S. N. Behrman
The New Yorker
 January 26, 1952: 21-29

Our tenement on Providence Street, in Worcester, Massachusetts, besides housing my parents, my two older brothers, and me, was heavily populated with angels. Every night, as I was falling asleep in the bedroom I shared with one of my brothers, I would hear my father, through the door that separated me from the kitchen, pacing back and forth and intoning in Hebrew his evening prayer, which he would repeat three times. Its mournful cadences ended with the words by which, before committing himself to sleep, he invoked attendant presences: ". . . and may the Angel Michael be at my right hand; Gabriel on my left; before me, Uriel; behind me, Raphael; and over my head the divine presence of God."

As long ago as I can remember, I was acutely aware of this quartet of angels and felt that their general disposition was protective and friendly; indeed, I often called upon them to help me in my desperate nocturnal wrestlings with a fifth, and sinister, angel, who also, and unwelcomely, persisted in staying with us on Providence Street. This was the Malach Hamovis, the Angel of Death, a familiar character in Jewish folklore, who was very real to me because of the constant references to him in the conversation of my father and his friends. The very sound of his name was dark, hooded, penetrating, and the personality it evoked gelid and implacable. Somehow, against him, Michael and Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael seemed to be, with all the good will in the world, of small avail. Though often, in my nightly struggles with their opposite number, they entered my room en masse to assist me, their joined strengths invariably proved unequal to the agonizing climactic tussle. Even when my own screams woke me while the battle was at its tensest and the outcome not yet decided, I always had a horrid feeling that if the struggle had continued even a moment longer, the issue, in spite of the good offices of my four friends, would have been decided in favor of the Evil One.

How lightly the four good angels were regarded in Providence Street is illustrated by an anecdote about them that I heard first when I was so young I could only dimly apprehend it. It concerned an excessively pious lady who had married a gentleman less devout. It was the bride's habit to repeat the evening prayer three times before she went to bed. The worldling, lounging in bed one night, found the long procession of holy presences oppressive and protested with some petulance, "You invite in so many angels, there'll be no room in bed for me!" As I grew older, I, too, came to feel for the quartet a kind of affectionate contempt—at least when I thought of them in the daytime. But when they made their entrance into my father's prayer as I was dozing off at night, they were somewhat more formidable. Their presence brought sharply to mind, with a tightening of fear, the hovering figure of their malevolent colleague. Were they, these four, really so amiable? Why, then, did they follow the same profession as the Malach Hamovis, who by his intractability and venom gave the whole company a dubious name? Still, my father had such confidence in the four and implored them with such fervor to attend him that I, though with less confidence, joined in the petition. In so hard a pass as mine during my struggle with the Other, I was glad of help from any quarter, and I consoled myself with the thought that the four would presently come to my aid. But here, too, I felt a sinking of the heart. They were too amiable. Their very good will, I felt, rendered them impotent in the impending struggle. This was the genesis, perhaps, of a cynical idea I had to combat later—that the good cannot also be powerful.

The form of my struggle—its terrain and its tactics—was always the same. It was a fixed dream of horror, which came to me early in the evening, before my older brother had come into our room to go to bed. It had settled upon me when I first began to have a dim notion of what death meant. Perhaps my antagonist was the more vividly embodied for me because my mother, from the earliest time I can remember, was intermittently pronounced to be dying. She suffered from asthma, and her prolonged suffocations in her incense-laden room were struggles I identified as daytime versions of my own nocturnal bouts with the Malach Hamovis. When I was allowed to see her during an attack, she would be either sitting up in her bed struggling for breath or walking about trying, as I understood from my own experience, to shuffle off her tormentor, and I wondered why she scattered her energies thus instead of focussing her strength, as I did at night, on remaining fiat on the bed, inviolate.

Sometimes, on late-summer or early-fall nights, after a day of swimming or canoeing at Lake Quinsigamond, I would go to bed exhausted and drowse, pleasantly at first, revolving in my mind the hazards and excitements of the day, and anticipating already that moment in the morning when the other boys would pick me up for the long trudge to the lake. Presently, there would come through to me from the next room my father's measured pacing and the creak of the floor boards while he intoned, softly but distinctly, his prayer. The words, although I did not understand them all, had become familiar to me, syllable by syllable, and their cadence was so unvarying that it took the place of words that had meaning. Their unbroken modulation was always sad, but it was also soothing. This sedative effect lasted until, at the very end of the prayer, the four made their entrance. By this time, I had moved too far toward sleep to turn hack, but I held on desperately to the filaments of consciousness until the four should reappear, when my father repeated the prayer. I knew that to lose hold entirely left me open to the stern visitation from the Other, and I fought off sleep because I did not want to be alone when he came. Before long, I would hear the familiar names again, though more dimly, following my father in drowsy processional as he circled the kitchen—Michael and Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael. These four names, at least, were friendly and reassuring. But what was the proper name of their co-worker and what, in off hours, did his friends call him? It struck me bleakly that he had no familiar name, he had no off hours. His black title was his specialty. Nightly I vowed that this time I would be prepared for his appearance in advance, this time would actually see the nameless one cross the threshold of my room and be ready to spar with him. Yet I was never able to achieve that active vigilance. Never once, in my numberless encounters, did I see the Malach Hamovis make his entrance. He always just materialized and was standing by my bed, looking down at me.

