Ambition and greed in fashion woman with jewelry in hands on black background
a selection from the last part of my memoir, the only selection I’m publishing here on my blog………….
The house never changed at all, and neither did our old San Franzisko neighborhood. The big house withstood the fog that came in most days from the ocean. It withstood daily gunfire from the rifle range across Lake Merced as well as earthquakes, some of them severe. People withered and died, but the house just stood there stoically facing the lake as well as the lions that roared and the seals that cried out at midnight from the zoo. I could go back to my old room and it could easily be 1974, until I looked in the mirror and discovered a man in his forties, with more than a few gray hairs. I loved the house so much that I sometimes pitied it, as you can pity a living thing. It remained empty nearly all year long, since my father spent most of his time with his lady-friend in Beverly Hills Adjacent, not far from me in the northeast corner of Los Angeles. And so, whenever I went back, I spoke to the house and assured it that one day it would welcome a young family living there again; one day it would be warmed by children and animals within its walls.
Henry Frankel shriveled and shrank, but neither of us wanted to fully accept that he was older than fifty or that I was much more than nineteen. We worked to keep me innocent and young about money, and I still called him “Deddi.” I reached my forties before I realized the significance, for Americans, of the date April 15. I sometimes didn’t pick up my paycheck from the university for days, and then would leave it in my backpack for weeks before I deposited it. The phone company often threatened to cut me off for not paying my bills. I never listened to the stock market report, and why should I? I had a checking account, a few thousand dollars in savings, and a Visa card linked to my father. I never paid for my own gas. And yet I lived simply in a one bedroom apartment near Cal State L.A.; I dressed in the careless way of most male college instructors; I drove an old car; I didn’t travel. I accepted my unusual condition of dependence and thought about it as little as possible.
One Friday morning I lay in bed until late in the day. When I checked my voicemail, I heard a message from Deddi’s companion, Rhoda Goldfarb: my father had driven to San Franzisko, weak with kidney stones and diabetes, and had fallen in the bathroom. He’d struggled on the floor for twelve hours until he could crawl to a phone. The paramedics had climbed in through a window and taken him away. “He’s not doing well,” said Rhoda. “You need to go up there and act like a son for a change. Good-bye.”
By that evening—after a daylong drive and frequent updates from nurses who inexplicably found my father “sweet” and “kind”—I was sitting at his bedside in a hospital near my old high school and synagogue, the same hospital where my mother had died of cancer so many years before (we never truly lived in the wholesome American San Francisco, but in our own moldy German-Jewish San Franzisko). He lay in bed awake and frail, his eyelids drooping every time he made the effort to speak. He’d taped a picture of Rhoda to the wall. “This is my love,” he declared to the nurses.
Henry Frankel now turned into my grandfather. I learned to carry his briefcase and his belongings from the house to the hospital. I learned to open his bills and his checkbooks and enter his inner sanctum of high finance. I was going to have to grow up now.
I stayed in San Franzisko two long weeks. Rhoda Goldfarb phoned from Beverly Hills Adjacent with instructions, opinions, demands, but never came up.
I stayed alone in the empty house. Sometimes, at night, I avoided listening to music, because I was afraid it would mask sounds of trouble somewhere in that big house. I could imagine an orchestra playing, but in the midst of the concert, I pictured a doorknob turning, a door opening, and a hooded intruder standing there wielding a carving knife. At night I needed absolute silence, so I could keep track of all the creaking floors, all the rumblings from distant corners.
When people want to insist on the beauty of San Franzisko, they can’t be thinking of days and weeks alone in a big house with a father in the hospital. They can’t be thinking of days of visiting a sick father and coming home to an empty house with gunfire from the rifle range always in the background. They can’t be thinking of thick fog and foghorns and a phone that never rang, unless it was Deddi calling with feeble instructions or reprimanding me for something I’d forgotten to do for him.
After I returned to L.A., Rhoda Goldfarb consented to a break from her bridge tournament in Beverly Hills Adjacent; it was now her turn to come up and take care of him in our house. My father spent days readying the place, even summoning the strength to do some of the dusting and cleaning. He knew how exacting she was about housekeeping.
She threw out my old toys, my seven unique clocks, all my art from grade school, my stuffed baby cobra, my bust of Thomas Jefferson.
He appeared to improve a little. He regained some of the weight he’d lost. He walked without a cane. He paid his bills. He read. He yelled at waitresses and left insulting tips. But his body was consumed with the internal business of shutting down.
