When Daddy Got Sick

Our family life was divided into two parts – before and after Daddy got sick.  That was the phrase we all used, Mom included.  Daddy got sick in 1958 or ’59, I’m not sure which.  I know it was in the spring because Howard and I were at an aunt’s house for Seder when Mom called to tell us that our grandparents would be picking us up and taking us for an overnight.  I hated overnighting anywhere but at home, so this was bad news.  Also, it was bad news that Mom was crying on the phone. Daddy got sick in a courtroom.  He was on trial for stealing goods from his employer to begin a business with his brother.  He didn’t do it.  This is what I was told, this is what I believe and, if you’d known my father, this is what you’d believe, too.

Dad and his brother were installment men.  They worked for a company that sold crappy goods to poor people who could neither qualify for credit nor afford the things they bought on installment.  Everything was for sale on installment – kitchen bowls, summer dresses, furniture.  My dad and his brother went into business for themselves while still working for another company, which was a naïve and stupid thing to do.   Dad was accused of not only stealing customers but also stealing goods.  Though he was never actually convicted, Dad paid the price, collapsing in a courtroom with a heart attack that forever weakened him.

Howard and I didn’t know all this at the time, though Howard was at home alone when the police came to search the house.  I don’t know where Mom was nor why Howard would have been home alone at age 9 or 10, except that it was a safe neighborhood and we knew everybody and benign neglect was pretty much par for the course in our house at that time.  In retrospect, I realize that there must have been some pretty major stress going on that year, too.

Forever after, we counted Passovers -- each one marking another year of Dad’s survival.  Dad’s first year after his heart attack was spent mostly at home – he couldn’t work, at least not at what he knew.  He couldn’t stand on his feet and sell things all day, he couldn’t drive a truck, he couldn’t load grocery shelves with canned goods.  Mom got a job at Social Security and relatives loaned money and we got by.  Gradually, Dad got his energy back and gradually he found work – finally landing with a man from Temple, a man who knew of Dad’s character and goodness and who hired him.  He had that job until he died, of another heart attack, thirteen years after the first.

I know this blog is about Howard but I think that in my attempts to be entertaining and light and focus on the good and the fun and the happy, I have sometimes neglected life’s other realities - those of struggle and fear and shame.  And you can’t have one without the other, life’s funny that way.

That first Passover, the night that Daddy got sick, Mom’s parents picked us up and took us to their home.  Howard and I didn’t know what had happened but we knew it was bad, we were both scared but if there was something I was better at than Howard, it was expressing fear.

Usually, when we slept over at our grandparent’s, I’d stay in Mom’s old room and Howard would stay in our uncle’s old room but this was not a usual night.  So Howard stayed with me in the room our mom had grown up in.  And that night, even though I was too old for it, he sang me a lullaby.  It was Brahm’s lullaby – the same one Mom liked to sing.

And when Mom finally left the hospital and returned to us at her parents’ house,  she climbed into her old bed with us.  She didn’t sing that night, but she held us and cried until morning.