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Online Feature: “Matzevah” by Judith Hertog

 

I laughed a lot at my father’s funeral. The evening before the ceremony, I stayed up late with my mother and our friends Bart and Ruth, trying to compose an appropriate eulogy. My little sisters, who had just turned eleven, had fallen asleep on the couch. When we tried out the speeches we came up with, they sounded so pathetically silly – “Thank you all for coming, Mike regrets not being able to be here himself…” “Mike has led a full and satisfying life…” “Every life must end, and so did Mike’s…” – that we couldn’t recite them without being overcome by giggles. The funeral itself felt like an absurdist play. The procession from the funeral hall to the grave took so long and was so abruptly twisty that I thought the master of ceremonies had lost his way. As we slowly proceeded along the winding gravel paths between the neat rows of graves, passing through somber islands of conifer trees and along stone walls that sheltered the dead from the hustle of Amsterdam, I imagined the master of ceremonies’ rising panic at the realization that he didn’t remember the location of the grave and was leading the dead man and the solemn line of mourners in a haphazard walk through forgotten corners of the cemetery.

It was a very cold autumn day. Among the black, brown, and dark blue, I stood out in the pink-green-purple sweater I had bought the day before at the Dappermarkt, having arrived in Amsterdam without any warm clothes. I had just started my first semester at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and had been surprised when my mother called to tell me I immediately had to fly back to Amsterdam because my father was about to die. His flu had progressed to pneumonia, which killed him later that night, with my mother sitting at his bedside. By that time, my father had been at the point of dying for so long that I had started to believe he’d live forever.

He had been old as long as I could remember: he turned sixty-nine the year I was born and turned seventy-seven after my little sisters arrived. At every major transition in my life, my father remarked that he might not be there for the next. When I went to kindergarten, he said he might not see me go to first grade; when he saw me off to first grade, he sighed that he wouldn’t be alive when I completed elementary school; when I started secondary school, he was sure he’d be dead before I graduated. And at my high school graduation, he sat in a wheelchair in the first row, sobbing loudly, his hands shaking from Parkinson’s disease.

*

After the interment, I stood in the reception hall with my mother and my little sisters. I seem to remember a line of mourners snaking towards us, waiting their turn to shake hands or give hugs. I comforted every single one of them with a cheerful, “It’s alright! He had a wonderful life!” as if I had to reinforce my father’s mythology even in his death: that he had gotten away with things nobody else could, that he had lived freely and adventurously, without making concessions to morality and convention.

My father was born into a Jewish middle-class family in Maastricht, a small city in the southernmost tip of the Netherlands that, over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, passed back and forth between France and Holland. He was born at a time when airplanes did not yet exist, radios had just been invented, electrical wiring was still a novelty, and the Holocaust could not even be imagined. Maastricht was so intimately provincial that middle-class interests trumped religious principles, and – as my father liked to recount – the Jewish director of the flour factory insisted on heading Catholic processions to solidify his social standing among the town elite. My father, an idealist, rebelled against provincial bourgeois morality. He wanted to roam the world and be free. He may have been inspired by either Rimbaud or by his own vagabond great-great-grandfather when, as a young man, he went tramping in France, worked as a farmhand, and eventually found a job at a French castle as a maître-d’hotel (the French term for “butler,” which, in light of my father’s clumsiness, seems highly improbable). He must have been under the influence of Melville or Conrad when he later signed on as a sailor on a freighter that sailed between Brussels and various harbors in South America. My father never had a career or a steady job. He took on freelance journalism assignments, translated, and eventually became a writer. When he was sixty-seven, he married a woman forty years his junior- my mother – and he became a father at an age when other people were preparing for death.

*

I hated having such an old father. I hated being cooed over by people who thought of me as some kind of miracle, and I hated having to correct people who assumed he was my grandfather. Once in the tram – I must have been six years old – a lady rebuked me for not giving up my seat to the old man standing beside me. That old man was my father, who had told me to sit down. He insisted on standing because he refused to think of himself as old and infirm. Instead of expecting people to get up for him, he’d offer his seat to pretty young women. And when a young woman got up for him, he’d claim to my mother she’d been flirting.