Rhoda did not see any need to keep me informed of my father’s condition, so it came as a shock one day, near the end of October, when by chance I found out he’d been re-admitted to the hospital.
I was there when the doctors and nurses rolled him back to his room after his latest procedure. He smiled in the fake-saccharine way that might have been in vogue around 1930 somewhere in Europe: “I invite you gentlemen to the most marvelous feast!”
I was there when he saw Bill Clinton on the ceiling. “Really?” I said. “But everyone’s talking about Hillary.” And I began to feel my side warming up pleasantly; a moment later I realized it was his urine.
I phoned Deddi’s lawyer and asked, “If he passes away, what is the first thing that will need to be done?” He answered with a more general and ominous point: “The first thing that will have to be done is sell the house.”
I rushed home and, while Rhoda was out with her new San Franzisko bridge partners, I rummaged through the hiding place, under a bedspread in his closet, where my father had always told me I’d find his will. I saw my name: “All assets shall be distributed to ALEX M. FRANKEL” and then I saw the other name: “$100,000 shall be distributed to RHODA GOLDFARB.” A moment of relief but, just based on the lawyer’s words and tone, I continued my search for papers: I needed to know what my future would look like, I needed some firm, or unfirm, knowledge—anything. In the top right-hand drawer of his desk, I found an innocuous manila envelope with a new will that invalidated the old ones. It was dated May, 2007, after his fall, when he was weak and helpless. I turned the pages: solemn language handed down from a misty but implacable Roman and medieval past, words like declaration, restatement, hereby, pursuant, codicil, amendment, revocable, inoperative, attestation, witness, testator, trust. Trust—an interesting word, I wondered what it meant, in this context. I didn’t know many legal terms. Trust. I had always trusted my father. A twelve-step sponsor used to say to me, “You are so trusting, you take people at their word.” I turned pages, looking for changes, sensing they were coming. Falling, falling alone, more alone than ever before. I was bad, unclean—maybe people were right to want me invisible: the schoolyard children from the seventh grade, the exciting young men from the streets and the gay bars, and now my own father. “The sum of $100,000.00 (One Hundred Thousand Dollars Exactly) shall be distributed to Settlor’s son ALEX M. FRANKEL, currently residing in Los Angeles, California, if he survives me for 30 (thirty) days. If she survives trustor for ninety (90) days, then all of the rest and residue of the trust estate and assets of the Trust shall be distributed to RHODA GOLDFARB, currently residing in Beverly Hills, California, outright and free of trust, and the trust shall then terminate.” What did it mean to revoke trust? Who was doing the revoking? I had done most of the trusting, but it seemed to me that someone else, now, was doing the revoking. What did it mean to be “free” of trust and to “terminate” trust? Now, in my hands, I held the answer to my future. A hundred thousand from my father to me, and Rhoda Goldfarb—almost a stranger—had won. I began to do primitive calculations in my head. I knew the house was worth over a million. I knew my father had a million in investments. Where had I made my mistake? When had I been bad?
Before I left his bedside that night, I recited my boyhood German prayer. He didn’t seem at all surprised or annoyed, and he even joined in, with his eyes closed. He said the words meekly, innocently, together with me. What a gentle old man he could be, what a good Deddi.
Tired am I, and go to rest,
Close both my little eyes.
Father in heaven may your eyes
Watch over my little bed.
I had an idea. I took out my phone: “Record a message for me, please! Tell me good-night!”
He smiled and nodded faintly and, still with his eyes closed, said in a strong voice, “Nighty night, sweetie!” as I held the phone to his lips.
I drove around until late. I needed to avoid our house with his lady-love in it. At dawn I parked by the windmills at Ocean Beach and fell asleep.
There were four messages when I awoke. Impossible—I’m never that popular. Then I realized who they were from. “Where are you? Go to the hospital immediately,” instructed Rhoda Goldfarb. “You need to go to St. Mary’s now,” she said in her second message. In her third she said, “I left you two messages already. Go and see your father. Go and see him at once.” Her final message: “This is the last time I’m calling. It’s almost nine in the morning. Go to the hospital. You know where it is.”
On the fifth floor of St. Mary’s, someone had taped a sign on the door to his room: “Please see nurse before entering.” I opened the door and found my father in a bag.
Ten, twenty years of preparing for this moment and I wasn’t prepared. I unzipped the bag and saw his face—what an odd expression there. He didn’t seem in pain. His lips were pursed, as if he were about to speak.
I said the Serenity Prayer over and over. What was going to happen to me now without a Deddi?
