Sara’s thoughts kept drifting to her father. Didn’t he realize we’d miss him? She snapped shut her notebook from Mr. Carney’s history class. Loud strains of The Ronettes’ “Be my, be my baby” filtered through her bedroom window and lured her to the street.
She sneaked past the living room where her younger siblings were glued to the T.V. screen watching To Tell the Truth. Her mother was dozing on the couch, weary from cooking and serving dinner after canvassing on the icy streets of downtown Brooklyn for Fields Department Store. They didn’t hear Sara click the apartment door shut before racing down the stairs and onto Penn Street where rocky boys in leather jackets listened to transistor radios and leaned against parked cars, while they smoked Marlboros and kissed bold girls Sara’s age in tight sweaters.
The quiet in the apartment confused Sara when she returned. Most nights Robbie and Rachel’s antics kept their mother busy until ten. The buzz of the fluorescent lights under the dish cabinets drew Sara into the kitchen. The clock above the refrigerator read nine o’clock.
From behind, her mother’s voice sounded: “Sara Katz!” She had been waiting at the kitchen table. “Why didn’t you let us know? You left without a word.”
“I went out,” Sara said, turning to her mother.
“In the street,” she said, her foot shuffling on the floor. She had violated their unwritten contract. If, on week nights, she completed her homework and stayed home, she’d be relieved of kitchen chores. That was their agreement. Sara knew her mother wanted all her children around her in the evenings, now that Sara’s father was gone.
“What’s gotten into you?” her mother said, reaching for a tissue in her apron pocket. “I want you to accomplish more than I did. Make me proud of you! I could never have been elected a school officer like you. Don’t ruin your reputation.”
Sara squinted. She hadn’t expected her mother to get so upset. She felt a twinge of guilt seeing the dinner dishes piled high on the drain board. “I was just . . . stepping out for air. That’s all.”
“Sara dear,” her mother said looking bewildered. “You know you shouldn’t be hanging out with that loose crowd. Do you want your school losing confidence in your intelligence and leadership qualities?”
Sara found her mouth. “You think I’m still a child of eight or ten? I need my freedom. You seem to have no faith in me at all.”
“I have great confidence in you, mamela.” Her mother wiped her brow and gave her daughter a hug. “Your talents I never had. To this day, my worst fear is to speak in front of an audience, but you give speeches at school and express yourself so well. Don’t be distracted by boys the way I was. So I say, forget those roughnecks in the street.” She blinked her hazel eyes. “You never cared for them before.”
“Ma, don’t worry. I won’t be distracted.”
Sara was unsettled by events of the past month and had become restless. Her parents had separated. Because her father’s problem was becoming worse while he lived at home and the neighbors might find out, Sara’s grandparents decided that their son should leave his wife and children in Brooklyn to live with them in Queens. Grandma Hannah and Poppy Mo believed they could straighten out their wayward son. In the meantime, Sara had vowed to her mother she’d never talk about her father’s troubles anywhere to anyone.
Grandma and Poppy began blaming Sara’s mother for their son’s problem as soon as they saw first-hand how deeply sick he was, and they no longer invited Sara’s family to visit them in Queens. Sara couldn’t understand how grandparents she loved could possibly think her mother was responsible for her father’s illness.
Every Sunday, Sara, Robbie and Rachel saw their father when he visited their apartment laden with gifts–Kosher chicken and steak from his butcher shop, Katz and Block Kosher Meats; babke and rugelach baked by Grandma; and brightly colored caps, scarves, and shirts he purchased in shops near his butcher store. He liked entertaining his children by blowing sad, jazzy tunes on his harmonica, which he played well. His blue eyes would roll and his cheeks would puff and quiver. These moments were precious to Sara. They also seemed to revive her mother’s hopes that life could become normal again. After the visits, Sara wondered why none of the procedures her father underwent had cured him–hospital stays, therapy, medication, retreats to sanitariums, even shock treatment. How could her father be so good and so smart and still have his problem?
Next day, after having had words with her mother, Sara stood before the bathroom mirror, teased her brown hair into a high bee hive, and slipped on a new blouse, a gift from her father. How she missed her father! She preened in the mirror, admiring the blouse, its sheer fabric and its color, her favorite, powder blue. The color of her eyes, her father’s eyes. That morning, as Vice President of Eastern District’s General Organization, she’d be delivering a talk in the auditorium about the holiday fund drive. Considering whether to wear a slip, she remembered the bold girls on Penn Street. Instead of putting on a slip, she draped a navy scarf over her blouse.
At school, as Sara bobbed down the hallway gabbing with Larry Roth the G.O. President, Mrs. Sherman, G.O. advisor, intercepted the pair. Known by students as the Sherman tank, the hefty woman barked, “Miss Katz! Let me see what you’re wearing. Put your books down.”