“I still have it!” he’d say.

And my mother would put him in his place: “Stop dreaming, Mike. They’re just being polite to an old man.”

“Yeah, Papa, they just feel sorry for you!” I’d chime in, insulted by his preposterous naiveté. But he’d shrug off our disparaging remarks.

*

I remember walking with my father when he’d suddenly clutch his breast and say with a distorted grimace that the angina pectoris was bothering him again. He’d fumble for the little medicine vial that he always carried in his pocket, take a little white pill, and wait for the pain to go away. I didn’t think much of it – just an annoying hold-up in my rush to get to ballet class on time. I thought angina pectoris sounded like the name of some lady my father had his eyes on – one of those women my mother liked to tease him about. But when I later looked it up, I learned that it’s a sudden oxygen shortage in the heart muscles caused by a malfunctioning of the coronary blood vessels. It is usually the precursor of a heart attack.

*

With so little time left, my father made sure he enjoyed every moment. He spent his days writing, reading, strolling in the park, drawing, and, above all, spoiling me. In the mornings he would wake me up with, “Royal Highness, your tea is ready,” and then he’d carry me on his shoulders into the kitchen. We’d go to Bakker Hartog to get fresh whole-wheat bread for Mama and a raisin bun for me. Then we’d feed the geese or gather chestnuts in the park and warm up at one of his favorite cafés, where he’d get coffee or a glass of jenever (gin), and I’d get a pancake and freshly squeezed orange juice.

When I was in kindergarten, he’d pick me up from school to take me out for lunch at the Stedelijk Museum. We always paid a visit to Edward Kienholz’s “The Beanery,” an eerie, life-size reproduction of a small Hollywood bar in which the human figures carry clocks instead of heads. Inside the installation, a looped tape played the murmur of voices and the clanging of plates and silverware. I’d hold on tight to my father’s hand as we shuffled past the motionless construction workers hunched over their beers and the lady with her frozen little lapdog, all covered in a layer of grimy dust.

As I grew more aware of the judgments of others, I no longer took so much pleasure in the expeditions with my father. For years I had to suffer the distress of being brought to school by my father every morning. My school was on the other side of the city – a twenty-minute tram ride followed by a fifteen-minute walk – so, until I was nine, my parents didn’t trust me to navigate the journey on my own.

After a boy in second grade teased that my father looked as if he were my grandfather, I no longer wanted to be seen with him. As we walked down the Nicolaesmaes Street towards my school, I’d skip ahead, pretending I didn’t know the old man behind me. When I was a little older, I asked him to turn around at the corner of the Nicolaesmaes Street so I could walk to school without embarrassment, and he complied without objection. I now wish I could go back in time and take his hand to walk with him all the way down Nicolaesmaes Street and into the schoolyard.

*

My father’s funeral felt like a party. Old friends and acquaintances who hadn’t seen each other in years caught up over the refreshments, my little sisters walked around with the snack trays playing waitress, far-removed family members hugged me and gushed that they had last seen me when I was still riding a tricycle, and people who had shied away when my father had become a feeble old man in a wheelchair were eager to sing his praises again. Actually, when my father died, he became more present than he had been during the last years of his life. We were suddenly free to remember him the way he was supposed to be remembered.

*

I thought I would mourn my father after the funeral. But after almost twenty years, I still haven’t found the right time. I’ve put my mourning on hold because I can’t believe he’s really gone. And while I’m waiting for him to return, I can’t even remember who he really was. He shifts out of focus whenever I think I’m about to grasp him. I don’t know where to look for him. Where do we keep the dead? Where do they go? I can’t make myself believe in a heaven, or a hereafter, or a rebirth. Nothing is left of my father now. In the damp Dutch earth, even bones don’t last longer than ten years. There is no matzevah – a tombstone – to mark the spot where we left his body. He didn’t want one.