He was monkish, soberly gowned, and very tall, with a long, thin face and an expression that was detached and not in the least hostile. This impersonality was the most terrifying thing about him. One knew at once that he was beyond argument and that, in the last analysis, he would have to be met by force. He would stand motionless by my bed for a long time, looking down at me. My first maneuver was to roll to the other side of the bed, as far away from him as I could get, but I would find him standing at that side then, gazing down at me. At first, he did not reach out his hands to take me or even beckon to me, but because I knew what was about to happen, I dug in for the siege. My tactics were purely defensive—quite literally a holding action. I slept on a white-painted iron bed. The headboard was a frame with short posts at each side that terminated in the unexpected elegance of brass knobs. The metal runners that supported the bedspring were round and easy to grasp. Since it was the Angel's object to get me out of bed and take me away with him, I would turn on my side and seize a runner with one hand and with the other clutch the brass knob over my head. This position, a sort of lopsided crucifixion, was awkward and eventually fatiguing, but it meant that I was already holding on ferociously when the Angel reached out to take me. There followed a tug of war. Oddly enough, I could not feel the Angel's hands; although they gripped mine to pry them loose, there was no contact of flesh. The force he exerted was not a matter of physical contact but a kind of suction, in which I felt myself gradually being drawn off. I held on for dear life, until the pain in my fingers and knuckles became almost insupportable. To hold on to some part of the bed, to maintain contact with it, became the essence of survival, and the bed seemed to be the only familiar thing in a swirling and fearsome unknown. Sometimes, when the contest approached its climax, the four friendly angels would come in and try to neutralize the determination of my antagonist, but they were ineffectual and he ignored them, concentrating on me. They fell upon him and melted like snowflakes. In fact, I proved hardier than they. Yet a moment always came when I knew I had to give in and felt my fingers begin to relax. I was lost, and awoke screaming.

I remember wondering, when I was told that someone had died, whether he had not resisted the Angel of Death, as I had, and whether he might have lived if he had simply held on to his bed and refused to be dislodged. Before we moved to Providence Street, we had lived on Water Street, and there, one afternoon, my sister, who was only a year older than I, had run out into the street to play and had been killed by a streetcar. Somehow, except for the reflection I got of it in my mother's grief, this event did not really affect me; it was an accident and therefore not an expression of my familiar angel's professional malevolence. My mother's prolonged dying was different; that did relate, and directly, to my own experience, for I saw that her suffering was also a contest, and I deplored, though I could never bring myself to tell her so, what seemed to me a lamentable feebleness in her technique of evasion.

One night during an unusually severe attack of my mother's, I was lying in bed and heard my father and my brothers, in the kitchen, repeating in hushed voices what our family physician, Dr. Jim Nightingale, had told them—that they must prepare for the worst, that my mother would probably not live through the night. I instantly determined to go in and tell her just what to do; I even imagined myself fixing her hand tightly on one of the rails and then closing my own hand over hers and sitting through the night with her, keeping her hands thus double-locked against the adversary. But while I was planning these heroics, I was overtaken by sleep and was soon engaged in my own tussle.

My father must have not gone to bed at all that night, for I did not hear his prayer, but I did not need the entrance of the amiable four to evoke the Other, since he was in the flat already. As I dropped off, I even felt a kind of security, because I was sure the Black Angel must be busy in my mother's room. But in a few moments, when I saw him standing beside me, I realized, with a sinking of the heart, that his activities were multifarious; he had time for me, too! Then it occurred to me that perhaps my mother's case was easier now that I had drawn off her tormentor. Whatever comfort this gave me was soon blotted out in the stringency of my own battle. It went on for a long time, soundlessly and mercilessly, and, for the first time, the Angel seemed personally ferocious. There grew in me the sense that if he won over me, he would win over my mother, too, and my determination to hold on tightened indomitably. I knew that on other occasions I had screamed; this time I must not scream, for my mother would hear it and might take it as a signal to capitulate.

