No. 1: Welcome to Fatherland

What Have I Done?

What Have I Done?

This is a picture of my father, Henry Ebel, holding me, Kathy Ebel.

Check out the look in his eyes. Those are crazy eyes, am I right? He’s glaring at me, for God’s sakes. He doesn’t know who I am or how I got there or what he did to deserve it or what the fuck he’s supposed to do about it now.

In 1970, two years after this picture was taken, my father splits. I see him occasionally until I am seven years old, and then it’s Radio Silence for the next 19 years, until I meet him again when I’m 26.

He died in 2009.

I wasn’t mentioned in his will.

By which I don’t mean “Boo-hoo, my father passed away and I got bupkus.” He didn’t acknowledge me as a next of kin whatsoever, I’m just saying is all. These facts support my interpretation of this image.  The first time I see this picture, I see it one way only.  I’m convinced it reveals a unique emotional truth.  And also, that it predicts the future.

My father was born in Berlin in 1938. He lived at Iranische Strasse 2. He fled Germany, with my grandparents and his older brother, about a year later. I know only the bullet-points of my father’s life, a generational combo-platter: Morningside Heights, Stuyvesant High School, Columbia, phi beta kappa, Ph.D, LSD, primal scream therapy.

Sure, none of us knows our fathers. But I really didn’t know mine. So from these shreds – a little ‘Punch” magazine here, a little Constant Comment tea there, a fringed suede jacket, the cover of Sgt. Pepper — I’ve hallucinated a ghostly person and a flimsy story, filtered through my hyperactive imagination, influenced by my chaotic childhood in and around New York City in the 1970’s and 80’s. I know much more about my mother’s immigrant story, and since she raised me, I’ve inflated her mythology to fill the gap left by my father’s absence. I’ve told myself I don’t really have a father, which has been easier to digest than the shards he left behind. Add a couple of decades of living on the hallucinatory fumes of this concoction and the result is a deep sense of personal disorientation.

And then one day, several months after my father’s death, I’m sitting in Video Village, the cluster of captain’s chairs arranged around a pair of monitors on a dusty, cavernous Warner Brothers sound stage in Burbank, California.

This is the set of the CBS cop show COLD CASE, where I am a staff writer overseeing my first episode for the series.    The story is about the murder of a young Russian opera star whose family defects to the United States just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. She’s hot, she’s got pipes, she wants to sing American rock and roll, not the opera for which she’s been trained in a Soviet conservatory. Rejecting her father? Bucking the system? Determined to express her own voice?

It’s clear the bitch must die.

I am deep in conversation with a visiting director about something else entirely. I’m going to call him Casper Fleming. (This is not his real name.)

Casper, a talented theater and film director breaking into TV, is shadowing the director-for-hire for the duration of the shoot, and we hit it off immediately. There is something rushed and breathless about our chemistry. It’s the transplanted New Yorker thing, it’s I’m-gay-you’re-straight-let’s-fall-in-love, it’s what-are-we-doing-on-the-set-of-a-Bruckheimer-cop-show-when-we’re-both-supposed-to-be-starring-in-a-revival-of-Company. Casper and I rapidly construct a pile-up of personal and pop-cultural references and nimbly climb it.  From the top, we  survey a landscape of Sondheim lyrics, Paul Smith glasses frames, last week’s New Yorker cover, obsession with the presidential election, white anchovies, tooth bleaching, Gucci horse-bit loafers, our careers, and the offerings at craft services. Into this mix we gleefully add parallel tales of nightclubs visited in lower Manhattan between 1986 and 1992, and the freewheeling assembly of People We Have In Common that I refer to as Jewish Geography.

But when we realize that we are both First Generation, his father from Italy, mine from Germany, that’s when our bond is Crazy Glued. Of course Casper and I are destined to be here now, to change one another’s lives.

“You know,” Casper advises me, “you could probably apply for German citizenship. That’s what I did with Italy, and now I have my E.U. passport. It came in wonderfully handy when I was shooting my costume drama there.”

German citizenship.

E.U. passport.

Wonderfully handy.

So I start to poke around. And I find out about Article 116 par. 2 of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany (Grundgesetz). It goes something like this:

“Former German citizens who between January 30, 1933 and May 8, 1945 were deprived of their citizenship on political, racial, or religious grounds, and their descendants, shall on application have their citizenship restored.”