Neither his father, nor his mother, nor his only sister has a tombstone. My father’s father died in 1929, after squandering his wife’s fortune (apparently his main incentive for marrying her) on failed business schemes. There was no money left for a proper burial, and maybe his widow and children would have been more eager to spend the last remnants of their wealth on his memory if he hadn’t bullied them so much in life. My grandmother and my father’s sister were killed in Sobibor in the spring of 1943. After my grandmother heard that her daughter had been arrested at her hideout in Amsterdam, she packed her suitcase and boarded a train to join her daughter in the concentration camp. Their bodies were burned along with thousands of other victims. Instead of erecting stone memorials, my father published stories to memorialize each of them.

In Judaism, as in most other religions, children are obliged to commemorate their parents: to sit shiva, recite the mourners’ kaddish, erect a tombstone, burn a candle on the anniversary of their parents’ death, and name their children after dead family members. I didn’t sit shiva, I never learned the mourners’ kaddish, I left my father in an anonymous grave, and I forget to burn a candle for him unless my mother reminds me by email. But when my son was born, 102 years after my father, I named him Michael, after my father’s nickname, Mike, which he used most of his life because it sounded less obviously Jewish than his given name: Meir Heyman Salvador Hertog.

I’m always looking for proof of a connection between my father, my children, and me, trying to forge links between past and present. Miki, the first grandson – dark-eyed, dark-haired, and good-humored like my father – is the obvious candidate to be my father’s reincarnation. My contractions started at my father’s Yahrzeit service.

“Miki is just as charming as your father used to be,” my mother will say, “He’s such a flirt! He’ll be a heartbreaker, like his grandfather.”

“He has Mike’s nose,” my 80-year-old cousin Dorke will say. My daughter, Dina, is named after his mother, Bernardine, my father’s older sister.

“Just like Mike and Bernardine,” my mother will say when she sees Dina and Miki playing together.

She emailed me a picture of my father when he was two years old, together with a picture of Miki: “Two drops of water!”

I’m tempted to say “yes,” that Miki is a continuation of my father and that I see the similarity in the ears, in the smiling eyes, in the dark hair, in the small, energetic body. But I also have a picture of my husband, Gil, at age four, and I know that Miki looks exactly like him. The only genetic heritage he must have received from my father – that can’t be traced back to any other family member – is his olive skin, which needs just a touch of sunlight to turn deep tan.

*

Having such an old father must have confused my sense of time and reality. I remember a past that I never experienced, and the present in which I exist doesn’t seem real. Is it because I skipped two generations? Because I could easily have been born in 1920 instead of 1970? It’s all so clear to me: the time before television, computers, and highways. I remember the cobblestone streets of Maastricht, the horse-pulled buggies, and the cold stone tiles of drafty houses heated by coal stoves. I remember the maids – poor village girls who’d occasionally end their service career carrying my grandfather’s child. I remember the time my father dove off a freighter ship into the harbor of Buenos Aires to prove to the other sailors that although he was small of stature and talked like an intellectual, he was not a coward.

I remember the women my father loved: women who smiled coquettishly from my father’s photo album, wearing calf-length dresses and bobbed hair. There’s Netteke, standing at a cobblestone square, flirting with the camera. She was my father’s first lover. When they were both teenagers, and she worked as a maid in my father’s household, they’d make love when my father’s parents were not home. They remained friends all their life. She was too independent to rely on a husband to provide for her, so she relied on her own body instead. Her career on the seedy side of society culminated in her owning a sailor’s bar in the red-light district in Amsterdam. My father took me for a visit there, by which time Netteke had grown so comfortable in her abundant flesh that when I first saw the hippo in the Amsterdam zoo, I called it Aunt Netteke.

I remember Annie, to whom my father was briefly married during the war. The marriage protected him for a while, because during the first years of the war, Jews with Aryan spouses were not put on transport. Annie wore round metal-framed glasses and had the kind of austere face that seems to have become extinct after the 1950s. She stands out among my father’s women as the embodiment of Dutch decency and courage. She found hiding places for my grandmother and for Bernardine and her children, and she introduced my father to the Dutch resistance. Ten years after the war, when she and my father had already divorced, she died of cancer.