When I could hold on no longer and was about to cry out, I was awakened by my father. To my surprise, I could see the first morning light coming in the windows. My father stood where the Angel had stood. His face was gray. I waited for him to tell me that my mother was dead. I was afraid that even though I had won, she had lost. But my father said only that my mother was very bad; he wanted me to get dressed quickly and go with him to fetch Dr. Nightingale while my brothers stayed with my mother.

Dr. Jim Nightingale was held in affectionate awe by the residents of Providence Street. To them, he was a figure of scandal and mystery. I was not old enough to take this in quite, at the time my mother was so sick, but as I grew up on Providence Street, I assimilated the Doctor's story. He was ribald, but he was also erudite and endlessly devoted to his patients. He played the oboe, which struck them as a singular avocation for an overworked general practitioner, and went to Boston once a week to take lessons from the chief oboist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. People shrugged their shoulders at this perversion. Wasn't it an accepted fact that Nightingale, though a wonderful doctor, was crazy? Jim, as my elders called him, and as I came to think of him, was a bachelor, which to Providence Street was eccentric, and he was invariably accompanied on his rounds by a cadaverous young man, whom he referred to as his assistant. This assistant was a tall, incredibly emaciated, goggle-eyed diabetic, who had come to the Doctor as a patient when he was sixteen and remained to work for him until the young man died, twelve years later. I was at first terrified of this skeleton, but when I was given "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" to read in the Providence Street School, I immediately identified him with Ichabod Crane. After that, I felt better about him. Among the hushed whispers concerning Dr. Nightingale was one to the effect that he used Ichabod for experimental purposes, in order to find a cure for diabetes. The truth, as I was to discover later, was more prosaic. The boy was an orphan and penniless, and if he hadn't become Jim Nightingale's assistant, it was difficult to imagine what he would have done; Jim gave him the job out of sheer kindness. Ichabod would sit in Jim's buggy, holding the reins, while the Doctor was inside making his calls, and when Jim came out with his little black bag and climbed aboard, Ichabod would cluck up the horse and drive off. On summer evenings, anyone who strolled past Dr. Nightingale's office could hear the mournful mewings of his oboe and see his assistant sitting on the black leather sofa in the waiting room listening, expressionless. In all the years I saw the Doctor's assistant, I never heard him say a word.

Everything about Dr. Nightingale—his personal appearance, his horse and buggy, and his office, which was also his home—was rather sloppy. He was quite short, his skin was very dark, and his ruddy cheeks were the color of black oxheart cherries. He laughed easily and had great, merry black eyes. He liked children and he gave the Providence Street kids the run of his office. We used to pore over his medical books; the illustrations in the obstetrical tomes were prime favorites. His office was also a kind of negligently managed private museum, in which the objects on display ran the gamut of the Doctor's dissolving hobbies. The walls were covered with framed butterflies that he had collected and mounted himself. There were filing cabinets containing colored cards on which he had transcribed quaint prescriptions and medical references from sixteenth-century English literature. He was always planning to write a book to be called "Medical References in Elizabethan Literature," and these cards were his notes for it, but he never got around to writing the book. Jim's waiting room was the only one in my experience that had a piano in it. The music rack of his upright was covered with Mozart and Beethoven sonatas. He played the piano, but he said he played it badly—his instrument was the oboe. The other major object in the waiting room was an extremely dilapidated black leather sofa, on which he slept at night. His friends were always asking the Doctor whether he couldn't afford to buy a new sofa to replace this one, which sagged more and more over the years as his patients sat on it, and Jim would reply amiably that he would much rather get rid of his patients than of his sofa. Then he would go on to make tantalizing, enigmatic remarks about the sofa, attributing its odd curvatures to the exercise of his seductive prowess. Ichabod occupied a room, no larger than a closet, that opened off the office and was full of surgical instruments. People used to ask Jim whether he wasn't afraid of his assistant's cutting himself at night on one of these instruments. "If he does," he'd say airily, "he won't bleed."

The ladies of Providence Street, particularly, adored Dr. Nightingale; to them, he represented romance as well as mystery. He would tease them unmercifully and call them hypochondriacs. When they telephoned him to tell him about their colds and beg him to call, he would tell them that there was nothing wrong with them and that he needed the time for patients who were really sick. If he did call, he would as likely as not make light of their ailments. "The truth is you're bored with your husband and crave my society," he would say. Or he would get up abruptly and shut off an inventory of trivial symptoms with the taunt "How long do you expect me to stay and listen to you for a dollar?" or "Why don't you go to a fancy, two-dollar doctor? He'll listen to you. Why don't you go to Dr. Pofcher?" Dr. Pofcher was a rather pompous rival of Jim's for the Providence Street practice, who took himself and his profession very seriously. What made Jim loved the most was the knowledge that he was not mercenary; his "really sick" patients for whom he needed more time were often ones whom he treated without charge.

