For those of us lucky enough to grow old with our parents, we enter into a particular type of complicity. We do not want anything from them. We do not want them to change or to show us something they haven’t already shown. It’s too late for that. The only thing we want is perhaps the hardest thing of all for them to provide: an affirmation of their own happiness. If this is out of the question, then we will settle for some indication that their life has been well lived and from attending to its passing we might draw guidance on how to face our own demise. In the case of my own parents this took the form of a scene that I have retained in my memory and embellished with a range of emotions drawn from our life together. The event was the wedding of my cousin’s youngest daughter. The ceremony was held in the same Greek Orthodox Church that, over the years, has hosted the various weddings, baptisms, funerals and mnemosyna that punctuate my family’s history. Each time I attend one of these events I see people whose faces are so closely associated with this modest brick structure that I doubt I would be able to recognise them anywhere else. Mingling among these faces are the faces of uncles, aunties and family friends, once part of this community, but now residing only in my memory.
The reception took place on the ground floor of one of the hotels overlooking the city’s main beach. Seated at the table were my wife and daughter. Next to them were my two sisters and their children, my brother-in-law as well as a first cousin from my father’s side. Immediately to our right and closer to where the bridal party was stretched out along a row of elegantly decorated tables were my mother and father. Sharing their table was the bride’s grandmother, my aunty, whose late husband sponsored our migration to Australia. The two sides of the marriage appeared to be evenly represented. The groom and his family were Maronites who lived in Sydney. The father was a mechanic and his son worked in IT. The warmth that pervaded the room had something to do with the fact that both the bride and groom were the children or grandchildren of migrants. We had gathered to celebrate their union as well as the achievements of those whose labour had laid the ground for this happy event.
The first hour or so was spent confirming who was whom and putting names to faces that either bore a striking resemblance to someone else or had changed to the point of unrecognisability. From where I was sitting, I was able to participate in these discussions while keeping one eye on the evening sky as it gradually darkened over the ocean. Having spent a good part of my childhood and adolescence working in the family shop that was located a stone’s throw from where we were seated in the hotel, it felt like I had returned to a place that was deeply familiar, a place that knew both who I was and who I had become, and, despite the changes that had occurred, was able to view these two people as not very different, after all.
Just after the first course had been cleared the Master of Ceremonies returned to preside over an important part of the schedule: the tossing of the bride’s bouquet. The reason for bringing this event forward, he explained, was to try something different. He began by asking all the married couples in the room to stand. He then instructed couples that had been married less than five years to resume their seats. After they were seated he asked those married less than ten years to sit. Then it was the turn of those married less than fifteen years . . . With each upping of the stakes, the number of people still standing diminished, until the only couple left was my father and mother: my father smiling in that contained manner familiar to everyone in his family; my mother more animated and clearly enjoying the attention. Despite the toll taken by a lifetime of back-and-forth labour, they had aged well. The illnesses and setbacks that came to dominate their lives had yet to diminish their spirit and determination. Watching them I felt a mixture of pride and reassurance. They stood there as my parents and as representatives of so many others who hadn’t made it this far. But I also felt as if I was watching this scene from a point in the future. ‘Look closely,’ a voice seemed to whisper. ‘Remember this moment. You will have cause to look back on what it shows.’
In Patrimony, the American author Philip Roth hears the same instruction. He describes watching his ailing father carefully manoeuvre his enfeebled body into the bathtub. Once this difficult task has been accomplished, he takes a moment to observe the scene before him. ‘Weakly at first, then more vigorously, he began to flex his knees and I could see the muscles working in his thin shanks. I looked at his penis. I don’t believe I’d seen it since I was a small boy . . . I looked at it intently, as though for the very first time, and waited on the thoughts. But there weren’t any more, except my reminding myself to fix it in my memory for when he was dead. It might prevent him from becoming ethereally attenuated as the years went by . . . You must not forget anything.’ The devastation caused by the brain tumour that would eventually take his father’s life spurs the demand to remember the details of a body rendered vulnerable by illness. This body must not only be looked at, but also remembered.
The difficulties associated with this task are exemplified one afternoon, shortly after the biopsy that confirmed the nature of the tumour pressing against his father’s brain. During lunch at the author’s home, his father rises from the table that had been set in the renovated summer room just off the kitchen and slowly makes his way up the stairs. When he fails to return, the author decides to investigate. ‘I smelled the shit halfway up the stairs to the second floor,’ he recalls.
When I got to his bathroom, the door was ajar, and on the floor of the corridor outside the bathroom were his dungarees and undershorts. Standing inside the bathroom door was my father, completely naked, just out of the shower and dripping wet . . . In a voice as forlorn as any I had ever heard, from him or anyone, he told me what it hadn’t been difficult to surmise. ‘I beshat myself.’ The scale of the mess is overwhelming. ‘The bathroom looked as though some spiteful thug had left his calling card after having robbed the house… It’s like writing a book,’ I thought – ‘I have no idea where to begin.’