I also remember Greetje, the ballet dancer with whom my father lived when he met my mother, and with whom he continued to live during most of the first decade of his romance with my mother. I have a stage photo in which Greetje dramatically raises her arm and gazes up through long false lashes. She seems to be imploring heaven for justice: trying to prevent the man she expected to be her life companion from abandoning her for a woman who could have been her daughter.

*

Or maybe I don’t remember anything. Maybe these are just my father’s stories that have become part of me. What really happened, I don’t know. I come from a family of storytellers. When I was a child, my father told me the stories that his father had told him – about my great-great-great-grandfather who had fought in Russia with Napoleon and who took up a career as a ghostbuster and schemer after his return. Since his expedition to Russia had earned him a reputation as a fearless hero, he was asked to cleanse a castle that had been made uninhabitable by malicious ghosts. My great-great-great-grandfather made himself comfortable in the abandoned master bedroom and awaited the arrival of the ghosts. He had his gun ready, and he had blocked the door with some tables and chairs as a precaution. Just as he had fallen asleep, the clock struck midnight, and with a thunderous noise, the tables and chairs came crashing down as the door swung open. There, in the doorway, stood a frightful monster. It walked on human legs, but its upper body was that of an animal with an enormous head equipped with devilish antlers. My great-great-great-grandfather, who wasn’t intimidated by the supernatural, grabbed his gun and took aim. The ghost was hit in the leg as he ran away, and my heroic ancestor followed the trail of blood until he reached a trapdoor, which he opened. As he descended down the stone steps into the hidden cellar, he was grabbed by a gang of men who had been running a counterfeiting operation in the castle. Fearing they were about to kill him, my great-great-great-grandfather started reciting the Hebrew Shema prayer: “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Ehad…”

“Are you Jewish, too?” the counterfeiters exclaimed and offered him a share of their profits in return for his discretion and cooperation. They then moved their business to another castle, and my great-great-great-grandfather received the reward for his ghostbusting services, as well as a steady income from his counterfeiting friends.

My father descended from a line of men who were all schemers, adventurers, or storytellers. They searched for the secret of life: a shortcut to escape the limitations to which others submit.

*

My father had an exaggerated sense of drama and always expressed his emotions in full intensity. He rarely got into arguments, but when he and my mother quarreled – which mostly seemed to happen during long car trips – my father would exclaim with a suppressed sob: “If I’m such a burden, just stop the car and dump me!”

To which my mother would let out a scornful groan and reply: “Oh, Mike, don’t be ridiculous.”

*

My greatest embarrassment was when my father started crying, which he did to express happiness, sadness, anger, wonder, surprise, fear, love, or any other emotion for which words failed him. He once started crying uninhibitedly in the crowded Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. He just stood there in the middle of the main aisle and let the tears stream down his cheeks. I was ten years old and didn’t know how to make clear to him that his weeping in full view of hundreds of strangers was intensely embarrassing. I didn’t even understand what he was crying about. We had visited the Notre Dame many times before, and my parents weren’t Catholics. Apparently, his emotions were triggered by a church organ playing the Marseillaise. I still don’t understand why my father was so touched by this violent battle song; just whistling the first few bars of the Marseillaise was sometimes enough to tear him up. Maybe he associated it with humanity’s failed striving for justice and equality. Maybe it was the contrast between the beauty of the feudal cathedral and the fervor of the revolutionary song. Or maybe he just cried a lot because life can be so beautiful, and he knew he didn’t have a whole lot of it left.

*

“She takes after her father,” people said when I wrote my first book at age four: page after page filled with wobbly A’s, which was the only letter I had learned so far. My mother says I write like my father, that I have his sense of humor. And, when I read him, I recognize myself. I’ve always known I resemble him – mentally more than physically – but as a child, I resisted it. Our similarity felt so inevitable and obvious, that I didn’t want to give in to it. I wanted to be myself. I didn’t want to be weighed down with someone else’s life.

