's. He put my hand inside his zipper, closed my fingers on rubbery flesh. I pulled my hand away, my heart pounding. He grabbed my wrist again. I yanked away. Because I let him touch me he thinks it's my turn to touch him, I thought. "I think I hear Mommy calling," I lied. The sound of my voice broke into the air like an alarm and I ran downstairs.

I never told my mother. At first because I didn't flee the second he touched me, and then later, during my adolescence, the secret became a weapon I imagined hurling at her self-righteousness. She thought she knew everything. Over and over I'd imagined her devastation when I told her about the father she worshiped.

In my mother's eyes, her father was a man of God, full of rules. Forty-nine years later, the episode had taken on a dreamlike quality. I needed to test it. I needed to ask my 86-year-old mother about Zeyde before she became too old or ill to respond.

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I picked up the phone. I couldn't look her in the face.

"I've been thinking about my childhood," I said. "There was a time I never told you about, a time when Zeyde touched me. You know, inappropriately."

"Yes, you did," she said, not missing a beat, not sounding surprised. I was floored. I was certain I had never told her. I remembered telling my brother once, many years ago. Perhaps he told her. But I didn't want to get into an argument.

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"I don't remember ever telling you," I said without accusation.

"Well, that's how important it was," she said. "You don't even remember."

I gripped the telephone receiver, staring at a frayed edge of the rug. This is how it had always been. She had a way of turning the tables on me. I held my breath. Talking to her felt like blowing up a balloon -- in the split second that it took to gather another breath, the hot air rushed back down my throat choking me. I realized how much I had wanted her to be surprised, to be sorry. I wanted her to ask me how I felt. I waited, hoping she'd renege and take my silence for a reproach. But there was nothing, and the silence became a hole into which I disappeared.

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"Did he ever do it to anyone else?" I asked finally. "Did he ever touch you?"

"Yes," she said. Her tone was neutral, with a slight hint of defiance. I stared dumbly into space. How could she adore a father who had done that to her? How could she live in his house and leave me alone with him unprotected?

"How old were you?" I asked.

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"I don't know. Around 4."

"He touched you?"

"Yes."

"When?"

"It was Friday night. He called me into his bedroom and asked me to turn off the light. He was reading the newspaper on his bed."

I tried to feel grateful that she was being candid with me. "Did you go into his bed?"

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"No, I was on the floor."

"How did you feel?"

"I probably liked it," she said. Why was she letting him off the hook?

"You weren't frightened?"

"No."

"Did it happen more than once?"

"Yes." The mother I knew was becoming a stranger. I heard myself asking questions as if I were a social worker taking a case history. Inside I was curled up in a ball.

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"How many times?"

"I don't know."

"Did he ever touch your sisters?"

"I don't know, I never told them. You have to understand men in those days were very -- what's the word? Repressed. They hardly had sex because their wives were always tired. They didn't know what they were doing. They didn't think children remembered anything."

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I was flabbergasted. Repressed? I would say he wasn't repressed enough. She was 4 years old, for god's sake. "You didn't think it was wrong?"

"I knew it was wrong. But I must've liked it. Don't you have anything more important to do? You're making too much of this. You're lifting the rocks and looking under them."

My eyes fell on the tangle of wires falling from the TV and I felt myself waver in my old habit of giving in to her. Then, I felt my insides churn and I wanted to scream. I said, "I don't think I'm making too much of it." I wanted to pummel her. I wanted her to break down. "Did he ever want you to touch him?"

"No."

"Did you ever see his genitals?"

"No. He probably turned in such a way so I couldn't see him. He rubbed up against me."

A wave of nausea washed over me. Sweat began to run down my face even though the room was air-conditioned.

"How long did it go on?"

"I don't know."

"Months?"

"Something like that."

"And you were never frightened?"

"No. I was very sexual. I was always thinking about sex."

"Yes, well I can see why." But my sarcasm was lost on her. She obviously didn't see how her father's behavior provoked her sexual thoughts. Being the youngest, she must've felt favored by his attention.

"And you never told your sisters?"

"No. We didn't talk about such things. You don't understand. In those days, people didn't talk about these things they way they do now. They didn't make such a big thing out of it. My downstairs neighbor, Mr. Walshon, was always touching us. You couldn't pass by him without his brushing up against you."

"You mean when you were older?"

"Yes."

"Well, that's different from your own father. And being a child," I said.

"You don't understand. He probably saw all these little girls running around naked all the time."

I couldn't believe that she thought of naked 4-year-olds as being seductive. I couldn't believe she was defending him. "What would you have done if I told you about it when I was 4?"

"I probably would've told you to stay away from him." I wanted to shake her. She was supposed to protect me.

"You wouldn't have said anything to him about it? You wouldn't have confronted him?"

