My father worked his way through college, and then med school, as a magician, though I’m not sure exactly where he performed, what kind of parties, or banquets, or clubs, or other venues.. I do know he performed a magic act at all my early birthday parties, and I hated it, absolutely hated it. I was never a fan of magic, didn’t like or care to understand tricks, and certainly was never amazed, finding such inexplicable acts more sinister than anything.
Scores of kids would be invited to my early birthday parties, boys and girls running round in paper tri-cornered hats, rambunctious and excited, before the grand attraction of the day, my father, the magician, and all the wonders he was about to display for one and all.
I have to admit he was good; in fact, very good. My father was a natural performer, and that may have been part of the problem. I was very aware he was playing a role, and no matter how good he was at mesmerizing those assembled, from the moment he first waved his wand, I knew nothing was genuine.
The show would always begin with an act in which my father could involve the children gathered around, which was smart, get them involved, make them part of his magic, mystical world. He would begin with a simple trick, and yes, he was very good, having a natural finger dexterity and coordination that I have never come close to my entire life.
Magic, a penny would come out of Joel’s ear. And then another out of Mary Ann’s nose, and so on and so forth. Sleight of hand, smooth and brilliant, impossible to detect where the coin came from, but suddenly there, wedged between my father’s thumb and forefinger. “More, more,” the kids would laugh and cry out. And while they loved it and were enraptured in the joy of the moment, I desperately wanted it to end so we could get on to the cake — ice cream cake, of course — and the presents.
And then, after the coin tricks, it was on to the silver rings, and then the little red balls and so forth, in which one ball suddenly became two, and then ultimately three.
The one part of his act that did amaze me was recognizing my father’s near perfect skill creating balloon animals. No question about it, my father could make great balloon animals. All kinds. He would grab a balloon, blow it up, twist and turn it around into various, shapes, creating ears and legs, and what have you, and presto, a kid would have his or her very own balloon pet.
I don’t know why, and I don’t particularly care for a psychological explanation or theory, but to this day I have never been able to blow up a balloon.
My father’s grand finale trick involved a pot, a large silver pot in which he would invite kids to put all kinds of horrible stuff inside, stuff that was conveniently sitting on a nearby table inside. Catchup, and pepper, and maple syrup, and tooth picks, and all kinds of items that in themselves might be okay, but together surely represented a rather unappetizing dish. My father would then light a match under the pot and it would glow and grow, until finally there was a large flash, and my father would open the pot after the flames subsided and out would spill all kinds of candy, lollipops, and little Mars bars, and Almond Joy bars, and other delights.
The kids at my party would excitedly scoop up the candy prizes, while I sat subdued in the back, glad that the ordeal was nearly over. I don’t know why I hated my father’s magic act so much, he was a grand performer, and he did bring joy and laughter to the room. I think it had more to do with recognizing at an early age that it was all pretense, and I was in need of the tangible, the comfort brought by understanding.
I know the other kids raved about my father’s ability as a magician. He was invited to perform on variety night at the summer lodge our family stayed at, and during the school year at Cub Scouts, and our, my siblings and my, schools, and Girl Scouts, and all kinds of community events.
What was this mystery, not the mystery of his magic, but the mystery in my feelings toward my father performing as a magician. I wasn’t envious of my father’s ability, wasn’t competitive. Magic was never going to be my thing. I played baseball, something my father never could because of a birth defect that impaired his ability to walk, with one foot larger than the other.
I was the oldest of my parents four children, a first born son, exactly what my father wanted. When the great day finally came, and it’s difficult for me to think of my birthday as a special day, the response from my grandfather, my father’s father, to my father was, “You’re lucky he’s not like you,” meaning I was born without my father’s physical handicap.
As a child, my mother was always telling me I was just like my father, but I wasn’t. I was more like she was, but it took decades for that to reveal itself in its entirety. Apparently, according to my mother, while still at the University of Toronto, where my parents met, my father was debating whether to go to medical school or run away to Paris and become an actor. I don’t think it was ever a serious debate, but it revealed my father’s theatrical side, or his interest in the world of illusion, of pretending, of not being whom or what you actually were. Besides, I’m not sure what kind of acting opportunities there were in Paris shortly after World War Two, and opportunities in acting for a Canadian with a limp and one foot bigger than the other.
So, my father went to medical school, and worked as a magician on the side, which I’m sure he’d had an interest in since childhood, and to top off the act, he became a psychiatrist. I remember people also used to look at me strangely, a bit defensively and wary, when I said my father was a psychiatrist. Later, as I grew older, people would frequently quip, “Psychiatrists’ children are always the most fuck up.”
