September 12, 2002
Louie, Louie ... Oh No
A new play discusses secrets and forgiveness
In my family there were no stories, and there was certainly no forgiveness.
Grandpa Irving, my dad's dad, would never talk about the past, about his father, the Russian Jewish patriarch who brought the family over from the Old Country. Whatever this guy -- my dad said his name "might have been" Louie -- did was unforgivable.
This is a word you hear a lot in my family. For example, sleeping with my boyfriend in college without first consulting my mom was unforgivable. Like so many families, we have an eternal litany of things done unto us that are unforgivable (and unforgettable). There are lots of people we just don't talk to.
I grew up in Covina, the eldest daughter of a couple of kids from Brooklyn who -- like their families before them -- escaped the East for the promise of the West. Not too many Jews in Covina.
So, we're Jewish, and we're not really from Covina, because nothing here is as good as it is in New York, and we're from New York, but really we're from Russia, but there are no stories about Russia, because grandpa's father did something terrible, and he won't tell anyone what it was.
The year is 1996. I'm in New York. Grandpa is 95 years old. He and his wife are visiting, and he winds up in St. Claire's Hospital. Prostate trouble. It's not that serious, but it's the first time in his life my grandpa's been in the hospital, and he's scared silly. He weeps, whispering, "My father... my father." I hold his hand to comfort him.
As soon as he's out, I go to visit, and I ask, point-blank, "What happened with your father?" And grandpa has a fit, and his wife throws me out of the house because I'm giving him heart attacks.
Yes, it's cruel to poke at an old man, but shame dwells in his silence. Hatred festers there. I had felt the shame of whatever this guy Louie did all my life, despite grandpa's heroic attempt to conceal it from me.
Yes, he desperately wanted his children, his children's children to be able to have a new life. He wanted me to have the life he was promised when he boarded the great ship Lucania on Feb. 28, 1904, in Liverpool, England, and set sail for the United States.
But I could not have that new life without knowing his story. Shame -- especially shame without a name -- creeps through from generation unto generation: I wind up Jewish and other in the suburbs of Southern California, with the vague and haunting sense that I, personally, have done something horribly wrong. Which I haven't.
It's 1997. Grandpa is 96 years old, and I'm determined to get his story before it's too late. I ask if he'll talk to me on videotape about his life. Eventually, he agrees, and after a couple of days painting a rosy picture, on the last day of my visit he comes clean. He tells me about his father. And what Louie did was unforgivable.
I'd been making up sexy little stories (murder, incest, arson) about the guy all my life. This was not what I expected. I needed help.
I found a rabbi who knows a lot about forgiveness, and reading Talmud with this rabbi, I discovered that telling the story is the first step. There is no possibility of teshuvah (literally, "return") or rachmonas (compassionate pity, or release of bitterness and hatred) without story. It's part of the deal.
When you do something that hurts, to ask for forgiveness, you have to say what you did. To let go of a grudge when you are the one hurt, you have to say out loud the reality of the situation. You have to say what happened.
Grandpa's story needed telling. The promise of the video camera helped open the way. It made him feel honored ("I'm gonna be famous on the TV!"). His stories, kept in silence for more than 90 years, were to be preserved, cherished.
And, together, in piercing that silence, we shattered the shame. In doing so, I believe that we changed the face not only of our relationship, but of all our relationships, and those which are to come in the future of our family. Grandpa's past, which had been solely a source of pain, became a source of painful pride, when he saw its richness through the eyes of others.
Grandpa Irving, age 100, died this past April. The doctors told him this was it: He wasn't going to walk again, his diaphragm was tired of going up and down -- his strong body was, bit by bit, calling it quits.
A nurse from the hospice came to the hospital. I was in the room. Grandpa told him he was ready. "I'm a goner," he proclaimed.
The guy asked grandpa where he was from. "I was born in Manchester. Manchester, England!" he answered, proudly. And then he looked at me, turned to the man, and with equal pride, added, "My father, my father was born in Kiev!"
What Louie did was not OK. It will never be OK. It was unspeakable, and for many years went unspoken. But my grandfather finally talked about it. And when grandpa died, he -- who had lived his entire life without a father -- died with a father. Not a nice father, not the father he deserved, but a human, erring father.
When grandpa told his story, he returned to his relationship with Louie, with all its horror, rage and need. That's teshuvah. It may not be pretty, but that is the power of story.
For more details on Louie's crime, see "Looking for Louie," written and performed by Stacie Chaiken, from Oct. 6 through Nov. 19 at the Stages Theatre Center, 1540 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. For tickets and information, call (323) 465-1010.
Stacie Chaiken is a writer, performer, teacher and co-creator of the Young Actors Academy.