Kids love to hear stories about “when I was little.” Sometimes they even demand stories about “when you were little.” Both of my girls, Lilah (now almost 20) and Aviva (approaching Bat Mitzvah), especially liked the one called “Daddy’s Kuck.”
My mother told it often when I was growing up. As a kid, I never really got the point of the story. I report it here in part because, even 18 years since my father’s death, just after Pesach of 1988, it is still the first image of him that comes to mind. We’ll get to that image, and its meaning, in a moment. But first, as always, some context.
Anyone out there remember bungalow colonies? These refuges from the heat of a New York or New Jersey summer dotted Westchester County and points north for several decades from the 1940s until the late 1960s, when the Jewish tourist dollar turned a corner and went in for more ambitious gratifications.
Some of my family’s earliest 16mm home movies were scenes of my brother and I, and our cousins, toddling around in diapers in some pastoral paradise dotted with white bungalows and punctuated by chaises longues supporting amazingly young and spry versions of parents, aunts and uncles, and even grandparents enjoying an American summertime, when the livin’ was easy. “In our prime,” as they said years later, with a scolding glance at us.
Okay, back to my story. These bungalow colonies were virtually devoid of dads, except on weekends. During the week, while moms played mah jongg and the kids swam and found ways to torment each other, dads were stuck in the sweaty city, “bringing home the Beefry,” as my dad would chuckle, alluding to the ersatz bacon we Jews ate that, he claimed, was “better’n the real t’ing (and I should know!).”
That’s why Friday afternoons were so special. A caravan of dads would wind its way up Route 17 toward our colony carrying the great treasures of the far off Metropolis — challahs, bagels, chickens, deli, appetizing, cream cheese and other delights — destined for Shabbos feasts and huge Sunday morning breakfasts. And then, by early Sunday afternoon, the inevitable letdown as the dads climbed into their Chevy and Plymouth sedans, turned on the ignition, and, in a cloud of hot exhaust, motored back to a steamy week in the City.
The story of “Daddy’s Kuck” takes place on one of those Friday afternoons, fraught with anticipation and longing and over-determined by contrary expectations on all sides. Burned-out moms needed some help from Dad with the kids, exhausted dads longed for the pleasure of an undisturbed doze in the shade on a summery afternoon, and, of course, boys expected what their therapists would one-day label “quality time” with their “male role models.”
So here we go. I am, let’s say, about two-and-a-half years old. It’s Friday afternoon and Dad is late. The freezer at a Bronx bakery needs the professional attention that only Tri-County Refrigeration & Cooling can provide under its “No Exceptions Service Contract.” All the other dads — white-collar office clock-punchers-have pulled up to their bungalows, been smothered in hugs and kisses, and are already in their swim suits heading for a late afternoon dip in the lake before dinner. I am sulking, perhaps already at this tender age vaguely anticipating that freezer crises on Tremont Avenue will combine with other economic emergencies to force Dad to miss what I define as my life’s major moments.
But, wait! Standing on tippy-toe, my eyes barely peeking over the screened-in window sill, I see it. Dad’s long, dark, windowless Ford van, filled with clanging canisters of freon gas, clapping with the echo of metal tools banging against the sides of the van, bumps along up the dirt road from the highway. The cacophony that makes the Jaffee way of life possible — music to my ears!
Dad is behind the wheel, his cap at a jaunty angle, wearing his sweat-stained green workshirt with “Abie” emblazoned on the pocket, a cold White Owl clenched in his teeth. With a rush of wind and a blasting of horns worthy of Ezekiel’s chariot, Dad pulls up to our bungalow. “HEY!” he roars out. “Anybody home?? Front ’n’ centah!!”
Dad hops from the driver’s seat, prepared for a greeting worthy of returning warriors (one he well remembered from a few short years earlier, before I was part of his world). Spying his little boy bursting out the screen door, he crouches down low to receive “the fruit of my loins” (as he called me) back into his paternal embrace.
But, the idyllic reunion is not to be. Little Martin — that paskunyak!! — hasn’t read the script that governs Hollywood’s happy endings. Oblivious to the swelling crescendo of studio violins in Dad’s ears, I run right past him without a glance, embrace the overheated grill of the magical van and, broadly smiling, proclaim the source of my joy: “Daddy’s Kuck!!”
As I said earlier, I’m not sure why Mom told this story so often. She never helped me to interpret it.
Was this evidence that, from the tenderest age, I already was what I always would be: “a rotten kid”? Or, was it more about how all kids take for granted the love and sacrifice of parents, scarcely imagining how meaningful a small word of simple thanks might be? I’m not sure.
But the years since Dad’s death stretch now nearly to two decades. And as my own experience as a father reaches exactly to that mark, I find it ever-easier to imagine the scene from Dad’s position, crouching on his aching feet, exhausted from schlepping to the “country” after a week of schlepping in the City, wanting only what he must already have intuited he would never receive — an expression of unqualified delight from the boy he loved without any equivocation.
Martin Jaffee teaches in both the Comparative Religion and Jewish Studies programs at the University of Washington. When not masquerading as a journalist, he writes on the history of Talmudic literature as well as theoretical problems in the study of religion.