He hadn’t really been sick. He hadn’t had either a heart condition or cancer. Eighty-seven was too young. I needed him there another few years; I even needed an angry father, anyone, anything, just not alone.
I put his glasses on him so that he would look more like himself. I felt his hands, cold but not stiff. Why hadn’t I been in the room when he died? Someone mentioned it happened at 3:00 a.m. No one around him but the professionals.
I brought his graveclothes to Sinai Memorial Chapel. I stood under what memory insists was a silver and gold rotunda. I brought his blazer, slacks, a dress shirt. And suddenly, standing on the other side of the room, I saw another man, also carrying clothes for the same reason. Our eyes met. We didn’t talk. What is the proper form of conversation for such a meeting? He looked at me; I looked at him. We said nothing. I turned away.
I sat down with the undertaker, a reserved and businesslike fellow who did not shake my hand. Because I’d often heard how mortuaries take advantage of people in distress, I chose the cheapest coffin I could, which seemed to displease the man.
I still had Deddi’s voice on my phone. I needed it. “Nighty-night, sweetie!”
I drove around San Franzisko and walked in the park, where rich young couples pushing strollers greeted other rich young couples pushing strollers. I spent yet another night in my car, not willing to face our old house taken over by Rhoda.
And then, the day of the funeral, I drove up to the Hills of Eternity and walked uphill to the grave where my mother had now been for thirty years. My father was to be buried next to her. I went to the coffin, hugged it, wept into its shiny brown contours and imitation gold.
About six or seven people showed up.
I watched Rhoda Goldfarb arrive; she looked like royalty decked out in black. She did not acknowledge me. I watched her walk on the grass among the graves in her severe attire. She knew how to dress for these events.
The cantor who’d officiated at my bar mitzvah conducted the service—what a comforting act of continuity! As if all those years hadn’t passed. Rhoda Goldfarb did not speak. I did speak: I’d written up a eulogy at 4 a.m. I still have it; I keep the torn, coffee-stained pages in my glove compartment. It reads, in part:
The happiest I ever saw him was the night we went to see Life is Beautiful. It may seem odd that a film about an Italian Jew condemned to an extermination camp would be so uplifting and so positive and would make him so happy, but it was the happiest I’d ever seen him. He was a survivor. Being a German-Jewish refugee in Shanghai taught him how to survive. Life is beautiful. Life will be hard without him. He lay there in the hospital on Friday morning and all around him life was going on even though he had left it behind. On his door, someone had put a note: Please see nurse before entering. You don’t say “death.” But I say “death” and I protest.
People talk nicely by the grave because the sun has broken through. Neckties. Dresses. A scent of Sunday even though it isn’t Sunday. That coffin, glossy as a baby grand, gets eased casually, with little ceremony and no protest, into the earth.
Eternal rest grant unto him O Lord . . .
To lead him into paradise . . . the bosom of Abraham.
No one is crying. Orchids, dresses, light, sprinklers, bugs. There should have been music. Too late now.
The coffin is covered up with dirt by sullen men. People scatter quickly. Rhoda departs without appearing to notice me.
The day after my father’s funeral, a tall, grizzled lawyer appeared at the house, rang the doorbell. Maybe my time in hell would be over soon. I was swallowing a Xanax tablet in my childhood bathroom when I heard the chimes ring. “Alex!” called Rhoda Goldfarb, and let the lawyer in. Like the undertaker, the attorney did not shake my hand and chose to get down to business, dispensing with polite preliminaries. Since I had taken a look at the will, there were no surprises when the man gestured to Rhoda, who sat on a distant couch, and said, “Your father left his estate to Rhoda Goldfarb, with a provision of $100,000 for you.” I remember his hand: he sat in an armchair and so easily gestured to Rhoda, so easily, so casually with his right hand indicated that she was to receive what should have been mine.
The lawyer handed us papers. “Here are copies of all his previous wills,” he told us, “so you can note the changes.”
Where we sat seemed important: I was in the round armchair that swiveled and had belonged to my mother, her favorite chair—“Mami’s chair,” where she’d sat the day she told me about my adoption. The attorney was seated in a stiff fancy-fretwork chair from Thailand, a gift from business people of the ’70s. And Rhoda sat in the new sofa she herself had selected, having thrown out the old one which had been in our family for twenty years. And everything in the room—as per Rhoda’s instructions and wishes—had been re-upholstered in white: beautified, purified by the cool simplicity of whiteness.
“It might take as long as a year to sell the house,” the lawyer said.
“A year!” Rhoda didn’t like this one bit.