People called Jim Nightingale crazy without actually meaning it. They knew that in a real crisis, such as my mother's, he was endlessly devoted, unselfish, and efficient. And yet the affectionate, half-meant epithet was prophetic, because Jim died in an asylum.

I left the house with my father to fetch Dr. Nightingale at a little before five that morning. It was early September; the leaves of the trees were still a summer green, and there lingered among the branches a faint, milky fog, which the sun had not vet washed away, although the floating wisps were already translucent with pink light. My father said nothing as we walked down the steep, silent Providence Street hill. I saw his lips move; he was muttering something to himself. The air was soft and full, but with an intimation of sharpness, an edge of something that was not summer. I was conscious of the prodigality of the air, so abundant and ample and circumambient; perhaps this consciousness was heightened by the realization that my mother was in her room suffocating for lack of it. The outlines of the buildings we passed were sharp against the sky: the Catholic church, with its cross; the somewhat grandiose, curved twin staircases that led to the puny facade of the synagogue; the commonplace flat rooftop of the Providence Street School. In the limpid melting-together of summer and fall, there was the fullness of expectancy and the merest hint of farewell. The fear of death had never been so vivid to me before, nor has it ever been since, and yet I felt, as I walked down the hill, a kind of pride in my own indestructibility and a certain impatience with my mother for dying. I was proud because in my recent contest I had won out without screaming; I had in me a tenacity that my mother evidently lacked. And, too, the Doctor had said that she might die—and people did die. I knew what it was to struggle with death; I did not know, nor could I imagine, what it was to die. What it was like if you lost out was a fearsome speculation.

The brass plaque bearing the legend "James Nightingale, M.D." was filmed with dew when we pressed the electric button beneath it. The Doctor opened the door almost at once; he already had his trousers on and was slipping his suspenders over his shoulders. He must have grabbed the trousers the moment he heard our steps on the little stoop. Through the open office door, I saw Ichabod emerging from his closet. Nobody said anything; it was a dream scene in dumb show. Ichabod went to the barn, and we waited until he brought the horse and buggy to the curb. Jim and my father squeezed in beside him, Ichabod ducked, and the equipage creaked off. I returned on foot. On the way back, I wondered whether my mother would be dead when I arrived and, if so, what she would look like. My own sense of immortality intensified. I breathed deep of the now warmer and still more gracious air, as if to demonstrate my capacity for unlimited inhalation. Suddenly, the whole idea of my mother's problem became infinitely remote, even uninteresting. Definitely, death was the concern of other people.

But when I reached our tenement, this cavalier attitude vanished, for the Dark Angel, the Tireless One, was inside, and he had a victim who was without my experience or technical skill. I had no faith whatever in Jim Nightingale. I had seen him carry that little black satchel of his into our house so often that what it contained seemed to me to have no potency. You could not put the Angel off with pills or instruments or stratagems. It was a question of will, a question of strength. Ichabod sat in the buggy, his vacant eyes staring at nothing. He appeared to have no vitality whatever and I felt that the Angel could dispose of him with a flick of his wrist; if he hadn't done so already, it was merely because it hadn't been worth his while. I had a deep wish not to go into the house, for I was sure everything was over and I was afraid of seeing, for the first time, the Angel's handiwork. But I felt an obligation. If my mother was still alive, I had to help her. I had to infuse her with my own indestructibility and convey to her what I had learned from practical experience.

She was sitting up in her bed, propped against a stack of pillows. The air of the room was damp and heavy with foreign matter. On earlier occasions when my mother was sick and I had wanted to go in to see her, I had often been shooed out. This time nobody said a word. My father and my brothers stood around the bed watching. My first thought was, Why don't they take her outside, where the air is so abundant and accessible? Since no one stopped me, I moved closer to the bed. Dr. Nightingale was sitting beside it, holding my mother's wrist. Her eyes were closed and her face was tilted up, as if she were trying to reach some untapped reservoir of air. As I came to the side of the bed, she opened her eyes and looked at me. I hoped for recognition, for a ghost of her unfailing smile, but she closed her eyes again as though she had not seen me. This frightened me and, for a moment, I felt helpless. Dr. Nightingale let her wrist fall, turned to the others, and shook his head, as if he felt helpless too. It seemed to me that this was my opportunity. I would close her hand over the iron rail of the frame and clasp it there, held in my own. I would never let go. But when I looked at her hand I was shocked, because I saw that it was limp and enervated. I could not relate it to my mother's hand as I knew it, deft and nimble at the stove or at her sewing. It was not her hand, or anyone's hand, and I was suddenly aware that it already belonged to the Antagonist and could not join in an alliance against him. I looked at my mother's face. It was still her face. In a dreadful apprehension that any moment I might see it become as helpless as her hand, I ran out of the room and out of the house into the airy, delicious early morning.