Sara nudged Larry to hold her books. He stood there, a witness to Mrs. Sherman’s once-over of his partner. To Sara’s distress, the scarf slipped noiselessly off her shoulders.
“No one’s delivering a talk for the G.O. dressed like that, Miss Katz,” Mrs. Sherman said. Receiving a reprimand in front of Larry Roth, Sara felt humiliated. She looked down at her own blouse and averted Mrs. Sherman’s dagger gaze. Sara couldn’t find words to answer. She realized she had taken a risk in wearing a see-through blouse, but she liked the way she looked in it, and her father had given it to her. Should she be blamed for her scarf falling off?
“Mr. Roth, you proceed to the auditorium,” the Sherman tank said. “I want you to deliver the remarks for the fund drive. Miss Katz needs me to escort her to the principal’s office.”
“See you tomorrow,” Larry mumbled, returning Sara’s books.
Sara was sent home for indecent exposure. Because her mother was still at work, Sara was left with her Aunt Annette, who lived around the corner from the Katzes. Aunt Annette phoned Robbie’s school and told them Robbie should take Rachel directly to her house this afternoon–Sara wouldn’t be picking them up. Aunt Annette offered her niece milk and cookies. When they sat together at the kitchen table, Annette said, “I don’t want to contradict anything your mother has to say. After all, I don’t have a daughter, and your cousin Ben is only ten. So you wait for your mother.”
When her mother got home and learned of Sara’s discharge from school, she instructed Robbie and Rachel to do their homework in the bedroom, led Sara into the kitchen, and said to her, “Why can’t I get through to you?” She looked down at the blouse Sara’s father gave her and pointed her finger. “I can see your . . . your . . .rosebuds. Don’t you realize, you have to cover yourself up?”
“Why should I be ashamed of my breasts, Ma? Can’t you say the word?” Sara looked directly at her mother for an answer.
“Sweetheart,” her mother responded. “Girls need to be modest. You don’t want to be considered a tramp.”
“I know the girls they call tramps,” Sara replied. “I feel sorry for them. They’re just girls who want to be loved.”
“What am I going to do with you?” Her mother shook her head back and forth. “The world may not be fair to those girls, but it’s a world we have to live in.”
“Why can’t we make the world different?”
“Forget the world,” her mother said. “Charity begins at home you know. How about bringing peace to your own family?”
“But Daddy gave me the blouse.”
“Your father doesn’t always use good judgment,” her mother said.
“He trusts me more than you do.”
A long silence between them. Steam hissed up from the radiator. “There’s something else I’m worrying about.” Her mother breathed in deeply. “I don’t want you blabbering to your friends about your father’s situation.” She shot a stern look at Sara that drummed home her admonition. “You don’t want to shame your family. So don’t say anything.”
“Okay,” Sara grumbled.
A week later on Sunday, the children were waiting anxiously for their father’s visit. They expected him by three in the afternoon. He was late. They huddled together sadly on the couch watching images on T.V. of the past week’s shocking tragedy, President Kennedy’s assassination. “We lost our shining hope,” Sara said.
As evening fell, Robbie turned the channel to The Wonderful Disney World of Color. He was leaning his arm over his new telescope, the bar mitzvah gift from his father. On the coffee table, in preparation for his father’s visit, he lined up airplane models he and his father assembled on previous Sundays. Sara was still sitting next to Robbie, while Rachel, the seven-year old, who’d been hoping her father would buy her a puppy, now lay on the carpet, her eyes drowsy. Their mother prepared dinner.
When Walt Disney ended, Robbie said to Sara, sounding disappointed, “It looks like Daddy’s not coming.” He switched channels to Ed Sullivan.
“He’ll be here,” Sara said. “He promised.”
The phone rang. The three children clapped. “It’s Daddy,” Rachel squealed jumping up from the floor. They moved away from the television and gathered around their mother in the kitchen as she lifted the receiver off the hook. Sara knew by the drop of her mother’s head that it was bad news. “God in heaven,” their mother groaned quietly. “The butcher shop? No, this cannot be. Impossible!” Mechanically, she replaced the receiver. Her face turned grey and she took Sara, Robbie and Rachel around in her arms. Her body trembled.
“That was Uncle Irv,” she said in a shaky voice. “Calling about your father. Something horrible happened.” She hugged the children too tightly.
Sara heard the loud beats of the June Taylor Dancers on the Ed Sullivan Show that sounded like horses galloping. “What is it? What is it? What is it?” Sara wanted to know.
Their mother walked slowly towards the living room to shut the television off. “Daddy had an accident in Poppy’s butcher shop,” she whispered. “A very bad accident.”
