Content warnings: mental illness, suicide, violent human and nonhuman animal death, racism
At first, I think I know a story and its timing, but then I don’t, and can only conjecture. There’s a lot that I cannot seem to recall with certainty about my father’s carved wooden slingshot—when and why he made it, how I inherited it. As happens when I look at photographs of him, particularly the one of him smiling, around eight, sitting on a high-back chair with his arms way up in the air, I can usually hold the slingshot for just a few seconds before the emotions rush and sweep.
Except for its artfulness, it never made sense to me that my father made a slingshot. Until a friend offered the suggestion recently, it had not occurred to me that the pristinely carved object had been made not for animal seeking, but for use on targets unable to be harmed. Another friend suggested not long ago that boys of my father’s generation who took wood shop might have made slingshots as a matter of course. These explanations make far more sense to me than others, thinking about a man who abhorred violence in any form, and taught me to do the same.
My father told me a story about having pinned a butterfly when he was a boy. At the telling, I was about the same age as he had been when the event happened. All of the other boys taunted him, the only one who refused to kill. He used this story to instruct me about the dangers of peer pressure, wanting me to be my own person, and not live with regret, as he had. His description of carefully pushing the pin into the body and watching the wings stop slowly chills me still.
At around the same time period that he taught be about animal cruelty and the importance of thinking for oneself, my father offered me kid-friendly examples of civil liberties and human rights. Starting when he was very young, he had friends from many backgrounds. He knew the children from the Little Red Schoolhouse and the neighborhood. One afternoon after school, he brought home a friend to play with him at the apartment. For reasons that my father didn’t understand in elementary school, the doorman wouldn’t let his friend use the elevator, insisting that rules required the child to use the back entrance, instead.
My father asked his friend to wait for a moment in the lobby so he could fetch David, my grandfather. Grandma Frances, the breadwinner, may have been teaching or working in a library when this incident occurred, but she likely would have handled the situation in the same way as her husband did.
My grandfather spoke politely while firmly to the doorman, then accompanied both boys to the apartment, using the elevator; the operator pulled the inner gate shut, in silence. In telling me about what his friend and he had experienced that day in the late 1930s, my father didn’t mention the word racism, but I knew what he meant for me to understand. I also knew what she intended when my mother showed me a photograph from her elementary school in Brooklyn. Taken more than a decade after my father had been that age, the photo of my mother with her classmates was a sea of white faces, except for one thin boy whom she befriended when most of the other kids had refused to pay him any mind.
These stories informed my actions when, as a teenager, I sought quiet revenge against the cops who kept targeting my friends who lived a few blocks away from me in Coney Island. One of these families was the one that had lost their brother to a swing and a wall. As a much younger kid, I rode on the backs of the boys’ bicycles. A bit older, we played b-ball and board games, shot pool and drank chocolate egg creams in my basement. During neighborhood fires, we gathered on the street, nervous and curious. On many summer nights, we sat under lampposts listening to cicadas and on lawns waiting for lightning bugs.
When I was in college, a few of the boys from my friendship circle drove late at night from Brooklyn in a cramped car to pick me up in New Jersey. Squished in further, we headed south on the highway to surprise a mutual friend who was attending school in Maryland. Amy’s grandmother lived across the street from my parents; a regular visitor with her little sister and even littler brother, Amy was a central part of our group. The boys were the ones with whom she and I got into trouble, along with some of the other girls, after we jumped the fence to go to the beach. Angry and worried, her grandmother and my mother showed up with dangling flashlights. These friends were my people, well before I really got what was meant by privilege, inequity, oppression, or institutionalized violence.
My confusion about my father’s slingshot mirrors his departing behavior and presumed choice, the self-imposed toss and smash after decades of living as a pacifist, someone who taught me about social justice before folks called it that. I think often about the adult conversations we might have had, and the interactions that could have transpired during my adolescence.
Today, I’m wondering again about what he would have thought of my mother having asked me, after she remarried, to pay the cemetery staff an annual fee to take care of the yews in front of the grave he hadn’t wanted. I once typed out a poem, “Exhumed,” on the back of the bill. One Yom Kippur, I took the subway to the cemetery and used Grandpa David’s Balda camera to create double exposures of the two Wiener gravestones, several rows apart. While in traditional terms I might have undermined or even defied the holiday, I believed my behavior had been in keeping with the reflective spirit of the day as much as it displayed a grief-stricken rebelliousness. There are many stories, including these, that I wish I could tell my father, and that he may somehow already know.
