Wanna hear my sexy To-Do list?
1) Have German citizenship restored in what’s left of 2009.
2) Travel to Berlin for satisfying-yet-not-disorienting amount of time.
3) Interview American expats in Berlin in 2010, successful women who’ve balanced career and parenting while living overseas. Consider joining them. Write about this with humor, pathos, and a keen eye. The feature article is for a major magazine.
4) Sail back to New York City on same route that my father and grandparents took on December 14, 1938. Ideally via Holland-America Cruises. Write about this with humor, pathos, and a keen eye. The book is part memoir, part travelogue. I think I’ll do a somewhat smoky eye for the jacket photo, and a slim-fitting v-neck sweater. And maybe just the faintest whiff of a wind machine. Not so you’d notice it. Just so the hair has volume.
As the ship arrives in New York Harbor, as my personal narrative comes full circle, all the pieces of my life fall into place with a satisfying choonk. I now know where I am, where I’ve been, who I am, and where I’m going.
That’s the sound the pieces make when they fall into place, by the way.
I call Holland-America Cruises this morning. I am all a-twitter for the vault of archival material the company is going to have at arm’s length. How many German-Jews owe their lives to this company? Of course there’s a dedicated archivist. Of course I can have my simple questions neatly answered, like where exactly my family’s ship docked in New York, since my searches of Ellis Island archives have turned up nil on the Ebels, leading me to believe they didn’t pass through Ellis Island.
The “archivist” for the company is also their special events coordinator. I can picture her in deep communion with the potential contents of a gift-bag (M&M’s come in all sorts of fashion colors these days) as she absently sends me some links to wacky websites created by amateur shipping enthusiasts. I poke around and find a You Tube video of the T.S.S. Statendam, the ship on which my grandparents and father sailed from Rotterdam to New York.
It’s a few minutes long, still shots of the ship’s construction and well-appointed interior, but we’re all busy people, so let me cut to the money shot. The T.S.S. Statendam sailed from 1929-1940, and the final shot of the video shows the ship’s destroyed hull, a carcass spewing smoke.
The S.S. Statendam is gone, another casualty of war. Holland-America no longer sails direct from Rotterdam to New York. So I could take a train from Berlin to Rotterdam, make my way down to the port, squint and imagine my family’s debarking, then pop on over to Amsterdam, from which Holland-America does sail. But is that faking it? Maybe some other outfit sails Rotterdam direct to New York, but I might have to ride on a shipping container filled with sex slaves. Maybe the crazy-hot Rothschild heir with the garbage dinghy wants to give me a lift. Or…
I sigh deeply in the Harvard chair at which I sit at my desk and contemplate skipping today’s post due to unwieldy emotional issues.
And then I think about the cardboard box.
The one in the upper storage closet, just feet from my desk.
The box was sent to me last year, when my father died, by Bernhard Grunewald. That is his real name, by the way. I think the box contains stuff my father wrote. But I’m not really sure. Because, you know, I’ve never opened it.
Bernhard Grunewald is a Swedish journalist, as well as Henry Ebel’s biggest fan. He has published my father’s writings and maintains the Henry Ebel website.
Yes, there is a Henry Ebel website.
Bernard Grunewald contacted me around the time that Henry died. He was very excited to speak to me in a Bob-Dylan’s-long-lost-daughter kind of way. It was briefly heartening to think that my father was somebody else’s rock star. But then it became an unmanageable situation that quickly threatened my Fragile Mental Condition.
I shut down my communication with Bernhard Grunewald and shelve the box.
When I think about my father’s career, one word comes to mind:
TOTAL FUCKING CRACKPOT.
Allow me to present my father’s C.V. in a paragraph.
Henry Ebel graduates from Columbia College in 1959 with top honors, Phi Beta Kappa, the Kellett Fellowship to launch his graduate career at Cambridge University. He returns to the States, gets a juicy tenure-track position in the English Department at Wesleyan University, and cracks up, severing ties with everybody and everything: career, close friends, daughter. He lands an associate professorship at CUNY that lasts for awhile, then also implodes. From 1976-1980 he works with psychohistorian Lloyd DeMause while also covering the New York psychotherapy scene for Behavior Today as an editor.
Psychohistory is a fringe discipline that has struggled for academic recognition. According to Lloyd DeMause’s website for the Institute for Psychohistory, “Psychohistory, the science of historical motivations, combines the insights of psychotherapy with the research methodology of the social sciences to understand the emotional origin of the social and political behavior of groups and nations, past and present.” There’s also a graphic of a business card with a drawing of a globe sitting on a tufted, old-school leather divan. “Putting the world on the couch,” the tagline reads.
Or, as I joked to my brother recently when we were talking about Henry’s career: “Florida is shaped like a penis.”
I’m not a member of the academy, Lord only knows. And the relationship among politics, culture and behavior seems like something worth thinking about. But just in general, it seems like a business card with a tagline like “Putting the world on the couch” could earn you the stink-eye at your next academic conference.
Anyway, Henry Ebel falls off of the fringe, too, in the 80’s, parting ways with the psychohistory posse. He finds himself some adjunct professorships here and there. He spends the rest of his career based in the world of university development and public relations, first for the University of Hartford, then for George Washington University.
My father’s story terrifies me. The freefall trajectory. The plummeting descent. The thorough unraveling. The rants and ravings of a madman. That’s who the little boy from Berlin in the sweater vest and tie grew up to be.
I am afraid of turning out like him. But I’m an adult, so I’ve already turned out. Am I…crackpot-esque? Ish? You know, what writers do. Cook up an idea, bury yourself in it, hope somebody gets it.
Maybe my father ran away from Wesleyan when he should have hunkered down, asked a friend for help, shaken his LSD habit and chugged down the tenure track all the way to Department Chair. Maybe I’ve done the same thing, run off in search of a creative home when I should have kept at it. Maybe if I’d kept writing poetry, I’d be a bohemian-in-residence by now at a small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere, with leaves in my hair and a wardrobe of clogs. Or if I’d dedicated myself more deeply to soap opera scripts, I’d be the head writer of General Hospital by now. The show’s produced in my Los Angeles neighborhood; I could walk to work. Maybe I’m nuts to think that I’ll find my way to a career that has upward momentum instead of the fits and starts it’s had. And, you know, I make easy jokes about jacket photos and wind machines. Am I deluded and grandiose like my father? (“It is I,” he announces to my answering machine, the first time he’s spoken to me in 19 years.)
And what’s the title of the first book by my father that Bernhard Grunewald publishes?
Jews, Germans and Other Disasters.
So I’m writing about how the war shaped my father, and how my father shaped me, and how restoring my political connection to my family’s place of origin might illuminate and even heal my inner workings. And my crackpot father was writing in his crackpot style about some crackpot version of the same (crackpot?) topic.
Arrrggghhhhhh!!!! Running screaming from the room! Kathy-shaped cut-out through the wall with puffs of smoke!!!
Can I indulge in plans for a sparkling tour of the continent without passing through this feared territory?
Can I get to the bottom of anything if I don’t open that box?
I glance over my shoulder at the closet doors with their attractive glass pulls, tucked right under the ceiling. One of the doors is actually open an inch.
I look away, and I publish this post.