Impertinently flouting Dr. Nightingale's prediction, my mother survived that night. Then there gradually grew in the family circle a conviction that there was only one way in the world to lift her out of the twilight between life and death in which she hovered. This was to send her to New York, to see Professor Abraham Jacobi. I don't know exactly how it had come about, but Providence Street throbbed with talk of the renown of Professor Jacobi. I have since learned that Professor Jacobi was indeed a very considerable man, but I have never been able to determine just how Providence Street came to have so exalted an opinion of his ability. He was primarily a pediatrician, and why my family should have made the great sacrifice it took to send an adult asthmatic to see him is still mysterious. It may have been simply that on Providence Street the name of Professor Jacobi was uttered with a reverence second only to that offered the Deity Himself. Jim Nightingale had the tremendous disadvantage, as a practitioner, of living in Worcester, while Professor Jacobi had never done anything more demeaning than to practice briefly and unsuccessfully in Boston. And he had lived that down by his enormous success in New York. It may be that his local renown was started by my Aunt Ida, who was the daughter of a celebrated Boston rabbi called Ramaz, an honorific based on a contraction of his title and his first and middle names, Rabbi Moses Zebulun. It was Aunt Ida who, when she married my Uncle Harry and moved from Boston to Worcester, brought the first word of Professor Jacobi's fame. The Professor had been imprisoned in the German Revolution of 1848, had come to this country in the eighteen-fifties, and had, Aunt Ida claimed, once cured her father, in a trice, of something incurable. In any case, the pressure on the family to send my mother to see him in New York became irresistible. The reason for this was that, beyond anything my Aunt Ida or anyone else could have said about him, Professor Jacobi had in his favor one overwhelming and Olympian characteristic that, in itself, was enough to strike Providence Street mute with awe. This was the simple fact that he was a German.

It is difficult to convey the prestige enjoyed by Germans among the Russian-born citizens of Providence Street; it surpassed even the prestige in which they were held, in the middle of the last century, by Emerson and the Transcendentalists, thirty miles away from Worcester, in Concord. On Providence Street, it was said of Professor Jacobi, in a hushed voice, "Er iz a Daitsch," and that was enough. It was as much as to say, "He is a prophet, an encyclopedist; he is Galen, Aesculapius, Spinoza." Later in life, I actually got to know some Germans, and I was to discover that they could be stuffy as well as learned, but in my childhood I joined in the pervasive, unmitigated worship of everything German. To send my mother to New York entailed rigid family economy over a long period, nor was it easy to get an appointment with the Professor, who was, by this time, an extremely busy man. The appointment was made, finally, by Aunt Ida's father, Ramaz, who was by then also practicing in New York, at the Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, on East Eighty-fifth Street. My mother went off, escorted by my Uncle Harry, to keep it. She made several such trips. On her return from each of them, Providence Street's curiosity about Professor Jacobi far exceeded its interest in what he had done for her. What was it like to be examined by a German? What did Professor Jacobi look like? I remember my mother's saying that he was a short man. Suddenly, to be short seemed ultimately desirable. My Uncle Harry, who was tall, hung his head in shame.

Whether it was due to the curative effects of being permitted to pay a fee to a German, or to some obscure cellular process that no one knew anything about, or perhaps, even, to the humble ministrations of Jim Nightingale, my mother gradually outgrew her attacks and, although she continued to look frail, she became perfectly well. She outlived her three sisters, and all but one of her four brothers. She and I both eluded our tormentor; by the time she was well, I was in high school and my dreams had swerved from battles with the Angel of Death to terrestrial, local combats—to Swann's Field, where we played baseball, and to the football games played on the crest of Providence Street hill, where I prayed passionately for the valiants of Worcester Academy.

