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For My Father

Posted on Thursday, June 18, 2009 in lamentations, Memoirs, prayers, unfinished

Maurice Goldman (1910-1984)

I never knew my father. I knew his presence; I knew his music – it resounded throughout our house during the entirety of my lifetime – but I never knew him. To me, he was a ghost.

During countless years, my father and I would pass each other in the hallway. I’d say “Hi dad,” and he’d say “hi,” but we never looked one another in the eyes.

I certainly never hated him, nor even really disliked him. But I was scared of him. He was a man with a tremendous amount of rage inside, and though he never hit me, just one look from him would leave me shaking.

In 1983, when my father found he had cancer, we began to connect. It wasn’t a verbal connection, but it was there all the same. I took care of him; I went to the hospital and got his medicines. When he could no longer walk, I bought him a cane.

I sat next to him on the couch and we watched a boxing match on television. “They’re bums!” he said with disgust, as the two fighters waltzed around the ring. It struck me that he’d used a term from his era – the 40’s and 50’s – not mine. Nonetheless, he was right. They were bums.

One time, I overheard him say to my mother, “I guess it’s a good thing that Stuart is in the house.” (I was living at home again for the millionth time in my life).

Soon thereafter, I sat in the hospital and watched him as he lay dying. I put ice chips on his mouth when his lips would parch; I held his hand. He was in a delirium. He kept saying, “Sam… Sam…” (Sam was his brother, whom he hadn’t seen in years).

The moment finally came. I put my head on his chest and then looked up at him.

“I love you dad,” I said.

“I love you, son,” he replied, looking into my eyes.

That was the first time in my life my father had ever called me “son.”

He died shortly thereafter. My mother and a few family members were by his bedside. I was asleep in a motel room I’d rented, a block away from the hospital. When my cousin came and knocked on my door, I knew that he was gone.

I rushed to the hospital, but by the time I got there, everybody had left the room. The nurses wouldn’t let me go inside. Several minutes later, I heard a distinct sound. It went “zip!” I knew what it was.

A few moments later, two men in white carried my father’s body, now encased in a blue leather bag, down the hallway. I wanted to yell at them to stop…but nothing would come out of my mouth.

I remember driving back home as if in a dream. Oddly, I was not crying.

Today, if I ever accidentally drive by that hospital, I have to cover my eyes with my hand so I that I don’t see it.

I remember absolutely nothing about his funeral. Not a single image remains. He was cremated – per his wishes – and his ashes put on a shelf in some hallway. The actor David Janssen – who had played the lead on The Fugitive – was right around the corner. For some reason I liked that.

And that was it, really. He was gone. To be honest, I didn’t mourn much. I didn’t grieve. I didn’t know who the person was whom I was supposed to grieve for.

And so I went on with my life. I rarely thought of him, or truly missed him. When I’d see my mom go through her ritual of lighting a candle for him on his birthday, or on their anniversary, I’d feel a pang in my heart…but it was more for her than for him.

Twenty-three years passes. And then, something strange happens.

God steps in. And God does what He does best. He works a miracle.

When I tell you this, I mean it, absolutely. There is simply no other way to describe what’s happened; I know that nobody but the Lord could have engineered the manner in which this story has evolved.

In my closet sits a box. This box contains every single letter that I’ve ever received during my lifetime. For the most part, they are letters from friends. They began arriving shortly after I moved away from home to attend San Francisco State College in the fall of ’63.

I loved getting letters – but what I really loved was writing letters. That’s all I ever did that year was write letters. It was the beginning of another life, though I didn’t know it at the time. All I knew was that every day I’d open my mailbox, and the letters would tumble out. I’d read them over and over, savoring every word (especially the ones from girls I had crushes on – and there were plenty of them!). Sometimes I’d swear that I could actually smell the writer of a particular letter on the paper.

Somewhere around 1985, the letters stopped coming. It was the advent of the Internet. It was the end of an era – an era in which people shared stories with one another in letters. Emails can contain thoughts (usually in incomplete sentences), but rarely, if ever, do they contain stories.

This is why I love my box of letters. I believe I can say that this box may well be my most treasured keepsake. It contains not simply facts. It contains a road map of history. My history. Each one of these letters – even if the writer had not been terribly significant in my life – contained a piece of me…a piece that I could now bring back into the foreground of my mind and replay, scene-by-scene, for as long as I wanted to.

But the facts – the things which people talked about – were strictly secondary to the real prize of these letters – the secrets which they held. That’s why they were so powerful! Because no matter how many times you’d re-read one, new and more wonderful (or sometimes terrible) secrets would reveal themselves.

Whenever I move (and I’ve moved many times over the years), my box of letters is the first thing I take. It never travels in a moving van. It travels in my car, preferably on the seat right next to me.