I decide to scrape up whatever documentation about my father and his family’s flight from Germany that I can.

I decide to see if Germany will have me back.

And this blog will monitor my progress.

At first, I think I won’t have anything to say, this experiment won’t count, unless the German government opens its pale, muscled arms to me.  Then I’ll move to Berlin with my family for a year or two to write a book about being the New Jewess in town. We’ll live in the Turkish quarter, become experts on the hip-hop scene, our son will go to the International School, he’ll make terrific new friends with villas in Croatia,  and memories of Bed, Bath and Beyond will fade from his mind.  I’ll get a job doing something for somebody, the heels of my pumps will click urgently on cobblestones slick with a November rain as I wrap my Burberry trench tighter against the chill of the evening and hurry home from the metro through pools of lamplight to our flat, a brown paper package of sausages and a Herald Tribune under my arm…shit, we might never even come back.

But then I realize, shit.  They might not want me back.

The Federal Republic of Germany might hold me at arm’s length, flashing those crazy eyes. “Who are you?” they might say. “How did you get here?” “What did we do to deserve this?” “What are we supposed to do about this now?”

But if I wait to have a story worth telling, I might miss the story I am standing in right now, in the middle of my life, at the edge of the country, in the foreign city I already live in.

Welcome to Fatherland.


No. 5: Apartment of Sand and Fog

this is not my grandmother in her living room

my grandmother in her Berlin living room

my fathers Berlin apartment building, Apthorp-on-the-Spree

my father’s Berlin apartment building, Apthorp-on-the-Spree

My brother David sends me a file that contains an image of our father’s birth certificate.

I look at the address typed on the fourth line.

Berlin, Iranische Strasse 2.

The apartment where my father lived when he was born, I presume.

With some relief and some hope, I enter this information onto my Federal Republic of Germany naturalization paperwork.  I don’t know much, but I know this: where my father and my grandparents were living in 1938.

I picture what this apartment might look like.

My mind is already cluttered with images of European apartments, so concocting this visual is a snap.

My maternal grandmother lived in the Hague when I was a child, and we would visit her in the summers.  Her front door was that wavy mid-century glass that makes the postman look like Nude Descending A Staircase.

Friends have lived in various London apartments.  Common themes are kitchen tile, electric kettles, scratchy rugs and hash smoking.  Paris apartments I have known are miniscule and crooked, plus art, books, and hash smoking.

And then there’s the Berlin apartment complex that I recall from the Bourne Supremacy.  The film washed over me in the haze of an attractive travelogue until the extended fight sequence to which I was riveted with the kind of real estate lust that’s raised and currently felling American civilization.  Forget the karate chops:  I was straining for a glimpse of the master bath.  All I could think about for days was that apartment complex, the big glass windows, the spare, deftly edited interiors, the courtyard where you pass your charming neighbor in his really terrific glasses as you head out for the evening.  When living in Berlin in my fantasies I have a “light, quick, firm step,” just like Anna Karenina in the Maude translation, but with a happier ending.

I don’t imagine the Ebels in a mid-century apartment complex.  One reason is that my father was born in 1938.  So the mid-century hadn’t quite landed.  Also, I assume that their home was more like the bougie apartment in the Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Vittorio De Sica’s 1971 film adaptation of Giorio Bassani’s 1962 novel about doomed Italian Jews living in Ferrara, Italy, under Mussolini.  Dark, glossy wood, spotless moldings, built-in sideboards, good lamps, good rugs, good silver, good picture frames, good help.  Maybe on the third floor of the building pictured above.  A cage elevator takes you there.  Electric sconces along the hallway, a repeating pattern of ivy on the carpet, a heavy porcelain umbrella stand at the front door, coats on hooks and wellies lined up.

It is helpful to me on a deep psychological level to know my father’s address at the time of his birth.  Berlin, Iranisch Strasse 2.

Isn’t it interesting? I marvel.  Iran is in the news these daysAnd my father lived on Iran Street.  It’s Everything’s An Augur Friday!

If I can picture my father as a baby, coming home to his well-appointed apartment on Iranische Strasse, then I can have compassion for my father, who was a vulnerable baby, who would soon be a displaced, confused little boy with  two languages wrestling for control as the A train rumbled past.

