My Before and After Life

Risa Miller

St. Martin's Press


When our dear widowed and remarried father landed in Jerusalem and became a born-again Jew, he let us know in no uncertain terms that we should prepare to enter the Great Hall because this world is only a corridor. He let us know that when you stack seventy or eighty human years against the promise of eternity then all the playing rules in the here-and-now have got to be different.

Which is all I manage to write before Dad pops through my kitchen door on the way to my basement storage room, balancing a pair of white plastic milk crates. "Remember these? I found them deep in the recesses of my bedroom closet," he says.

"Those crates are like ghosts," I say.

"Well—maybe not ghosts. But I found some things," he says, sliding both of them onto the kitchen table.

"That’s scary." I mean the word things, and the fact that for the first time in my life Dad won’t be a five-minute walk away. His little sojourn in Jerusalem has a new permanence since he and his wife, Evelyn, have rented out their condo around the corner to a tenant who wants nothing less than a year’s lease.

On the other hand, scary might also mean the response I know is coming. When he bends over and sees what I’ve typed, the phrase born-again sets him off on a soapbox.

"If you’re so bent on writing the truth, say it correctly," Dad says. "Use the word ba’al teshuvah, ‘returnee’—or just the proper translation: ‘master of repentance.’ " He drops one milk crate to the floor and begins to sort the contents. "Honey, you of all people, the haranguer for truth and justice, you should flee from distortion. Born-again makes it sound like some white-hot hallelujah moment." He pauses— but only to flick away a dazed and frozen spider with the back of his hand. "You know as well as I do that it’s a process. And my particular take on the phrase ba’al teshuvah? It’s that my eternal soul was always there and I returned to find it."

I can’t help but notice how plaster dust salts his already salt and pepper hair.

"Hey! I wanted to show you something and now I can’t find it," he says, pawing through the crate on the table. "I’ll be right back." He turns out the kitchen door.

I find myself fiddling on the corner of the crate, like a blind person reading exit instructions with her fingertips. I haven’t seen these fake milk crates since college, when they were the perfect size for my already antique LP records and my cousin’s hand-me-down Whole Earth catalogs. It’s there, bottom right corner, the curly script of my name, Honey Black, in blue glitter nail polish from one fuzzy rum and Coke college freshman night.

Dad’s back. "I knew I’d seen them. They’d fallen off the top— I found them in the driveway." He’s waving something— a stack of my summer camp letters.

Who knows if I’d saved them or Dad— or even Mom— but I know he means the adolescent elegy I wrote about fear not getting the best of me when the loons took over the camp lake at night and traded their grieving ululations. "And look what else I found." Under his arm is a shallow Filene’s department store box, the kind which contained Mom’s monogrammed linen. Once and long ago the linen was pearl pink and propitious, not meant to age in a cardboard box.

But the linen, the letter— they’re props. Or an attempt to salve his aggressive piety, or the way his aggressive piety popped open old scabs and made the freshest of wounds. Or the way my foundation cracked, and our infrastructure crumbled and wanted to be put back together again— but only his way. Soon enough when he’s out of sight it will be easier to write: Eight months ago Dad and Evelyn were visiting Jerusalem and he got tapped on the shoulder while standing at the Western Wall, and they were invited to a Sabbath meal. In warp time they became observant, orthodox. Religious. And we were, to put it mildly, shocked— and provoked.

Our reaction had its rhyme and reason. My dad had been no regular dad. Twenty-five years ago, when my dear mother died of breast cancer and I was twelve and my sister, Susan, was eight, Dad made one of those movie-script declarations that as long as he was around it would be as if we had never lost our mother, that he was good enough to be both parents. He was good for his word: through graduations, prom. College. Law school. My wedding. It didn’t change when Dad got married to Evelyn, ten years ago. We never lived more than a two-block radius from each other, and I took for granted the lifestyle and love continuums in family— especially ours. They were the biggest comfort we had.

