A Face in the Window
As Father's Day approaches, I am haunted by one most vivid and moving scene from my childhood.
Tulips. Suntan lotion. Baseball. Graduations. Barbeques. Finals (finally). Summer camp. Really red watermelon. Sunglasses. Father's Day.
What a month, indeed. Someday, when they ask me to re-calibrate the calendar (which, by the way, will definitely happen), I'm going to lop off a good 8-10 days from each of December, January, and February and add them to June. No reason in the world why the greatest month of the year shouldn't have 60 or 70 days, at least!
Until then, 30 will just have to do. Oh well.
But for me, June always had an additional significance. It contained my father's birthday. Not that he ever made much of it (and, in typical European fashion we never knew how old he was, of course), but it did add a dash of supplementary luster to an already celebratory time of year.
Come to think of it, Daddy never really made very much of Father's Day either. And since the birthday and Father's Day inevitably fell so close to each other, my brother and me usually cheated and rolled the festivities into one. Daddy just kind of smiled approvingly at our annual shortcut, perhaps gladdened that less of a fuss would be made over him. In fact, if I didn't know better, and if he hadn't been born in Poland, I'd have suspected that he orchestrated his own birth to land in the vicinity of Father's Day, precisely to escape some additional rays of limelight. He was reticent and unassuming. In short, nothing like his son.
I wonder if he was always unassuming. Who knows? Was he indeed born, or brought up that way, or did he become inconspicuous later in life – either in response to his war experiences or perhaps as a desperate or feeble survival tool. Maybe unobtrusive inmates had a better chance of "hiding" in the Nazi death camps. I just don't know; he never really spoke to us about his six years of hell on earth.
As Father's Day (and his birthday) approach once more, I think about this delicate and understated father of mine and I search for glimpses into his humble, yet loving soul. And I am repeatedly haunted by one most vivid and moving scene from my childhood. But first some contrast.
Several years ago, on a particularly warm Tuesday morning in very late June (yes, June), I found myself walking past a school building in my neighborhood. Lined up in the adjacent street were six idling "coach" busses, brimming with jubilant and frenzied kids. A momentary chill trickled through me. Instantly, one of my fondest childhood memories appeared. Camp departure day had arrived.
Starting at age nine, for 13 years, I had lived and breathed my camping experience, not for 2 months a year, but for practically every single day of the year. I was obsessed with everything about camp. Various scenes from camp routinely visited my dreams all year. (Some still do!) So camp departure day was by far the number one day of the year for this kid. To say that the anticipation bordered on the euphoric would probably be an understatement.
Something was wrong; very wrong.
So watching those busses revving up and listening to those kids howling with glee was a gripping moment for me. But then it struck me. Something was wrong; very wrong. I felt like I was confronting one of those magazine puzzles – "What's wrong with this picture?"
It didn't take me long to figure it out. There was something missing from the scene. The parents. Where were they?
"HEY!" I shouted internally. "YOUR CHILDREN ARE LEAVING FOR CAMP! WHY AREN'T YOU HERE? CAN'T YOU WAIT FOR THE BUSSES TO PULL OUT???"
An inappropriate sweat saturated my collar. I had to find out. I ran to a burly chap with a whistle. He would know.
"Excuse me," I blurted, "I see you're going off to camp."
"Leaving any minute," he offered, crushing a torn duffle bag into the final empty corner of the luggage bin.
"Can I ask you a question?"
"WHERE ARE THE PARENTS?"
"Oh, a lot of them were here before, but they left. Work, I guess. Who knows? No big deal – these kids are in good hands."
My heart sank. "A lot of them were here," did he say? "No big deal?" Of course it's a big deal. IT'S THE BIGGEST DEAL OF THE WHOLE DARN YEAR!!!
I was clearly losing it.
It took me a minute or two to fully grasp the reality of the episode before me. I guess the parents did have places to go. Work, appointments or otherwise. A lot of the kids do have older siblings with them. Why should the parents have to wait for the busses to pull out? Suitable goodbyes, including kisses, nosh, and money, are presumably permitted even prior to the busses leaving. And maybe the kids actually prefer to get those mushy goodbyes over with early etc. etc. What got into me?
