The Syncopated March

The impatient honk of the jeep signaled that it was time to run outside into the starry Mediterranean night.  I watched my father holstering his pistol into his belt; the added weight pulled at his uniform pants.   I saw them slowly climbing down his flat behind. He called my name, never quite right. My father could not pronounce my name correctly; the throaty first syllable ‘Dar’ in Darya conflicted with his Eastern European mother tongue, lacking this particular sound.

Memories of a particular day and night illustrate the evolvement of a storm I came to know as me.

When I returned from school that afternoon, I could hear my father playing his accordion. I threw my leather school bag on the floor of my room. A miracle, I thought, no one else was at home. An exotic giant bird, my father would not play his music if anyone other than me were present. I followed the sounds and inched my way into the living room, letting my back slide slowly along the whitewashed wall, careful not to break the magic. Crouched, I looked for signs of approval. I sat on the floor listening to my father play.  With each movement of his large hands, he let air pass through the instrument’s metal reeds, emitting new sounds into a world of music that belonged to him and me alone.   It was safe to stay there and listen.  My father did not acknowledge my entrance. As I started breathing again, I could see my father’s pleasure at my rapt attention. My father’s eyes were speaking in a language that cared not about pronunciation, in a tongue devoid of foreign sounds. It was my father’s language of music.

Listening to my father’s longing for others’ understanding of him propelled my own wish to comprehend his unspoken thoughts.   Entering a world of breathing, syncopated speech, and altered expression was exciting; riddles I strove to decipher through immersion.

This form of curious observation enhanced my introspective and analytic abilities, in particular in the presence of primitive states of mind. I still listen with my heart.

I spent long moments that evening watching my father’s ritual as he prepared for his after-hours job as a guard at a performing arts event. In the bathroom, he squinted his eyes, tilted his head sideways as he lathered his sweet moonlike face in front of the foggy mirror. His back dotted with water drops, slowly absorbed by the worn down towel tied around his waist. Rarely was I present at my father’s ritual. He was a private man, and often gone on one of his extra jobs. However, when we had the opportunity, we made it into an event. My father would remove a brush full of shaving cream out of a bowl, and smudge my nose with it. The bristles tickling my nose, the aroma of his olive shaving cream overpowering my senses, I protested with pleasure.

“Would you like to shave?” my father stretched his bare arm offering his brush.

I reached out to grab it. The cool shaving cream on my cheek juxtaposed the warmth of the mushroom shaped handle.

“Not enough facial hair, yet” my father concluded.

“I am not a boy,” I would declare and stick my tongue out at him, as I was handing his brush back.

“So what?” my father would kid, peering out of his white mask, his cherry lips curved down.

What was he thinking? I was not a boy. Did he want me to be one? Did he want me not to be? Swaying between my clear notions of being a girl, and learning all that boys ought to know, proud of my technical abilities, skills I picked up from both of my parents. However, his remark was a reminder that we were different, that there were certain actions and traits I would never share with him. That I would never shave my face, felt like a powerful loss, the denial of a sensually gratifying experience.*combined with a reminder of the unabridged divergence from my father.

Dejection of such realities heightened my unrelenting endeavor of finding incongruity in my experiences as well as in the minds I met later in my personal and professional life. Arguably, every father-daughter relationship carries reminiscence of oedipal conflict. If there was a seduction on the part of my father, it was of an adult striving to see himself in the mirror of an admiring child. For a brief moment, I was a mirror of his manhood as reflected in the boy I was. My father’s ability to seduce me into a game I enjoyed, had strict unspoken rules I learned to respect early on. As long as I followed, there was a game. Naturally, and often regretfully, I had to fall back into being a girl, stressing the discrepancy of his wish for me to shave, for him to father a son. I had to disappoint my father. Quickly, the image of idealized, sharing, and inclusive father could turn into a shadow of misunderstanding and a murky shadow of the self, as I as the impostor was exposed. Living comfortably within a wide range of gender roles is a skill I honed in my years being the daughter/son of my father.