The association between the task of cleaning up his father’s shit and the labour of writing is not metaphorical, he insists. The shit that his father had somehow managed to smear across every surface in the room in a valiant attempt to clean up his own mess is not a symbol of the patrimony he is endeavouring to memorialise. Rather, it is the patrimony itself, its most confronting, impossible-to-assimilate rendition.
Roth’s account of his father’s humiliation is shocking yet also deeply tender. His refusal to keep this event private is inextricably connected to his desire to understand the legacy of his father’s fiercely contested life – its characteristic stubbornness and determination to never turn away from the realities of living. ‘He taught me the vernacular,’ Roth recalls about his father. ‘He was the vernacular, unpoetic and expressive and point-blank, with all the vernacular’s glaring limitations and all its durable force.’
The book concludes with an account of a dream that came to the author shortly after his father’s death. In the dream, Herman Roth appears to his son dressed in a hooded white shroud. Just prior, the author had agonised over how to dress his father’s body: in a shroud as in the Jewish practice that had been used when his own parents were buried or in a suit as befitting his work history as a dedicated and successful New Jersey insurance-man. In the dream, he is admonished for making the wrong choice. ‘I should have been dressed in a suit. You did the wrong thing.’ On waking, he realises that the rebuke was directed at the book that he had been writing during his father’s illness. More broadly, it encapsulates the on-going nature of his struggle to understand his father’s legacy – what it demands of him. ‘The dream was telling me that, if not in my books or in my life, at least in my dreams I would live perennially as his little son, with the conscience of a little son, just as he would remain alive there not only as my father but as the father, sitting in judgement on whatever I do. You must not forget anything.’
In an address given on the occasion of receiving the New Jersey Historical Society Award for Patrimony, Roth returns to the matter of his father’s legacy. He describes his history as the first born son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants that had settled in Newark in the years between 1870 and 1910, a son who eventually fought his way up in the insurance business to become the manager of a mid-size New Jersey office and who spent the best part of his life negotiating between the customs and traditions of his Yiddish-speaking parents and the demands of a fast changing society. ‘Assimilation is too weak a word, conveying too many negative connotations of deference and submissiveness and muzzling and proposing a story insufficiently gritty to describe this process of negotiation as it was conducted by my father and his like.’ More apposite is the idea of ‘a two-way convergence, something like the extraction and exchange of energy that is metabolism, a vigorous interchange in which Jews discovered America and America discovered Jews, a valuable cross-fertilisation that produced an amalgam of characteristics and traits.’ The citizen formed by this process was far from flawless and contained many points of friction, he admits. But, at its best, it was one that gave rise to ‘a constructive mindset radiating vitality and intensity – a dense and lively matrix of feeling and response.’
Roth describes his father’s experience of negotiating between allegiances as ‘the quintessential American cultural battle that produces the classic family collisions.’ But he also insists on those forces that made his father’s version of this battle distinctive:
The man or woman in the middle takes blows from both sides. First these children of the immigrant generation were made to feel inferior to the natives, ignorant in all sorts of social matters, graceless, crude, and worse, then they were made to feel obtuse and intellectually inferior to the children for whom they’d undergone their hardships. Yet how else to erase this gap but through the university.
The attainment of university education helped to overcome the social stigmas experienced by the previous generation; at the same time, it led to a break between the world as it was lived by the father and the world that became available to the son. ‘What began when my rabbinically trained grandfather went to work at the tail end of the nineteenth century in a Newark hat factory concluded when I received a master’s degree in English literature at the University of Chicago virtually smack in the middle of the twentieth. In three generations, in about sixty years, in really no time at all, we had done it – we were hardly anything like what we were when we got here.’
Patrimony is about the obligations and uncertainties that accompany this process. Just as the author must remind himself to not simply look at, but also remember the distinctive features of his father’s ailing body, the book as a whole is engaged in an act of remembrance that is acutely conscious of its responsibilities as well as oversights. This awareness is evident in the dream in which he is admonished by his father for choosing the wrong burial dress. Even more clearly, it is at the heart of the injunction that appears more than once and that functions as the book’s closing statement: ‘You must not forget anything.’ Directed at a ‘you’ that can only be the author himself, these words can be read in two ways: as an attempt to give the final word to his father and as the invocation of a labour that one can neither realise nor abjure.
