A Friendship of Thirty Years

In the summer of 1948 my dad rented a cottage on Cape Cod from an Italian man named François. Dad was a thirty year-old bachelor from a family of lapsed Jews. He’d fought in Okinawa, come home with blown eardrums, gone into business, and now he was enjoying summer weekends in the honeysuckle air of his patio on the Cape. My dad and Francois struck up a friendship that lasted until one evening at dinner in 1978.

I have a black and white photo of my dad at that cottage. He’s working on his writing (first draft was always longhand) and the picture oozes with post-war simplicity and it has that long-ago-ness you always see in old photos of your parents in their youth. The photo was taken by my mother whom dad met that summer at a nearby beach. He is, in the photo, thirty years younger than I am now and he has forty-five years of a happy marriage ahead of him.

I envy that happy marriage.

Francois, a Picasso-ish looking man, was about fifteen years older than my dad. He was an aeronautical engineer I think and had patented some devices that made him wealthy. My parents were fond of his wife Eileen, but she died of cancer when I was very young.

Francois moved back to Rome after Eileen died, and sometime in the sixties he invited my father to Italy for a week. Dad was a realtor in Boston at this time, and Francois wanted his opinion on a villa outside of Rome.

But does that make any sense, because what would a Boston realtor know about buying an Italian villa? No, what I realize now is that Francois was just lonely and missed my father’s company. Dad was exuberant. He loved to talk and he was confidant and sure of his strengths and was always the first to make fun of his own weaknesses. (Like that he had no sense of direction, couldn’t perform an algebraic equation to save his life, and that screwdrivers and wrenches seemed no less complicated to him than, say, electron microscopes). Dad knew history and literature and architectural styles, but he had no concept of what it meant to be shy, and the idea of holding one’s tongue to keep the peace was meaningless because if something that needed saying wasn’t said, then there was no peace to keep.

I wonder if my dad’s contentment stirred the dust of Francois’ loneliness during that week in Italy because my father had a wife and family at home, while Francois was a widower and childless. I imagine them there in the golden haze of an Italian afternoon, two worldly men sipping red wine (from the villa’s own vineyard) in the European ambiance of stucco and bougainvillea.

My dad loved Europe. He and his twin brother had spent several of their teen-age summers in France because my grandmother didn’t particularly like children and wanted them out of the house. I remember dad joking once that he’d only enlisted in the army thinking he’d be sent to Europe. Of course what he meant was that a free ride over was reason enough for him to put on the uniform, but when he said it I wondered if he also meant that, being Jewish, he’d been more interested in fighting Nazis than the Japanese.

I never actually thought of dad as Jewish (or sentimental) until my grandfather Joseph died when I was seventeen. Joseph was a quiet man. He spoke seven languages, though I hardly ever heard him speak at all. He and my grandmother hadn’t gone to my parents’ wedding which was probably because my mother wasn’t Jewish, but probably also because my grandmother disapproved of things that didn’t put her in the spotlight.

My grandfather Joseph had come to America at seventeen from Lithuania, escaping oppression and the constant threat of pogroms, and I have to wonder if life under the Czar prepared Joseph for marriage to my grandmother.

On the first anniversary of Joseph’s death my dad kept a candle burning in his memory which, dad explained to me, was an old Jewish tradition.

“I didn’t know you were into Jewish traditions,” I said.

“Neither did I,” dad answered.

Mom and dad took my sister and me to Europe when I was twelve. I remember going for a walk my father in the German countryside. We passed a small church in a meadow. “Isn’t that beautiful,” dad said. Then a moment later, in a much different voice, he added, “lot of good that did them under Hitler.”

It was our second trip to Europe. I liked these trips, but of course I was too young to appreciate all this art and culture and history just as, during those years, the sixties, I was strangely unmoved by political events—the nightly body count from Viet Nam, the Kennedy assassinations, Martin Luther King, and even references to the Holocaust which was barely twenty years in the past. These horrors were business as usual then and it’s hard for me to believe now how oblivious I seemed to it all.

On this trip to Europe we visited Ann Frank’s house in Amsterdam. We looked at photographs on the walls: the camps; the hollow-eyed skeletal prisoners; the bodies in heaps like garbage; the ovens, the trains. We saw where Ann and her family had hidden, and we read of her capture, this girl whose birthday I share and who’d gone into hiding when she was just a year older than I was as I stood there in her home.

My sister and I were raised to be polite. “Thank you dad,” we said for every excursion, every sight seen, every admission paid. Thank you dad and since I was a good boy and always tried to please, I’d add some observation to prove I wasn’t simply parroting my line.

Standing on the sidewalk having just left Ann Frank’s house I felt the need to say something to my father, and since I had no words for how this had finally started to penetrate my uncomprehending youthfulness, I uttered out the lines I’d spoken after so many of dad’s attempts to share with us his own experience in the world. “Thanks dad,” I said, “that was fun.”

Mom came to my rescue: “What he means…” my mother said to dad, and because my father loved me, and because I was young and ignorant, he let himself to understand that what I said was not really what I’d meant. But I can still see his look of horror and outrage at my words.

