Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

My Father’s Closet

closet3.jpg 

My father was a pack rat.  Without my mother’s influence, he would have been one of those guys who kept piles of newspapers from ten years ago.  He actually saved credit card receipts back from 1980.  He was overly-organized to the point where he should have probably gone to a therapist to discuss it.  He kept calendars to fill in events coming up two years into the future. 

“We’ll be coming to California to see you in December 2004, on a Monday” he would tell me in January 2002. 

It was very difficult for him to change plans.  This rigidity used to drive me crazy, and as a result, I rebelled and became the complete opposite.  I’m a sloppy, unorganized procrastinator.

In my parent’s bedroom, my father had HIS CLOSET.  It is where he kept all his personal stuff.  He had slides and Super-8 movies from before he was married, all sorts of memorabilia in old cigar boxes, and mysterious papers filed away.  Like many men of a certain generation, he never spoke about his life before marriage. 

Once, when my friend Rob and I were in elementary school, we bravely opened the CLOSET and discovered an old Playboy magazine tucked between two shelves. Wow, was that exciting.  We devoured each page until our eyes were popping out.  At 5:25 (my father always came home exactly at 5:30), we carefully placed the Playboy back in between two shelves — in the EXACT same spot.  Later, that night, my father asked me why I went into his closet.  I was stunned that he knew about our adventure.  Did we return the Playboy just a millimeter off, giving us away?  I never went into his CLOSET again while he was alive.

For the last week, Sophia and I helped my mother clean up the house.  Even though my father died in September, most of his clothes were still in the house.  We gathered up several huge bags of clothes for Goodwill to pick up.  We cleaned up my father’s odd collection of luggage, some from thirty years ago. 

During these days of E-bay, it is more difficult to throw things away. 

“Should we toss away my father’s old-school hard-cased American Tourister suitcases?” I asked Sophia.  “People collect all sorts of nonsense on E-bay.  Maybe there’s a collector of American Tourister luggage out there willing to pay top dollar for our junk.”

At the end, we just tossed it. 

Eventually, the inevitable came up.

“Neil, why don’t you go through your father’s closet?” asked my mother.

So, I did.  I went into my father’s mysterious closet, the one I had feared for so mnay years. 

It was a highly emotional experience.  My father kept everything in this closet.  Photos of his family.  Photos of old girlfriends in bathing suits on the beach.  Paperwork from the shtetl my grandparents had lived in, in Europe.  ID tags from the Army.   College papers.  Slides and movies.  Odd artifacts from my grandparents — a framed photo of the Dionne Quintuplets, a signed painting of six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America, Norman Thomas, and old editions of the Yiddish newspaper, the Forward.  And boxes and boxes of stuff about me that I thought my mother had thrown away years ago.  Letters from sleep-away camp.   Parent-teacher notifications. My college acceptance to Columbia.  An audio recording of my bar mitzvah. 

I was most intrigued by his personal tchotkes, especially this pair of little glass boots that he kept in a cigar box.  They did not look like baby boots or army boots.  What the hell were they?  Sophia and my mother tried to convince me to throw them out, but I couldn’t.  My father obviously saved them for decades, but why?  Had he won them?  Was it an inside joke with an old buddy or girlfriend?  I know I have all sorts of important memorabilia in my “junk drawer” at home.  These items are special to me for various oddball reasons.  I imagined these boots as special to my father.

When my father died, I didn’t feel that things were “left unresolved.”  Going into the closet was my first experience of really MISSING him. 

I wanted to ask him why he kept certain things and not others. 

I wanted to ask him why he never shared these things with me. 

I wanted to ask him what these glass boots meant, if anything. 

The closet was a real treasure trove.  I barely had time to look through most of it.  

Last night, Sophia and I returned to Los Angeles.  I only took two items with me.  Both “spoke” to me in a unique way.   But rather than hide them in a closet like my father would do, I’ll rebel against Arthur Kramer and publish them on the internet.

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This is a photo of my father and me.  I used to put on magic and puppet shows.  Here I am at a Jewish center, telling the story of Purim (the devil puppet on the left is supposedly the villain of Purim, Haman).

