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In her award-winning Harmful to Minors, Judith Levine radically disturbed our fixed ideas about childhood. Now, the poignantly personal Do You Remember Me? tackles the other end of life. The book is both the memoir of a daughter coming to terms with a difficult father who is sinking into dementia and an insightful exploration of the ways we think about disability, aging, and the self as it resides in the body and the world.
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Judith Levine's work explores the ways history, culture, and politics express themselves in intimate life. She is the writer of scores of articles for national magazines and four books, including Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Levine lives in Brooklyn, New York, and Hardwick, Vermont, where she writes the column "Poli Psy," on the public uses of emotion, for the weekly Seven Days.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter 1: Anger
"I don't have any more," says Dad, his whole body a shrug of resignation.
We are eating supper on a small white round Melamite table shoved into the corner of Mom and Dad's blue and white, barely "eat-in" kitchen. Mom and I occupy two straight-backed white Melamite chairs, a punitive imitation of modernism, on either side of the table. Dad sits between us on an antique pine ladderback, carried in from the living room.
At Walden Pond, Thoreau had three chairs: one for solitude, two for company, three for society. Tonight, here on West Twenty-fourth Street in Manhattan, it's one for loneliness, two for conspiracy, three for exclusion.
The pine chair is Dad's last repair job, monument to his Alzheimer's disease. A few years ago, when he refitted a loose rung in its back, he glued the shaped wood upside down with its garlanded edge drooping toward the floor like a fruited vine. Mom couldn't bear to correct him, he'd wanted so badly to be useful. Now, the chair and its formerly identical twin flank the upright piano. Among the first purchases of their marriage, the chairs are a pair like them: one "normal," straight, sturdy, and modestly festooned, the other a clownish imitation of normalcy, permanently out of whack.
Alone in the kitchen, the chair seems forlorn, though not so much as its occupant. "I have no boat. I don't have any money!" Dad rummages in his shirt pocket. "I don't have."
Mom answers: "You don't need money, dear."
"My boat, do you remember, Jude? I had in that, that -- " He waves his arm outward and upward, compassing what I understand to be the coast of Maine. "A beautiful piece, handsome." The landlocked sailor smiles distantly.
"It was handsome," I say.
"But we had, we had to -- we had to."
A familiar lament, the lost boat. Twenty-five years ago it was Dad who tired of sailing, biking, and blueberry-picking and instigated the sale of the steep-roofed little house on the ocean that Mom and I still mourn like a deceased member of the family. These points are no longer debated. "Maine" has become symbolic, its truth bigger than the details.
That truth resides in every photograph of Dad on the boat, face tilted back to gauge the luff of the sail, pipe in teeth, wind in hair, forearm relaxed on the tiller. The boat was pleasure, status, mastery, masculinity. "No boat," he mutters, pushing rice onto his spoon with his index finger. He glowers at Mom. "You have money." Turns to me with a disgusted sigh. "She's always making money."
"Dad, she doesn't make any money either," I say, insisting futilely on reason. "She's retired, like you."
"You have money!" he snaps at me. I don't reply. He heckles.
"Don't you have money? Don't you have money?"
I confess. "Yes, I have money."
A nod of finality -- I rest my case.
"Not much," I appeal.
He has returned to mashing hacked chicken flesh into the heap of rice soaking in the slick of salad oil he has poured over the whole mess. "She always has money," he says to his plate.
We sit in silence for a long minute.
"You have your things, too," I say, hearing condescension in my voice as I enumerate the items he carries each time he leaves the house. "You have your Metrocard, your senior citizen card, your keys." I leave out the plastic forks, magazine subscription cards, combs, and pencils and pens in a white pocket protector he also totes, a few of which he loses each week. "Everything you need."
"Myuh-myuh-myuh-myuh-myuh-MYA," he mimics the cadence of my sentence and chuckles mordantly. "I need, I need." His hand goes out for yet another chicken breast.
Mom and I lean forward, like two flanks of a defensive army, thwarting him. "Dad, you already -- " "Stan, look at -- "
With a dangerously large gesture, Dad shoos us both away but forgoes the second helping. Returning to work on his meal, he anchors a half-eaten piece of chicken with a spoon and forefinger and saws at it with an upside-down butter knife. I reach to flip the knife over.
"You!" he barks, pushing my hand away. "I'll!!"
Unfettered, Dad would eat the whole chicken. Assurances that he's already had a meal, as little as ten minutes earlier, are met with skepticism, sometimes outrage. Even hunger, it seems, is a function of memory.
"I am aware that I am no longer able to do the things I used to do," he pronounces after a while, almost calmly. It is 2001 and my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's six years ago. He is most cogent when expressing his disintegration.