In the late sixties Francois moved back to the U.S. from Italy, and he brought along his “secretary.” Lutzi. Luzi was Austrian and slender and outgoing and attractive and younger than Francois and my parents, and she tended to talk on and on in meandering, self-referential monologues. Francois, when trying to break in, would use her name twice: “Lutzi, Lutzi,” he would say in his Italian accent, trying to make a space for himself. But often Lutzi simply soldiered on

My family moved from Boston to Vermont when I was in high school, and just a few years later Francois and Lutzi, who had no other connection to the region, bought a house just a few miles from my folks. I remember Lutzi used to call up and talk to my mom a lot. They weren’t friends the way my dad and Francois were, but Lutzi, a European city girl stuck in rural Vermont, was lonely.

Francois and Lutzi needed someone to build a garage at their new house. I’d been working with a contractor during my summers off from college, so I phoned them one morning angling for the job. Francois answered the phone and told me he was busy making omelets for Lutzi and himself. “But we’re out of butter,” Francois said, “so I’ll make omelet with oil then we have big fight afterwards.”

He said this with irony, drawing out the word big: We have biiiiig fight afterwards. I sensed he was telling me something significant, though I had no way then of understanding it, because back then I didn’t know about fighting; I didn’t know it was possible to find, in a single word or action—like forgetting to buy butter—a violation so unsettling it requires bringing the machinery of the household to a standstill; I didn’t know that resolving things like forgetting to buy butter might take several days and involve shouts and tears and insults and maybe even a threat of suicide or divorce; I didn’t know that over a period of years creative minds could be diverted from more productive uses, focusing instead on the perpetual (and futile) attempt to avoid another flare-up. And I didn’t know that some quiet and seemingly peaceful people, like my grandfather perhaps, or like Francois perhaps, might be victims of these peace-starved unions.

It was after I’d graduated from college and moved away that my folks had Francois and Lutzi over for dinner that final time. My parents were on the far edge of middle age then and Francois had crossed into the early years of being old. Lutzi was the youngster, mid-fifties probably. They should have gone into their dotage and deaths as two couples finding pleasure and comfort in their friendship, its longevity creating the feeling that things mattered and that their lives have had structure and purpose.

But they had dinner together and they talked about Europe and they must have talked about the war because Lutzi, who grew up in Austria and was just a teenager during the war years, said something about how the Jews had nobody but themselves to blame. My impression is that she meant the Austrian Jews in particular, though she might have meant all the Jews of Europe. I can imagine her saying this because she was not a deep thinker and she said whatever came into her mind. I think what she meant is that if the Jews had been less Jewish everybody would have left them alone. Maybe if they were apologetic about their Jewish-ness, or had repudiated it, maybe if they’d made an effort to be unsuccessful in business or blended better, Austria might have protected her Jews as Norway had. Maybe if they’d been more discrete Hitler wouldn’t even have felt the need. Whatever she actually said, and whatever she meant, dinner and friendship ended at that moment.

My mom and dad and Francois are all dead now. I don’t know about Lutzi. I sit writing about these events (longhand; my first draft is always longhand) in a house I’ve rented several miles from where my wife and children live. I think of my parents’ happy marriage and of how my father didn’t understand people who couldn’t quite get things right.

Francois and my father only talked one more time: Francois called up the next day and tried to smooth it over with my dad: “What Lutzi meant…” Francois said, and my dad said, “Lutzi made it perfectly clear what she meant.”

There was really nothing to smooth: my dad couldn’t allow Lutzi into his house nor willingly be in her presence, and Francois couldn’t repudiate her. There was no middle ground, nothing to be negotiated or compromised…

…or that’s what I thought for most of the thirty years since they all sat down to dinner: No middle ground.

I’ve started seeing it differently though: now suddenly there are expanses of middle ground—there are sandy Cape beaches and Italian vineyards and rolling Vermont hillsides of middle ground. Because what should have happened, what I wish had happened, in that moment of Lutzi’s self-humiliation, is that my father had seen Francois more clearly for what he was: he was a beleaguered man entering old age in need of a friend. I know Lutzi embarrassed him and hectored him. I suspect he’d squandered a portion of his brilliance in the fruitless challenge of keeping peace with her.

What a comfort my father could have been. I want to grab dad by the scruff and tell him things that he never had to learn for himself. I want to tell him how life isn’t so black and white for the rest of us. We compromise, we settle and we keep the peace. We make bargains to get through the days and years. I want to tell him that for all one’s planning and circumspection and strength of character there’s still a lot of luck to being happy. Lutzi was a burden that dad could have helped Francois’ to shoulder. I want to tell him to forgive Francois’ weaknesses, and to offer compassion. I want my dad to tolerate Lutzi’s repugnant presence instead of exiling Francois from the wonderful exuberance of my father’s friendship.

(And I want to tell him that we tried, my wife and I, but not everyone is lucky.)

“What Lutzi meant…” Francois said, and my dad said, “Lutzi made it perfectly clear what she meant,” and Francois said, “Well it seems like a sad way to end a friendship of thirty years.”

I’m sure the conversation ended abruptly because my father wasn’t one for anguished silences. He was decisive. But I imagine a long silence at this point anyway, and I interject myself into that silence, and maybe in this moment of imagining I’m again the twelve-year-old boy on the Amsterdam sidewalk – I interject myself into that silence and I plead with dad, Please don’t go.

 

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