Also, thanks to my clear sense of Iranische Strasse, 2, I  can imagine my homecoming.

As the taxi speeds away through the puddles (because it is always a wet, chilly autumn evening in my fantasies of Berlin), I cross a marble lobby to the elevator.  My arrival is announced with the harsh, homey trill of European buzzers everywhere.  Alex Kupfer comes to the door.  He’s a young architect, living with his girlfriend, Nola, who’s Cape Verdian and studying musicology at the art institute.  Thank God they speak perfect English.  (Nola did graduate work at UC Santa Cruz!)

Alex and Nola are startled but game.  They lead me through the rooms, arranged formally around a large central foyer.  Nothing is left of my grandmother’s interior décor, of course.  But the sound of my boot heels as they storm the border between wood floors and carpet, streetlight through the windows as evening settles outside, and the tiled kitchen, my God.  Despite the cloud of cardamom from the vegetable fritters Nola is in the middle of frying when I show up unannounced – in this tiled kitchen time and space refract.  I am at the kitchen table.  Grown-ups debate urgently in the next room as I slowly dunk sugared lady-fingers into a glass of milk until they dissolve, then fish them out with a long spoon I have nicked from Cook.

And then – Eureka! Google maps! – I look up Berlin, Iranische Strasse 2.  I am going to see a photo of this place before I’ve even checked the airfares.

But this address is not my father’s apartment, and it never was.

It’s the Judisches Krankenhouse Berlin.  The Jewish Hospital of Berlin.

So apparently I have no idea where my father lived when he was born.

Certainly not in my hallucinated memory mash-up with random details pillaged from five decades and various nations, starring Matt Damon and an invented brainy couple as art-directed by Giancarlo Bartolini Salimbeni.

Sorry, Alex.  Sorry, Nola.

Although your cardamom fritters do smell delicious.

No. 14: I’ll Have What He’s Having

MTV documentary in which I appeared in 1993: The Seven Deadly Sins.

Sin I represented: Anger.

Celebrity with whom I was paired: Ice-T

Number of times Ice-T and I saw one another or spoke: 0

Subject matter of my featured spoken word piece, taped at the Nuyorican Poets Café:  My stepfather.

How my brother, then in high school, knew that the girl in the MTV documentary was me: he recognized the baby photo featured in the art direction of the segment.

What my father said when he called me on the phone soon thereafter, having not spoken to me for 19 years:  “It is I.”

How I interpreted his sudden interest: the lure of what seemed to be at the time a whiff of literary recognition.

Where my father sometimes took me as a child: the Museum of Modern Art.

Notable childhood MoMA experience: purposefully whacking a sculptural piece constructed from twine,  old boots and a tin can, setting off the central alarm system.

How my father reacted: He yelled at the guards and criticized the bullshit art.

How I last pictured my father: tall, imposing,  in a fringed suede jacket, white oxford, jeans, brogues.

What I wore to meet my father in front of the Museum of Modern Art:  purple long-sleeved tee shirt, vintage ankle-length black velvet skirt, black wedge heels.

What I carried: vintage purse.

How my father looked: frail, white-haired, effeminate hands and limbs.

What my father wore: belted trench coat, jeans, running shoes.

What my father carried: plastic Korean market bag.

What my father said when he first saw me: “I see you got all dolled up.”

What happened at the diner where we went for lunch:  The waitress arrived while I was in the ladies room, and when I returned to the table my father had just finished ordering.  “I’ll have a tuna sandwich on toasted wheat with lettuce,” I said, “and a cup of cream of tomato soup.”

“That’s funny,” said the waitress.  “Your father just ordered the exact same thing.”

No. 15: Bring Your Kid To Work Day

In 2000, I move from New York City to Hollywood to seek my fortune as a screenwriter.

Shortly after arriving in town, a successful guy/girl writing team takes me to lunch at Nate & Al’s in Beverly Hills. (They’re writing partners and they’re engaged.  But then they cancel their romance and yet remain writing partners.  Recently they adapted a snarky dating book you once heard of into a big ensemble romantic comedy you’ve already forgotten.)

Over turkey burgers and garlic dill pickles, I tell them about the hopes and dreams I’ve packed into my bag of tricks for the move west.

