Abie Kesserman knew his father for only two years. He knew him in the first year of his life and he knew him in the last year of his father's life. In the former, Abie cooed to his dad's touch and cuddled in his lap. In the latter, he held his father's hand and prayed for his soul. The two relationships were 26 years apart. His dad passed away in 1999 at the age of 54.
My father's sister's name is Carol. Abie is her son and my first cousin. My aunt is one of my greatest heroes. A selfless and sensitive human being, she exudes the qualities that our sages laud in Chapters of the Fathers (1:15) "Say little, do a lot, and greet all people with a pleasant demeanor."
In 1970, she married Sam Kesserman. She was 22 years old. He was 27. There was no sign then of what was going to occur. There was no indication of the process that had already begun to occur.
Haym and Turna Kesserman married in the spring of 1943 in Pupa, Hungary. Eight months later the Nazis invaded their country, and Wehrmacht regulars and Hungarian Iron Cross volunteers rounded up the Jewish population of their town and shipped them to Chust, a nearby city, where they were kept in a ghetto for six months. Then they were sent to the death camps in Poland, including Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Bergen-Belsen.
In the next 18 months, most of their siblings and cousins were murdered. A family that had numbered 80 souls now numbered nine. Haym and Turna survived -- by the will of God alone, they would later say. They moved to America in 1949 and began trying to rebuild their lives.
Their scarred bodies were matched by charred emotions.
It was not an easy task. They did not speak English and had no marketable skills. The stress in their daily lives was overwhelming. Haym engaged in menial factory work and made enough money just to keep a roof over his children's heads. Turna stayed home to raise their kids. The couple was driven by one thing: an obsession to rebuild the Kesserman family that had been destroyed by the Nazis. They dreamed of having a child named after each of their deceased siblings.
Yet a family must be built on a foundation. And their scarred bodies were matched by charred emotions. The two were so damaged that the building they were trying to build simply could not stand. Two of their children were institutionalized as youngsters with major emotional trauma. A third child, a tall young man named Sam, had emotional issues that would emerge later in life -- after he married a fine young woman born in Brooklyn who knew nothing about Hitler's horrors.
I used to think that our family was not affected by the German genocide of 1939-45. My great-grandparents moved from Poland to Galveston, Texas in 1910 and our family was largely untouched by the war. Yet, the tentacles of those six years did reach us. They reached us 25 years after the war had ended.
The only pictures I ever saw of Sam are wedding pictures in a 'Parents of the Bride' wedding album. My grandmother, of blessed memory, had saved her album and gave it to Abie when he reached maturity. Sam was good looking and sported a neatly trimmed beard. He had a kind smile and a pleasant demeanor.
My aunt knew nothing about his emotional condition. She found his medication after the wedding. It didn't faze her. True, he should have told her before the wedding. But God had handed Sam a challenge, and through him, to her as well. They would face it as a couple and they would overcome it.
About a year into their marriage, things began to deteriorate. Sam stopped taking his medication and his behavior became unpredictable. His personality began to change.
Then he had a complete nervous breakdown.
Carol was determined to stand behind him. God had sent them a challenge and they would face it as a team. She would nurse him back to good health. They would emerge from the trouble stronger than before. They would overcome.
This was Sam's second nervous breakdown. The first had occurred four years earlier when he was 23.
However, something happened in the hospital as Sam was recuperating that changed her view of all that had occurred. One day, a young nurse brought a copy of Sam's medical file for her to review. Strangely, it was thick. It wasn't a new file. This was Sam's second nervous breakdown. The first had occurred four years earlier when he was 23.
That ended it all. He had entered marriage without telling her about these most significant occurrences in his life. There was no more relationship. And that was the beginning of the end of their marriage.
"Judge not your friend until you reach his place," advise our sages (Avot 2:5), and I am loath to judge Sam. He faced a challenge greater than anything I will ever face. Two of his brothers were institutionalized, and he knew that he had major emotional issues, too. The option of absolute denial beckoned brightly.
Abie, my cousin, was born in 1971. In time, he would grow to be as tall as his dad, 6-foot-2, and broad. He would have a special soul, one that had a strong bent toward spirituality and mysticism. He would compose scores of beautiful melodies and write stirring poems. His work would express an intense search, a yearning, and a longing. He was searching for a father, yearning for peace with his lot, and longing for God.
Sam dropped out of sight after the divorce in 1972. He just vanished. He never came to visit Abie and never sent gifts. My aunt did not pursue him. She remarried a wonderful gentleman and raised a new and beautiful family.
Why had his father abandoned him, he wondered. Why hadn't he loved him?
Growing up, Abie often thought about his dad. Why had his father abandoned him, he wondered. Why hadn't he loved him? Why didn't he ever call or write? Why didn't he tell him that he thought of him, that he missed him?
