Childhood with Aba

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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It’s been several months, now, since my father – “Aba” – died, and the memory of these last, difficult years has receded just enough for some of the earlier, happier ones to begin to re-emerge. 

The last thing I worked with him on was Start-Ups, a book about his life in three different cultures: Weimar Germany; Mandatory Palestine; and post-WWII America. Aba and his family fled Germany in 1933, when he was only five years old [he was born in Mannheim], and because he spent the rest of his childhood and adolescence in Mandatory Palestine, more than half the book is devoted to his life before the age of 20. Aba loved his own childhood and was very good with children, and my best memories of him are from my own childhood and that of my daughter, Victoria.

One typical story recalls an occasion in Mannheim when his mother gave him money and sent him out with his grandfather to get a haircut. After a brief consultation, the two agreed that the money could be put to much better use [my father was four-years-old at the time] and that his grandfather could cut his hair perfectly well himself. The results, unsurprisingly, were somewhat poorer than his mother had hoped for, and my father had to wear a large straw hat whenever he left the house, until his hair grew back. Another illustrative anecdote goes like this.

I loved to go shopping with Grandpa. We walked. I tried to keep up with him, and when we got tired, we would take a break at the big hall in the railroad station. Sometimes, we would sit down for a stein of beer, a hardboiled egg, and a pickle. I was an enthusiastic participant in these libations, would sip my fill of beer from Grandpa’s stein, summarizing it with my appreciative moto “Alex hat Glueck gehabt!” (Alex was lucky.)

My father savored experience; so much so, that no amount of upheaval or trouble or danger seemed capable of dampening his enthusiasm. His “motto,” Alex hat glueck gehabt! (“Alex was lucky’”) is repeated in the early parts of the book, even in the midst of terrifying, civilization-overturning events; the kinds of things that today are commonly construed as sources of trauma. Aba’s sheer love of life, even in poverty, extreme dislocation, and war is hard to ignore and is infectious, especially in this excerpt, where he describes his reaction as the ship on which his family had fled Germany arrived in Jaffa.

I glanced at my parents, whose faces expressed the full reality of our situation: we’d left a normal life behind us; arrived in an environment where we were not wanted; run the risk of being turned away and shipped off to Poland or who knows where else; and even if it all worked out, we were in a strange country with virtually no money.

While I had some glimmer of understanding of these worries and concerns, as a young boy, I was loving it. A different, strange architecture, both Turkish and Arab. Hundreds if not thousands of people in weird dress, with rough voices speaking languages I had never heard before. People sitting on the floor in cafes eating with their hands. And food of every kind at every corner. Slaughtered, hanging sheep; chicken; ducks; and of course, piles of fish, freshly caught from behind our ship. Camels and donkeys cut a path between the crowd to deliver their goods (and occasionally, to relieve themselves). All I could do is look and listen and revel in it all.

I had been thrown out from one place, only to find myself in another place which I liked. Problem solved. Very lucky.

By the time I was four or five [1972-3], my father had an established, successful design company and workshop that made museum, travel, and other displays and exhibits. He employed a system of interlocking extrusions and panels [Syma structures] that could be assembled and disassembled quickly and easily.

Aba would find applications of this “technology” well beyond this original purpose. Most notably, he used it to build pre-fabricated housing for the “instant-towns” that would appear around oil fields in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia and pre-revolutionary Iran. Much more important to me, however, was the use to which he put Syma in our house.

I was an only child, growing up at a time when the sorts of personal entertainment to which children today are accustomed did not exist. My father worked 9-5 – which became 6-7, when you added the commute from Long Island to Manhattan [and later, Queens] – and though my mother was a homemaker, she was busy and couldn’t amuse me all day, when I was not in school or camp.

Aba, fueled by his formidable creative imagination and love, built me a playroom out of Syma that encompassed almost all of our otherwise unfinished basement. It was a place where I could draw, paint, hang my creations on built-in corkboard, and even stick my head through a mock-porthole. It also became one of a number of places in and around our house, where my friends and I could play together.