But here I am, retelling the stories my father had heard from his father, dutifully continuing the narrative.

*

When I was five years old, my father wrote a poem describing an afternoon with me at the beach in Israel, which made him forget the horrors of the Holocaust. I translated it from Dutch into English:

Procosumsum
for Judith when she was 5 years old (1975)

Here and now: your uninscribed skin
your face transparent like a drop of water
hanging from a blade of grass
your voice a pipe organ of a child’s desires,

And when you walk, when you skip
ahead of me
I forget Presser’s Demise
and I’m so light, so light
and glad and glad.

Procosumsum you said
on the beach of Neve Yam,
and the sea, and the sea
it sings and sings
never changing,
never changing…

*

My son is five years old now, the age I was when I baked sand pastries on the beach in Neve Yam and named them “procosumsum.” The recipe: a plain sand patty covered with a layer of dribbled wet sand, powdered with some white sand and decorated with shells. My father must have looked at me with the same wonder I now feel when I watch Dina and Miki. When I see Miki sitting cross-legged on the floor, intently talking to himself while lining up his toy animals to board Noah’s ark (“No, lion, you go back now! Don’t push!”), I imagine my father must have been like him when he was a little boy, playing with his tin soldiers and his hoop. Nothing has changed; everything happens again.

*

Escaping from oneself is a constant theme in my father’s stories and poems. His novella, De Kleinkornelkes, begins with a little boy asking a horse why he is a horse and not a person. The horse answers:

Don’t ask, little boy, stay on the sidewalk staring into the sun, but don’t ask. Hang your questions on the branches of a willow tree and sail your play-boat on a quiet lake, prepare your hands for soft caresses, pick flowers from water drops and weave threads to the horizon, but don’t ask. Look at me: I am a reined-in horse, my mouth is bridled, my back is damp with sweat, soon the boss’s whip will hit my flanks, but I don’t ask. I wait, I watch, I stand without complaints. My eyes, senseless like the sky, can’t answer your question. But listen, listen until you no longer hear anything. Then, change into a horse. A horse asks no questions. Don’t you understand? Are you a word person? If so: alteration is the key word. Alter-ation. And if you don’t understand, go blow your trumpet.

*

Every structure you can hold on to is also a prison. A family narrative provides a framework for our life, but it also ensnares. Birth sets the limits: once you are yourself, you can no longer be another. My father spent his life trying to escape the restrictions he had been born into. He tried to break free from class barriers, from his parents’ influence, from religious and racial classifications, from the constraints of society. He wanted to be himself. But what is “self”?

*

I remember my father’s body: the soft, gray, curly chest hair, the loose skin of an old man, the slightly bulging belly with the asymmetrical scar across it, pulling his navel to the right. I remember his hands, which were strong and fleshy, with thick calcified nails. When I was little, he’d challenge me to slap his palm as hard as I could, and I’d hit him until my own hands were red and tingly, and then he’d hit back- hard, to show that he took me seriously – and my hand would burn. I remember his dark bushy eyebrows, which my mother had to trim regularly so they wouldn’t block his vision. The hair on his head didn’t grow as abundantly. He anxiously protected his naked skull with an old-fashioned cap, which he had in tweed, white cotton, and in all shades of brown corduroy, and which made him look like a southern European peasant about to drink his afternoon aperitif in the neighborhood bar. It was the one object we’d always be looking for. We’d be strolling through the alleys of Venice when suddenly my father would exclaim in a panic, “Where’s my cap? Where did I leave my cap?” and we’d have to trace our way back to a cafe where he had left it on a sidewalk table. He’d buy his caps in obscure little stores in small provincial towns in France or Italy, because they were extinct in more up-to-date clothing stores. Anytime we’d pass a hat store during our travels, my father had to go in to see if he could find any caps to his liking. He claimed he was afraid to catch a cold or sunstroke if he left his head exposed, but I suspect that his attachment to his cap was a remnant of the orthodox Jewish customs he had adhered to as a teenager.