Hurt became sadness. Sadness became anger. Anger became hatred. He hated him for not being there to praise him when he did right. He hated him for not being there to punish him when he did wrong. He hated him for not being an inspiration and an authority in his life. If a good father disciplines his child to teach him, and a bad father punishes his child to let out frustration, a terrible father shows no interest at all.
Carol told Abie about his dad, and about their troubled marriage. She told him about the difficulties he had. But to Abie it really didn't matter. Stable or not, his dad was still his dad and he wanted a relationship with him. He still wanted to hear that his dad loved him. He wanted a connection to the man who fathered him. He desperately wanted validation from the source of his existence.
There is something interesting about our relationships with one’s father. He is not just the man who paid our dental bills and took us to Little League games. He is so much more than that.
We hold him to an incredibly high standard. We expect him to know exactly what we need. We expect him to know exactly when to discipline us and when to show us a soft side, to know when to demand that we work harder to reach our potential, and when to accept us the way we are. To know when to give what we desire and when not to.
We want him to be a perfect role model to us. We want a perfect father.
We want him to be proud of us. His criticism is harder to take, and his blessing is more rewarding. And no matter how good or strained our relationship may be, we are deeply satisfied to hear that he is bragging to his friends about us.
We seek validation from him. He can be aged and weak, and living in a nursing home, but when we make the front page of the newspaper, or we are quoted in a business story in the New York Times, we make sure to show our dad a copy of the paper immediately.
Something happens when we do that. Our very existence is validated.
Our father is a symbol of authority. He is larger than life. He is a reflection of God.
We expect everything from our parents because we expect everything from God. We expect them to be perfect because we know that God is perfect.
The most painful experience a human being can feel is that his parents do not love him. It is so painful because we inherently know that our parents ought to love us.
The most painful thing a person can experience is the feeling that God does not relate to him and love him. Because we know that God does.
No matter how strained your relationship is, you always want to love your dad and to hear that he is proud of you. No matter how distant your relationship with God, you want to love Him, and to know that he is proud of your good deeds. You can be angry with your dad, but, ultimately, you want to be close. You can be angry with God, but ultimately, you desperately want to be close.
At the age of 27, Abie tracked his dad down. He found his dad's sister's name in a Brooklyn phonebook and called her.
After a brief conversation, she told him about Sam. He was not well, and living in a hospice.
They arranged a meeting in her apartment. Abie came with a friend, a wonderful man who had helped him through many difficult moments over the years. Sam came alone and sat next to his sister. Sam gave Abie a gift, a silver cup, to express his love for him. He apologized for not being part of his life. He explained that he had hoped that by not telling his son of his emotional state, his child would have no baggage and live an untroubled life.
Crying, he told Abie that he had always loved him and only wanted the best for him.
Then he told Abie more. He told him that he had married twice more and fathered three more children. Abie's brothers and sister all lived with foster parents, as their mothers had passed away and he was unable to care for them. Sam cried a lot -- over his shattered dreams of having a normal life, and over the pain he had caused his children. And, crying, he told Abie that he had always loved him and only wanted the best for him.
As much pain and anger as Abie had felt over the years, he appreciated hearing that. There was something extremely validating in knowing that his dad had always loved him. They met a dozen times over the next few months. Once his dad took him to a store and bought him a pair of shoes. It was a deeply moving experience. Another time they sat out on the stoop together and wished passersby a good day. Abie saw his father's kind, pleasant side.
Sam was not a healthy man. About a year after he and Abie met, he was admitted to a hospital with an internal infection, and passed away a few weeks later.
Abie heard about his father's death while working in Manhattan one morning. He was told that the funeral would be in Brooklyn, just before nightfall. He left his job, ran three blocks and caught a bus that ran regularly between the two boroughs.
Sitting on the bus near a window, Abie began to hum. It was a new tune. A tune of longing, of hope, of yearning. As the bus began to move, he took out a pen and began to write in a small notebook he carried in his jacket pocket. The words emerged as the tune began to express his inner feelings.
Riding by light,
Yes it is night,
A sad time for me,
What a decree
Father is dead,
I am suddenly alone,
In a way,
I know he is home,
Angels greet him there
Now he's in their care,
Three times a wife
Yet still greeted all
Big and small
His reward in the end
God, peace to the world do send.
Then the tears came. As the wet drops streamed down his cheeks, he put his pen away and tucked his notebook into his jacket pocket. Suddenly, a sensation overcame him. He finally came to terms with his father. He knew that his father had always loved him. He knew that his father had tried to do what was best for him, and had simply made a mistake. And he knew that there was a purpose for all that occurred both to him and his dad, and that God knew it.
He loved his dad. Deeply.
He loved God. Deeply.
And he knew that they loved him, too.
All names in this article have been changed in order to protect their privacy.