Which brings me to that one vivid and moving experience from my past that I mentioned to you. It happened on camp departure day. And it happened every single year, for many years.
My folks woke me early and the three of us made the 80-minute subway trek to the camp bus. Little Jackie (me) didn't get much sleep the night before, dreaming of extra-inning baseball games and stirring Friday night melodies to come. But rest was the last thing on my mind. "THE DAY" had arrived!
Freshly laundered socks, a chocolate-sprinkle sandwich and my trusted black baseball mitt filled the "Korvette's" shopping bag I usually carried, and no matter how old I was, Mommy and Daddy had a tough time keeping pace with my determined stride to the "Stairway to Heaven," otherwise known as the camp bus.
Creased loose-leaf papers posed as official bunk signs, directing us to the appropriate lines where we received pre-boarding instructions, obligatory bunkmate introductions, and the usual warnings about throwing stuff out of the bus windows and maintaining proper decorum. But when those big bus doors flew open, we all charged full steam ahead like a herd of police dogs on a manhunt. It's a miracle that other than a lot of crushed Devil Dogs and an exploding Pepsi or two, there were no serious casualties in the mad surge of exuberant youth. I would then make my annual pilgrimage to the "back of the bus" and settle in comfortably at a vacant window seat. Seatmates changed from year to year, but it really didn't matter who was sitting with me. My focus was elsewhere.
Long forgotten by that time, were my forlorn father and mother who, missing me already, remained obediently on the now nearly evacuated sidewalk, chatting with other similarly abandoned parents. I peered out the window and watched them. Sending me to camp was not easy for them. Not financially and not emotionally. Such is the reality for survivors of the Holocaust. Separations cut deep. I was pretty young, and I didn't understand it very well, but I knew it was a real sacrifice.
Before very long, the counselors performed the ritual roll call and head count and I knew any minute we'd be on our way. I looked once more through the open window and felt that wistful pang of exhilaration and yearning. It was a strange combination of feelings and my stomach knew it. Mommy always wore a look that said, "Everything will be fine," but Daddy looked lost. His lips seemed to quiver and his soft eyes were no longer dry.
The engines revved up. By now all the windows were crammed with waving arms and blown kisses.
"See you on Visiting Day!"
"Don't forget to write!"
The wheels began their tiresome thrust. The bus lurched forward. A couple of drops of already opened soda probably spilled somewhere. And then I heard it. It was a tap on the windowpane. Strong. Determined. No...maybe frightened is a better word. It was Daddy.
One final good-bye. I saw his hands fumbling in his pockets. When they emerged, they were filled with candy, gum, salted peanuts, and some loose change. He shoved them through the window, half of them spilling to the gutter below. One final chance to feed me, nurture me, hold on to me... love me.
I whipped my neck around to steal a glance at those around me. I guess I was embarrassed, but it didn't matter much. By now Daddy was running to keep up with the departing bus. It was the only time all year he ever ran.
It was the happiest sadness I could ever feel.
Our eyes met one last time. We were both crying now. His arms flailed in surrender mode as we picked up speed. He knew the separation was inevitable and imminent. It was a race he would surely lose. I stuck my head out for one last look...and stared at the peanuts on my lap. Somehow the bus seemed very quiet.
And so went the annual scene. As I grew older, the candy matured somewhat and the change became dollars, but the loving, tearful face in the window remained the same. It was the happiest sadness I could ever feel.
The irony of the situation was that we both knew that Visiting Day would arrive in less than two weeks! It's not like I was going on some yearlong voyage to ‘Never-never Land.' But separations do cut deep.
What really triggered this most reserved man to unabashedly display his most shielded emotions? I don't really know. We never spoke about it. Could it have been a morbid association to the trains he boarded en route to five different concentration camps? Or a menacing reminder of separations – final ones- that he experienced with loved ones? Or was it some overwhelmingly painful image of the bizarre disparity between the camps he went to, and the "camp" I loved so much?
I will never know. But I think I now understand why I demanded to know where those parents were, when the busses left without them that hot Tuesday morning. And I think I know why I love June so much.
Happy Father's Day, Daddy... and Happy Birthday too... I miss you.