Recently, for some reason, I started sorting the letters. I began a rudimentary filing system. At first I filed them by the year in which they were written. Then the system became more elaborate (and much more fun). I was filling up manila folders titled, “College Letters,” “Letters From The Road,” (these came from the years during which I traveled the globe as a musician), “Letters From Girls I Was In Love With,” “Letters From Girls I Didn’t Care About…”

You get the idea, I’m sure.

In the box, there is a single manila folder labeled “Letters from Mom and Dad.” As I was filing, I’d often stop and read particular letters, but I rarely read any of the letters that I’d received from my parents. I don’t know if it was because I was disinterested, or because I was terrified of what I might find.

About a month ago, for some reason, I was ready to start another filing session. Before I knew what I was doing, I went straight to the folder containing the letters from my parents. For the next 24 hours, I read without stopping. When I was done, I began re-reading them again.

Most of the letters are from my mother. She was an incessant letter writer. She was such a nudge. Even though I was miles from home, she kept on taking care of me, as she always had. I was still her little boy. I was always her little boy (and, thus, I have remained a boy).

On the other hand, the letters from my father were clearly not written to a little boy. They were written to a person whom he hoped would someday grow to be a man.

My father’s letters were typically short, and curt. I could feel his anger, his sense of rage, in these letters. Worst of all, I could feel his sense of disappointment. I knew that his disappointment wasn’t just with me, but with the way his own life had turned out.

In one letter he actually wrote, “More than anything else, Stuart” (he always called me by my first name – never “son”) – “you must break the curse, the curse which was handed down from my father to me, and now to you. The reason I’ve been so angry with you, Stuart, is that I saw that as you grew up, you came to be more and more like me. I wanted to tell you that beyond anything else you do, you must break this pattern. I failed. I didn’t know how to help you. I was not a good father, and I’m sorry for that…”

When I finished reading that sentence, all the distance that had existed between my father and I during the course of our lives simply vanished. Something else had replaced it, though I had no idea what it was.

I sat there on the floor and read that letter over and over and over. I can see it in my head now… the shape of his handwriting (he had beautiful handwriting; he always wrote with an ink pen, never a ballpoint).

That letter was written perhaps 35 years ago. Now, as I reread it these many years later, something happened. A flame began to burn inside me.

At first, I didn’t know what was happening. Then the thing revealed itself. I now had a mission: to bring alive a man whom I knew nothing about.

I began to hunt through file cabinets and boxes stored in the garage for anything I could find that might reveal facts about my father. Other than a small box of photos, a few letters, and some old home movies, nothing remained. I searched the Internet for information. Though my father was a well-known and highly respected musician, there was precious little on the net.

I felt lost. The task remained beyond my grasp. How would I ever find out? Most of my relatives – from both sides of my family – were gone by now.

I called my sister and asked her if she had anything. The following day, she turned up carrying a gigantic suitcase. When she opened it, I saw that it was filled to the brim with scrapbooks (my mother was a great scrapbook keeper…I should’ve figured!). The scrapbooks contained literally hundreds of articles about my father; they covered the time from when he began his musical career in the 30’s, to his death in 1984. Besides the newspaper articles, there were letters – written both by him and to him – as well as tape recordings of his musical performances and film scores.

Though my father’s original stardom (and he really was that …he was a star !) had diminished later in life, he never stopped writing. He finished his last cantata (“Echoes of Yiddish Life”), shortly before his death. Because he was too weak to go to the opening night’s performance, he was relegated to watching it on videotape from his hospital bed.

I don’t mean to brag (yes I do!), but my father was not simply multi-talented. That is far too pale a word. Though I don’t much care for it, the proper word is genius. Yes, that is the word.

His love of music appeared early on. At age five, he was already composing original music. At 24, he became the youngest man to conduct a symphony at Cleveland’s famed Severance Hall. Shortly thereafter, he won a scholarship to study at Tanglewood, Massachusetts, where he worked alongside two of his heroes, Ernest Bloch and Aaron Copeland. Like those men, my father’s work broke the boundaries of traditional classical music – employing melodies and harmonies that combined classical and contemporary music – thus creating a “new” form that was decidedly avant garde.

He came to Hollywood in the ’40s and scored films, but Hollywood was not his métier . He returned to Cleveland to work in the area he knew and loved – the world of Yiddish Music. Back home, he headed up the Opera Department at the Cleveland Institute of Music and the Vocal Department at the Cleveland Music School Settlement. He served as the cantor at both the Temple On The Heights, Euclid Avenue Temple, and later at University Synagogue in Los Angeles.

Over the course of his life, my father composed and arranged hundreds of songs, cantatas, operas, and choral pieces – both liturgical and secular.

To my amazement, I found that many of his compositions were inspired by original Biblical texts. The most well known of these is his choral work, “Al Naharos Bovel” (By The Waters Of Babylon), which is based upon the 137th psalm.

Over the next several weeks, as I read through the articles and letters, I began to uncover my father’s history (his story) the jobs he’d held, the inside tale on many of his more famous compositions (many of which are still played and performed today). But more important than the accolades – and they were many – I began to know him. The ghostly figure I’d passed so many times in the hallway began to materialize. Finally, after all these years, the mystery of the man began to reveal itself to me.

