This piece by my dear friend (hope to see you in Tel Aviv in March!) Miryam Howard really gets to the heart of the matter that this contest intends to nurture. How ironic that one must hide their true identity from their own parent! Or that a wife literally creates her own smoke-screen?
Miryam’s recollections of her father reminds me much of Nella Larsen’s Passing, in which her protagonist, an African American woman, can pass as a white woman to escape the disadvantages imposed upon her true race.
But while Miryam deplores the radiant bigotry of her equal-opportunity offending father–and the story could end there–she also matures to see finer elements of his character. A Word with You Press has sponsored this contest in the hope that all of us can ferret out the goodness in our fellow creatures.
In bridging the gap between father and daughter, she bridges the gap between the war and peace within the human spirit. “Namaste” translates thus: The light within me salutes the light within you.
Miryam found the light.
Betty Davis Eyes
I was extremely shy. I can remember feeling the nausea slowly rising from the pit of my stomach to my throat for fear of being called on in class. I don’t think the nuns ever really noticed that I was present anyway due to my quiet demeanor, but I was a basket-case nonetheless. Most of their attention was focused on Mary Kathryn and a few of her followers, who were constant trouble makers, often exasperating Sister Mary Clementine to tears, as her face turned a blotchy, bright crimson red. I attended St. Joseph school for girls, providing me with a cocoon of shelter from the cold, cruel world, however, this was not to last. I made a sudden hairpin turn mid-way through the 60’s when my parents enrolled me in public high school, due to financial struggles. It didn’t take me long to see the world through a different lens. I was soon to become a liberal, protest march’n’, hippy, pot-smoking, surfer girl. No more blue plaid pleated skirts with white starched blouses for me! Soon I was flaunting tie-dyed peasant tops and embroidered bell bottom jeans. My mother was mainly speechless as I made this transformation. My father mainly consoled my mother. The world was truly a marinade affecting my social footprints. The Kennedy and King assassinations, the first men on the moon, the Beatles, Woodstock, and the Viet Nam war, were all vivid backdrops of my young years. If that were not enough to confuse my teenage ideas, I really don’t know what was, oh… except for maybe one thing: my father.
My father, born Kenneth Harlin, (bless his memory) in Kansas City, Missouri, was a perfect example of middle class, depression-era prejudice. He fought in the Korean war and was a proud NRA touting patriot. He voiced his prejudicial slurs often, and there need not be any particular incident needed for a verbal expose’ to spill forth. He had a commanding presence, yet his delivery was so effortless that the listener barely knew what hit him. His list of derogatory terms and stereotypical references was limitless; calmly rolling off his tongue like a poet, often with a slight grin upon his face and a far-away blue-eyed glimmer, which left the listener in stealth wonderment. Dad was not partial to a particular culture, lifestyle or religious group; he seemed to find extreme delight in roasting whatever provoked him at the moment. This could have been why my mother never uttered a word that she was Jewish, until long after he was laid to rest. She had done well to escape her Jewish identity by moving to California shortly after the war, soon bleaching her hair a luxurious deep auburn, resembling the glamorous Hollywood star, Rita Hayworth (at which she succeeded without question). Putting me in Catholic school was a safer place for my Jewishness to hide as well, as bleaching my hair was not practical.
Listening to the evening news was a ritual in our home, where I not only learned of world current events, but also the nationalities to blame for each headline. Between Los Angeles news anchor, George Putman and my father’s’ commentary, my mother’s nerves would frequently wear thin. Taking a long inhale of her Everest menthol cigarette, her Betty Davis eyes would lower. She would then arise slowly from her chair, whilst tilting her head back, saying in her deep breathy voice, “Oh Kenny, that — is — quite — enough” and would exit stage left! This seemed to put a damper on his flow, as he would usually change the channel to a variety show of some kind. It wouldn’t be long, however, before he would resume, but this time with new characters to exhort. He was convinced that all male dancers were gay, and any female that wore slacks was a lesbian. Our neighbors called him, the “Archie Bunker” of Denmead Street, and they weren’t far off.
Despite his overwhelming gift for sarcastic slam-basting, he had a large assortment of diverse friends. His blatant antagonistic nature seemed to attract rather than deter. Barely an evening would pass that one of his colorful buddies wouldn’t stop by for a BS–joke telling session in the garage out back. I recall a Chinese actor my dad called Cha-Cha who laughed so hard our dog Charlie would jump up and down in a frenzy around his feet. Also, the glossy haired Gypsy called Fats, (yes, he was a human giant) that wafted sweet cologne and drove a very impressive Rolls Royce. They would sit around on dilapidated chairs, chain smoking, while drinking strong Yuban coffee from stained mugs which my dad boiled up on a hot plate. My mom seemed content with dad’s eclectic friends, as she had full access to the new color television and could watch her Hollywood movies without interruption.
Despite my father’s bigot-filled flair, he had the patience of a diamond cutter, and sometimes when no one else had his attention, I would sneak in his garage and we would spend endless hours conversing on topics of philosophy, ethics, music and religion, — he, always listening intently to my aspiring ramblings. Not always agreeing, yet never criticizing. He gave me permission to disagree and he inspired me to develop deep thinking. Many times he would put on one of his classical vinyl records, and we wouldn’t say a word, just sit and listen together. For these moments, I will always cherish his memory.
My father was soon to suffer a series of health issues, which never slowed his disposition down. Instead of his garage, he would hold court at the VA hospital with his comrades in arms. As I saw him with adult eyes, my understanding broadened. I realized that his snide remarks were mainly ploys to arouse conversation. He showed me that to disagree, one need not become hateful. Perhaps it was a mixture of his witty charm and transparent honesty which brought people to see themselves and others in a new light, and in the end, to realize that as humans we are all just trying to figure life out…
Without question, I think Archie would be proud.
(an editorial note: Miryam submitted her entry before we imposed a 500 word limit. Glad she did.)
And here is a little something for you Miryam, and Baruch! Glad you are living your dream though America could use you right now! Shalom, Baby! I love you both!