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This a hand-written letter I wrote to the New York Times when I was twelve.  I have no recollection of writing this letter at all, but found it amusing (and with some bizarre sense of pride) that I wrote it:

Neil Kramer
Flushing, NY

To the Editors of the NY Times:

I’m sure the NY Times believes in freedom of speech but there was one thing I was shocked about.  In your June 27th “This Week in Review” section on the back page there was a full-sized “Jews for Jesus” ad.  If that is their belief, let it be, but to broadcast that all Jews should change their belief is outrageous, especially in the NY Times.

I know that the “This Week in Review Section” is used much by children and teenagers for current events.  Isn’t it true religion shouldn’t be mixed with schooling?  What if a gullible teenager reads this ad?

I’m sure many worthwhile organizations wanted to buy that space.  I hope you will have better discretion with your ads.

Sincerely,

Neil Kramer

OK, maybe I should’ve kept that IN the closet.  But it made me laugh. 

 

A Year Ago on Citizen of the Month:  S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y Night

63 Comments

  1. Wow, that would have been such a tough task for me to do. I like the two things you saved, though.

    The story about the Playboy makes me think of Danny Tanner on Full House:) Did you ever see that episode? Haha.

  2. I loved this post, if only because it reminded me so much of my mother, who is head of Extreme Packrats.

    They seem to always be there, but really, how well do we know those that we should be the closest to? I would like to understand her, and perhaps, discover something about my mother that can connect us.

    Funny that you rebeled against organization. I did too.

  3. Great post, very touching.

    The part about old pictures of old girlfriends in bathing suits got to me. My grandparents have this small picture of them on their first date many years ago and my grandmother is wearing the shortest shorts — and her legs look amazing!

    We always forget that our parents and grandparents and the other adults in our lives have aspects to them that don’t have something to do with us. And that they were young too.

    And you’re more like your dad than you think — he collected things and you collect stories and odd slices of life on this blog.

  4. Beautiful post, Neil. I can only imagine the amount of emotion evoked going through your dad’s closet. Your letter is really just your very first blog post. It would just take another 25 or so years to write your next post.

  5. Touching post, Neil. I’m a packrat, too, and utterly disorganized. I’ve often wondered what people will say about all my crap after I’m dead. I don’t know why the hell I keep a lot of it myself. I imagine there’s a lot that will drive my loved ones crazy. Or maybe they’ll just trash it all like I should.

  6. What a moving post. I wish your dad was here to read your blog! Whenever you mention him I can’t help but remember one of my favorite posts of yours- the one with the phone conversation between you and your parents when you told them you were dating a Russian (or Ukrainian?). He sounded like a really special father and this is a really beautiful tribute to him.

  7. Non-Highlighted Heather

    July 9, 2006 at 11:41 pm

    You make a lovely Esther. You make a pretty nice Neil Kramer as well.

  8. My dad died July 4 weekend and my mom died Labor Day weekend of the same year. We tackled the house, which my father had built himself, that October. As strange as it may sound, that week of house clearing, cleaning, and estate sales was the most painful time associated with their loss.

    Coolest things discovered: a journal my grandfather had kept about my dad, his firstborn child, born in 1918. Not a lot of entries–probably because more children followed soon after! An article published in a Long Island newspaper about my dad and his seven siblings, all who joined the Navy and served in WWII. The funny part of the article is that the reporter had written a POEM as part of it…

    We couldn’t bear to look through the photos until three years later–a subject for another post entirely!

  9. this is just beautiful. merci

  10. all of this is priceless, absolutely priceless. every last word.

  11. That was a lovely, touching post.

  12. My favorite post so far Neil. I would have LOVED that closet and you described it so vividly. The picture is great ~ we’ve spent many an hour talking about Purim this past Spring so I knew immediately from the photo and the puppets what was happening.

  13. What an amazing photograph…prefiguring the magician of words you are today, perhaps?

  14. Interesting how a few shelves or drawers can represent a life!

    Neil, I am SO IMPRESSED by that letter you wrote to the NY Times at that young age. Randi is write — oops, RIGHT! That should be deemed as your earliest blog post. It’s heated, it’s sensible and it attracts comments and readership. Too bad the NY Times didn’t clue in at that time…or did they?

