© February 2, 2012 (Groundhog Day)
In the summer of ’58, my father told me to mow the lawn, front and back, at my house on 8616 S. Bennett, where all the fruit trees were. We lived on the South Side of Chicago in a Jewish/Irish neighborhood.
My grandfather, Nathan, who came from Minsk, Belorussia in 1914, planted them. He loved trees and kept a small Lemon tree as a “pet” in his house.
I would visit him when I was a child and I was amazed by the heavy, fragrant, grapefruit-sized lemons that his pet tree produced. When he grew too old to keep living in his large house and had to leave the, by then, really large tree that managed to fill most of his basement, he cried bitterly. His three middle-aged children, including my mother, were shocked by this. I later overheard them whispering to each other that they thought “he loved that damn Lemon tree” more than he loved them.
Jealous of a tree.
A hard thing for me to understand. Adults were strange.
I had already learned that I was severely allergic to newly cut grass, a situation so unbelievable at a time when Dwight Eisenhower was president of the United States and allergies were still not well understood, that my telling my father a story like that was too ridiculous for him to take seriously.
I was also allergic to all the fresh fruit growing in the back yard, but that was never a subject leading to conflict. But my gradually discovering, one by one: all the fruits, vegetables, pollens, animals, kinds of fabric and molds– exactly what I was unable to eat, or be near, was a nightmare. It took years for me to learn them all. And then, shockingly, that allergies can mutate. That something I could eat with no problem would one day become toxic to me.
People who are blessed without allergies won’t understand any of this. How could they?
Knowing what I knew about newly cut grass, however, gave me good reason to resist my father’s insistent instructions, and resist I did, leading to a loud and threatening argument. He lost his temper and I took off down the block to 85th St. and then west toward Caldwell School, my red-brick public grammar school.
I could run like a son-of-a-bitch. My father couldn’t catch me. I was certain of that. In the summer of 1958 he was forty-five years old, an age which was considered pretty old back then.
We both kept running.
After three blocks, I began to worry that he might suffer a heart attack because of how far we had run and I was very concerned about him, even at eight years old. I had a real conflict going on within me.
Deciding in his favor, but bracing for what would inevitably come next, I gradually slowed down. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings that I thought he was too old to chase me. I pretended to be winded and let him catch up, finally stopping about a block from school, and I waited for him.
In a minute, he caught me–or thought he had–and I got walloped right there on the street. Not a good moment.
Gripping my upper arm in his strong hand, he dragged me back home where I accepted that I had no alternative to mowing our extensive lawn. I saw that there was no way out. Either he would suffer, or I would. He stood on the sidewalk, watching me pushing the lawnmower. He didn’t want to have me take off again.
But then, after about ten minutes, I began coughing, then wheezing and my face turned red and my eyes and throat filled with tears and saliva, my nose running uncontrollably and I stopped mowing, unable to see clearly anymore and stood there in the middle of the yard, my face a mass of uncontrollably flowing fluids.
My father witnessed all of this. Though he was uncomprehending about what was happening before his eyes, coming from unsophisticated working-class immigrants from the tough West Side of Chicago, he had no concept of allergies–except for one.
Cats, and only cats, did to him what just about everything growing outside did to me. He instantly understood I couldn’t possibly be faking. He also became filled with remorse that he forced me to do something that was so vividly harming me. He also realized I hadn’t lied to him. An important characteristic in the world he came from.
He walked over to me and embraced me, very upset that he had “picked on somebody not his own size” contrary to what he had always told me was the proper way to conduct myself. We didn’t speak—I wasn’t able to speak—and he helped me climb the cement steps into our kitchen. I was a mess and felt disgusting.
I immediately washed my face with ivory soap and steaming hot water, which I’d earlier learned would make most of my allergic symptoms stop. He sat at the kitchen table and watched me. He had no idea what he should do. After a while, I dried my face and my father got a clear view of my swollen, red, bloodshot eyes, and he could hear the hoarse wheezing as I was breathing. I went into our bathroom and stared into the mirror. I looked terrible.
The incident changed our relationship for the rest of our lives. Forty-two years. He learned the hard way that I wouldn’t lie to him. He could trust me, no matter what.
We sat there in the kitchen a while longer, not talking, and then he stood up, quietly said he was sorry, and went out the door to finish cutting the grass by himself.
I recovered. We never again discussed the incident.
And I never told him how he was able to “catch” me, that defining summer of ’58.
In my view, even at eight years old, I felt he had already suffered enough and I didn’t want to add to it.
Oh, and he never, ever spanked me again.
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