Watching my parents standing together in the reception room, the elaborately constructed bridal bouquet carefully held in two hands by my mother, I was reminded of a photograph taken sixty years earlier outside the village church where they had just been married. My mother is in her rented wedding dress with the veil pushed back over her shoulders. In her hands is a small bunch of light coloured flowers, much less grand than the bridal bouquet presented to her at the wedding reception by the Master of Ceremonies. Standing directly beside her, his shoulder not quite touching hers, my father is wearing a dark woolen three-piece suit that he bought when he was living and working in England, a few years earlier. I know this because, for a time in my twenties, I incorporated the suit jacket into my own wardrobe. Long since abandoned, I can still feel the weight of the jacket’s thick material pressing on my shoulders. On my father’s head is one of the stefana that in the Greek Orthodox service symbolises the union of husband and wife. Unlike my mother whose gaze is fixed on something to the left of frame, he is looking directly at the camera, the hint of a familiar smile on his lips.
In my eyes at least, the story told in this photograph is of two young people, born in the same small village, who, at different times and for quite different reasons, left its security for the promise of a life elsewhere. For my mother, this elsewhere was South Africa and an unwanted marriage that she spent four years trying to escape. For my father, it was the UK and life as a bachelor, trying his luck alongside other Cypriots, Indians, Pakistanis and Jamaicans that entered the country after the passing of the 1948 British Nationality Act that granted citizenship rights to people born or naturalised in its colonies. My memory of the abandoned jacket is what remains of the story of his life at this time. If I know a little more about my mother’s experiences in South Africa it is not because she has spoken candidly about these events. It is because of revelations that have come from others and the way that, for the entirety of our life together, her emotions have set the tone for our interactions. This happens not in a selfish or hectoring way. It is simply how she maintains her availability to her children, an availability that allows us to read her responses as indicators of not only who she is now, but also who she was then.
Facilitated by the machinations of their respective families, I have no doubt that the wedding between my mother and father was an opportunity to reestablish a sense of order to their lives. This is why their expressions in the photograph suggest an element of uncertainty about what they had gotten themselves into – Who is this person? How will I know if this is one more mistake? – as well as a willingness to accede to its demands. If I look hard enough at the photograph, I can read some of the events that led them to this point as well as the events to come: the struggle to find employment on an island riven by sectarian troubles, the failed migration to the UK, the return to Cyprus and, in-between these events, the birth of their three children. I can also read the unresolved disagreements that surrounded the decision to set off, once again, this time for Australia, and the difficult years immediately following our arrival. Alongside this, of course, are the many moments of happiness that make up a life together that, by any reasonable measure, can only be described as fortunate.
Superimposing two moments sixty years apart, the bridal bouquet in my mother’s hands allowed me to trace a connection between these events. It was a marker of continuity forged in the face of everything that is determined to erase its possibility – geographic distance, the loss of tradition, illness, forgetting and the sheer happenstance that determines so much of our lives. But it also seemed to gesture to a time when the two figures whose lives embodied the link between past and present are no longer. ‘I shudder over a catastrophe which has already occurred,’ writes Roland Barthes about an 1865 photograph of the manacled prisoner Lewis Payne. ‘Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.’ Embedded in the ornate arrangement of the bouquet was a reminder of the inevitable passing away of what I hold dear as well as the imperative to give this passing its due. The game with the bouquet devised by the Master of Ceremonies was a clever way to pay tribute to a generation whose labour had enabled the material comforts on show at the reception and a moment when we hear the echo of that which we most dread.
Driving to his father’s house to relay the findings of the brain scans ordered by the neurologist, Roth misses the exit road that would have taken him directly to his destination and ends up instead on a part of the New Jersey highway running alongside the cemetery where his mother is buried. The visit to his mother’s grave generates no sense of connection, no soothing remembrances, nothing, in other words, that might mitigate the fundamental fact of her absence. ‘What cemeteries prove, at least to people like me, is not that the dead are present but that they are gone. They are gone and, as yet, we aren’t.’ This fundamental separation is counter-posed in his ruminations about the dream in which his father admonishes him for choosing the wrong burial dress. The father that had found a place in his unconscious life has taken on a dual face: as the person whose shit he had so carefully and diligently cleaned up and as the embodiment of something larger: a patrimonial legacy that he must answer to and find the means to speak for. Roth’s achievement is to draw out the complex nature of this entwinement – between the living and the dead, between those who came before and those who must attempt to render an account.
In her collection of essays devoted to the crisis of tradition in modern life, Hannah Arendt refers to the attitude characteristic of Roman society to regard the past as a model and source of authority for the present: ‘To educate, in the words of Polybius, was simply “to let you see that you are altogether worthy of your ancestors.”’Arendt’s book is fueled by the question: what happens to tradition, to culture, to thinking when the figure of the ancestor has lost its authority and function as a model, when between the passing of an older generation and the emergence of a new there arises the possibility of an abyss? She acknowledges that there is nothing new in this situation.
Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint, for this is the basic human situation, in which the world is created by mortal hands to serve mortals for a limited time as home.
