I have sometimes heard a person’s life described as a tapestry, but if this were truly accurate, that life would be of a piece and whole, an intricately embroidered fabric whose threads all formed a single image or pattern. But life is far less neat and predictable than this. There are many loose ends, false starts, and most lives would most certainly not resolve into a neat single pattern. This is the case, most especially, of my father, Mish Kellman, a complicated man who, while he was gentle and kind, full of life and compassion, was nonetheless another whole person for long periods of his life, violent and contradictory, morbid and preoccupied with death.
Part of this may be chalked up to his neurology, for my father was bipolar, and had Tourettes and OCD. Lifetime movies aside, mental illness is truly not romantic or interesting. It is boring and tedious, difficult to deal with, and wrecks havoc not only on the life of the person with the illness, but on his whole family. That is most certainly the case of my father as well.
But that said, I can say that my father had a life worthy of a novel, though one that might be accused of taxing the reader’s credibility. He was born in 1916, a week or so after his father, 40 years old, had died of a heart attack in the middle of the street while at work in the family’s trucking business. I know little of those people and the early years of his life, except that his father’s family, comparatively wealthy, disowned my grandmother and her children, going so far as to change their name (removing one of the “ls” from the name Kellman for good measure). But these are family fables, received third hand. I am not really sure of their exact truth, just as I am uncertain of my grandmother’s real given name, or her family history.
What I know for sure about my father begins with what he was able to remember himself, how, as a schoolboy in an unforgiving Philadelphia school system, he was punished for his inability to remain still and the terrible shooting pains behind his knees. Sometimes, he told me, when his legs would press against the hard wood of the chair, he would cry out, and be thrown out of the classroom, finally expelled as incorrigible. His Tourettes and multiple other neurological disorders were frequently misunderstood, and he ended up in a hospital because of his tics, which were mistaken for some sort of communicative disease. He told me no one came to visit him for two months in the hospital.
At home, my grandmother took in sewing, but it wasn’t enough to bring in food for the children, so my father, small and slight, squeezed under the pushcarts parked along the street to steal fruits and vegetables for the family’s dinner. He and the other urchins of that hungry time would gather coal from the passing trains to heat the house.
Prone to attacks of rage that made him difficult to be around, my father still nonetheless managed to be kind and generous much of the time, funny and imaginative, smart, though not formally educated. He was intellectually curious, fiercely concerned about justice, and most of the time, one who loved life above all things.
I remember one incident from my childhood that illustrates this. The children of my neighborhood loved my father, but were also afraid of him. One never really knew who would answer the door—the bipolar monster who would lash out violently for no reason, or the kind, funny man who played like a child. One day, my dad, an electrician, told me to assemble the children on the block for a treat. A long line of impatient kids stretched out the door and down the cellar stairs, where my dad stood, electrocuting hotdogs. He had rigged up a device, attached to the light fixture, impaling hotdogs on sterilized nails.
They would hiss explosively, then burst open in a sizzling spurt. We used up three packs of hotdogs that day, and as many buns.
As a young adult, my father left home early and joined the Airforce, where he learned to pilot planes. Because of his volatile temper, he never formally became a pilot, but he was a flight mechanic, and ended up as part of a crew that flew 30 or more missions over Germany in WWII.
After the war, he went to Israel, smuggling guns into the country, along with his brothers, and helped to found one of the first kibbutzim, a communal farm devoted to a strictly socialist ethic. There he met my mother, who had come from South Africa with her sisters, and married her in a ceremony that joined a number of couples at once.
Despite his devotion to the idea of the nascent state of Israel, he was dubious about the kibbutz system, which relegated him to picking bananas, while the schoolteacher attempted to take care of the electrical system. Everything had to be strictly equal; it would have been viewed as elitism to allow the electrician to care for the electrical system, the teacher to run the schools. He had choice words to say about this that would get him expelled from the kibbutz, as he had been from so many other institutions. It was just as well: he had tried to learn Hebrew, but was never able to, despite his efforts, so he returned home to Philadelphia with my mother.
Because of his bluntness and uncontrollable temper, much of his life was very difficult and unhappy. He sometimes lost his jobs because he would speak out or act inappropriately. He was violent and often depressed and morbid, a difficult husband and father despite his love for us. But during the good times, he would wake me at 5 to take the dog for a walk and point out the colors of the morning sky, nourish in me an appetite for stories and books, teach me to be kind and compassionate.
At 89, the second phase of his life began when he had a stroke. Things had deteriorated in the house in Philadelphia. Despite my pleas, he had allowed my mother’s hoarding and dementia to overwhelm them both. I could not get him to have the house cleaned out and sold. He was convinced he could not afford to come to California to start a new life, though he had thousands buried in the house, amid bags of trash, and had invested wisely in stocks over the years, something I did not learn until I took up the reins of his finances.
After the stroke, when I was able to assume control of my parents’ affairs, I had my father assessed by a psychiatrist, who was able to come up with a cocktail that made life livable for my father for the first time. I sold the house before the market crashed, and made use the money my father had saved to make them a better life, the kind he had always dreamed of, in California.
My dad responded to this by blossoming. Belatedly, with the care of doctors and the wonderful caretakers who tended to him, he became the kind person he always was, deep down; he was able to nurture a love for gardening, Sudoku puzzles, good food, and most of all, conversation. This was the man most of you knew, if you met him at all, one who started each morning with phone calls to his brother and to me, announcing, whatever the circumstances, “It’s a beautiful day!” I will miss him and feel privileged to have been his daughter.