It had been a good idea to medicate with the sedative. Sometimes I caught Rhoda looking at me, perhaps wondering why I wasn’t more surprised by the news the lawyer had brought. And that interested me: the lawyer brought us news; we didn’t have to present ourselves at his office. This scene didn’t resemble—physically, at least—the classic movie or TV image of relatives sitting in a dark, wood-paneled law office while a dignified man of years, seated behind his desk, informs those gathered around of a deceased person’s good or bad last decisions.
There were quite a few boring details to mention—and the lawyer mentioned all of them.
The talking went on and on; I felt so thankful for the sedative.
And the lawyer slipped out as quietly as he’d come in, almost bashfully, like a waiter.
Most of Henry Frankel’s possessions went into boxes and crates.
I stopped sleeping in my car and faced up to spending a few last days and nights in my old room. Constantly I heard high heels in the walk-in closet and the master bedroom. Once I picked up the phone and overheard Rhoda talking to a man whose voice I didn’t recognize. Instantly, I understood that she already had a new admirer.
One night, while I was sitting on the floor packing books, she appeared in the doorway of my room. “You left a mess downstairs,” she said.
“Did I?” I was trying to fit venerable old volumes of my Encyclopedia Britannica into boxes they’d given me at the market. I tried not to look up. “I’ll get to it later.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Rhoda crossing her arms over her chest. “Your father was right about you. So untidy. So scatterbrained . . . You had difficulties in school, didn’t you?”
“Just with math and science.” Still without looking up, I tried to focus our attention on the books in my hand. Before there was the Internet and Google, there was the Encyclopedia Britannica—a source of hours and hours of wasted time. “I used to love these books,” I said. “I even loved the smell of the pages.”
“Yeah,” said Rhoda. “Math and science, math and science. Your father told me about your troubles. Summer sessions, private tutors, afterschool classes and whatnot, but you never got it, did you?”
“I never got it.”
“You weren’t too studious either, were you? Except in English. Except poetry!” I noticed she made an effort to showcase the word “poetry.”
Near me I kept bubble-wrap and tape as well as a pair of rusty old scissors we’d had in the family ever since I could remember. They were classic and rather frightening office scissors.
“Maybe,” I said, “I inherited a few traits from my birth parents, have you ever thought of that? My biological father was an intellectual, no head for business.”
“Oh Alex, don’t get me started on that,” said Rhoda. “You hurt your father—I mean the man who brought you up. It sickened him when you came up with those people out of the blue and announced you were going through with a reunion. A reunion!”
I went on with the motions of packing.
“Those were my birth parents. I had a right to find them.”
“Who gave you that right?”
I was nearly finished with a box but feared grabbing hold of the scissors to cut the tape, feared what I might do with them in my hand.
“Well, he’s at peace now,” I added quietly, looking at the floor.
“When are you going to get to the mess? The dining room’s a disaster.”
“I’ll get to it soon.”
She took a step into the room and, hands at her hips, looked at the walls. “Pictures of composers! They must be worth something. You should have them appraised.”
“I might,” I said.
“Most American boys collect baseball cards, but you had to collect portraits of composers and classical records,” Rhoda observed.
“I guess that’s the way it was.”
“You didn’t talk baseball and football with your father, you talked music!”
“There’s nothing wrong with that.”
She stood close to me, in my old room, in her new house. I could smell her Chanel. I looked at the scissors, shiny and sharp.
“He worked so hard to put you through high school and college and grad school, Alex, he wanted you to make something of yourself.”
“I did make something of myself.”
I heard her laugh. I was still on the floor and she was still standing over me. “It wasn’t his idea of success,” she said. “What do you make, fourteen dollars an hour?”
“But no retirement, I heard, no benefits . . .”
With the scissors it would have been so easy to do so much, but it would have taken too long and been extremely messy. I liked where my imagination took me.
“What are you now, fifty?” she said to me.
“I thought you were older.”
Then she was walking around in my room—freely, openly. She had taken possession, even of this space that had once been my sanctuary. She’d been my father’s higher power, no use denying it. Was she mine too?
I wanted her out. I wanted to get the packing done. Soon it was going to be time for Ambien and sleep. What would I have done without Ambien?
“Your father worked hard for you,” I heard Rhoda say. “It’s a shame you treated him the way you did.”
“We didn’t dwell on it.”
“Oh, you’re wrong about that. He dwelled on it. When you weren’t there.”
“No doubt,” I said. “No doubt.”
“He was such a kind, generous man, but you never got to know him, did you? Sometimes he’d come back from having lunch with you, and he was so down. I didn’t like to see him that way. He was suffering.”
