Books

The Merkin Bunch

Thursday, February 2, 2017
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By Daphne Merkin

Sometimes I feel doomed to tell the story of my family over and over again, like the injunction at the annual Passover seder to narrate the story of the Jews’ liberation from Pharaoh’s cruel dominion and their subsequent departure from Egypt. In the Hebrew text this retelling is described explicitly as a “mitzvah,” a good deed. We are called upon to impart the tale once more by reading the Haggadah aloud, for ourselves and for our guests, so we will not forget the fraught historical circumstances that brought us from there to here, from slavery to emancipation. I think of my childhood as a kind of slavery—certainly an imprisonment of sorts—but am not sure, even all these decades later, that I have ever escaped, ever reached anything but the most transitory sort of freedom.

This story, like all stories, goes forward and backward in time. Unlike most stories, the past never stays safely in its recessed place. Instead, it haunts the present to such an extent that it threatens to overwhelm it, to render it inoperative.

My parents were tough, transplanted German Jews who had found each other at a Manhattan dinner party that had been hatched by a cousin precisely with this intention in mind and who married relatively late, my mother at thirty, my father at a Jurassic forty-two. (For years my mother insisted that she had married at twenty-nine, as though that age implied a dancing youthfulness while thirty reeked of shameful elderliness.) Two people who didn’t give a thought to things like optimal spacing and the child’s need for his or her own primacy or period of adjustment. What my mother mainly cared about was keeping up in the race to procreate with her three siblings in Israel, who had gotten started well ahead of her, producing a classroom’s worth of children—seventeen in all—among them. She may have begun late, with a demanding husband who clearly wasn’t Daddy material, but she would show them. [They would soon have six children, three boys and three girls, whom they raised on Park Avenue.]

I recognize that there is always the risk in a story like this one of alienating the reader, of coming off like a poor little rich girl, mewling piteously against a backdrop of plenitude. The very presence of money in someone’s background tends to evoke envy and irritation—“What does she have to complain about?” or “What does she know of real suffering?”—and inures the reader to too much sympathy, elicits a certain disbelief about the possibility of other kinds of privation. Somewhere, even though we supposedly know better, we persist in believing that money buys happiness— or, at least, provides an immunity of sorts, warding off true misery.

And yet, there are deprivations that can be at least as injurious as material ones, difficult though it may be to understand them, strange withholdings—impoverishments, even—that can occur within a landscape of perceived privilege. You can, for instance, go to private schools and orthodontists and all the same suffer from a kind of insidious neglect, a lack of psychological investment in your well-being.

My father was preoccupied with work—he had decided to abandon the fur business for Wall Street sometime in the fifties—and Jewish community affairs, where he was involved in establishing a new Orthodox shul on the Upper East Side. More to the point, he was a man without a paternal bone in his body—and without much interest in other people altogether, except for my mother. He participated in no collective activities
other than those relating to Jewish life, and I don’t believe he had any close male friends; it’s impossible to imagine him hanging out with his contemporaries, shooting the breeze over a couple of beers. In truth, I think he would have been perfectly happy to have had no children, much less a gang of them, and I realized fairly quickly that I and the homely details of my existence held no allure for him whatsoever.

I knew little about him, beyond the basic facts that he was born and grew up in Leipzig and that he was the kvelled-over only son in a family of five sisters. That, and the fact that he had served in the U.S. Army during World War II, which I found hard to believe, although I have a faded black-and- white photo of him standing in uniform, holding a rifle like a man who knew how to use it. The workings of political influence interested him, as did his weekly Talmud class. He was constitutionally secretive about everything; when I was younger I imagined that he was a spy in disguise, someone out of the KGB or CIA, who only appeared to lead an ordinary existence but was really off stalking the inner corridors of power. I suppose today he might be diagnosed as something of a schizoid personality, given his obsessionality and emotional remove.

No, from first to last, my father wasn’t the kind of father I would have wished for—an image cobbled together from the paternal figures I warmed to on television or in the movies, attentive and playful and full of wise counsel, like the fathers on Gidget and The Parent Trap. I didn’t like his face, his thick lips and thick accent, and feared his readily provoked rage. He would bellow at the top of his lungs when he was annoyed, even if the incitement was as small as a pencil that was missing from the neat lineup of finely sharpened Eberhard Faber #2 pencils he kept on his desk, next to a pile of small white notepads. There was something about him that seemed unappeasable when riled. I suspected him of being capable of great violence, although I only saw him erupt a few times (once, memorably, when he battled my naked older brother in the boys’ bathroom about some perceived misbehavior and they both eventually fell into the bathtub, to my and my siblings’ barely suppressed delight)...

