There are things I never said to you. Things I didn’t think needed to be said. Others I just didn’t know how to say. Things I want to say now.
Maybe if I’d said them before, maybe if I had acted differently, it could have made things different between us. Better than the way they turned out.
We had a rough time, your mother and me, after you were born. I don’t think we were ready for you. Some people are. We weren’t. That’s not your fault. It’s mine. Ours. We all paid a price for it.
Some nights, when you were real little, when I needed to go to work in the morning, I couldn’t sleep. It was your mother. She worried me. She’d cry for hours at night. You know how people get when they don’t get enough sleep. I didn’t know what to do. You were sleeping through the night by then, but she wasn’t. Neither of us were.
What is it? I’d ask her. Nothing, she’d say. Or she’d say, you wouldn’t understand. Or she would say she didn’t know. Worse, she’d say, you should know why. I didn’t know why. That made me feel so bad that I wished I could cry myself.
I can’t remember my own mother ever crying. Or my father. They were strict people. They didn’t laugh much, or at all. They worked. They ate simple meals. Boiled chicken. A brisket on holidays. Rye or Challah with pickled herring or whitefish chubs. Potatoes with cucumber. And tea. Tea in the morning and with dinner. In a glass with a cube of sugar.
They worked hard. Shnayders, tailors. In our apartment. Neighbors brought them suits to repair. To let out or take in. Seams to sew. Hidden stitches. My mother had her sewing machine by the bedroom window. My father worked on the table in the living room under the ceiling light. At six, the clothes came off the table to set it for dinner. People came and went all day dropping off clothes and picking them up. My father did the cutting. The ironing. He hummed and smoked while he ironed.
They never went out. Not to the park or to sit in chairs in the sun with the newspaper like some of the other families in the building. In the sun along Broadway. The smell of pickles from the store on Nagle Avenue. My parents looked like shut ins. Gray faces with creases in their foreheads.
My mother called me her Meir, mazel tov. The Spanish flu was killing millions of people. Babies like me dying in hospitals and at home. But I lived.
You were a year old. Small and krenklekh. Sickly. I worked a lot. There was work for men coming back from the army. And school, at night. I didn’t see you that much. Your mother would shiver like it was winter when I came home. She wasn’t like that before you were born. And she would cry in the night. I didn’t know why. She would go to your crib and stand there. Come back to bed, I would tell her. There was nothing I could do.
Maybe we shouldn’t have had a kid. Maybe we should have waited. Maybe we shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place. Maybe we were too young. Everyone was getting married then. That was it. That was what you did.
I think you felt the same way. I saw that and I didn’t say anything to you. You were what, twenty when you got married? Too young. I looked at you and I thought, this kid should wait. I should have said something. You wouldn’t have listened to me. Would you?
Maybe you would have. I thought if said something, your mother would kill me. I looked at you and I saw no happiness in your face. When I got married, your mother and I were all over one another. But you? Nothing. Blank. Like you two had taken a ticket and were waiting on a line to buy a pound of flounder.
Your mother and I had something, once. I thought we always would. But things changed. I think a lot of it was my fault. I remember being so tired I felt nauseous all the time. I can’t remember what I said to her once, maybe, leave the kid alone already. And she said to me why don’t you leave me alone? I was angry, and I said Christ, knock it off already. She was acting crazy. She went into the kitchen, where the phone was, and she called her mother. It was maybe two or three in the morning and she called her mother and there she was sobbing into the phone and I grabbed the phone away from her and said stop it and I hung it up.
My father never once raised his voice. I don’t know where it came from. My anger. But from then on things were different between us. I felt like I was in a box. I worked. We went out sometimes and had a good time, but it wouldn’t stay that way.
I don’t know where it went wrong with you. As a kid you seemed distant. Even more when you got older. I didn’t know what to say to you. How to start a conversation. And it just stayed like that. You were more like your mother. You weren’t like me. And so…
I guess I was more like my father was. We never had much to say to one another. I can’t remember him putting his arm around me. I’m not saying that’s an excuse. It was just hard.
I did not want to put that on you. But then, I don’t think I ever told you I love you. I did. Love you. I didn’t know how to say it.
I’m sorry you grew up with me like that. I know how that must have felt.
Never once in my whole life did I ever feel like your mother so often did, with her heart so filled with either happiness or sorrow. So much that she felt it could just burst open and have it all pour out.
If only once I could have felt that, maybe then I could have been able to say the things I should have said when I was alive.