Hundreds of more things to pack. I’d barely started. I looked around at the piles of books but kept snagging my eyes on the bright scissors on the floor beside me.
“He knew you didn’t love him,” said Rhoda. “I wish you’d tried, but you were always too selfish for that, weren’t you?”
“I tried. You only knew him a few short years. He was my father, and I was the best son he could’ve asked for.”
“You weren’t. You never came to visit, you neglected him. That’s not how a son behaves.”
Maybe if I hadn’t been grieving, the rage in me would have shot to the surface and I wouldn’t have been able to control it. I knew that since Rhoda was not grieving, it was easy for her to pick a fight as if these were just normal times.
“You weren’t there when he had pneumonia last year,” she went on. “Or when he had the gallstones removed. Or when he almost lost his hearing. You were never around. I did everything.”
“Yes, you did it all. He was lucky!”
But she wouldn’t be sidetracked. “I used to tell him he was too permissive with you when you were growing up. With a little firmness, a little old-fashioned strictness . . .”
“Yes, what then?”
“Why, you might’ve turned out more normal.”
I looked at the floor. “More to his liking? More to yours?”
“Normal, I see.”
“With just a little strictness. I don’t know how often I told him—”
“Rhoda!” I jumped up, startling her, but she was in her element, prepared for battle, pleased with where this might be going. “Rhoda, I want to give you something.” I groped for a box full of odds and ends on the shelf behind her. I took out a picture of my father on a Caribbean cruise, circa 1974. He was strong, tanned, slim, hardly a grey hair on him yet. “I bet you haven’t seen this one.” For a second she looked confused. “You only knew him when he was older,” I said. I took her hand and placed the framed picture in it. “I want you to have this, please.”
“Oh.” She looked down at the picture. “Yes, it’s lovely, thank you.” Deddi was standing on a sun-deck in a beige leisure suit and smiling at us with lips tightly shut. “I hadn’t seen this one, you’re right.”
I turned around and sat back down on the floor and went on with my packing. She passed through the room and out the door without another word.
Rhoda packed; I packed (I almost wrote “we,” but there was no “we”). Days went by. Sometimes her new boyfriend would leave soft, flirty messages openly on my father’s answering machine. One morning I woke up and realized she’d left for Southern California—along with her new china and stemware, as well as two Persian rugs, several lamps, and a miniature Chinese village carved into ivory, complete with temple and tower. I never saw her again.
A few weeks after the funeral, while the house was being readied to go on the market, I took a train and then a bus up to Yosemite.
It was winter now. The first snow fell the night of my arrival, and the next morning I struggled to walk in the wet unplowed whiteness of the valley. I gazed up at the mountains and took pictures and, when no one was looking, I cried. My Deddi and my Mami and my grandmother! It was true that as an adult I’d tracked down my birth parents, but we hadn’t become close and I didn’t mourn them after their deaths. I had only one set of parents, those who’d raised me. And so what was I going to do now, all alone? In my cabin late at night I listened to radio voices speculate about space aliens, poltergeists, sprites, goblins, UFOs, alternate universes, life after death. An expert spoke: “Always there is life, always.” If that was so, where was Deddi now? Was he anywhere besides just gone? By day I walked in the cold and the slush—cold as Siberia here—and at night thawed out in the lodge and warmed my feet as near as I could get to the fire without burning myself. One evening I sat by an immense fireplace in the lobby of the Ahwanhee Hotel and watched partygoers in costumes file into the great dining hall. They were wearing Tudor-style costumes—bodices and petticoats and ruffles and lace cuffs—and they were laughing, life was good, life seemed to have at least a temporary purpose for them. I could never have imagined my father Henry Frankel dressed as Henry VIII, though for me he’d been as important and as mighty. On my way back to my cabin I communed with a snowman in the moonlight. “Such a good snowman out here in the cold!” I said, a child of eight rapidly turning into a man of forty-five. I patted his ice-cold belly and kissed his pine-cone nose. Slowly I walked back to my cabin. What was waiting for me there? Energy bars and talk radio. I prayed to God to ease, to deliver me from, the hatred I felt for the woman who’d stolen my inheritance. I lived mostly without God, but if ever there was a time for the Serenity Prayer, it was now. A full moon lit the way to warmth. “My Deddi,” I said out loud to just cold air. It was a comfort to have his voice on my voicemail, and there it remained for a whole year, until one day I woke up and realized I’d accidentally deleted it. The good-night message had vanished, along with my father.