The first time Sara saw a corpse it was her father laid out for his funeral on Bedford Avenue in a satin-lined mahogany casket. The casket was placed in the middle of an ante-room where the immediate family gathered several hours before the service. Sara’s mother, dressed in black, wore a veil to cover swollen eyes and a tear-stained face. Robbie, in his bar mitzvah suit, stood close to Sara, who was appropriately outfitted in a dark dress.
Grandma had insisted that Hirsch and Sons, the funeral directors, keep Josef’s eyes open for a while, since she wasn’t ready to accept that her son was really gone. It was one of several concessions to Jewish tradition, Sara later learned, made by Rabbi Korn. The rabbi had been stunned by Josef’s premature death and sympathized with the crazed and bereaved mother when he saw her dead son’s seal-gray face, cold blue lips, and leathery skin.
When Sara saw her father’s blue-grey eyes stare up out of the coffin blankly like a mannequin’s, his face wan and rigid, she didn’t recognize the father she knew–the father with lively, rolling eyes who visited on week-ends, the father who played his harmonica and sought forgiveness, the father who, over the past month, delivered packages of meat and specialty organs to the family to prove he loved them. Sara was counting on having a father to talk to about boys; what college she should attend, since she was hoping to go out of town; why the president got shot, and why there had to be wars. She simply couldn’t believe her father wasn’t still alive. Maybe it’s best, she thought, that her family followed tradition in not allowing little Rachel to be at the funeral to see him.
As Sara sat in the pew between her mother and brother, she whispered to Robbie, half-crying, “Daddy was just with us at your bar mitzvah. And now he’s gone.”
Robbie started biting his lip.
Sara saw the mourners filing into the chapel. Her grandparents were gasping and crying, hobbling to the pew in front of Sara’s family. Aunt Rozzie, her father’s sister, followed with her husband, Sara’s Uncle Irv. Their children, Sara’s cousins, stared at Sara and Robbie as they passed their row. Sara wondered why she, her mother and brother were not also sitting in the first row. Couldn’t Grandma and Poppy put their blaming aside so that the whole family could sit together?
And in the row behind Sara, her Aunt Annette, her mother’s sister, and her husband Uncle Merv squeezed into their seats along with their son, Ben, who tapped Robbie on the shoulder when he sat down.
“Keep your hands to yourself, Ben,” Aunt Annette quipped.
Sara drew close to Robbie. “Daddy’s life is over. Things won’t ever be the same.”
“I’ll miss Daddy,” Robbie sniffled. His lip was turning blue.
“Who is that pretender who wouldn’t look me in the eye?” Sara asked Robbie, her voice rising. “That corpse lying in the casket wearing Father’s favorite gray silk suit.”
“I think Daddy’s embalmed,” Robbie answered.
“Shhh. The rabbi’s ready to speak,” Aunt Annette whispered.
Rabbi Korn, bearded, solemn, called family members to the bema if they wished to speak about the departed. No one came forward. Sara wondered why no one wanted to say anything. Grandma Hannah was heaving and sobbing in the first row. Though Poppy Mo tried shushing her and holding her around in his arms, Grandma couldn’t contain herself. She cried out, “Josef, my beautiful son, my Josef.” Members of the congregation, second cousins from Russia and Poland whom Sara recognized from the Cousins’ Club, broke out in expressions of sympathy: “Poor Hannah!” “She shouldn’t get a stroke.” “A mother never gets over such a loss.”
Just as Rabbi Korn raised his robed arms to calm the crowd, Grandma turned to Sara and Robbie seated behind her and asked, her eyes wild, “Why did your father have to die of a heart attack?” Poppy coaxed her to turn around.
Sara squirmed in her seat. She had been privy to conversations between her mother and grandmother and knew that her father didn’t die from a heart attack. She leaned over to her mother and whispered, “How can Grandma lie like that?”
“She’s not telling the truth because the truth is shameful,” her mother answered in low tones. “Daddy’s life was shameful, a shandah. So was his death. So keep quiet. The rabbi’s about to speak.”
“His whole life?”
From the bema, Rabbi Korn began speaking and looking about the chapel. “Friends, we are gathered today to face a modern tragedy. We remember Josef Katz, the son of Mo Katz, our beloved Kosher butcher, formerly of Williamsburg, now of Little Neck.” The rabbi glanced in Grandma and Grandpa’s direction, then moved his eyes, row by row to the very back of the gold-colored room adorned with dark draperies. The rabbi seemed to be seeking out familiar faces. Sara could see him perspiring. She wondered if the rabbi, who knew her father since he was a child, had been trusted with her father’s secret.