But what I remember most vividly are his dentures: the flesh-colored plastic bridge with the yellowing teeth between which pieces of food would collect. One afternoon, a few years before I was born, my father had all his teeth pulled because the dentist told him dentures would be cheaper than doing all the required repair work. My mother complained that the prosthodontist had done a shoddy job, that the false teeth were twice as large as my father’s original teeth and didn’t fit his mouth, but I had never known my father differently. In later years, when my father was feebler, I’d be responsible for cleaning his dentures and settling them into a glass of water for the night while my mother helped my father into bed.

*

One of my first memories is standing in the living room with my father, pretending we’re at the beach. We’re running back and forth as my father points out the approaching and receding waves. “There’s a big one coming!” he says, and I run squealing to the couch for safety. When I was a little older, we’d spend hours playing chess, Monopoly, and card games. In the later grades of elementary school and the early grades of middle school, I relied on him whenever I had to study for a test. I’d bring him the list of French vocabulary, South American rivers and mountain ranges, Latin conjugations, or capitals of Asian countries that I needed to have memorized, and he’d quiz me until I had proven I knew everything perfectly.

*

I knew I could get from my father anything my mother wouldn’t let me have. When he picked me up from ballet class, I’d ask him to buy me fries in the eatery around the corner, and when he’d object that he had promised Mama not to let me have snacks before dinner, I’d persuade him by promising I’d keep it a secret.

My mother had rules and would occasionally lose her patience and hit me, but my father protected me like a princess. “Don’t hit the child!” he’d exclaim pathetically when my mother was about to strike.

“Oh, Papa, leave us alone,” I’d say, “this is between me and Mama.” I loathed his indulgence. I didn’t want to be a spoiled sissy, pampered by my father.

My father had had a similar complaint against his own parents. He was embarrassed to grow up in a house with servants while their working-class neighbors didn’t have enough food to feed their families. In his desire to transcend class barriers, he had developed an absurdly romantic image of the “proletariat” and he showed his solidarity in the most inappropriate ways. He decided, for example, to honor the hard work of the sanitation workers who weekly picked up our trash, by offering them cigars. My mother, whose own father had grown up poor and who had a more realistic judgment of class, argued that offering cigars to sanitation workers was the most arrogant and ridiculous expression of appreciation one could come up with.

“Don’t you see you’re embarrassing them!” she’d shout. But my father was unresponsive to reason, and the more she argued, the more he insisted on standing out on the sidewalk every Thursday morning with his box of cigars in his hand, waiting for the garbage truck to arrive.

*

He always wanted to please and tended to make conflicting promises and commitments because he was reluctant to disappoint anyone. He had good intentions, but often ended up making the most insensitive and hurtful decisions. When I was eight years old, my mother had to stay for two weeks in the hospital after she had given birth to my twin sisters. She had lost a lot of blood during the delivery, and it was decided she needed rest. Besides, the doctors may have realized that she needed some time to adjust to her new situation. The sight of the two tiny, wriggly babies, simultaneously crying for milk, finally made her realize that romantic ideals don’t always conquer reality, and that life with three small children and a penniless octogenarian husband would be difficult.

My father had to take care of me during my mother’s recovery. That my clothes didn’t match and my hair didn’t get combed didn’t really matter. Every afternoon he picked me up from school, and we’d go visit my mother and the babies. Since my father couldn’t cook, we’d stop at a little Italian restaurant on the way to the hospital for an early dinner. After we had gone through that same routine for eight days, I was ready for something else. The novelty of cuddling my little baby sisters had worn off, and there was a big fair at Dam Square that all my classmates had been to. So, while we were eating our spaghetti bolognaise, I proposed to my father that we go to the fair instead of the hospital. He hesitated: Mama would be very disappointed if we didn’t show up. But I convinced him by arguing that we had already visited her for eight days in a row and that the fair was moving on to another city the next day. This was a time before cell phones or bedside phones in hospitals, so we just didn’t show up. My parents had the worst fight I remember. While my father and I sat in the Ferris wheel high above Amsterdam, my mother staggered to the payphone in the lounge and called her sister to tell her she had been abandoned by her husband and that if somebody wouldn’t come to pick her up from the hospital immediately, she’d throw the babies out of a window.