“You have to figure it’s going to take six years,” says the guy, predicting the time span from turnip truck to career.

Six years? Um, ew.  I dicked around Park Slope for a decade, working up the gumption to own my ambition, get a drivers license, meet my husband, and leave New York City. Now  I really don’t have that kind of time.

Eight years, half-a-dozen spec TV episodes, a gig as a researcher for LAW&ORDER, a humiliating go-nowhere feature rewrite, two failed pilots and a giant pile of spectacular near misses later, I land on the CBS cop drama COLD CASE as a staff writer.

My first week on the show, I’m thrumming with somebody-pinch-me anxiety.  It’s a staff of grown-ups, a curt professional culture, with nary a Nerf hoop or a bong to be seen, like you hear about on comedies.  I’m the freshman on the varsity team in a daunting game of catch-up.

(I don’t know yet that I belong on a meat-and-potatoes cop show like a fart in church.)

I’m also getting calls from my father’s wife.  The third one, whom  I call Nancy.

My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years ago, and he’s been dying for awhile.  I’ve been to Connecticut to see him, and I’ve called him on the phone.  These dramatic scenes are for another episode.

Nancy wants to know if I’m going to make it to the funeral, which she is necessarily planning.  Henry is in hospice care, declining swiftly.  Speaking very gently, she also tells me that Henry has not named me in his estate.  By which she means two things.  I will not be inheriting objects or cash from my father (he didn’t pay for shit when he was fit as a flea so it’s not a shocker), but also, he has not acknowledged me as next of kin.  But friends of Henry’s from all over are going to come to the funeral, and she thinks they will be so interested to meet me and hear what it’s like to write for television.  Nancy hopes I can be there.

I puzzle over my responsibilities and desires, summoning my inner ethicist.  Asking my showrunners for time off in my first few weeks of the job it’s taken me eight years to get?  Circulating among my father’s buddies from Columbia?  “So…do you see lots of celebrities out there in show business?” Doing posthumous PR for a guy who whited-me out of the record books? What kind of degenerate misses her father’s funeral?  Around and around I go.

I get a voicemail from Nancy.  “I have some very sad news to report,” she says.

I explain my decision to Nancy as best as I can.  The woman just lost her husband.  I don’t want to make it worse.  And yet.

I’m not going to the funeral.

“Your father loved you,” she says with a sigh.  “He just had a funny way of showing it.”  Wow. I’ve never heard this expression used as anything other than a punchline.

About two weeks later, the showrunner’s office is crammed with the COLD CASE writing staff.  We stare at a wall-sized dry-erase board, on which each character’s arc for the upcoming season is being plotted.  At the center of the discussion is the lead character Lilly Rush, the Philadelphia homicide detective portrayed skillfully by Kathryn Morris.

This season, turns out, Lilly Rush will reunite with her estranged father, Paul Cooper, who left her as a child to be raised by her alcoholic mother in a gritty neighborhood.  Rush has decided to track him down, but she’s ambivalent.  It’s one step forward and two steps back for Rush and Cooper.  But by the end of the season, they will have arrived someplace.  Not someplace treacly or resolved, but someplace.


I look around the room at the team of people I have just met.  I want to be good at my job.  Am I going to turn my honors English seminar into a tacky slumber-party confessional?

Fuck yeah.  I spill the Henry Ebel story.  For a rousing conclusion, I tell the one about ordering the same thing at the diner on the day of our 19-year reunion (see the post entitled I’ll Have What He’s Having for this riveting tale).  I feel kind of dirty afterwards.  It’s a writerly version of flashing my tits.

“Where is your Dad now?” somebody asks me gently.

“He died two weeks ago,” I reply.

Looks glance around the small room.  What kind of degenerate misses her father’s funeral? “Why didn’t you say something?” somebody asks me.

“Oh, yeah, well,” I explain.

Months later, I am sitting on a Chinese restaurant set on the Warner Bros lot, huddled in a fake booth with the director, Marcos Siega, Kathryn, and Raymond Barry, who plays Paul Cooper, Rush’s father.  It’s a chilly, rainy night, exactly the weather that would drive one into a Chinese restaurant in real life.

We are rehearsing the scene in which Rush and Cooper meet for their first meal in many years, and wind up ordering the same thing.