Among certain of us boys on Providence Street, the desire to sleep away from home was obsessive, and so was the curiosity about—and the desire to penetrate—the immense, ill-defined area known as "out of town." My indulgence of this curiosity caused my mother I know not what agonies. I had an adventurous crony named Allie Price, who was ingenious in devising ruses for getting out of sleeping at home. He had the startling idea, one summer day, that he and I should sleep that night in Bancroft Tower. We did it. Bancroft Tower—built, I suppose, in memory of George Bancroft, the historian, who was born in Worcester, or of his preacher father, Aaron—overlooks the northern end of Lake Quinsigamond. We used to see it from the water when we were swimming or canoeing. It is constructed solidly of New England granite, and it might have been built by the Vikings as far as sleeping arrangements are concerned. I told my mother I was going to spend the night at Allie's house, and Allie told his mother he was going to spend it at mine. My mother happened to meet Mrs. Price at the grocery, where they compared notes, and my mother sat up all night waiting for me to return. Allie and I found that whatever you might do in Bancroft Tower, you couldn't sleep in it. We did our best; we got through the night somehow. When I returned to Providence Street in the morning, after the long walk from the lake, my mother was standing in front of our tenement house, wan and suffering. She did not reproach me, but every other member of the family did.

Another night, the fertile Allie got the idea that it would be a thrill to sleep in the Providence Street synagogue, which was then being built. As the pews hadn't been put in, it was hardly more comfortable than the Tower; I still remember the insomniac flapping of the canvas that had been stretched over the as yet eyeless circular rose window. How I got the requisite sense of adventure from this night, I don't know, since the synagogue was directly across the street from our tenement. At any rate, on both these nights I was immune from angelic visits, because it was impossible to sleep at all.

Allie's climactic improvisation was that we should run away to New York by streetcar. I told my mother we were going to make a visit in Ware, where Allie had relatives. We did go to Ware, and from there on to New York. We had twenty dollars between us, which took us to New York, kept us there for four days, and brought us hack. We stayed in the Mills Hotel, on Thirty-sixth Street, which overawed us with its elegance and luxury. It was certainly more comfortable than Bancroft Tower. Near the end of our stay, the long arm of coincidence stretched out to give Allie and me a frightful moment. It was during the Presidential campaign of 1908. We heard a band and saw a crowd in Madison Square, and amiably joined it. Pushing to the front of the throng, we stood at the foot of a temporary platform, receptive to political argument. To our horror, we were presently being invited to vote for Taft by one of my brothers' closest friends, Jack Asher (later Judge Asher). It was incredible, but there he was. Jack was studying law at Columbia at that time, and that speech in Madison Square must have been the very beginning of what turned out to be a lifetime career of trying to elect Republicans. For a few moments, Allie and I were transfixed with fear. Then we fled, hoping he had not seen us. This incident took the joy out of our trip, and we started home early the next morning. My parents found out about this expedition, too, and my father's anger was so great that my mother suffered almost as much from it as from my escapade.

MY father was an unworldly, scholarly, casuistical, and normally gentle man with a supernatural imagination that dwelt mainly on the hereafter. Among the elders of the synagogue, he was considered an authority on Hebrew and on religious literature. He also taught the children of the neighborhood the Hebrew scriptures; the kitchen of our tenement was his schoolroom. His own ritualistic observances and studies were so exhaustive that he had little time left for what to him were the external and intrusive demands of life, of which what was called "making a living" was one. To me and my brothers, he was tender and threatening by turns, but threatening only because he was himself threatened by a Master who required endless obeisance. He was the personal deputy, in our house, of a minatory Deity. I was not exactly afraid of my father, but I did fear the Interests he represented. I was closer to my mother, and had an adoration for her that I never felt for my father. How much my mother really believed, in the religious sense, I never knew. She was little and quiet; it was said that for a long time after my sister was killed, she didn't speak a single word. She had blue eyes and soft brown hair. I remember being early struck by the fact that she did not, like the pious ladies of her generation, wear the disfiguring shaitels, or wigs, required by ritual. Ladies were supposed not to be too alluring, because it would detract from what should be their main preoccupation—God. Perhaps my mother was proud of her hair; I know that I was. From the beginning, I sensed, dimly, that the gulf separating me from my father separated her from him also, and that because of this we had a kind of suppressed, conspiratorial alliance. Our communion, like the course of lovers, was starred with happiness and pain. Bitternesses sprang up between us, during which she never said much, whereas I was always voluble about my grievances and would lather myself up in self-justification and self-pity. And because I was the youngest and did not have to go to work as early as my older brothers had had to, I was at home more and saw more of her than they did. I believe I was the only one in the family with whom she had a relationship that, in its sunniest moments, might be described as gay. I could make her laugh, and she came to expect me to.