  15. Thanks for sharing that, Neil. I really enjoyed reading it.

    The photo and the letter are adorable, too.

  16. I think we’re related, Neil. At least our fathers are.

    Very sweet post.

  17. What an amazing father to keep all that stuff for you!

  18. What is it about our families that are so alike??? My grandmother kept wonderful trinkets out, and we knew what they were all about.

    My grandfather…… had PILES of yellowed news papers, BOXES of pictures from the war, cigar boxes: of pins, and ticket stubbs, and CIGAR RINGS…. PILES of “pictures” drawn & colored by my mom, my aunt, and who knows what else…..

    i can’t say i understand fully how you felt, but i understand the experiences….

    oh, and i found my dad’s playboys too.. but i charged admission to the boys on the block for a view…

  19. Some people are disgusted by those who save everything, but I think there’s something to be said for having a sentimental side. It’s better than those who hang on to nothing.

    I’d rather have everything be almost important than nothing be important at all.

  20. neil, this was very moving. it reminded me of “the things they carried,” by tim o’brien (i think). and i loved your letter to the times. “discretion,” great word fot a 12 year old. but you read the times at that point, so i guess i shouldn’t be surprised.

  21. I had a similar experience cleaning out one of my dad’s dresser drawers after he died. My mom gave me a little diary that he’d started and never finished, which I consider to be the most valuable possession I ever got from him – a glimpse into his soul.

  22. So even at 12 you were a rebel! That must have been both tough and fascinating going through your father’s things. I’m glad you saved some personal mementoes. Obviously he was very proud of you, saving all those letters from camp and school reports. I can’t imagine being well organized enough to plan two years in advance!

  23. My father is much the same. He shares more with me, but he’s a pack rat of sorts, but a neat one.

    Your father was obviously very proud of you, Neil. No one can ever take that away from you.

  24. You were writing to the NYT at age 12??? When did you start writing to The Wall Street Journal…14?

  25. You’re a real revolutionary with that letter writing.

    Cute picture of you and your Dad.

  26. You and your dad couldn’t be any sweeter if you tried.

  27. I can’t even fathom what it will be like to go through my mother’s dresser, for many of the same reasons. I have a lot of pack rat nature in me, so I don’t know that I’ll be able to throw any of it away. I’m pretty sure I’ll just transport the whole thing to my bedroom.

  28. I like to think that your father kept the tchotkes (thanks for spelling it, I never would have known how to) as a sort of treasure hunt for you. I know that all my stuff/crap/whatever are in boxes, but the boxes are in the living room – where anyone can see them.

    I’m hoping that when I have children they won’t be afaird to ask me why I kept this knicknack or that knicknack.

  29. Wow. Impressive for a 12-year-old.

    “shtetl”?

  30. I saved a letter Daddy wrote to his mother while he was in Iran one year, his old air force ID tags, his watch and his wedding ring. I framed the letter and tags and they sit in a bookcase in my bedroom. Just seeing that little bit of him, his handwriting, his words… some days it is so very comforting.

  31. What a heartwarming tribute to your Dad, Neil. His CLOSET held his history, what was important to him. It’s very special that you got the opprotunity to see into his world from this perspective.

    Fantastic post Neil. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    3T

  32. Kevin – Shtetl: Didn’t you ever see “Fiddler on the Roof?” It’s a small pre-war Jewish village in Eastern Europe.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shtetl

  33. That’s quite the story. I wonder what I’d find in my dad’s closet. Though, since he divorced, he didn’t have that offsetting balance to keep his junk accumulation in check. Now his whole apartment is a pile of junk, and growing!

  34. I loved this post Neil, such a hard thing for you to do, go through his closet. Everyone loves having things that are just theirs, I do, I have a notebook 15 years old that i can’t bear to write in. It’s hidden away. Why, I don’t know.
    I loved reading your words

  35. Great post, Neil 🙂 I would have kept the glass boots too.

  36. It’s strange to think of the things we’ll all leave behind. My father is a pack rat too. He also keeps stacks of old newspapers, and for some reason has an obsession with collecting boxes and containers convinced he’ll reuse them. Also, regarding your previous post, I’m happy for you that you were able to put a personal touch on your father’s headstone. Great post.