Then, suddenly, Dad pulls. Just in case we need more proof how serious he is, his version of events includes a broad statement of revelation: like the way you’d feel when a lightning bolt hits the path while you’re lost in the woods at night and you see, suddenly clearly and specifically, where it is you’re going. My version? Loss, more fresh loss just when I thought it couldn’t happen. I mean, twelve months after Mom died I had to look at photographs if I wanted to remember her face. But, after all these years without Mom, when Dad broke his promise to be close, and to be our progenitor, all I felt was how the loss of Mom came bounding out of some old account ledger like I had some kind of interest due.

THE FIRST TIME I saw Dad after he was born again was in Jerusalem, where Susan and I went to go bring him home. My husband, Allan, had sat us down: We must intervene and talk sense into Dad the same way you do when a family member has an addiction. Next thing we knew, Allan said, Dad would try to convert us too, and weren’t we fine the way we were? So, Susan and I got last-minute tickets on a Swiss flight with a stopover in Zurich on, of all days, December 25, which I hoped was some kind of good karma. I couldn’t tell about the karma, but the stewards and stewardess were cheery and celebratory, serving sandwich cookie treats and shot-glass servings of chocolate ice cream every couple of hours.

We were cheery too, snug in our blasphemy and irreverence. Plus, I had my personal chimera, Mr. Uber-Jew, a dusty, bulging-eyed, black-frocked alien with side curls and rumpled pancake of a fedora. Unmistakable, spot-him-at-a-mile Uber-Jew, an alien on home soil.

Then, not that I needed another reason to go see him and get him back, but there was something else: Might there be, possibly, something wrong with Dad, physically wrong, like a fatal illness with a ticking clock, and the religion was his in-the-trenches reaction? Which was how I finally spooked Susan into going with me, though, sick or well, evangelist or alien, our agenda was the same: We were going to deprogram Dad from his brainwashing cult, bring him home, and sick or well, evangelist or alien, we were going to save him from saving his soul and revert to who we were, revert to order.

It was our first trip to Israel. Susan and I sat in a row of three, which we shared with a frequent Israel traveler, a Boston woman not ten years older than I, who said she had married children living in Jerusalem and yonder, and that she had Israeli grandchildren numbering in the double digits. When she asked us where Dad lived in Jerusalem and Susan dug out her address book and read, phonetically, "Re-cha-vee-ah," the woman hymned and hummed and haed, impressed.

I understood the response when the cabdriver out of the airport deposited us at the elegant, deciduous entrance of a four-story building, with an elevator and—the way they had terraced the interior hall—a garden entrance for each apartment. The inside-outside ambience, the views and windows and afterthought little extra porches were design hallmarks of what was indeed a fancy building in, as it turned out, an upscale, gentrified neighborhood. Dad and Evelyn lived on the second floor. But, beyond the elegant entrance, the apartment was compact, five small rooms. You walked directly into the living room, there was no hall closet, and the entire space was half the size they were used to. In his brainwashed and maybe sick condition, Dad had neglected to mention that they’d traded down their gallant concierge and health club condo in Brookline for a little Lego house.

I would have gone directly on to the offensive, to my planned and calculated deprogramming, except, a scant hour later, sitting deliciously and distractingly alone with Dad out on his little balcony, I found myself resisting: first of all, the inveiglement of dry, warm springtime air in the middle of winter; then the flickers and sparks of affection and connection coming from deep inside me. (Nothing Allan’s directive had prepared me for.) Susan was napping off her jet lag on a living room sofa, and Evelyn had asked if we minded but set off anyhow to a prayer class which had a come-hither pop-song name like Heart and Soul. I couldn’t remember the last time Dad and I were alone, just the two of us. Which was a dangerous, diverting thought. Especially since—was I really surprised?—Dad’s eyes weren’t bulging; he looked healthy all right, pink cheeked and a little fattened up, and he wasn’t dusty or wearing a frock coat or a black fedora. He wore his old gray Levi’s, sneakers, and a sports jacket. Only his yarmulke was a serious statement of identity: a high, black, puffy velveteen affair.

