Life Watch: My Father — Scenes from a Life

Morris Arkes, eighty-one, retired from running a shipping room and working his whole life with his hands, died in Chicago on September 28. Since November last, he had been in the hospital most of the time. He would be home for a few days, then back in the hospital for weeks, as his whole system seemed to be crashing in on him. Failing kidneys, weak heart, the extended effects of diabetes, with one malady deepening the others.

In June, I went with him to his favorite delicatessen in the neighborhood, and I was surprised that he could summon enough muscles in his stomach to lift himself out of the car, and on to the bars of his walker. This for a man who had been, in his youth, a third basemen with a remarkable range and a clean-up hitter. Still, it was a heartening improvement over what had been. But by August he could barely sit up in bed, and by September he could not do even that. He had shown the most tenacious hold on life, but with the debility seeming to deepen step by step, he finally seemed to retire with exhaustion. It was almost like that scene with Oscar Wilde, dying in his hotel room in Paris: “Either this wall paper goes or I do.” With his wife and daughter near at hand, he suddenly, and sadly, gave out.

On the shelf above my desk, I have a picture of my younger son, Jeremy, about the age of two, with his bare feet on my chest, holding onto my hands, with his head at my feet, and with the broadest smile on his face, reflecting a pleasure running deep. Happiness was being held upside down by your father. (Jeremy is now finishing a dissertation on economics.) Next to that picture from twenty-five years ago is another print, cracked with age, from the 1940s. It shows another young father, in his late twenties, wearing suit pants, with a white tee-shirt pulled tightly over his muscular upper body. He is holding the hand of his own son, once again a boy about two years of age, and evidently trying to comfort his son. In his free hand, the boy holds a ball, but with that hand, nevertheless, he is trying to wipe away a tear. When I look at the photos of my father from those years, when I was the first grandchild to arrive on the scene — and life seemed to be bursting with promise — it seems so startling to find, in his eyes, a reflection of joyousness and energy. This was well before the reverses of life would set in, with his joys overborne by his disappointments, and with his hopes overshadowed by his resentments.

But people who remember him from the forties remembered a young man with a large, good nature; and nothing seemed to make him happier than the prospect of making other people happy. It was thought, for some reason, that at the age of seven, I should have a desk for working. There was, at my father’s factory, a used desk, which he managed to have refinished. My mother and I puzzled over the question of how he would bring that desk home, since we did not have a car in those days, and he rode the buses to work. I still found it hard to believe him when he said that he would simply carry the desk home on the bus. And so I ran off to meet him at his bus stop, as I often did, and I could spot him at a distance of two blocks, for he was the only figure on the landscape carrying a hefty wooden desk on his right shoulder. He carried it as though it were as light as a hat box, and he had, on his face, a smile of the warmest pleasure, for he knew just how much the sight of it all would excite me.

I once remarked to a colleague of mine, a close friend, an older and more worldly man (and a professor of fine arts) that I usually gave people the benefit of the doubt, and I withdrew my presumption in their favor only when the evidence became clear that I could not trust them. He listened gravely, swished the ice cubes in his scotch, and said, “That is the kind of saccharine sentiment that can issue only from someone with a secure childhood.” It struck me instantly that he was right. And quite as instantly that recognition cast me back over the years to see, perhaps for the first time, the special touch or talent of my parents’ generation. This was hardly a rich family, to put it mildly. We were clustered, in wartime Chicago, in an apartment containing my mother’s parents, my own parents, four aunts and uncles, and me, as the only child, the object of constant attention and playfulness, solicited and unsolicited.

It seemed to be thought that no occasion or outing, for tennis or the Yiddish movies, could be complete without my presence. Looking back, one may ask, how did this family manage to impart to a child such a sense of security? There was a wide field in which to roam, but the place was filled with “catchers in the rye,” who were always casting a watchful eye and who would take care that I never came within harm’s way.

Even people at that time who were not rich had a way of conveying to youngsters this simple point: that the grownups were competent to their ends as grownups; that the grownups could be counted on, without the slightest wavering, to do the things that grownups were supposed to do. Children would not be pressed into service to render therapy or do other things beyond their reach or their station. Friends tell me that I have the most idyllic memory of those times; they may be right, and yet that is itself an achievement of that generation: They made it their policy to ensure that the children would not be exposed to all of their strains and to the less edifying ways of the world.

It is hard to convey to people today how a generation, not well off, and not adorned with a college education, nevertheless had the wit to do these things. We have ample reason to know by now that these kinds of reflexes in the raising of children cannot readily be taught, and we know they do not come along with higher income or degrees from the better schools. Among my father’s possessions, none was dearer to him than his car. But I knew that if any accident befell me in that car, the concern for the car would vanish in about eight milliseconds. I never heard him express the slightest concern for any of his material possessions if any problem arose over the health and safety of any member of his family. There was never, for me, even a tremor of doubt as to whose side he was on, and that, for a youngster, does impart a certain serenity.

He was not a “schooled” man, and yet his reflexes as a father were often better than mine. I tried to improve on his example, show energy and concern where he had been less attentive; and yet I’ve found myself feeling quite diminished, at certain moments, when my reactions were not as generous as his would have been — and wondering how he managed to do it. But at the same time, he was not enthralled by sentiment. Several years ago he attended, with my mother, a ceremony in Chicago at which I was being honored, and he allowed that, as nice as it was, he would have been quite as content to have stayed at home and watched it on a videotape. I remarked to the family, gathered at the gravesite, that I suspected he would say rather the same thing about his funeral.

Friends who minister to the dying tell me that the last six months is often a period of reconciliation. There may be reunions with estranged friends and relatives and an act of forgiving that often delivers people from the burdens of old grievances. I really wish that, in my father’s case, there could have been even more of that. Nevertheless, his added months of life, since last November, gave him the matchless pleasure of seeing little Eli Jacob Arkes, son of my son Peter, born three days before his eightieth birthday.

The presence of the family, gathered around the gravesite, generated a warmth that remarkably softened the hurt of the occasion. I know that my father would have been buoyed up to see another gathering of the family — though he no doubt would have grumbled over why he didn’t see more of them when he was alive. I knew that I would offend my cousins if I thanked them for what they had felt deeply obliged to do; nevertheless, I found myself touched by the fact that almost all of them managed to make the trek to be with us. Their presence moved me to the threshold of suggesting that we do something together, perhaps recite the Twenty-third Psalm. But then I realized that this would be quite out of character for my father. That was not his text. He would have been far more pleased if we had rendered a song from Guys and Dolls — “I have the horse right here/His name is Paul Revere.”

But that recognition brought me back to Guys and Dolls and that scene in which Harry the Horse confides that “I’ve got 5,000 fish and I’m looking for action.” He is looking, that is, for a crap game. Nicely-Nicely says, “If it can be told, Harry, how do you come by this nice bunch of lettuce.” To which Harry responds: “I’ve got nothing to hide. I collect the reward on my father.”

I trusted that my family, gathered around, and my readers, would take my meaning when I report that so, too, have I.


  • Hadley Arkes

    Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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