We eat in near silence, Mom and I exchanging a few words while Dad maneuvers chicken on spoon or knife or (once in a while) fork to his mouth, dripping juice onto his chin, which is wrinkled in disgruntlement.
Mom appears to be mentally thumbing through tactics: blandish, distract, ignore, commiserate. Sympathize, as in, Yes, you are right. You are not what you used to be. That must be hard for you. This last comes rarely. Sympathy stripped of judgment or advice is not big in our family's repertoire. Perhaps she thinks it will only reaffirm his despair. Or her own. "I can't save him," she has told me more than once, "but I am determined not to go down with him." She feels him like a drowning swimmer with his arms locked round her neck.
Tonight, she chooses commiseration. Co-miseration: a few comradely yards' swim alongside him in the drowning pool. "You know, Stanley, you're not the only one," she says. "We're all getting older. Every day. I'm getting older too. None of our friends are what they used to be." She ticks off the casualty list: Ruth's eyes, Sonje's paralyzed left side, Helen's cancer. "We're all losing something. We're all in the same boat."
"You're losing?" Dad snorts. Meaning, I infer, You're not losing your mind. And to what boat is she referring? Didn't he just point out that he doesn't have a goddamn boat.
"I've lost too," Mom says. I have lost my husband. A thin shell of anger closes around the pain in her voice. In our battle-ready family, the wounded are wary of resting undefended.
Dad reaches back and perches a water glass on the edge of the cabinet behind him. Mom and I simultaneously lunge at it. Amusement animates his face as he watches the hysterical pair he can so easily provoke. In this moment of disorder, he makes a final point: "I don't have." And then, "I don't want to talk about it anymore."
"Okay," I say.
"I don't want to talk about it anymore!"
"I said okay."
"Okay," says Mom, whether in relief or surrender I cannot tell.
Daddy is too big. I am small. His head is huge, his hair so thick it has muscles of its own. He loves to tickle me, but refuses to stop when my pleasure turns to desperation. He calls me "Little Jood," rhymes with "good." But his voice is loud, as if he were addressing a large audience, not one little girl.
His power is always poised to explode through his large body. Fear robs him of grace; he lugs his temper around like a tank of volatile gas, its incendiary potential seeming to scare him almost as much as it does the rest of us. Our tiny Queens apartment compresses him. We kids are told to be quiet, Dad is in his room with "a splitting headache." I imagine his head breaking in half with a loud crack, like a huge walnut. Once, in a rage, he slams a fist through the wall.
Dad is jubilantly silly. A summer camp director, he dances before all the campers with a fake plastic knife on a headband that look as if it's stabbed through his head. "Hotchky potky!" he shouts with joy, usually in public places and always to his children's mortification. He surges through the waves at Jones Beach with me on his salty-slick back. I feel both secure and unsafe, wondering if he just might (jokingly) flip his passenger off into the bottomless ocean.
He has funny names for things. A fart is a "poopel," and poopels are funny. "Poopel" is also pseudo-Yiddish, because it is related to a gastrointestinal function, and all things gastrointestinal are Jewish. Jewish is funny. Our family adopts a dog from friends. His name is Lox, his sister's name is Bagels. People find this cute. The Jewish things that are funniest are those that are in some way distasteful or painful, or at least inspire ambivalence -- organ meats, poopels, mothers. Dad tells James and me the endless, directionless saga of Seymour Lipschitz, a runny-nosed, violin-playing skinny melink from the East Bronx, and Herman Schullenklopper, the strapping, daring diver from railway bridges and stealer of nickel pickles who is Seymour's idol and tormentor. In this more or less autobiographical story, Seymour is (of course) Jewish, Herman is probably German. One of Dad's remaining "jokes," since Alzheimer's, is to call out playfully and plaintively, for no particular reason, "Sey-mour! Sey-mour!," a "Jewish" name. He laughs, mystifying everyone with his painfully unfunny humor.
As I grow up I learn to joke with, or at, Dad. I become cockier, but I'm still scared of him. When I am nine, shortly after we move to the suburbs, I leave my bike unlocked at school and it is stolen. Fearing punishment, I run away. Two hours later, when I return, Mom is weeping, Dad apoplectic.
"How many times have I told you not to leave the bike?" he bellows. "How many times have I told you to chain it up?" His rage ratchets up and up, he can't seem to stop. How many times, how many times, how many times!
I duck past him, run to the bathroom, and lock myself in. He is yelling from the other side of the door. "I TOLD YOU NOT TO LEAVE IT! I'm not buying you another bike!"
"Okay, don't. I'll buy another one with my allowance."
"How many times have I told you? You're not getting another bike!"
"I said I'd buy my own."