The porch chairs were familiar; they were the same ones Allan and I bought for our deck last spring on one of the Home Depot Sundays we drag our boys to before we get them sushi and ice cream. The chairs were, in fact, exactly the same: white Adirondack style, thickly cushioned. And, above us, the round winter sun rolled across the sky, right to left; was it possibly the opposite direction of movement from where we live, in Brookline, Massachusetts? Questions of time, space, structure, weight-bearing properties were the usual fare that showed what heroic capacity Susan and I had always held Dad in. Dad was a powerful and smart man, who in his real life built and owned and managed the biggest scaffolding company in New England.

I was glad to be sitting. The task was big and I took a deep cleansing breath and I fronted some small talk about the sweet, springlike weather in December. I knew how to soften Dad up by summoning a long-standing joke to say he’d special-ordered a good day just for us.

"Not so special and not so sweet," he said. To my surprise: Didn’t he remember the joke?

"The weather isn’t supposed to be dry and warm like this in December," he said. "It means we Jews are doing something wrong. Darn it. If people are doing what they should, the rains and all the right weather come in the right time." His features softened into his face familiarly, but he was all worked up.

A shot of hard energy raced down my lower back, and I screwed my legs firmly on the balcony floor. This was it: Dad’s phone calls and e-mails were full of the same cosmic talk, and I’d come to wave my saber. "Dad, your darn it makes you sound like a Boy Scout who’s stubbed his toe," I said.

"Well, I can say darn if I want. What? You want me to say damn?"

"It would be better." I meant, of course, better to have unearthed the real him, the unpious, less cosmic him.

Dad looked at me and shook his head as if I wasn’t so funny and he’d just figured out why I was sitting there with him in Jerusalem. "You’re wrong about this. It’s not what you think." Then he changed the subject, abruptly. "I installed the railing myself," he said, standing up and pointing to the whorlly iron around the balcony.

So now, a beat too late, he was going to remember and play to our history: He knew that the old daughter-me wouldn’t have blanched if he said he installed the round winter sun himself. It was only slightly easier to picture Dad kneeling his back into a C, dabbing a carpenter’s level against the tall scrolled posts.

"I planted those bushes too," he added, wagging his forefinger to a spot below the balcony, to a small grassless playground where a dozen kids of all ages turned up dust in a space the size of my backyard. There, rows of small shrubs, crawling like dry pachysandra, were scotched with neon pink flowers. He paid for the drip irrigation, he was installing a water fountain.

Oh, he was handling me; he knew what he was doing: If I paid too close attention to the details—the flowers, the water—t he slowdown would suck the focus right out of me.

I jumped back to business. "Come home, Dad. How can you do this, to our family?"

"Do what to the family?" Dad said. "I haven’t murdered anyone."

"Oh, Dad—"

"What do you mean, ‘Oh, Dad’? I’m sitting here content. With some perspective on life—and death, I might add. Which might affect you if you’d care to listen. You’ve always been a smart one. Can’t you at least say you’re happy because I am?"

"You’re too happy." Quick rejoinders are my specialty, but it wasn’t the last moment on that trip that my mouth opened and sounded smart, but I didn’t believe what I said.

"Don’t worry."

"I am worried." I guessed I’d hit a nerve, judging from the lines which began to crawl across his forehead. Time to raise the pressure and be all-inclusive. "You’re sitting here—you’ve turned your back on everything and everybody you’ve ever known."

"You’re exaggerating."

"I wish you were wrong. You left. You walked out of our lives. That’s what it feels like to us. To Susan and to me."

His forehead flattened out. Though not in remorse or conciliation. So I pulled back. "Okay. Look at you. The way you’re sitting there. It doesn’t bother you that we feel that way?"

"Okay. You want bother? You want bother? What bothers me is having spent my whole adult life in total ignorance, where I’ve been, where I’m going."