  37. Great post, Neil, but I became weak at the knees at the thought of you throwing away anything! Coming from a family of OCD hoarders, I can only imagine what we’ll have to sort through some day. (My father still has unopened mail from the 1960s and carbon copies of typewritten notes that were sent to school when we were absent.) As it is, I just came back from Chicago with two huge suitcases full of old stuff and I didn’t make a dent.

    The Purim picture is priceless. You need to become a famous rock star just so you can use that as an album cover. Or you can use it as the cover for the memoir you will write about your crazy Jewish childhood.

  38. Keep as much as you can. I have nothing of my father’s and though I wasn’t very close to him, it still makes me sad.

  39. You brought tears to my eyes, Neil. My grandmother has a “closet” as well. I agree, keep what you can….even if you don’t know why your father kept it, you know why you are. Thanks for sharing.

  40. I’m sorry you only just got to see these treasures; they must have had meaning to your father and what an experience to see them now and wonder. Now I don’t know what to do… should I let my kids see my treasures while I’m here so they can understand why they are important to me? Or maybe it’s better to be mysterious…?

  41. This brought tears to my eyes Neil – so glad you could share it with us. Why doesn’t it surprise me that you were sending a letter to the NY Times to express your feelings about a controversial subject at such a young age? I feel proud of that kid too.

  42. The whole thing is perfection; it’s hard to know what to touch on. All those closet insights.
    My mom has a Purim picture of me, at around age 11, in my baby book. She still maintains our baby books. It is her one sentiment.
    I worked with a girl years ago whose mother died, after an extended illness, of cancer. So this girl was supposedly “prepared”. The girl came into work crying a few weeks later; she didn’t know how to make her mother’s pot roast, and would never taste it again. That struck me as the truest mourning. That’s a mighty big never. (My mom has since been building me a cookbook of all our family standards. Her pot roast. Her knadles.)
    Doing what needs to be done, and with so much love. Way to go, Neil.

  43. Although it must have been hard, you still must feel lucky to have had all those momentos to dig through. The only thing I have left like that from my mom is her diary from when she was 12 and she was really mad at my Aunt who would one day become her sister-in-law.

    Who knows what other wonderful things we will never see.

  44. Paperback Writer and Neilochka, it’s spelled tchotchkes or chachkas

    http://www.answers.com/topic/chachka

    Non Highlighted Heather – Neil wasn’t dressed as Esther, it was his magician costume (or are you trying to say something here? 😉 )

  45. You know I never disagree with you, Sophia, but NOBODY spells it “chachkas.”

  46. NOBODY, except people in
    “Results – 14,500 for chachkas” on Google, like a “Red Hot Chachkas” klezmer band, and virtually all Israelis.

  47. I love the photo you kept, and how cool that you wrote to the NY times when you were 12! I doubt I noticed there was any such thing as the NYT at that age. I liked reading your thoughts and memories about your father.

  48. Our artifacts are personal history, who we are, what we value. Nice that you were featured so prominently in your father’s cache, you were obviously well loved. The experience of sorting through my father’s post death closet was exactly what I expected.

    Recently my mom threatened to throw out all of the stuff I had stored in her garage, so I was forced to sort through my myriad boxes of tchotkches. I found a box of things that I had compiled specially to explain to my future children about who I was at age 12 or 13 – although now I realize that they probably won’t care until I’m dead – my spoon collection, a band aid box full of two dollar bills, my brother’s plaster orthadonture mold, national geographic collages of dead zebras and other grotesque images, a seventeen magazine and two ceramic white birds. Still a little sweet, on the cusp of making a fantastic adolescent mess of my life.

  49. This is a very beautiful post Neil. I loved it. You were such a cute kid. Not that you’re not a huh… cute man (?) now! lol!
    Am sure this was a very very special moment for the three of you!