As usual when Dad and I fight, Mom interjects only occasional pleas for us both to stop. Now, though, she needs to use the bathroom. Her Crohn's is exacerbated by stress. I agree to come out if Dad won't hit me.
"All right, I promise! I said, I promise!" he shouts the second time I insist he promise. But when I push the door and peer around it like I've seen the cops do on TV, it is suddenly yanked open. From my left side I see a hand swoop in like the wing of landing bird. It thuds flat and thick from my forehead to my jawbone.
I duck past him and around the corner to my room, where I slam the door and push a chair against it. I lie back on my orange corduroy bedspread, nursing the betrayal, which stings more than the blow. After a while, though, my dizziness and tears subside into a sort of epiphany. Striking me, Dad has displayed not authority but weakness in the face of his own impulses, not control but frustration at the limits of his authority. His palm is huge, but using it makes him puny. My hurt turns to dispassion. My eyes dry.
I address my threadbare Teddy bear: Do I love Dad? In my family, this is a legitimate question. Mom and Dad both felt they had been forced to love undeserving parents, and they did not want to burden their own children with what they saw as an emotionally confusing hypocrisy. To them, a child's unconditional love is compulsory love, so it was not required of James and me. For their part, my parents may have loved us, but we did not assume they did.
Do I love Dad? Beary stares in solemn witness, one button eye hanging by a black thread. The answer is no.
When I am a teenager, Dad and I fight over the usual things: chores, my clothes, the music I like, and because it is the sixties, sex and drugs. We make a misery of what ought to be fun. He takes me to the tennis court but instructs me so sternly that I throw the racket to the ground in tears. He takes me sailing, but corrects me so relentlessly that we are not speaking by the time we pick up the mooring. I don't learn either to play tennis or to sail. When I am an adult, I watch him avidly trounce my six-year-old niece, Jessie, at checkers, picking the red disks off the board as a brave tear rolls down her cheek.
It almost seems that we fight for fun. We fight about things that concern or interest neither of us, like cars or opera, or arcane subjects, like the temperature inside caves, about which neither of us knows anything. We goad each other, skirmish over politics, even when we agree. For instance, we fight about feminism. I know he supports women's rights; his marriage has been remarkably egalitarian. But I also think he can't stand it that I know more than he does about the subject. This may or may not be because I am a woman.
We know each other through our fights. I believe this means I know him well. Anger limits him; besides depression, it is his chief emotion. This makes him efficiently knowable. At the same time, he is large in his anger, a maestro of anger. He can be artfully angry, sensuously angry, wittily angry, coolly and warmly angry; he even can seem contentedly angry.
I begin to chart our relationship as a series of jagged spikes connected by flat lines: arguments interspersed with absences. I ask myself again and again in different situations whether I love him. The answer is always the same: No, I do not love my father.
Toward James, three and a half years my senior, Dad is dismissive at best, violent at worst. If you have to deserve the love you get at the Levines, James keeps coming up short. Dad takes his son to Washington for his thirteenth birthday. At the Lincoln Memorial, he suggests they "race" to read the Gettysburg Address. Although the reading is silent, Dad claims victory. In high school, every report card brings a conflagration. A German tutor is enlisted, whom James resists with aloof humor and persistently low grades. Dad seems to pay no attention to James's competence in all things mechanical, his charm and wit and good looks. He flirts with James's girlfriend, Leila. When she does not respond, he takes another tack. "We were in Jamie's room making out," Leila recalls. "Your father just barged in without knocking. He looked at us, half-dressed on the bed, and he just laughed. This supercilious laugh, as if we were cute."
All Dad's friends tell me he boasted about James and me.
James leaves home at eighteen without a word. Dad is shocked. "He was totally devastated by it. I think he was looking for reasons," says a colleague of Dad's at the school where he worked as a psychologist. "Such a bright man, with so much compassion for and perception of others that he met or counseled. It's a shame he couldn't use any of that for himself and his son." To me, Dad's surprise that his son ran off is evidence of the reason his son ran off.
During this time, James becomes a carpenter. Some years later, Dad and Mom visit him and his wife and first child in Montana.
My brother takes my parents to see a house he is building. He does not remember a single positive remark from Dad. But when Dad returns to New York he tells a friend that his son is "the Michelangelo of carpentry."
Home from college at Christmas freshman year, girded by feminism and my first round of psychotherapy, I decide to tell Dad what a terrible father he was. I march into his bedroom, where he is reading. He puts down his book and looks up. I launch into my J'accuse. He was self-involved, volatile, unjust, overbearing, cruel to James, and negligent of me. He was not there to protect me; he was hardly there at all. "All you ever did," I tell him with nineteen-year-old certitude, "was criticize." I add that he's an asshole if he doesn't know why James left. I look not at him, but at his mother's Mexican hand-blown cobalt-bl...
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