Kathryn and Ray aren’t in costume yet.  Bundled in parkas from wardrobe and cupping hot drinks from craft services, they look more like a real estranged father and daughter ordering the same thing than they will after hair and makeup.

In 1938, my grandmother, Anna Ebel, says goodbye to her parents and brother in Berlin.  She never sees them again.

In 1938, my grandfather looks at a receding European coastline the color of porcelain, and never sees it again.

In 1975, my father drifts away and I (almost) never see him again.

When you possess genealogical records that trace your family’s presence in Berlin back to 1866, the image of a long rope, stretching through time, comes to mind.  And here come the Nazis with a big pair of stainless shears.  Snip!

All those frayed ends shooting out.

And the ways in which I have severed this story from myself, so that I am hanging by a thread.  Warily considering the file, bulging with evidence, that contains the cold case of my life.

On a dark and stormy night in a fake Chinese restaurant, I lean in close to hear the lines that Kathryn and Ray quietly deliver to one another as the set bustles around behind us.  I’ve never been in such close proximity to the process of acting before.

You’d think a meat-and-potatoes cop show wouldn’t have an unbearably intimate bone in its body.

But my throat constricts with emotion.

This is as close as I’ve ever come to art imitating life.

No. 16: Stale-Ciabatta-on-the-Sea

I’m driving through foul rush-hour traffic to Santa Monica, my mother and son in the back seat, my mother’s then-boyfriend, Arthur, riding shotgun.

It’s the visual of Los Angeles traffic that threatens to unravel me even more than its frustrated pace.  That apocalyptic view northward up the 405.  A glinting march of cars to the horizon.  Any minute the brown clouds are going to boil, the enormous spacecraft is going to appear, and all those bodies are going to emerge from their Nissans, scurry around the freeway like hopeless ants, and get vaporized.

But it’s all good.  We’re on our way to Tashlikh, being held this year at the Santa Monica beach near lifeguard station 26.

Tashlikh (pronounced TASH-licccccch) is a Jewish tradition that’s practiced at the New Year, Rosh Hashanah.  You “empty your pockets” of the sins of the previous year by symbolically tossing bread into a living body of water, in our case, the Pacific.

Sins, schmins.

For me, Tashlikh is the chance to create the transition into a new year, a new beginning.  To retire any habits of thought or behavior, any unfinished, dogged, weighty psychic business.  The live water is a powerful reminder of the cycle of life, how thoughts and experiences move through us, how we can let go into the flow of life, be carried by the flow of life, trust the motion of life to take us forward.

It’s really quite Buddhist, as most things are if you let them.

The group that’s gathered near the lifeguard station is mostly families with kids. (Subcategories include: Funky-But-Competitive Private School Moms, Matching Lesbian Moms, and Former-Brandeis-Frat Boy-Turned Super Jew-Super Dads.)  Also represented are hot young Jewish singles hoping to spawn within the next five years or so, and politically progressive empty nesters in orthopedic sandals.

Rabbi Sharon Brous, who’s brilliant, personable, inspired and really, really cute in her cuffed jeans and good sunglasses, addresses the group that’s gathered by the lifeguard station.  She speaks stirringly about the transforming power of our greatest heartbreaks and mistakes that Tashlikh offers.

Rabbi Brous suggests that as we approach the ocean with our hunks of bread, we consider three aspects of the ritual.

1)    What loose emotional ends of the past year do we need to tie up?  Is there an apology we owe? Forgiveness we must grant?

2)    What intractable emotional situations do we need to simply let go of?

3)    Do we need to forgive ourselves?

Now’s the time, people.  Kiss your stale ciabatta up to God.

I stand at the edge of the giant ocean, the gentle surf hurrying in, a fresh wind blowing as the sun slants low in the sky.  My ridiculously tan, bare-chested son frolics in his trunks, makes friends, taunts seagulls.  He’s a California kid.

I look out over the ocean and I breathe.

I now forgive myself,” I say to myself, closing my eyes, “for all the ways I’ve let fear and a reptilian anxiety to merely survive run my life.  For all the decisions I’ve made out of fear.  For confusing bluster with honesty.   For trying to “be successful” when I might have been investing in the cultivation of my voice. I forgive myself for blindly continuing the pattern of severing that runs through my family, by severing myself inwardly, creatively. I now let myself create from a new place.  I trust this place will take me somewhere new.  I trust that I can create the things in my life that I want.”