There were endless arguments with my siblings over who would get seconds at dinner, especially when it came to chicken or meat, which always ran out early. As for the lunches we took to school, they were singularly lacking in nutrition or forethought, slapped together by Jane, [the overworked Dutch woman who had been hired to look after us], and invariably featuring chocolate or multicolored sprinkles on white bread slathered with butter. I marveled at the care and time that went into my friends’ lunches, the Baggies of cut-up vegetables and fruit that accompanied their tuna fish or egg salad sandwiches, fitted out with lettuce and tomato and sometimes a pickle.

During the summer my mother regularly skimped on buying fresh fruit, ordering small amounts of plums and peaches and minuscule amounts of costlier items like raspberries and cherries. “Cherries are expensive,” she insisted, which might certainly be true for families that didn’t employ both a chauffeur and cook. I reacted to Brenda Patimkin’s parents’ fridge, overflowing with fruit, in Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus with every bit as much awe and envy as the working-class narrator.

My mother’s tight-fistedness didn’t apply to my father, who owned multiples of everything he considered important, such as electric shavers, and whose clothes, including his underwear, came from Sulka’s, the hoity-toity men’s store. When it came to me and my siblings, her stinginess undoubtedly had something to do with her sense of guilt about marrying a rich man while the family she left behind in Israel—her mother, two brothers, and a sister—were striving to make ends meet. But I think she also resented her children being the natural beneficiaries of their father’s wealth in a way that she wasn’t—that she had to “work” for by virtue of looking after my father’s every whim. The fact that we were born to the silver spoon that she could only claim by right of marriage infuriated her. To this end, she applied herself to undermining any tendency we might have had to take our background for granted. This approach had a positive aspect, to be sure—it was certainly a far cry from the arrogance with which the scions of privilege nowadays assume their entitled place in the world—except for the fact that it was so overdone that it ended up creating great inner confusion as to who we really were.

Were we, that is, the children of Hermann Merkin, Wall Street financier and Jewish philanthropist, or were we big-eyed orphans manqué, looking in through the bakery window while our empty stomachs rumbled? When you add to this my father’s innate habit of secretiveness, which was exaggerated tenfold when it came to anything to do with money, it is hardly any wonder that I walked around in a daze, unsure what my father did—whether he worked with “chairs” or “shares,” a confusion of terms that plagued me well past the age it could possibly be considered cute—and what my value as his daughter was. As time went on, I learned to disavow my own desires—for some trinket or other that seemed important to me, as well as for larger things—so as not to end up the object of my mother’s derision. Better not to be caught out wanting than to wind up in a position of useless longing.

Nowadays I am surrounded by a deliberate pileup of possessions that I have chosen as an adult to make part of my life, all in an attempt to fill the drafty spaces within: books, magazines, hotel mementos,
framed photos, objects of some and no worth, a pretty glazed bowl, a miniature teddy bear, and three tiny clay pots bought at a store in Sedona that sold wares made by local Native American tribes. As though mere things could address so primary a deprivation, offer a more than passing consolation. And yet these things, in their very thingness, help me stake my claim, firm up an identity that seems too tentatively hatched even now. I think of the line from a Philip Larkin poem “Absences”: “Such attics cleared of me! Such absences!”

Meanwhile, behind the fancy address and the white-gloved doormen, things were falling apart. For one thing, none of us could get away, leave home, get on with it. Time would tell that it wasn’t just me who had been left with a hole; we were all too full of holes, some more Swiss-cheesed than others, to make the transition into the outside world. We were all stuck to my mother, as if by glue, unable to stand tall without her; it was as though being away from her placed us in positions of unforeseeable peril. I was merely the canary in the coal mine, warning of things to come....

Excerpted from THIS CLOSE TO HAPPY: A Reckoning with Depression by Daphne Merkin, published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2017 by Daphne Merkin. All rights reserved. 
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