February 3, 2014
In the fall of 1956 the Soviets invaded Hungary. That’s when my father exhausted and alone resigned from the Communist Party. He did not slip away quietly, but drove through the night from Windsor to Toronto, the same night the tanks rolled across the tree-lined boulevards of Budapest. Before dawn, he shook Tim Buck from sleep to personally inform the Secretary—General of the Central Committee that he was leaving politics behind him forever.
When his red Buick crawled up the front drive the following evening I waited for the explosion. Mother threw her hairbrush at the front door leaving a blood-brown gash in the wood.
In 1993 an earlier, longer version of this story appeared in Parchment, a literary journal of contemporary Canadian Jewish writing. I never finished Part II and abandoned these characters for many years. Most recently I’ve come to write about Henry again in the novel I’m working on now, called The Last Night of the World.
“Driving away without telling me where you were headed, for God’s sake, Henry. I thought you were dead.” And then she added, “Sometimes I wish you were dead.”
In my heart, I pitied him, pitied that he’d been preparing himself for the apocalypse, the way chickens sense an earthquake is about to happen, even though they will be left behind to be swallowed by the earth while their masters, who watch them closely, will escape.
“I know, Mama. Don’t even say it. The only reason you stay with him is because of me.” Lately I was rehearsing her lines in front of the mirror, but I couldn’t quite muster her operatic delivery. Not yet. The way she shouted with a fury so infernal that it was not until many years later when she lay dying, strapped to her hospital chair, screaming, biting and scratching so that the nurses accustomed to senile dementia named her the shredder. Not until then that I actually understood the depth of her anger and turned it loose on those close to me.
The night after the invasion of Hungary by the Soviet Union, my father closed the door of his bedroom to leave her shouting in the air, clutching at every mean, inconsiderate thoughtless act he had ever committed, until her accusations sounded like the pleas of a drowning woman, drowning in the murk of her fading beauty, her movie-star imagination, her wasting desire. She no longer appeared to care that he quit the Communist Party. If she was delighted, she gave no show of it, quickly finding other sides of Henry’s character equally intolerable.
I cared little for her histrionics; in fact they were beginning to bore me. My life would be different, so different from Belle’s that eventually people would not even know I was her daughter. I would be a courageous woman, the kind profiled in Time magazine, women who taught disabled children in Africa, flew solo across the Atlantic, raised thousands of dollars for the ballet.
Once Henry quit the Party, he worked relentlessly in his furniture store. Instead of changing the world, he concentrated on selling sofas, easy chairs, televisions and making money. He never spoke about Hungary or the Communist Party or Tim Buck, never shared war stories with his old comrades.
Belle took to complaining about his stubborn silences. One evening before Yom Kippur, he wrapped his favourite books in brown paper, books I had not read but whose names I adored: The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napolean by Karl Marx, or Left-wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder by V.I. Lenin. He stored his books in the cold cellar behinds the jars of fermenting green pickles. Only one book, he left on the table beside his bed. Gogol’s Dead Souls. On Saturday mornings he began walking to synagogue for prayers.
After he abandoned his books, Belle decided to travel to Los Angeles, to visit her brother. Because she was fearful of planes, she arranged for a sleeper compartment on the Santa Fe Express where there would be room for us both. Any hopes she’d harboured of moving the entire family to the States were discarded. Henry would stick it out in Windsor. She knew that now, knew that he cared little for her infidelities, her low-cut bodices, her blue racy language.
At the beginning of December, the three of us sat in the living room facing the river, looking over its grey indifference.
“No question,” Belle said. “She goes with me.”
“Over my dead body,” Henry responded. “You’re not taking my daughter out of the country without me.” He pounded the coffee table once with his fist. “End of story. No one is going anywhere.”
I was learning to focus myself against them. To see vividly their overwhelming weaknesses and defeats, to learn how to slip through the madness of their disappointments into the public activity of a factory town where life revolved around Friday night dances at the high school gym, fast rides with football players down to the lamp-lit lanes beside the river where we clutched at each other with such utter abandon that I’ve often wondered how I remained a virgin for as long as I did.
I looked at her and then at him. “I won’t go to Los Angeles without Dad. You can both stop now. We’ll go together for the holidays—if we fly.”
Belle and Henry were taken off guard. I’d inherited her timing and his will. In some families, an only child runs the show because she grows up quickly without more than a breath between innocence and cunning.
A startling sense of control invaded every cell in my body. I was an Ayatollah, young, ravishing, prepared to chop off their hands. Imprison, terrorize, torture, whatever it took for me to survive the ruthlessness of my parents’ need to destroy, now that there was nothing else for them to tinker with, not each other, not men for Belle, nor politics for Henry, not anything but the memory of their outlandish pasts, which he would not discuss and she could not stop re-inventing.
This is what happens when we stop fighting for other lives, when the grueling intensity of a single beating heart becomes all. How I imagined, then, I could elude Belle and Henry’s legacy, I will never know.
We flew together on Boxing Day, Henry and I sitting up front with his new German-made movie camera, the two of us laughing as he shot the Grand Canyon from the round window of the propeller plane. In the back, beside the washroom, Belle clutched the arm rests, talking to anyone who passed in and out of the toilet. She bemoaned her fear of heights, loud engine noises, airplane food. The stewardess, who back then was a nurse, gave her an injection of phenobarbital so the passengers could return to their books and magazines, to gazing out the window in peace.
I turned to inspect her drugged face, the yellowing amber of her skin breaking through a layer of white powder, the blue-wool United Airlines blanket lying disheveled around her sloping shoulders. And I remembered when I was very young having broken the Royal Dalton balloon lady. It slipped through my fingers as I was dancing. Peering down at the shards of china, she said, “I’ll never love you the same, you ugly little monster.” She lit a cigarette and sent the smoke far up into the air.