Eleanor Levine's work has been published in Fiction, The Denver Quarterly, The California Quarterly, Happy, The Toronto Quarterly, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Blade, The New York Amsterdam News, and other publications and anthologies. She edited the print zine, The Eleanor Levine Newsletter, for nearly a decade where she interviewed Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Al Lewis (aka Grandpa Munster), Sydney Biddle Barrow (“Mayflower Madame”), Kate Schellenbach, and published the work of Eileen Myles, Jaime Manrique, and others. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Hollins University in 2007.
Eleanor is currently a medical copy editor and lives with her dog, Virginia Woolf, in Philadelphia. She's also full of important thoughts and questions, such as where to get a good haircut in Philadelphia or whether or not Sikh cab drivers engage in arranged (gay) marriage. If these are important issues to you, check out her blog.
Read more about Eleanor's inspiration for "Looking for Father."
Looking for Father
We meet for lunch at the same Greek restaurant in Princeton where my father used to take us. It is an odd dining space where heating pipes sprout up from the floor and blue/green bears line the wall. Mother, my brother Harold and I eat there before visiting my father in the Deems cemetery.
Harold wants a picture of the bears; he thinks they resemble Aunt Louise. He points his camera at them.
“No,” my mother, who is very reserved, interrupts.
“Why not?” Harold plays with his new toy.
“It’s not appropriate.” Mother looks in her purse for a tissue.
“Why isn’t it appropriate?” Harold is figuring out how to use a digital camera.
“If you take pictures of bears,” Mother says, “you’re stealing ideas.”
“The bears belong to copyright laws?”
We order food and I have sausage for the Atkins diet.
“Oh that’s really healthy,” Harold points at my plate.
“You know that’s high in cholesterol—” Mother reminds me.
“And don’t you have high blood pressure?” Harold asks.
“You’ll get a heart attack before you’re fifty,” Mother says this so the table of kids nearby can hear her.
Mother and Harold continue eating their salads and say that my weight is like an ice cream truck permanently stuck to one section of the road—it won’t go away.
“You know what Father said?” Harold asks, “he said,‘you’re too fat, Agatha.’”
“You’re gonna die, especially if you eat that shit,” he points again at the gnawed-on sausage.
“That’s enough, you two. This is a holy day—and you shouldn’t be cursing. It’s disrespectful.” My mother assigns holiness to days whenever curse words swim through them.
Father wrote poetry that never got accepted to Reader’s Digest. When I tried writing verse, he insisted I do short stories. I thought it was because he didn’t like the competition, but everyone else thought he was a saint, especially after he died.
After leaving Princeton, we drive to a cemetery in Deems that resembles a safari park. It is expansive and has many long roads, trees and tombstones. I expect to see monkeys crawling on our car but instead see black-suited men praying.
Harold, who is our chauffeur today, is a balding statistician with a professorial potbelly and mammoth collection of pullover sweaters. My mother is a retired teacher and wears cotton suits that fold so you can’t tell how plump she is. She dyes her white hair red-brown.
“Quit driving so fast, Harold, we’ll miss your father.” Mother nudges him.
“Afraid we might run over his grave?”
“That’s not funny, and I don’t think your father would appreciate it either!” Mother turns a pale red and faces the window.
“Turn the air conditioner up.” He turns the knob so it is at full blast.
“Not that cold!” She turns the knob down.
They play CDs in the car—the Beatles and jazz and Cuban music with some Yiddish thrown in. Mother fingers through a newspaper while Harold, seeing The Jewish Daily Forward in big print, remarks, “The Palestinians are so oppressed—they live in an apartheid state.”
“You’re a self-hating Jew. I can’t believe my children hate themselves,” she declares.
“Didn’t the UN equate Zionism with racism, Mom?”
“Those Arab bastards did that,” she replies. You can hear her voice get louder with each new thought. Whenever I’m around my family, friends tell me, my conversations reach higher decibels.
Harold steps on the gas.
"I told you not to go so fast!” she screams at him, hoping we don’t hit any of the mourners.
“These goddamn Jews and their unmarked graves,” he blurts out.
“Let me out of this car—I can’t bear to be around him,” Mother turns to me.