Amen to that.   I open my eyes, drink in the abundant ocean, and chuck the carbs seaward.  Feeling like a person who has lived her whole life with her face to the corner of the room, and who now turns around to observe all that space.

In the car on the way home, Arthur asks me if I have really considered and researched the implications of becoming a dual citizen.

Well, actually, no.  But I’ve pictured myself in a Burberry trench, hurrying home on a rainy street to my fabulous loft apartment in whatever Berlin neighborhood resembles Williamsburg eight years ago.  Does that count?

“It’s my impression,” Arthur continues, “that the United States government doesn’t always take kindly to people who hold dual citizenship.  If you were to get into some sort of situation overseas, you don’t know if the U.S. government might tell you you’re no longer their problem.  It could be a difficult situation.”

Dude!  Way to stomp my mellow!  I just did my annual anti-fear Jewy voodoo!  Now the image of a hash bust at my Berlin house party while I’m just trying to shake my ass to some Turkish hip-hop is seriously threatening my nougaty cloud!

“You mean like how in this country,” I bridle, “when Hurricane Katrina hits, American citizens can count on the U.S. government to help them?”

“I’m not saying I’m a huge fan of the U.S. government,” says Arthur. “I’m just suggesting for your own sake and the sake of everybody else you should really be thoughtful and consider the enormous thing you are about to do, and educate yourself before you commit.”

“I’ll look into it,” I say.

“Hello…1-900-Bad-Things-Seem-To-Keep-Happening-To-Good-Jews-dot-Gov?  Yes, hi!  It’s Kathy here.  Say.  I’m just wondering.  (This is not for me, by the way – it’s for a friend.)  So say I get dual citizenship and then something really, really, really bad happens.  Are you guys like totally gonna dick me over?  And if so, when they make the Lifetime movie about my stay in a German prison, can you help me get my script to Toni Collette?  I mean, my friend.  Sure, I can hold.”

No. 17: Twenty Questions for my Grandmother, Leaving Europe, December 14, 1938, age 25

Holland America pamphlet coverHolland America pamphlet frontispieceHolland America passenger list

No. 1) How do you know what to pack, and how much, and what to leave behind?

No. 2) Is everything packed in labeled boxes, stacked neatly in the bedrooms and along the central hallway, or do you make the beds, prepare a grocery list for weekend entertaining, crack the windows, and otherwise proceed as if you’ll be home soon?

No. 3) Do you call around to your friends in the building?  We’re going away for awhile, and I have these gorgeous bananas I hate to see go to waste, will you pop round and take them off my hands?

No. 4) Do people in your circle know that you’re leaving town, or do you hide your plan?  Do you feel guilty to have landed an 11th-hour visa?  Entitled?

No. 5) What about all your stuff?  You’ve been married two years.  Your wedding presents.  Do you sew cash into coat linings?  Stuff your safe-deposit box with silverware?

No. 6) What about the ardent notes from the boy back in Poland you’ve saved in a shoebox on the top shelf of the coat closet?  Do you toss them into the fireplace?

No. 7) And all of your stockings, your slips, your clip-on earrings, your magazine subscriptions, the sheets you just had monogrammed, the African violets on the sitting room windowsill.  Do you fret about these, or have they already ceased to exist?

No.  8 ) By what route do you travel from Berlin to Rotterdam?  What do you see on the way?  On the train, do you notice other families in transit, respectably dressed for an outing to the public gardens but seeping with alarm, clutching one another’s hands too tightly?

No. 9) As you walk the gangplank to the S.S. Statendam, your 5-month-old son in your arms, is your throat tight?  Does your heart race?  Do you dare not look around?  Or are you already beginning to breathe again?

No. 10) What is the scene like in the ship’s dining room?  Do you scan other families, mothered by young Jewish women like yourself in tweed skirt suits, in mohair dresses, in fur stoles and cloth coats, in dark lipstick, with hairpins loosened, and do you wonder Who will be my friend? Or do you take your meals in your cabin, letting your leek soup grow cold, the idea of company unbearable?