*

He must have been just as feeble in his determination when my mother convinced him to leave the woman he had been with for twenty years. Greetje’s life was dedicated to dance and theatre, with no room for children and domesticity, so her partnership with my father, who was equally intent on avoiding ties and responsibilities, suited her well. Greetje and my father had an open relationship with the understanding that they’d be loyal to each other and remain together regardless of their passion for anyone else (and of course most of those passions were my father’s). But my mother wasn’t satisfied being my father’s occasional paramour. She wanted him all to herself. She was determined and in love. He told her that it couldn’t work – when they met, she was nineteen and he was fifty-nine – he said she’d grow tired of him and encouraged her to go to Paris to study painting and find someone closer to her own age. So she wrote him letters from Paris, hitchhiked back and forth for secret rendezvous, and even tried to make him jealous by taking a lover her own age. My father claimed he couldn’t afford to leave Greetje because he didn’t make enough money to rent an apartment and support a family. But when he turned sixty-five and started receiving social security checks, my mother said he had no more excuses. So he finally left Greetje and married my mother. I was born two years later.

My cousin Dorke, the son of my father’s sister, who stayed in touch with all the women my father abandoned, says it broke Greetje’s heart when my father left her. But eventually she must have forgiven him. I remember visiting her with my father, in her small apartment on the Prinsengracht, where they used to live together. I ate chocolate-covered raisins and petted the cats while she and my father talked about shared memories and old friends. When I turned thirteen, she gave me my grandmother’s engagement ring, which my father had given to her and which she had kept all those years.

*

I think my father felt guilty about saddling me with his infirmities. He tried to do the things that a younger father would: he took me on hikes, and he taught me how to throw a ball and ride a bicycle. But when he tried to play soccer with me, he’d be out of breath and would have to sit down after a few minutes.

New Year’s Eve, 1984: I’m fourteen years old. I’m standing with my mother, my sisters, and my father in an underground tunnel in the Châtelet metro station in Paris. My father leans against the tiled wall, looking pale in the neon light. He breathes with difficulty and fumbles for his heart medication.

“Come on, Papa,” I urge, “we’re already late!” I’m angry. I’m going to spend the holiday with my friend, Elise, who is in Paris with her mother. We’ve been promised that if there’s enough time before dinner, Elise and I can go out and explore the city by ourselves for a few hours, but we’re already more than an hour late. When we finally emerge from the metro, my father announces he can’t go on any longer and proposes to wait in a café while my mother and my little sisters walk me to Elise’s apartment.

When Elise and I go out –leaving our mothers chitchatting – we pass by the café where my father is waiting. I see him sitting at a table on the covered terrace. He has fallen asleep and lies with his face on the table, like some old tramp. I’m ashamed. I don’t want Elise to see him like that, and I walk on, pretending not to have noticed him.

When we get home a few hours later, Elise’s mother tells me my mother has called from a hospital: my father had a heart attack. The waiters called an ambulance when they found him unconscious, slumped over his table.

*

More memories:

My father crying that he wants to die.

My father crying that he doesn’t want to die.

My father pointing at the empty rocking chair with my mother’s handbags and scarves draped over it, asking if that’s his sister sitting there.

My father crying over decades-old regrets: long-dead people whom he has wronged or disappointed. His fists are clenched and he exclaims, in tears, “I betrayed him! I betrayed him!” But I don’t know who he’s talking about and what happened.

My father hallucinating from the side effects of his Parkinson’s medication, calling me Bernardine because he thinks that my mother is his mother and that I’m his sister.

My father with a bruise on his cheek, because he has fallen off his chair again.