I developed a routine, for instance, of following her about while she was engaged in her household tasks, tagging at her heels so closely that her work was impeded. She would go into the pantry and I would follow; she would wash a dish and her elbow would hit me. She would then try to shoo me away, muttering the Yiddish word "Meshugeneh" ("crazy one"), but I was not to be put off by epithets. These long pantomimes would end only when she broke into helpless laughter. A difficulty between us that lasted to the end was the barrier of language. My mother spoke no English. When I was small, I spoke Yiddish at home, but by the time I went to high school, I had a conscious revulsion from the language of my parents. I felt that to speak it was a social denigration and that Yiddish was an ugly tongue. I detested its sound and its rhythms as compared to the sound and the rhythms of English. I knew, also, that it was a bastard version of the pure, Elysian, coveted German. As I began to study German in high school, I became the more acutely aware of the vulgarization of it we spoke at home, and when I heard Yiddish or spoke it myself, it was with a sense of shame. Not until long afterward did I come to realize what an extraordinarily responsive medium it is for pathos and warmth of feeling and, above all, for earthy and untranslatable humor.

One morning, when I was a freshman at Clark College, in Worcester, I left the house as usual after breakfast to go to classes. My father was sitting at the kitchen table poring over one of his Talmudic books—those big volumes bound in purple-veined imitation calf that were seldom out of his hand when he was at home. He gravely repeated, as I left him, his invariable valediction in Hebrew: "Go in peace, come back in peace." At ten o'clock that morning, after my first class, I had a study period. It was a radiant October day. I left the main building and started across the campus toward the corner drugstore for a milk shake. Halfway across, I was aware of a sudden, curious malaise. The sun was warm, I was feeling all right; I slowed down, wondering what was the matter. Then I stopped, and, without knowing why, decided to go to the library to study. On the way to the library, the strange feeling became more intense; I tried, unsuccessfully, to analyze it. When I got to the library, an attendant told me that there was a message for me to go right home. By the time I got there, my father was dead. The tenement was crowded with friends and family. My mother sat silent beside my father, who lay on his bed, but she did not weep. It was my first sight of death. When I looked at my father, I remembered that earlier time when my mother was near to death; I remembered how her hand had looked. My father's face, and all that was visible of him, looked like that.

The rest of that day is a blur. Ladies sat in our parlor, sewing burial garments. People went to the station to meet my brothers, who were coming from New York, where they both had their first jobs. The lapel of my jacket was ripped, a fixed ritual of mourning. I must have gone to bed very late that night, but when I did, the house was still full of people. I lay in bed, half wakeful, and I missed the creak of my father's footsteps as he walked the kitchen floor invoking the four benevolent angels. I had long since got over my preoccupation with the Other, and I realized that now the four had also vanished, forever. I should thereafter know them only by name. The Malach Hamovis, his feat accomplished, must he off on other chores. Soon, in the elegiac, consolatory, hum from the other room, I distinguished the voice of a young woman named Syra, and found myself listening for it. Syra was a beautiful girl in my oldest brother's set, and all the youth of Providence Street had been in love with her. When I was little, I used to overhear my brother and his friends talking about her after I had gone to bed; I would lie there listening to them discuss where Syra's affections were likely to fall, whom she favored, whom she would marry. When, some years later, she finally did settle on one of them and married him, there was tremendous gnashing of teeth. She had always been very sweet to us younger boys and would take us to the lake on picnics and go to a lot of bother for us. After the Bancroft Tower episode, she had drawn me aside and lectured me, telling me I mustn't do such things to my mother, who had been through so much already. Now, the night after my father died, I found myself listening for Syra's voice, separating it from the medley of voices, and suddenly I began to long for Syra in a wholly new way. This longing was so violent that it was in itself shattering, but that it should assail me so nakedly now, of all times, when all my thoughts should have been stricken ones, devoted to my father alone, overcame me with a sense of guilt that was even more devastating than the other emotion. It was as if, with God's deputy gone forever from our house, a dreadful saturnalia had been released to ravage me obscenely.

By dint of patient maneuvering on the part of one of my brothers' friends who took an interest in me, I was transferred, after two years at Clark, to Harvard, and after that I was never to live in Worcester again, for I spent the summers with my brothers in New York. After I left home, my mother went to live with one of her married sisters in another house on Providence Street, and when this sister died, her husband married again, and my mother stayed on with her brother-in-law and his new wife. This uncle by marriage was not lucky with his wives. My aunt's first successor left him because he wouldn't take her to the movies. My uncle thought the movies a sinful diversion; if he had any spare time, he spent it in the synagogue. He succeeded, however, in marrying a third lady, with less giddy proclivities, and my mother lived with them also.