In my clinical work as a psychoanalyst, I must land myself to the projection of the person I work with in any given moment. I must be a loving or neglectful mother, a domineering or seductive father, a vicious sibling, or a competitive co-worker, and so on. Invariably, for better or worse I must turn to be something else with the progression of analysis, often contrary to what I was for a while in the mind of my patient. The ensued disappointment is unavoidable. The ability to disappoint the other by not being all is a familiar companion. As a developing adult, the notion of guilt was a permanent companion to any new engagement in my personal life as I knew I was bound to disappoint. Still as an adult, I am surprised when infliction of punishment does not always follow my limited ability to provide the idealized, positive or negative, picture projected onto me.

Seeing the comic side of my father’s effort to ready himself to leave the house exposed the menacing aspect of a vulnerable man who wished to hide. The question then become was my father a man, less whether I was masculine enough to hang around. Was he the 12-year-old sensitive child who was not tan enough in comparison to the native born Israelis? Living in a tent together with hundreds of thousands of other refugees from Europe and North Africa, his parents wished to rescue him from the harsh transition from wealth to nothingness. They accepted an opportunity to send him to a Kibbutz where his fingers were broken by youth, who objected to his music playing. Then back to a tiny apartment with his parents, ashamed at the failure to become one of the natives. The pistol was always there. As a child I thought that it protected my father from the shame and humiliation, that could not be worded. I was guilty by association.

Vicarious existence was insufficient. Helping myself, and others, excavate and understand the source of discontent became a passion. Therefore, speaking the truth was a hallmark. Somewhat refined over the decades, any reality or psychic based truth would do.

The following progression of that historical evening is perhaps a screen memory that contains my affinity to witnessing, as a core element in dealing with segments of psychic trauma. Often we will repeat an action compulsively until interrupted by sufficient witnessing and understanding.

Gently drawing his Khaki shirt out of a clean laundry pile, a gaze of misery and pride in his clear-blue eyes, my father meticulously ironed his shirt, careful to catch the smallest crease. I imagined my father sulking over a failed expectation to have my mother care for him, and I as her living extension, had to endure my and her badness. I was guilty by association.

I still cringe in the movies when an actor on the screen is about to act embarrassingly.

One by one, my father picked his war decorations off the dining room table, fastening them onto the space above his left pocket -- sunny stripes reminiscent of a vibrant fabric. His shiny silver unit badge placed above the right pocket. He shifted his weight to one side, and set the shirt over the back of his dining-room chair. The blue rope with the whistle went into the shoulder strap, ready to attach his rank stripes to his shirt’s sleeve.

My father failed the officer-training course, or should I say, fell off it, as a tall ladder tipped over resulting in several broken ribs. I later thought that his lack of confidence as a commander caused his unsteadiness. Now he wore his shame on his sleeve and if he ever forgot, my mother, who was frustrated with our insufficient resources, was there to remind him of his failure.

Bent over, his breath labored, my father tied up his shiny lace-up shoes, his button-full wool jacket restricting his airway.  “Mmgh!” a sound of great effort came forth from his barrel chest. Following a sigh of relief as he stood up, he combed his fine strawberry-blond hair perfectly to one side.

That evening my father was my idol. He took me along with him to his night job.

“Would you like to hear a concert tonight?”

A pause, I gasped, I felt my face turn warm and rosy.

“Yes!” I skipped and turned. Pause.

“Is mother coming?” I asked doubtfully.

“Nope.” My father entered the darkened kitchen. “Wear something nice,” he muttered. I could hear the trickle of water flowing into his Finjan, our dedicated coffee pot. It meant we would leave soon, once he drank his dark mud of coffee in a small Turkish glass, standing up.

I wondered whether my mother knew about the planned outing, but wisely refrained from inquiring. A giddy tension crept in, as I knew this sort of adventure was beyond my mother’s comfort zone. Invested, I waited for the hours to pass, hoping my parents would not pull me in opposing directions, mounting to rubble.

Heroic and charming in his clumsy way, my father took a guard position in this and other esteemed cultural events so that he could sneak me in, using his comp ticket, as he could not afford the ticket price. He regarded these kinds of experiences as essential to my upbringing.

How he ever arranged for his nine-year-old daughter to join his squad was never clear to me. I wore my nicest white floral dress accompanied by red clunky sandals and was ready to go. Anxious to leave, I reckoned with my mother’s reasons for me to stay, as they were threatening my father’s educational plans for me.  She took my love for my father personally, and my father and I were happy to leave it all behind us.  A victorious truffle we shared.