We both knew that wasn’t the bother I meant, but in spite of himself he’d given me an opening. "You see. How you’ve turned away from us? All your e-mails, your phone conversations: They’re all about your heritage, your soul, your afterlife. What about this world, this life? You’re—you’re hyperfocused." I nudged the insult. "You’re giddy—no, not quite giddy, you’re . . ." I scrambled for the perfect words, the rapture state—something. If Susan were awake, she’d have had the perfect observing classification. "Beatific!" is what finally popped in my head.

"Beatific?" He looked puzzled. "Am I too beatific or not beatific enough for your idea of why this is all wrong?" He didn’t wait for my answer. "Okay—I won’t be beatific. Here’s a real complaint," Dad said. "There’s so many kids here—and the noise outside my windows is unstoppable." He sat back, whooshing loud air out of his seat cushion.

"Now you’re playing me," I said. "You’re trumping up a complaint for the benefit of proof. The noise doesn’t really bother you. You are beatific."

"Yes, I’m full of joy and rapture, if that’s what beatific means. And, yes—I’m also trumping—just so you won’t call me on the carpet for all the other extremes—televangelist, freak, alien from Mars—one or the other," he said. "I don’t have to be a genius to guess your agenda, something straight out of a deprogramming manual."

Okay, so he was on to me, but at least I could see the battle line. From where I sat in my life, with my husband and family, why would anyone in his right mind self-impose a life of limitations such as orthodox anything? And, didn’t he get it? We were always good people before this, he—we—didn’t need this, so why all of a sudden . . . "So then, what about obeisance to rules and regulations?" I hammered on. "Or financial exploitation? Or exploitation, period? Clarify for me: Did you mean you dug the hole for the bushes and put them in the ground, or did you pay for the planting?"

"The works," he said, backing his chair away.

My facial muscles went slack in frustration. He couldn’t help but notice; his voice softened.

"No, really," he said. "I’m not saying it to put you off . It didn’t amount to much shovel work or much money. Stop straining so hard. Why are you hacking at me for the truth if you don’t want to hear it?"

I ignored the comment. I had that last, perverse thought. "Dad, is this some end-of-life, what’s-it-all-about thing?"

"You mean like repent before I die, or something like that?"

That’s what I meant. He leaned out of his porch chair and grabbed me by the arm with a little force. He was serious. "Yes, actually it is all about end of life. I am finally, finally, finally paying attention to my eternal soul, and I am well. Never more well than in my whole life. As far as I can tell, I am not dying tomorrow, but I plan to be prepared if I do."

What could I have said? What could anyone have said?

We were saved from our awkward standoff by a loud, strained squeal on the street beneath the balcony: a delivery truck working its way through what they called streets in that neighborhood (which would be called alleys anywhere else in the world). And the tapered flatbed, narrow and flexible as a caterpillar, was clearly evolutionized for native terrain. The truck stopped, and the driver jumped out in front of Dad’s building, hoisting red and blue crates onto his back. Behind us, back in the apartment, came the loud, steady buzz of the doorbell, and Dad beelined off the balcony to answer it. Not before an uncharacteristic sprinkle of irony: "Eternal souls have to eat while they are in this world."

The doorbell woke Susan up. Dazed and disarrayed from her heavy travel sleep, she walked into the kitchen, standing next to me at the doorway as we watched the delivery boy, who knew his way into the kitchen. He passed Dad a cardboard flat of white eggs, emptied the food onto the kitchen table, the chairs, the bookshelves under the telephone, next to the Mr. Coffee. He shoved flimsy cellophane boxes of grapes, white, bulbous vegetables, and yellowed tomatoes on top of the micro wave. After he left, Dad moved about deliberately. I watched him tuck the boxes and cans into cabinets, under counters. "I save the fruit for last," he said.

Excerpted from My Before and After Life by Risa Miller.
Copyright © 2009 by Risa Miller.
Published in January 2010 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.