I’m not sure how you’re supposed to respond to such an observation, so I usually didn’t, choosing to remain silent. I also learned early on to be silent whenever my father was angry at me, which drove him absolutely nuts because he needed verbal information to interpret, his emotions building to a crescendo and finally exploding as he stormed out of the room. But I also knew he’d come back, as he always did, continuing to try and force me into a psychoanalytical discussion about my behavior.
As a psychiatrist, like a magician, whether knowingly or not, my father posed as one with all the answers. Someone, who by virtue of his experience or knowledge, was above the rest and expected everyone else to play his or her designated part. But that never happened — my sisters, my brother, my mother, and myself always improvised our parts. This was confusing and frustrating to my father, who was never a big fan of improvisation, because it meant he was no longer the director.
During the 50s, a popular trend was for psychiatrists’ wives to become co-therapists. Fortunately, and predictably, my mother wanted no part of it. So while the other wives dutifully trained to become co-therapists, my mother took the subway from Manhattan to Ebbetts Field in Brooklyn to watch her beloved Dodgers take the field. My mother was the baseball fan, the one who was ecstatic when the Mets came to Queens, filling the depressing and heartbreaking void left by the Dodgers when they moved to Los Angeles. My mother was always the baseball fan I went to games with, while the only sport I remember my father vaguely enjoying was watching golf on television, which he usually fell asleep during.
Once, when I was about nineteen, I attended a psychiatric conference in western Massachusetts where my father was leading a seminar. It wasn’t an exclusive psychiatric seminar, but one in which psychologists, and social workers, and psychiatric nurses were allowed to participate. I shared a room with my father and it was the first time I learned he was being unfaithful to my mother, quite possibly with the psychiatric nurse who eventually became his partner in crime or life, depending on the perspective of different members of my family. All I know is that we were at a party and we went up to the bedroom we shared at around midnight, and then my father slipped out of the room about fifteen minutes later and didn’t return until after four in the morning.
I never said a word about my father’s mysterious disappearance that night, but subsequent events seemed to confirm he was with another woman, probably the psychiatric nurse, but it could have been someone else, it really doesn’t matter now so many years along in the narrative.
A couple years later, I was home for the weekend from college and I heard my mother yelling, a rare occurrence. She was on the phone with my father. I was at the other end of the rectangular old pre-Civil War house, where we lived in a city once known for cucumber farming, and couldn’t make out exactly what my mother was saying, but from the increasing bursts of her verbal demands, I could tell she was probably winning on points but losing overall to my father.
I was in the hall by the staircase in front of my bedroom when my youngest sister came out of her bedroom which was next to mine. She was wearing a pink nightie and the scared look on her face made her seem younger than her thirteen years. She looked up at me with a mixture of fear and confusion, her cheeks glistening with tears.
“What’s happening?” she sobbed.
“It’s just an argument,”I said. “Don’t worry everything will be all right.”
“But Mom’s yelling.”
“She never yells.”
“Well, now we know she does.”
A smile started to slip across my sister’s face.
My mother was the epitome of manners and civility, but she pulled it off with grace because it was genuine. Once when I told my sister to shut up at the dinner table, my mother reprimanded me by saying, “Don’t say that, dear. Ask your sister ‘To please be quiet.'”
“Is everything going to be okay?” my sister asked, two fingers resting on her lower lip.
“As far as I know.”
“But how do you know?”
“I just know,” I told my sister. “And trust me, it has noting to do with Mom, and it has nothing to do with you.”
“Why would he want to be with another woman?” my sister cried.
We heard my mother slam the phone down after screaming, “Damn it, I don’t want to hear anymore.”
My sister and I stared at each other, both somewhat astounded; neither of us had ever heard my mother curse before.
“What should we do?” my sister asked.
“Try to go back to bed,” I said.
“Should we tell Mom we love her.”
“I think she knows that.”
My sister didn’t move, she still didn’t seem convinced. Not that she thought I was wrong, but somehow she must have felt there was a better answer somewhere.
“I wish I could do something,” she said.
We could hear our mother crying, though from the muffled sound, she probably had her head buried in her pillow.
“All we can do is be ourselves,” I said. “That’s what Mom would want.”
“Are you sure?”
“You know how Mom is.”
My sister moved forward and hugged me, her slender frame trembling within my grasp.
My father’s magic act may have ended for me, but for many years he remained a performer, mesmerizing my mother and siblings during family outings and events. The illusion always remained much stronger than the reality and no one ever bothered to challenge my father’s litany of tricks. He was the renowned psychiatrist, and the master magician, and yet, as the years went by, his one last trick was to gradually fade away from his family until he was left alone at the end with the psychiatric nurse and the realization, I think, that all the magic in the world would never bring him happiness.