The value of Arendt’s remarks is that they allow us to understand the imperative driving the attainment of education as something other than the desire for social advancement or the overcoming of social stigmas experienced by a previous generation. It involves the capacity to preserve and speak for a legacy – even and perhaps especially if we cannot be sure what this legacy asks of us.
‘For the decline of the old, the birth of the new, is not necessarily an affair of continuity,’ Arendt adds in a different context.
Between the generations, between those who for some reason or other still belong to the old and those who either feel the catastrophe in their very bones or have already grown up with it, the chain is broken and an ‘empty space,’ a kind of historical no man’s land, comes to the surface.
They might not have known it, but this was the drama in which my parents’ lives – as well as the lives of so many other first generation migrants – were caught. In a good deal less than sixty years we were hardly anything like what we were when we arrived in Australia. But what I have come to realise is that this transformation did not commence when the five of us stepped off the Patris that had docked in Circular Quay and made our way to Central Station to catch the train to Newcastle, where my uncle was making a good living as the proprietor of the Brown Derby café. Long before this, the world that my parents had crammed into their three suitcases, along with the shoes and clothes, bath towels, photographs, a dinner set, as well as an assortment of knives and forks and cooking utensils that included a still extant aluminium soup ladle that had seen better days even before its journey through the Suez Canal, down to Colombo, then on to Freemantle and, finally, Sydney, this world of taken-for-granted beliefs and expectations had, for my parents, lost its authority. It had acquired the status of a tradition that fell to them to preserve – at the same time as they were participating in its demise.
Looking at their expressions in the photograph, I suspect that they too felt the catastrophe in their bones. But when I think about the life they made in Newcastle, it bears little resemblance to the ‘empty space’ that Arendt associates with the rupture between the decline of the old and the birth of the new. The historical no man’s land in which we lived and worked and fought was filled with all sorts of ad hoc arrangements, adaptations and uneasy accommodations. Closer to the mark is the ‘pathos and blundering, anger and bruising, defiance, resistance, tears and affronts’ that Roth describes in his account of his father’s upbringing. His reflections have allowed me to see this part of my family’s history as part of a larger history. They have also helped me to reassess to whom all this was happening. Growing up, I believed that my sisters, cousins and I were the ones caught in the middle, experiencing the push-pull of different cultures and traditions. To an extent, we were. But no less so were our parents, who, in their everyday lives, were far more exposed than their children. The time that I spent watching them and observing how they were treated made this obvious. It was simply easier to pretend that none of the slights registered, and, by dint of their single-minded concern with achieving our social betterment, they were impervious to the pressures and contradictions.
The difference was that my sisters, cousins and I had acquired a language to describe the experience, one provided by the education made possible our parents’ labour. The language that our parents used belonged to a world that we were unwilling or perhaps simply unable to recognise as our own. In much the same manner as described by Roth, the access to education helped secure the process of social remaking and brought about a break between the generations. But the important point to add is that built into this break were the means to give what had been left behind its due – not in a straightforward manner, but in the deeply ambivalent way in which writing links us to our forebears. This is to say that for the generation that grew up in the wake of migration and feels compelled to render its effects, writing is the patrimony. It is the arena where we confront head-on the inevitable entwinement of filiation and betrayal, where we negotiate what it means to occupy a gap or interval between past and future. It is what we use to account for all that was gained as well as a little of what was lost in the striving.
For those of us who hear the injunction not to forget anything, this is what it means to accompany our parents into the realm of old age – not as equals, but as co-implied. The care that we show them is bound to that part of our selves that spans the uncertain space between who we once were and who we will become. Between the moment outside a village church when two people familiar with the world outside the village find a way to reset their lives and the moment sixty years later in an elaborately decorated hotel reception room when the same two people take in the applause of friends and family acknowledging their achievement of having made it this far, an image asks something of its beholder and thus renders him complicit: What do you see here? How much of this life will you remember and find a way to pass on? You must not forget anything. Writing is the patrimony and how we endeavour to make sense of the complicity it entails. The challenge now is to utilise this patrimony in a manner that is worthy of the costs and sacrifices that enabled its provision. This is not to monumentalise the achievements of a previous generation. It is to endeavour to hold these achievements in our hands as modestly as the bouquet clasped by my mother on the afternoon of the wedding reception.
Philip Roth, Patrimony: A True Story (Vintage, 1991).
Philip Roth, ‘Patrimony,’ in Philip Roth, Why I Write: Collected Nonfiction 1960-2013 (The Library of America, 2017).
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (Hill and Wang, 1980),
Hannah Arendt, ‘The Crisis in Education,’ in Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought, introduction by Jerome Kohn (Penguin Books, 2006).
Hannah Arendt, ‘No Longer and Not Yet,’ in Reflections on Literature and Culture, edited and with an introduction by Susannah Young-ah Gottlieb (Stanford University Press, 2007).