After I’d read everything in that suitcase, I knew it was time to listen to the music (I’d been avoiding it until now). There were a few cassettes, but most of the music was on reel-to-reel tapes. I quickly purchased an old reel-to-reel machine on E-Bay and waited – biting my nails to the quick – for it to arrive.

Of course when it came, it didn’t work. After an eternity of tinkering, the bloody thing came to life. I put on the first tape, a cantata my father had written with famed radio biographer Norman Corwin in 1954, entitled “The Golden Door.” It was a piece commemorating the 300th anniversary of Jewish settlement in the United States (The American Jewish Tercentenary).

Upon hearing the first notes, I recalled hearing bits and pieces of the cantata as my father hummed them while composing at the piano. As I listened (and this is the magic and the power of music), the composition began to trigger scenes which I now realized I’d unconsciously buried.

The next tape I played was labeled, “Maurice Goldman Sings Songs Of Hanukah.” After hearing the first note, and the sound of that gorgeous baritone voice, I was on the floor. I wasn’t just crying – I was shrieking – wailing like a wounded beast who’d had a knife plunged into his heart.

How many times had I heard that voice, singing the broucha as we lit the Hanukah candles each year? Each note, each breath, caused me unbelievable pain. And as the wound bled out, I could feel the broken pieces of myself coming together again… like magnetic particles striving to reach one another… to make themselves into a whole.

So you see? I now have the tools. Through the articles and the music, I am now piecing together my father’s life story. And my own life story as well. As I said, the articles were wonderful, but it was the music that lit the lamp, which now illuminated that once dark room.

My God, what spirit ...what a vibrant, elegant presence was within that music. That quiet, remote man who’d sit hour after hour at the piano, frantically scribbling notes on paper while ignoring the din of his son playing Link Wray’s “Rumble,” (the first tune learned by every fledgling guitar player) in the next room — that man had now become a living presence.

And a mighty presence it was! How could I have passed that presence in the hallway so many times and not felt its power? But of course I had. That’s why I had avoided him all my life. I didn’t want to be touched by that presence; it would have destroyed the path I was on – the path of my own pleasure and satisfaction at the cost of all else.

And so, as this new obsession – the obsession to bring my father back to life – began to overtake me, I surrendered myself to it. And soon that thing called the “real” world, and everything in it, vanished.

During these past weeks, I have been letting that empty hole that’s always been at the very center of my life, fill up. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not necessarily a joyful experience (though it can be). But mostly it is pain – pain the likes of which I have never known before. I’m literally on the operating table, where the doctor – who for some reason has denied me the use of anesthesia – is cutting open my carcass. My entrails spill out of the open wound, as the surgeon’s knife digs deeper.

I don’t care. I am no longer on this earth. I am a stranger from another galaxy. I go for days without food or sleep. I wander around the house in a stupor, mumbling, babbling incoherently, pounding the walls – crying, yelling… screaming at the top of my lungs, when the thing bubbles over.

Occasionally I wonder if the neighbors, or the people who walk past my house, can hear the shrieks – literally the shrieks of a wounded beast – that are coming from inside this place.

I know that my mom would be mad at me for staining her new carpeting. For my tears are not tears. They are blood. I am wounded….gutted. My blood stains the carpet and spatters the walls like a scene out of Night Of The Living Dead. I am leaking like a sieve, reddening everything I touch.

The blood that I’m spewing is not just my blood; it is the blood of Maurice Goldman … a man who has come to live inside me…a man who tells me stories … a man who wakes me in the middle of the night and speaks to me in a language that only I can understand.

His spirit and my spirit do a strange dance. It is the dance of life. It is the dance of death. I don’t know what it is, and it matters not a whit.

Sometimes I ask God why He waited so long to allow this encounter to take place. Yet somehow I know that it had to be like this.

Along with the articles in the scrapbooks, I found an envelope containing a poem. It is a very short poem, written by an unknown writer named Mary Lee Hall. It is entitled “Turn Again To Life.” As I read it, I recalled that my father had read this poem at the graveside, when my mother’s sister – my Aunt Charlotte – died in 1982.

Whenever I read this poem (and I read it often, since I have it scotch taped to my bedroom wall), my father is alive once again. He is speaking to me, though I’m sure that wasn’t his intention at the time he first read it.

Yet I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my father uttered these lines so that I could read them now, at a time when my life – before embarking upon this journey – seemed unbearably bleak and without purpose.

Thanks to my father, that time is over.

If I should die and leave you for awhile,
Be not like others sore undone, who keep
Long vigil by the silent dust and sweep.
For my sake, turn again to life and smile,
Nerving thy heart and trembling hand
To do that which will comfort other souls than thine.
Complete these dear unfinished tasks of mine,
And I perchance may therein comfort you.

© Stuart Goldman

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