My father’s legs with pus oozing from the open wounds on his shins. It’s bad circulation, the doctor has said, so he needs to exercise more. The physical therapist who visits us once a week suggests that some fresh air might do him good, so my mother tries to make him walk in the downstairs garden. But just to get him down the three flights of stairs takes almost an hour – with me and my mother standing on either side to make sure he doesn’t lose his balance – and after ten minutes behind his walker, he complains he’s tired and wants to go back up.

My father crying that he can’t live like this anymore and imploring us to let him die.

My father whimpering that my mother is trying to kill him¬—

But this is not the father I want to remember. This ending doesn’t fit the story I want to tell.

*

I’m still waiting for my father to come back. He needs to meet Gil and the children, and he’ll want to see how I have grown into a woman. One evening, he’ll appear in my living room. With his typical clumsiness, he will spill a glass of red wine on the carpet, he will play chess with Dina and Miki and let them win, question Gil about his research on Taoist immortality practices (they’ll talk deep into the night), and before he leaves he will ask – as an aside, as if he doesn’t really care – if anyone still reads his poems and stories. When I tell him that all his books are out of print, he’ll laugh and shrug, just mildly disappointed, and say that fame no longer matters when you’re dead.

*

I have my father’s voice preserved on a cassette that I kept for years in a box. He was asked to read one of his short stories on the radio and had recorded a practice run. I have had the recording for years, but never dared listen to it. Even though I still didn’t feel ready, I finally gathered the courage to listen. I played it over and over – I even copied it onto my iPod and listened to it while hiking in the Vermont woods – hoping I could penetrate the past if I just concentrated hard enough.

The story describes my father’s tortuous experience of being diagnosed with cancer the year my mother was pregnant with me. I had already read the story many times, and I knew the real-life outcome: the cancer hadn’t spread, and after the doctors had cut out the tumor, he lived another twenty years cancer-free.

After the first shock of recognizing my father’s voice, I felt excluded.

“Ik ben altijd goeje vrindjes met mijn lichaam geweest. Ik mag wel zeggen dat ik er altijd veel van gehouden heb,” my father reads. (“I’ve always been a good friend to my body. I can say I’ve always loved it very much.”)

He makes an effort to enunciate the consonants clearly and harshly, the way they are pronounced in Amsterdam and Northern Holland; the way I speak Dutch. My father had suppressed his Limburg dialect, which is looked down upon in the north, since he came to Amsterdam in the 1920s. But even after sixty years of practice, his speech remained milder and more melodious than that of northerners.

Very faintly in the background, I can hear the tick-tock of an alarm clock. It probably stood next to the tape recorder so my father could keep an eye on the time as he was reading. What is unsettling is not my father’s voice, but the background noises that were inadvertently captured in time: a tram rattling the windows, a toddler’s babbling and little footsteps, the slamming of a door. They almost allow me to re-enter the apartment. I can see the red linoleum in the hallway, the parquet floor of our living room, the wooden table stained with marks left by hot tea cups, the big bamboo plant that I used as a jungle for my dollhouse inhabitants, the windows overlooking Oosterpark, where my father would take me to feed the ducks. But as often as I listen, I can’t re-enter. The past is gone.

*

Judith HertogJudith Hertog’s essays have appeared in The Common, Consequence Magazine, Tin House, Zone 3, Southampton Review and elsewhere. Judith lost track of who or where she is. She writes to find out. But here are some indisputable facts: she grew up in Amsterdam, studied in Israel, lived and travelled in Asia, and now resides in Vermont with her husband and two children. She teaches creative writing and works as a freelance journalist. Her website can be found at: www.judithhertog.com

 

3 Responses to “Online Feature: “Matzevah” by Judith Hertog”

  1. Glennis Gold

    I loved it. Thanks.

    Reply
  2. Madeline Gold

    Bravo, Judith – non-stop reading . And as I read I thought of my own childhood – the only child of a sickly young mother and a prosperous older father who almost immediately lost his fortune in the 1930 depression. What wonderful details you recall and how vividly you relate them. Love M

    Reply
  3. Debra Stone

    Rich, storytelling I was drawn to the entire piece. Bravo!

    Reply

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