    Fitèna

  50. this brought tears to my eyes. my father passed away 11 years ago tomorrow. after he passed my mother went through his things but asked if any of us wanted anything in particular. i let her pick one thing for me, i told her it didn’t matter, just pick something. i think i would have been far to emotional to have had to do what you did.

  51. I always hesitate to leave you a message because it’s so seldom that I have anything to say that hasn’t been better said in another comment, but I do have to say how touched I was by this and your last post. A quirky parent is a gift, sometimes hard to bear, but ultimately so rewarding.

  52. It’s funny, I was going to mention the spelling of chachkas. It has been my belief that only the white-breadiest of goyim spell it chachkas, (I am in pharmaceutical advertising, and every time the client wants their logo on a pen or clock, we talk about “chachkas”, or worse, “chach”. I was sort of relieved to see it spelled as you spelled it.
    But virtually all Israelis can’t be wrong.

  53. Non-Highlighted Heather

    July 11, 2006 at 7:55 am

    Ha. Hello Sophia. No, no, not at all. The caption said he was telling the story of Purim with puppets. And I knew Esther couldn’t be the ugly hag puppet so the only other choice….

  54. It has only been now, a year later, that we’ve really been able to clean out my grandparents’ home. It has been very tough for my mother, and the grandchildren.

    The little personal tchotkes around the house were the worst. Things that really, truly, were junk. But were so intertwined with every memory I had of the house it was hard to see them go. I kept a couple small things too.

    And I kept items of clothing that I associated most with them. My plan is to cut them up and make them into a quilt. A grandparents quilt. That way I can wrap myself up in them again someday.

  55. Neil, I was very touched by your tribute to your father. He really did love you very much and was extremely proud of all of your accomplishments. As you know, I knew your dad for many, many years and his sense of humor was slightly quirky, but , like me, he could always find the humor in most situations and yes, he did like to plan ahead. He would phone me from NYC in January and give me his flight information for his trip to see you the following Pesach. He loved your mother very much. In his heart of hearts, he always wondered how he was lucky enough to get such a beautiful girl. Remember, I met your mother and Rita in Las Vegas and they both could have passed as Vegas Showgirls then. Neil, Your dad was a gentelman and you have done honor to him and his memory in the tribute that you have paid him in your “Blog”.
    Well done and “Be of good Cheer”.
    Alan.

  56. Thanks, Alan!

  57. Non-Highlighted Heather

    July 11, 2006 at 10:06 pm

    That was nice.

  58. Beautiful and moving post Neil. It brought back memories of me going through my father’s belongings when he passed away.

    It also reminded me of a long ago memory of when I was a little girl and finding my father’s playboy magazine in the bathroom. I took it outside and showed it my friend. I remember, I remember my neighbor, Greg, who I had a big crush on, totally embarrassed and shamed us for looking at it. Funny, I still remember the centerfold. She was covered in whipped cream, but to my 8 year old mind, I thought it was shaving cream, and had no idea why she would do that.

  59. Wonderful that you have seen all those and could finally go in the closet. My dad’s the same but he never talks about the things either.

  60. Have you seen “Everything is Illuminated” yet? I couldn’t help thinking about that film while reading this!

  61. E...outside the box

    July 28, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    It is quite funny, I read your article, and thoughts of going through my mothers closet that she would never let anyone into. Her secret hiding spot.
    After her passing I went into the closet feeling quite uncomfortable like I was violating some sort of off limits.

    I think people need a private area since our lives are so intermingled with family, children and relations, that that special place is where we can reflect on our lives and where we are going into the future.

    A private spot to collect your thoughts and memories. I am starting my own private spot, for my sanity.

  62. Okay- well that coming here for a laugh plan backfired. This made me cry. I’m terribly afraid to lose my parents. I don’t want to go through their closets. Ever. I spoke to my friend the other day who lost her mom a few years ago. She was telling me how she has all of her mother’s things in boxes and just can’t get rid of any of it. She keeps moving to different studios and hauls it all around with her. I felt so sad imagining that she saves more of her mothers things than her own. This also made me think of my closets and all of the stuff my children will one day find. I’d better start organizing now.

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