“Don’t keep her up too late!” my mother said dryly.  Then she took a dangerous turn.

“There is school tomorrow,” she added with a triumphant demand. I worried she might change her mind. “You and your lovely ideas,” she said contemptuously, meaning my father always messed up the order of things.

“The last thing she needs in life,” she muttered sardonically.  That was a sign my mother would not fight for real this time, a hint that we were free to go, as long as we took her concerns for me, and her centrality to my existence, tucked in our back pockets. And so we did.

We could hear her reservations accumulate in the stairwell of our apartment building as we descended all fourteen steps to the sandy parking lot in front of our house.

The cool summer air greeted me with excitement. I hopped into the back of the jeep, joining three tired police officers, my father’s squad for the night. Poking my head through the window, I could feel the evening breeze gently brushing my nine- year-old face. Out there, a moon outlined the limit of my gaze.  I turned around.

“Yo, man! What did you bring this baby for?!”  Sámi, a slender balding eagle of a man, called in my father’s direction.

My father, in a high pitched voice retorted, “Why don’t you mind your own business Sámi?!”

“What’re you going to do with her once we’re there?” Sámi pointed at me, “Your boss will clip off your sergeant stripes, ‘offi-cer’.”

The jeep shook with the laughing roar of my bench fellows. The driver realized my father’s determination to keep me with him, shrugged, looked forward and started the engine, letting the gear screech into first.  The jeep skipped forward, leaving a wake of thick dust. I sneezed loudly.

“Hey girl, are you sure you’re up to it?!” Another wave of giggles trembled through the night.

My heating blood mixed with the chilled air sent me to an unprotected new world of sheep and wolves. I was concerned that my father’s co-workers would further provoke him.  I felt for my father, who had to work daily in such acidic company. He was almost okay with their behavior.  My stomach was in knots, my throat constricted. I began to regret my presence with my father and his co-workers.

“Hey! Leave my princess alone! You hear me?” There was no answer, but at least it was quiet.

As we headed west toward the Mediterranean waters, we left behind the city lights.  My arms covered with goose bumps. Damn! I should have taken a jacket, I thought as tears crept up behind my eyes. I knew my presence in the jeep was tenuous. Not wanting to disappoint my father, I pretended to be fine when he asked if I was cold in the wind-stricken open jeep.

“How do you let your princess leave the house like this?” asked a freckled red head I came to nickname, Alfonso. He reminded me of an orange cat in a book I recently read. “She is blue” he gestured with an open palm twisted up and arm stretched generally in my direction.  The moving vehicle allowed a gust to split my curls in all directions.  I looked more like the mythical Medusa than a fine cultivated girl on her way to a cultural event.

“Shut up already!” was all that my father said. I felt scared for him.  I hoped he didn’t regret taking me along.  I knew I had to be very good.

Outside, serene dunes welcomed us. Bright white bumps frequented by an occasional hairy shrub painted a mysterious celestial ground. Soon, salty Mediterranean dampness shawled my skin with a crusty invisible glove.  I yearned for the warm salty water of the sea. I was jolted with the abrupt halt in a T intersection that seemed to lead from nowhere to wasteland. Sámi and Alfonso jumped off the back of the jeep. In the dim moonlight, they resembled overgrown tortoises, heads tucked in a desperate effort to preserve energy. It was bound to be a long shelterless night, palms close to their bodies rubbed together to create a momentary warmth.  After a few arrangements, we took a sharp turn north and were on our way.

“Why aren’t we staying here, Daddy?”

“Count your blessings my dear. This is the worst spot to spend the night.” I noticed a change in his voice. Gruff but sweet, he was no longer holding onto his breath.

As we veered west, I could see we were going toward one of my favorite places. My father craned his neck, a big smile spread across his fat cat face, enjoying my gasp of delight, and pleased with his ability to surprise me.  “Now you know where we are. Don’t you?” I smiled back at him. Words, I learned, can destroy a perfect moment. My father would take me along to any visit on the edge, as long as I did not say very much.

