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.
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).
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:
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.
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