Excerpted from “Itzik & Mickey: Stories from Brooklyn and Beyond“, published 2014 by Off the Common Books.
I was well into my teens when I discovered my father’s hidden past. One evening, in the basement of our Brooklyn home, my father and my older brother opened a box of aging papers marked “PERETZ FAMILY CIRCLE” and began to read aloud. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, my father had been the author of a newsletter about and for his extended family’s regular gatherings, at that time mostly first-generation Jewish immigrants in their forties and fifties and their children. I don’t remember many specifics of the stories – just some digs about an older relative’s poor personal hygiene – but I do remember literally rolling on the floor laughing so hard that my jaw ached.
In the late 1940s my father was in his early twenties, a high school graduate (barely), and a veteran of World War II. He had yet to meet the woman who would become his wife of forty years, my mother. And he was trying to make a go as a comedy writer. Humor was for him a salve against the sadness, tedium, and low-grade insanity of ordinary life; it was also something of a calling. He used to tell a story about when he was in the army and won second prize in a talent show for his act, telling jokes. First prize, he said, had been won by a man who simply walked across the stage dressed in drag. Eventually, as my father’s life became filled with the milestones of adulthood – marriage, children, a hard-earned college degree, a fitful career, home ownership – his dreams of being a professional comedian and writer were packed away like so many typewritten pages in a box. But he never stopped telling stories and trying to make people laugh.
His impish wit occasionally got him into trouble. One of many examples – and my personal favorite – concerned a time when he worked in a record store. [Attention: If you are below the age of thirty, ask your parents what a “record store” was.] A customer came into the store and asked for a copy of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. My father cracked wise, “Do you want Ludwig van Beethoven or Harold Beethoven?,” expecting a chuckle in response. The customer’s face turned pale. “I don’t know,” he said, “I’m getting it as a gift for a friend, and he didn’t specify.” My father thought for a moment and replied, “I’ll tell you what. Most people prefer the Ludwig van Beethoven. Why don’t you take that, and if it turns out it’s the wrong Beethoven, you can bring it back and I’ll exchange it.” The customer pointed to a sign on the wall, “It says, ‘Absolutely No Returns or Exchanges.’” My father said, “Don’t worry, I’ll remember you, and in this case I’ll make an exception.”
As children, my brother, sister, and I loved listening to our father’s stories and improvisations, mostly because they made us laugh. We inherited and shared his love of The Marx Brothers, early stand-up comedians like Bill Cosby, and later, the television show Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Through all of this, we absorbed his philosophy that nothing in life should be taken too seriously and that any disappointment or failure would eventually be eased by mining it for its humor.
“Apropos of nothing.” This was often how my father started telling a story. Partly a verbal throat clearing, partly a call to attention, it signaled that we were about to hear about the world from his own, slightly twisted point of view. As he got older and his family nest emptied, he rediscovered writing and storytelling, this time with the benefit of a more mature and bittersweet perspective. He told his stories at numerous family simchas – celebrations – and the reconstituted Peretz Family Circle reunions, introducing younger generations to the then-mostly gone first generation and reminding the then-aging second generation of their youthful misdeeds. “The good old days – they were terrible,” he liked to remark. His growing body of work was cut short by his untimely death twenty years ago.
One of our last in-person conversations occurred on the weekend of my thirtieth birthday. My father showed me the draft of a story he had written for the occasion. It was about an accident I’d had when I was three years old, an accident for which he had always felt responsible but that I had long ago put in the past. I read the story as if he wanted editorial feedback and responded as such; it quickly became apparent that he had written the story as a birthday gift and as an apology. I had become enough of an adult to appreciate that my father’s stories were for him equal parts legacy and therapy.
My father didn’t live to see his grandchildren, to attend all of his children’s weddings, or to share his retirement with my mother. He didn’t get his long-sought little convertible with (of course) a stick shift. He never got to blog, to tweet, or to see his stories published. I have an audio recording of my father reading his story “Chocolate Pudding”; it’s one of the very few times my children have heard the sound of his voice. I hope this book brings them closer to their grandfather, his family, and his life.
Daniel “39 Arrests Without A Conviction” Glasser