August 27th, 1967
To my heir,
I realize now that I did not know my loved ones, those who raised me from childhood. What child thinks to ask the kinds of questions that would uncover the complicated truth buried beneath the sterilized history adults offer to satisfy curious little minds?
Only the passage of time reveals the incongruities, the contradictions, and the outright lies that once gave the semblance of a coherent, seamless fabric. But by the time the child can no longer explain away the many loose threads in what was a formerly convincing story, he is no longer a child, and the aging storytellers have been silenced, whether by senility or the grave.
Although I may mourn lost access to information, the greater loss is the knowledge that any happiness I had seen in my caretakers’ eyes may have been an illusion. Or perhaps it was real, insofar as that joy was simply myself reflected — my cousins and I had no idea we were the rehydrated seeds of some hope that had never taken root in our elders’ lives.
From about the age of five I was raised by my aunt and uncle. When my mother did not return after what I later learned was a longer stretch than her customary absences, Uncle Kenny and Auntie Lu did not have much to do to assimilate me into their family. My mother Tina and I had been a part of their household for as long as I could remember, and my twin cousins might as well have been my brother and sister. In those earliest years, that cramped apartment seemed more like a makeshift nest where we three children were fed, groomed, and disciplined by Uncle Kenny and Auntie Lu (and to a lesser degree by Auntie Mary, who was present more in body than in mind).
When my mother disappeared for that last time, my upbringing began in earnest, as my uncle began to pass on to me what little formal training he remembered from his early years as a painter’s apprentice. His energies were wasted on me, for though he was right to believe that we were kindred spirits, he never really accepted that my dreams were of images made with words and numbers rather than pigments. I still remember him taking me to the Art Students League on West 57th, and the annual exhibitions of the so-called Ten American Painters and I did not know what to make of these works of “art” that defied my comprehension (and even classification). But my uncle was intent on teaching me not only to think like an artist, but more importantly to see like one.
Uncle Kenny was like a father to me, and I am sure he hoped his incessant instruction on the minutiae of oil painting would somehow spark in me the same love that consumed his whole life - although he supported the family more as a handyman than as a painter. His own son and daughter grew up to follow in their mother’s entrepreneurial footsteps, which made sense considering our coming of age at the start of the Depression.
I do recall that, whenever our livelihood was threatened, which was often, Auntie Lu would brag that her own father had fearlessly weathered the Panic of 1893 without “losing his britches.” We would have taken comfort in her confidence, but for the fact that she never gave us a convincing response when we asked why, if our grandfather had done so well, did we live in a tenement overlooking an alley in the least desirable section of Manhattan?
Over the years, my cousins and I began to think of our grandfather the way I imagine my Jewish friends think of Abraham. He was the pioneer in whose hallowed footsteps we followed, whether his values were ours or not. I embraced the few tangible aspects of our family lore that I felt could ground me, name me, and give me a history. I cannot speak for my cousins, but I believe that what little I knew of my grandfather was enough to propel me forward, against all odds, so that my life today looks nothing like it would had I not believed I was destined for a greatness worthy of his legacy.
When my uncle and aunt passed away, they left most of their accumulated property and wealth to the twins, which meant I received little of my uncle’s personal art collection (including his own works) and little of the money Auntie Lu had squirreled away over the years. What they left me was boxes and boxes of paper, much of it moth-eaten, water-damaged, and indecipherable.
At the time, I was livid. I felt that my life with them — my life as their child — had been a sham if, when all was said and done, I was treated like an afterthought while my cousins received the economic benefit meant for true heirs. I did my best not to show the disappointment and hurt that I felt, but I think my pain was evident because my cousins (who were still fairly close to me at that time) went out of their way to share what they could of their inheritance, in terms of any financial benefit. But the offense took root in me, and I began my slow but deliberate drift away from the only remaining relatives I knew.
Strangely enough, I kept the boxes with me whenever I moved — perhaps because I still believed in honoring my elders’ wishes. At my most bitter, I imagined they had intended these accumulated scraps to serve as a ball-and-chain, an unsubtle hint at how they must have felt to feed an additional mouth when times were already hard. Because I now believed that they had suffered in silence, I bore that burden (and my inheritance) as nobly as I could, like an ascetic embracing his hair-shirt, doing penance for a sin whose greatness could not have been fathomed.
It pains me to admit that it took me over 30 years to actually give those boxes and their contents my full attention. Life took me in unexpected directions, yet those boxes came with me to each successive place I called home. As my life improved, so did theirs, in a sense. But after nearly two decades in various climate-controlled storage units (courtesy of my publisher), it struck me that a man should know what his punishment entails when he accepts it. I had carried this cross for so long that I had almost forgotten it was there, as if my back had buckled to accommodate it, or as if the cross itself had adapted to the curve of my back so as to provide a more comfortable fit.
One day, I woke up and I needed to know what was in those boxes. More precisely, I needed to know why the people who had professed their love for me, the people who had raised me, would take pleasure in knowing that the last tangible connection I had to my history would be yellowing, faded documents.
By this time, the documents were not even in the original boxes given to me when my aunt and uncle died. For several years now, a long line of assistants and interns had dutifully followed my orders to organize, categorize, and more properly preserve the contents of those boxes. Though I showed no greater interest in the boxes than this, their contents were now stored in reinforced bank-crates, with the documents grouped and vacuum-sealed in plastic baggies.
One weekend seven years ago, I retrieved a single box from that storage unit (seemingly on a whim, though a whim and destiny are not mutually exclusive). It was a box labeled “Number 1.” I had no idea which assistant thought this should be the first or why, but then again I had no idea what made the contents of box “Number 1” chronologically distinguishable from the contents of box “Number 17.” I do remember that what had started as twenty-three boxes had, over the years, been condensed down to fourteen by what I imagine were zealous interns who hoped to impress me with their efficient use of space.
In the few years leading up to my rediscovery of the boxes, I recall that the number rebounded, increasing from fourteen to seventeen as more conscientious interns began to use technological advances to my advantage by first cataloging the documents then sealing each section in its own clear baggie. An index sheet was also affixed to the cover of each box.
So when I began to acquaint myself with my inheritance, it was as if the documents had been waiting patiently for me to give them my full attention. And seven years later, I have finally been able to pull myself away from them.
From the beginning, each box took me successively deeper into my family’s history. Every page I read gave me the sensation of falling — falling away from myself as I had become (which is, comfortably detached and only occasionally bitter). But I was also falling toward something, falling down and down, into a wide expanse of ocean where my ancestors waited to reclaim me, redefine me.
These days, when I pull my history out of its airtight enclosure, the plastic bags are just slightly more translucent than the skin on my hands. And so I leave you these boxes, my most treasured possession.