When I graduated from Harvard, I came to New York to try to find a job. It took me about six years to find even an unsteady one, and I spent most of my time writing plays, none of which I was able to sell. For a long time, in those early New York years, I had a recurrent dream: I was in Cambridge, it was spring, and I was lying on the grass by the Charles River, reading a novel. I would wake up morning after morning from this happy dream to find myself prospectless, in an unpromising city. I would be seized, when I was especially depressed, with an almost uncontrollable desire to see my mother. Sometimes I yielded to this impulse; at other times I mastered it. I felt in those moments that she was the only person in the world I wanted to talk to, although the Yiddish I had known when I was young had atrophied to such a degree that I could hardly say anything at all to her. I could not even write a note in Yiddish, so I would write to an uncle who read English to tell my mother I was coming to Worcester. Often I had a change of heart on the train; since there was no way of really communicating with my mother, the journey was pointless, and in any case I could not tell her that things were not well with me. Having written, though, there was no turning back, and before long I was walking into the yard of the tenement house where she lived and she was on the upstairs piazza waving to me.

Fortunately, my mother did not want to talk. She would simply ask how I was and how my brothers were and I would say "Fine," and she would busy herself at once making tea. Sometimes, in the earlier visits, I would fall into the old routine and follow her about the kitchen so closely as to discommode her movements. Then she would look over her shoulder at me and laugh memorially. Under my pursuit, she would accelerate her movements to escape me; she would flick strands of her hair from her forehead with a quick, helpless gesture, as if she were brushing off a fly, and I would hear again the muttered, familiar epithet. Once we had settled down with our cups of tea, she would sit at the table across from me. And then would come the inevitable questions that I dreaded: Why wasn't I married and when would I be? I could not have answered these questions even if had had the vocabulary. I kept trying to tell her, in my few words of Yiddish, that the event was imminent. This did not satisfy her; she wished it to be instantaneous. After some years of these promises, she would remind me that I had made similar ones on my earlier visits. In time, she became more searching on this point. Since the event was imminent, who was the girl? I had to improvise prospects. Then would come inquiries about the girl's family, and I had to improvise whole sets of future in-laws.

Among the mothers of Providence Street, the wish to see their children married was almost a mania. To illustrate my mother's fixation on this score, I must mention the fact that, after many years of effort, I finally sold a play. It was produced in New York, and later a road company was sent out. It played a one-night stand in Worcester. I was not present, but, from what I heard, there must have been considerable ado about it on Providence Street, and the theatre must have been filled with my relatives. One of my uncles took my mother. His English was so sketchy that he could have followed very little of it; nevertheless, he was enthusiastic. My mother, who had understood none of it, was noncommittal. On the way home, my uncle pressed her for an opinion. She would not give one. "Tell me," she asked him, "why doesn't he get married?"

In November of 1944, I returned on the Elizabeth from a trip I had made to England. It had been a trying journey. The ship was bringing several thousand casualties hack from the front; the other passengers, mostly journalists and civilian technicians, were crowded in, eight or ten to a cabin; the blare of the loudspeakers, giving instructions for abandon-ship drills and announcements of meals for such of the wounded as could go to the dining saloon, was unremitting; the portholes were blacked out; the decks were curtained with canvas; with the zigzag course the ship was forced to follow, the crossing took seven days. On the morning we were to land, I was up and walking the decks at five o'clock. It was exhilarating to do this now that one knew the waters were at last free of submarines. And although we were at war, I had an extraordinary sense, because of the English scene I had just left, of being at peace. It was a morning of lambent clarity—the rocks jutting from the water, the lighthouses, the uninhabited, casual islands that seemed to be cut out of the surface of the sea with a diamond edge. The air was sharp; it had none of the softness of the early morning when I had walked with my father to fetch Jim Nightingale, some forty years before. That walk came back to me then, and I compared this morning with that other one, which had become, for me, the matrix of all early mornings. I felt the old anxiety to see my mother, who had not been told that I had gone abroad. She was still living in Worcester, and I determined to go there to see her within the next few days. When I reached New York that afternoon, my brothers told me that she had died that morning. She had been taken to a hospital a few days earlier. She had asked to die.

The next afternoon, my brothers and I went to Worcester. We were received at the funeral home by a squat man in a derby hat. He was dressed with truculent formality in striped trousers and a double-breasted business jacket. We went in to see my mother. She was calm. Her face did not have the anxious look one sees sometimes on the faces of the dead, The Black Angel had reached her at last, but since she had invited him, his touch had been gentle, even benign.

Copyright © 2009