In front of us, a wide view of the ocean framed by the ancient Roman city of Caesarea. Julius Caesar commissioned the construction job to Herod - the acclaimed builder of this region two thousand years ago. Herod fashioned the city with public baths, a stadium, and an open-air amphitheater.

My heart awakened by the view of the ripples passing through the stunning aqueduct. One more turn and we were in the shadow of the Ottoman city wall. I concentrated on the large stones, hearing the centrifugal swish created by the trapped air funneled between the wall and our jeep.

As the wall curved to the right, the jeep quit growling. I was content and frankly, ready for a nap. Instead, I tried to jump over the back flap, ignoring my father’s request for me to wait, so he could lower the flap for me. “Ouch!” In my eager haste to do it myself, I didn’t quite clear the flap.  The blood on my shin stung on the zipper- like scratch. Ringing in my ears, I pretended nothing happened. Hiding my limp, we marched. As we walked on the pitch-black path, silently taking in sounds of waves breaking against the rocks on the shore, an amalgam of voices entered as the ocean metronome kept the rhythm.  “Lots of people,” my father said as he held my hand with his warm palm. “Don’t you dare to get lost now!” He held me more forcefully than was necessary.

I was surprised. As we approached the gate my father said, “When I tell you, just walk in and march after everybody. When you get to the rows of seats, find a spot as high as you can, close to the aisle, and I’ll find you later. Do not worry, now! Off you go.” Bewildered I looked at him, but he had already let go of my hand and pushed me forward. When I hesitated he insisted, “Go already I said!” I no longer existed. There was no use trying to reason.

I moved with the crowd, clueless, I followed the waves of people bright in evening gowns and suits until an impressive arch stopped me. Looking down, I saw a large stage illuminated in the distance and covered by black chairs. Music filled my ears. Some musicians were readying their instruments. It sounded as if I was in a forest at twilight. I looked around; thousands of people sprinkled the space. I did not see a single child in the open-air amphitheater. Remembering my father’s words, I moved a little to the right, a little to the left, to make room for the people who paid for their seats. A freshly coiffed woman approached me. She bent over to meet me at eye level and smiled.

“Are you lost sweetie? Where is your mom?” she asked.

I could smell the hair spray holding up her high hairdo. Her plush mink coat mesmerized me. I recalled my grandmother’s fox furs.  As she wrapped them around my neck, I shrieked, horrified at the feet, head, chocolate brown fur, glass eyes and all.

Inverting my gaze, I said, “My mother is at home with my brothers.”

The woman and her suitor laughed; I guess I missed her point.

She asked, “So then, where is your father, dear? Who is with you?”

Tears in my eyes, I said, “He will be right back,” pointing through the arch into an invisible spot beyond the vomitory, that large vaulted passageway through which masses of the audience could quickly enter and exit the seating portion of the theatre.

“He is at work,” I declared hastily to answer her unstated question.

I could tell my words only confused her. As she contemplated whether to intervene in earnest, an ovation silenced the spectator balcony.

I am off the hook, I thought to myself, as I caught a glimpse of her pity and disbelief. I imagined that I was no longer an upper-crust girl who lost her parents, but a child that did not fit this woman’s picture of herself. She looked foreign, and out of place, hanging onto an old world tradition of formal wear in this sultry weather. Was she possibly an uprooted refugee?

Suddenly I felt alone. I wondered where my father was.  Will he be back? I was certain he was working, being outside, in the cold night. He would have loved the music too. I knew he would. I did not need to turn my head to see, as I felt my father’s nudge to move in and clear a spot for him. I could hardly see, yet the music reached my ears and enveloped me in a state of contentment. I looked up to meet the stars, experimenting with seeing close and far. I closed my eyes. The music lulled me to sleep; the cold air brought me back. I heard a divine voice singing. It was only now that I understood why my father played Verdi's Aida tunes for me this afternoon.

Maria Callas pretended to be passionately normal on stage.  I knew the bitter truth.  My father’s stories were always real or borrowed from reality with his unique twists. I knew about the misery of the Greek/American/Italian singer, as my father without much explanation mimicked this afternoon.  It was only now that I understood why that particular music, why this afternoon.  I basked in the familiar sounds

 

 

Hemda Arad is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Seattle.

 

 

My Father, Daniel Zachary Gibson

My Father’s Last Call