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I don’t know exactly when my father began playing tennis, but it was he who introduced me to the game. When I was six, he started me on private lessons [with a Romanian coach named “Drago,” who I can still hear repeating “back …. stretch” over and over again]. After a few years, he moved me into group instruction at Roslyn Racquet Club, and then, a few more years later, he enrolled me in the Port Washington Tennis Academy, where John McEnroe, Vitas Gerulitis, and other champions had been trained in the cohorts just behind mine. This is where I really developed my game and trained to play high school Varsity [which, on Long Island, was extremely competitive] as well as the Junior USTA circuit. My father and I played together throughout, and we even would go on tennis vacations together, once memorably to Laver’s International Tennis Resort, in Delray Beach.

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If you’ve read Brighton Beach Memoirs or any of the great Jewish-American literature of that era, you’ll know that Jewish immigrants have had a special love for certain parts of Americana and especially baseball. And if you were an American boy growing up in the suburbs in the 1970’s as I was, you watched and played lots of baseball, and in particular, you joined Little League.

My father loved all of this, despite not understanding the game in the slightest. He took me to Mets games at Shea Stadium. He played catch with me endlessly in the backyard, even though he really didn’t know how to throw a baseball. But Little League was his favorite, and especially funny to him was the gravity and formality with which small children were expected to engage in this activity: little dwarfs, still not entirely in control of our limbs, dressed in uniforms and cleats and helmets that seemed gigantic on us, brandishing equally outsized bats and gloves. In my first year of Little League, we were so inept that there was no actual pitching, batters hitting off of a tee, and pitchers only pretending to pitch. More amusing still was how seriously the parents took the whole thing, screaming and yelling as their kids played uniformly terribly and regardless of who was winning or losing. [When pitching did finally start the next year, it was so appallingly bad that one regularly would hear parents whose kids were at-bat yelling: “Don’t swing! Let him walk you!”] But the thing that my father found the funniest of all was that our team’s coach – a lovely, kind-hearted man whom we called “Mr. Bernstein” – happened to be in the women’s undergarment business, so Aba referred to him forever after as “the brassiere salesman.”

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When Victoria was born in 2002, Aba’s excitement was uncontainable. He designed and printed custom-made baby announcements, designed a special border/trim that circled her entire room, and even wrote a book about her arrival, Viva Victoria! From 2002 until his death, twenty years later, she was his entire world; the person he cared about the most.

The Baby Announcement my father made for Victoria.

Though we lived halfway across the country from one another at this point, we would travel to and from New York/Missouri regularly and often, since “Pop-Pop,” as Victoria called my father, could not get enough of her. They would sit and read or draw together. They would go on walking excursions to a store near my parents’ house, to buy a particular Japanese Ramune [soda] that Victoria liked. They shared a love for DiMaggio’s Ristorante in Port Washington [he for the Clams Oreganata, she for the Clams and Linguine]. And by the time her Bat-Mitzvah came along, the adoring, heartfelt speech he read on the bimah was a testament to how strong, how close, their relationship had become.

Aba loved us and enriched our childhoods, and we miss him terribly.

4 comments

  1. A touching tribute, Dan. As the corrosive powers of time have rendered my father more angry and self-absorbed, I like to think about my childhood – sitting with him on a warm evening watching the Tacoma Cubs or fishing for salmon in Puget Sound. He was also supportive of things he did not really understand, like my decision to go to graduate school in philosophy. These thoughts and memories have really helped in the last few years and during my visits to the memory care facility on Sunday afternoons.

    1. Doug, the same thing happened with my father. The last several years were terrible. I’m only beginning to see clearly before then to all the good years we had together.

  2. Mine died in 1994. Disillusion is tougher when one refuses it. Dad never admitted he had lost his faith, but the signs were obvious. I think of both of them, nearly everyday. The only form of tribute Left. Better than none, I think.

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