Harold navigates the Volvo and ignores her. He continues lecturing us, this time about the rising Hebrew population in our hometown, “The Jews are taking over.” He is referring to Lakewood, where the Hasidim have been emigrating by the hundreds from Brooklyn.
“My own son is an anti-Semite,” she looks at me, hoping for some sympathy from the back seat.
“Oh Mrs. Schwartz,” he addresses her fondly, “stop being so hollow-caustic.” While growing up, we had Judaism and the Holocaust shoved down our throats like some people get beets or spinach.
“I can’t believe I gave birth to you,” she says.
“Mom,” Harold asks while she switches the CD, “who shows ten-year-old kids movies about the Holocaust?”
“It was for your own edification.”
“Edification?” he taunts her, “it’s more like mortification.”
She and Harold watched my father die together.
“Are you depressed, Mom?” I ask while she fumbles through CD cases.
“Why should I be sad—I saw him die one organ at a time,” she says.
Mother is playing Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing Gershwin and we are traveling through this cemetery/park with tall Hasids moving back and forth and saying Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. Many of them pick up little stones, which they place on the tombstones as a sign that they have been there—it is a Jewish tradition.
This necropolis has many trees and street signs, in fact, far more trees and signs than grave stones. I look out the window to see if there are any nice rocks I can take to Daddy’s grave.
We get out of the car. Harold and Mother are fingering badly copied maps that came in the mail. We have been moving though the park-cemetery for centuries, it seems.
They, more than I, are distressed that their maps are not leading them to Father’s “grave street.”
“This is funny, Mom,” I say.
“That we can’t find it. We’ve been all over this place. Don’t you see the humor?”
“There is no humor.”
Harold and Mother go in opposite directions as if they are Lewis and Clark.
Harold hollers from a distance, “Why couldn’t we just go to Princeton? Why did we have to visit a rock?”
“It’s not a rock—it’s your father’s resting place. We’re supposed to see him twice a year.” Harold, who changed Father’s bedpan, is frustrated that we are unable to locate him. Plus today is Sunday; he’d rather be walking his Dalmatian on the golf course.
“I found it!” I yell.
They keep exploring.
I am like the silent mariner along for the ride; the eccentric sister on peculiar diets; the quixotic one who is creative but not very pragmatic.
Father thought I was unexceptionally large but had a face like Frida Kahlo. He also thought my fiction was “pretty darn good.”
We’d ride together for hours and not say much—unlike Mother and Harold who argue incessantly.
Daddy also read me his poems, which I enjoyed even if Reader’s Digest didn’t find them publishable. I whisper one at his grave:
Wears a shock collar
on his neck because
the redneck downstairs
with tiresome acne
He’s a shift worker
and can’t sleep with
sounds like the shouts
of epileptic children
in a mental hospital
Mother got infuriated when Daddy discussed our peculiarities in print. She didn’t think that we should publicize our “issues.” Whereas Daddy hated when Mother and I squabbled like chickens over feed. I remembered some lines he wrote a few months before he died:
but she still fights
who birthed her
and bled for her
By that crucifix of
a kitchen table
“You make a Federal case
out of everything.”
Daddy does not respond to my reading, although he always told me I had a good voice for the stage.
I stare at his stone, which reads, “May his sweet spirit sleep softly.” I wanted them to engrave “soul” because it sounds more poetic, but Mother thought there was something unJewish and sacrilegious with “soul” so she chose “spirit.” She also claimed authorship for the line but was really the censurer.
While I stand near Daddy, Harold and Mother put their maps next to street signs in the graveyard: Schwartz Street, Esther Street and Grossman Street. Bizarre, if you ask me, to make this resting place so residential.
“Mother! Harold! It’s over here!” They’re perturbed that I, the fickle sister on the Atkins diet, is capable of finding it when they, after all, are employing such great tracking methods.
“I can’t believe she found it!” I hear Harold say.
I wait for them to trudge over the grass, both shaking their heads. They go past Orthodox women placing fresh tulips on the ground.
We stand silently by the stone, staring at its marble creases and indentations. The wind is blowing through my hair and Harold dons a yarmulke that he holds with his hand. I place a small rock on the headstone and we say the Kaddish and weep while the sky bleeds through the clouds.