She turned to her brother on her other side. Cupping her hand over her mouth, she asked, “What do you think Daddy died of?”
Robbie looked up at his sister with fear in his eyes. No one had spoken to him directly about his father’s death. All he knew came from Sara and the information she offered was sketchy. With hesitation he asked, “Did Daddy . . . do it . . . to himself?”
“You know about things like that?”
Sara hugged her brother, pulling him closer. “We just don’t know. Maybe we’ll never know. Mommy and Grandma didn’t allow an autopsy.”
Robbie began crying.
“What are you saying to Robbie?” Sara’s mother asked, yanking Sara’s shoulder.
Sara, still trying to keep her voice down as Rabbi Korn led the congregation in the Kaddish, wanted answers: “Why isn’t Rabbi Korn saying anything about Daddy’s illness? His struggle to get well?”
“We’ll discuss it later. Just be quiet.”
How could Sara remain quiet amidst rituals so artificial and stifling? Was a funeral supposed to be like this: no words expressed about the deceased’s problems or why he actually died? Sara never saw a dead body before. The strange man in the coffin looked nothing like her father. It was as if her father had been taken from her too many times. Illness took him from her first. Then her grandparents stole him. Death took him a third time, maybe even suicide, and then embalming. Now the rabbi was describing a father different from hers. Did the rabbi’s eulogy have to be such a cover-up? If he would simply acknowledge the actual person her father was, she might not be so upset.
The congregation recited the final Amen of the Prayer for the Dead. Rabbi Korn continued his eulogy. “Josef Katz was Mo Katz’s loyal son. He carried on his father’s trade and, in fact, branched out beyond the neighborhood. He brought wholesale Kosher products to the entire city. But despite Josef’s good intentions, Hashem, the Master of the Universe, revealed another plan for Josef Katz.”
Grandma Hannah’s deep-throated moans pierced the chamber. Sara looked anxiously about her, at the whole congregation, at the faces of all the people gathered, the relatives, the friends, the acquaintances. Many of these people, she thought, must have known that my father caused the ruin of our family.
Rabbi Korn reached the end of his eulogy. “The life of our friend and neighbor Josef, a man fortunate to have a lovely wife and three loving children, was cut off so tragically at the age of forty-two. Oh, who can honestly say that our Josef Katz was not a hard-working, good-natured man? We hold him in our blessed memory, and we thank Hashem that at least in our Josef’s brief life he had the nachas to see his son become a bar mitzvah.”
Sara knew better. Her father’s tragedy wasn’t simply dying young. “What is the rabbi talking about?” Sara asked her mother. “Are we fortunate that Daddy died so soon after Robbie’s bar mitzvah? Why isn’t the rabbi telling the truth?”
“Because what happened to your father is private, family business,” her mother answered. “So please, Sara!”
Sara moved from feeling disbelief over her father’s passing and the untrue ways he was being described to feeling overwhelmed by sadness and loss. No more hope for reconciliation between her parents. No more watchful waiting for the blare of her father’s car horn when he drove in from Queens, no more anticipation of her father’s step at the door, or his embracing her like a bear when he greeted her. Never could she speak to her father about what she knew–his shameful life. Never could she find the right words, the right time. She was about to approach him that very week. He’d been more patient with her than in the past. And now it was too late. If only he had stayed at home and not moved in with Grandma and Poppy, he might still be alive.
She cried out uncontrollably to her mother, “Oh why did Daddy leave us?”
Her mother put her arm around Sara, and Sara welcomed her mother’s touch and rested her head on her mother’s shoulder. Sara wondered what would become of them and whether they’d survive as a family. Despite her mother’s comforting, Sara’s stomach began to knot. Anger welled up in her: anger at her father for leaving them and anger at the distortions of the truth she had heard. She sat up stiffly until the service ended.
Sara returned to classes in high school after the shiva period for her father. Mr. Carney her history teacher, a large and burly man, asked Sara to talk to him privately at his desk. “Did you read the chapters on the two world wars and on Roosevelt and the Great Depression?”
At that moment, Sara wished she were back in Miss Simmons’ history class from the previous semester. She wished her parents hadn’t split apart. She wished her father didn’t have his fatal problem. She wished her father had been cured. She wished she could have spoken to her father about his problem and that he didn’t have to die. She wished and wished and tried to explain all of it to Mr. Carney.
“My father. . . my father. . . ” she began. Her heart thumped. Her face felt hot. She trembled. She held onto the corner of Mr. Carney’s desk.
“What about your father?”
There was much in her heart she wanted to say, but strangled by the secret she had buried, she stood mute.
Read Sharon’s interview with WIPs about “Private Family Business” and We All Fall Down, her novel in progress.