Some people have assumed that my near obsession with Walter Benjamin’s life and writings has to do with his having taken himself out rather than be taken by the Nazis in 1940. Benjamin’s arguably self-protective suicide, in some ways parallel to what happened on a massive scale at Masada in 73 CE, is far less interesting to me than his bricolage. My father’s violent death, while long being a fulcrum of my emotional attention, is far less intriguing to me now than imagining the lives we didn’t get to share.
When I went through my first serious break-up, I told the person with whom I had been lovers that they were the one who would most likely best understand my unhappiness, but they were certainly the very last person with whom I should have discussed my pain with any real depth or specificity—so I didn’t. It would likely have helped if I could have talked with my father other than in my head about what it was like for me to have lost him, how I felt about him leaving me, and the circumstances, altogether. I thought he knew, likely better than anyone, how his death affected me.
My father’s last morning might have been the only one when he didn’t say good-bye to me before going to work. Or, that was the dramatic story that lived in me for most of my young life, the echoing torment about whether or not he knew when he woke up what he would do that afternoon, if the plan had been set in motion, or if he was impulsive after the bad news he received. He certainly knew that he had a meeting with administrators, that day. My mother was none too pleased when two of them showed up at our house to pay their respects during shiva. They were probably the last people to see him alive, and had delivered to him the devastating news that my mother called the straw that broke the camel’s back. For a long time, I couldn’t endure that idiom without feeling bilious any more than I could watch even an animated Spider-Man dive off a skyscraper.
As an adult, possibly prior, I imagined that my father might have had some inkling as he got dressed for the last time that Thursday morning of the very bad update he was about to receive from the pencil pushers—he was being transferred to a school in a new role, one beneath his rank, expertise, and talent, a move necessary due to his obvious sinking and general unavailability. It wasn’t a full-on layoff, but a severe ego blow to someone already far below sea level.
In therapy at the time of his death, he had not been given any pharmaceuticals, but my mother wondered later if that might have helped or even preserved him. My father had what would now be called a nervous breakdown well before my parents met. My mother’s father warned her about marrying and having children with a man 14 years her senior, someone who was never married before and had been diagnosed with neurasthenia.
My father taught me how to shoot. I don’t think I’m inventing a wish that we played together with the slingshot. I feel my tapered hands, smaller versions of his, looping then tightening the rubber band around the indentations carved about a centimeter beneath each of the two tops on the split V. Gripping the base of the Y, mimicking his every move, I knew he was proud of my good aim.
He had taken me to the shooting gallery in Astroland. For a quarter, you got ten shots with the air rifle. I liked when we shared a gun just as much as when he stood behind or beside me, watching me shoot solo. He and my mother or he alone sometimes shot while seated next to me; at first, my feet didn’t reach the ground from my spinning place beside theirs. It’s odd to me to think now about how accurate a shot I was as a kid, given my not great vision, even with eyeglasses.
The first real gun I held was pink and silver. A baby dyke in my 20s, I thought my herbal medicine teacher’s LadySmith (a Smith & Wesson revolver) resembled its owner: fierce, and more than a little queer. Her Village storefront and school had a sign way up on the wall behind the register that read, “Forget the dog, beware the owner.” Much later on, in Tucson, a friend of mine took me out to an unofficial range to try out his registered gun. He warned me of the kickback, explained how to use the safety earmuffs, and ran through the placement of the sights. Aiming at a graffiti N on a trashed horizontal water tank about 50 feet away, I hit exactly where I planned, on the first try. That was the only time I used a real gun. I’ve handled others, including what I think was a .38 with a silencer that my grad school colleague called his KGB special—no joke.
My parents were both great shots (who—if anyone—taught or encouraged them is nobody’s guess, except maybe mine). At the shooting gallery in Coney Island, hitting the owl’s perch resulted in a quick vertical climb and descent sequence accompanied by a hoot. There were many options, including a smaller bird that spun in its cage, a furry creature (I think it was a skunk) that tilted, and my favorite: the piano player.
Hunched over his upright, hands splayed on the damaged keys, the dummy musician and his piano were immense when compared to their mostly animal and a few object companions. I knew that I was hurting no one and nothing; even symbolically, we weren’t shooting at creatures and things, only at their targets, and we certainly weren’t killing any piano players, just making a temporarily stuck one move. His bullseye was in the middle of the back of his bench; when it was struck, he lurched upwards, banged his hands down on the keys abruptly, music churning briefly. Often, even if I had hit his target, earlier, I saved my last shot for him.