"Well," she hesitated. "If you were frightened, I guess I would have." Her voice was meek, and I could tell that she would have done nothing. Even now, in retrospect, she didn't feel badly enough to fake outrage. The air around me was close. I looked at an etching on the wall of an old man with a beard, a book on his lap. His skin was wrinkled. When I bought it I thought the old man looked thoughtful and kind. Now the face looked as if he were hiding something; now I saw him as an incestuous Old World Jew.

"And your father never did that?" she asked. Had she lost her mind? The woman who was talking to me was someone else.

"No!" I said. Did she realize that my father was her husband? Was she getting confused? "You mean, did your husband, Lew, my father, do this? No!" Would she have felt more justified if my father had been like hers? My head was spinning. I trusted my father completely. When I was 8 I'd loved to read to him. He'd lie down next to me in my bed and I'd lie in the crook of his arm, feeling the thick mat of hair on his chest beneath his shirt. I would read something he liked from Reader's Digest, "The Most Unforgettable Character I've Ever Met." Eventually, he'd fall asleep to the sound of my voice, and I'd shake him awake or climb over him to get out of bed. I thought of my own daughter and how I'd always trusted my husband with her.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

For weeks I could think of nothing else but my grandfather. I watched home movies from my childhood. For a living, Zeyde had been a shohet, a ritual slaughterer, raising and killing chickens in the prescribed kosher way. I saw footage of him killing a chicken, gripping it beneath its head and glassy eye, then slitting its neck and dripping the blood into an old tin basin. Then, there he was for my first birthday, standing next to my mother. She lifted my little party dress to show off to the camera the crinoline beneath. I felt my stomach turn. My mother was beautiful, in a taffeta blouse with a spray of beads descending from her neck in concentric circles. She never took her eye from the camera as my grandfather kissed her three times, on the lips, the cheek, and forehead. My father stood smiling behind my mother and after a bit I lifted my hands up to him and he picked me up.

I thought of my female cousins, the daughters of my mother's sisters. One by one I telephoned them and told them what happened. My cousin Stephanie was six years older than I and lived two blocks away over the years we were growing up. "Oh my God," she said. "I never told anyone this. But Zeyde did it to me too. I was 10 or 11. Just developing. I was alone in the house with him. It was summer. It was in the little room. He went for my breasts with both hands and then he slid down the front of my dress and started to go beneath the skirt. I ran away. My mother came home and I was crying. I told her I was afraid but didn't tell her why. She thought it was because I was worried he'd have an asthma attack, and I let her believe that. Afterwards I cried and refused whenever she wanted to leave me alone with him. I let her believe that it was because of his asthma."

"Why didn't you tell her the truth?"

"To protect her, I guess. I must've thought it was somehow my fault. Zeyde was beyond reproach."

I couldn't stop talking to my friends about my mother. On the phone, in restaurants or cars, I told the story of my phone conversation again and again. I became listless and couldn't concentrate on anything. A friend wrote to me about another friend who was bereft because her mother died. As I was writing a condolence note saying I was sorry about her loss, I realized how much I envied her grief. If only my mother had died. Weeks went by and she didn't call me. Finally, a month later, I realized I couldn't keep avoiding her and needed to confront her again. I telephoned and told her caretaker when I'd come by.

I let myself into my mother's apartment. In the foyer on a pedestal was the plaster cast of my head a cousin had done of me when I was a teenager. My mother had touched up the eyes with gold leaf. I remembered the straws in my nose, the wet plaster hardening around my head, the panicky feeling of being buried alive.

My mother sat in her wheelchair impeccably groomed in a gray sweater set, a necklace of gray beads mixed with pearls and garnet-colored crystals around her neck. I refused her offer of food. She would not look me in the eye but she lifted her hands to show off her a gold ring, and slim fingers tapering off into long nails painted red.

"I'm still very angry about Zeyde," I said.

"What do you want me to do? Dig up his grave and yell at him?"

I ran my hand through my hair, accidentally flipping a section over more to the left.

"You look a thousand times better when your hair is combed that way," she said. I felt like punching her. I persisted. "It's not just about him. It's about you."

"What can I say?" Her voice was tinged with anger. I held her eyes in my stare, holding her accountable. "All right," she said. "If I had been there it wouldn't have happened." I leaned back in my chair and felt a shift in the balance of the universe. This was an apology. Wings of white hair stiff with hairspray framed her head and made her skin look more fragile, the wrinkles gathered in soft folds around her nose, a blue vein on the skin, translucent. She was an old woman and I was not going to change her. But I had not let her go to her grave with my secret or her own. I was quiet for a bit and let myself feel sorry for the little girl that had been my mother, the child who was abused by her father but had needed to protect him in order to feel loved. My mother sat with me in silence. Then she said, "You used to be so agreeable."

I smiled faintly. "I know," I said. "But not anymore. Not anymore."


Alice Elman

Alice Elman is working on a memoir, "You Call That Love." She is a professor of Humanities at Suffolk County Community College in New York.

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