No. 11) Do you lie in your cabin bunk as your husband snores gently beside you, staring at the ceiling, eating square after square of bitter chocolate until the whole bar is gone?

No. 12)  Do you wake in the middle of the night, and see that your baby is awake, too, lying in the hammock-like bassinet that sways from a hook in the ceiling?  Quietly, quietly, do you wrap your camel-hair coat over your nightgown, and slip your feet into your loafers, and close the door quietly behind you, and marvel that your baby seems to know better than to make a peep, and make your way to the deck, and stand against the railing, and look out over the moonlit water as it surrounds you, and look down at the churning wake, piling up behind the ship like lace, and consider jumping?

No. 13) In the morning, does your husband surprise you with a hair appointment and a manicure, scheduled in the ship’s beauty parlor, and do you burst into tears?

No. 14) Do you borrow a Harper’s Bazaar from the ship’s beauty parlor, and do you slowly devour it page by page as you sprawl on your bunk as the baby naps, paying particular attention to the color advertisements since you don’t yet read or speak English? The handy six-bottle carton is for your convenience…to provide the pause that refreshes with ice-cold Coca-Cola in your home.  All the family will welcome this pure refreshment, pure as sunlight.

No. 15) Do you smoke cigarettes?

No. 16) Who is going to meet you when your ship arrives in New York?

No. 17)    Where will you go?

No. 18)    How do you figure out what to do?

No. 19)    On a scale from one-to-ten, how terrified are you?

No. 20)    Do you suddenly remember that you forgot to ask your neighbor to water your African violets?

You are 25 years old.

No. 18: Something Is Right With This Picture

Henry & Kathy at kitchen table

You ever wake up at 4:19 AM and say to yourself: “I can’t believe it’s going to be another two-and-half-months before I can even start expecting to hear back from the Federal Republic of Germany about my application for restored citizenship?”


That’s weird.

You ever look at your 7 ½ year old living his life?

You ever watch him practice the moonwalk, try out a card trick, giggle uncontrollably while making underarm farts, eat a chocolate-covered frozen banana, ask you to explain who invented Halloween?

Do you ever think about the fact that he is the exact same age you were when the big things of your life started to happen?

Right now, right this very second, everything is happening for your child.  He is an open channel of creativity and sensory experiences.  He is a memory sponge.  These are the moments of his life, just like a Kodak commercial.

Oh, will you look at that!

I just happen to have a Kodak snapshot right here!

My father at the dining room table in his apartment in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 1975.  I am five-something years old.

Here’s my father, engaged with me, counseling me on something I’m writing.

I have no recollection of this moment whatsoever, of course.  But I was a red-blooded, card-carrying second-grade memory-sponge (and so were you).  It’s in there.

What I do remember is what it felt like to be scared of my father.  The adrenaline rush of knowing that I had to get out of there.  Walking into the bedroom to call my mother.  That’s a dramatic moment for a girl, one she might be driven to re-create just once or twice.  But as we all know, in between the Big Dramas of Life there’s just life.  You drink a chocolate milk.  You sing the pop song at the top of your lungs with the words wrong.  You get new sneakers.

In other words, so then what happened?

What was it like to live that slow fade day after day?

Did I ever ask my mother: “When am I going to see Daddy again?”

Even though he frightened me, did I ever wish I could see him again?

Did I miss him?

Did I wonder if he missed me?

How did I go from the wondering about my father to never mentioning him again?

Did it all happen at once? (Snip!  The Nazis with their stainless shears!)  Or was it a slow fade?  (My grandfather watches Europe recede on a horizon the color of porcelain as the S.S. Statendam churns towards New York City.)

I want to know.  When did I start writing the “I don’t have a father” story?

You ever wake up at 4:19 AM and it’s like:  Oh my God! It’s themes, people, themes!  Severing!  Denial!  Rejection and armor!  They left Germany, he left me, I left myself!  The Holocaust plus Columbia College’s English department circa 1959 multiplied by LSD and divided by divorce equals my personality! Soundtrack Simon & Garfunkel, early Beatles and Erik Satie!  Liev Schrieber as Henry Ebel!

Are you ever like:  Okay, I get it.  Can I go now?

Here’s the pitch I was working on in 1975:


Smile. You’re on Candid Camera.