Anyone who might have noticed me with tears in my eyes while I was watching Richard Linklater’s movie, “Boyhood,” probably would have thought, Why is this guy crying here? This is not a for-crying scene. The character played by Patricia Arquette fiercely extracts her son and daughter from the home of her husband, liberating them all from her misbegotten marriage. I had never seen any dramatization that so captured what must have been on my mother’s mind nearly seventy-five years ago. Watching the movie moment unfold, what I got from it was– That was the life she was saving us from.
Various people over the years have assumed I wrote the novel, “Kramer vs. Kramer” based on my own failed marriage and custody battle. This wasn’t true. My late wife and I were married for thirty-seven years. After a period of free-lance writer travails, following the success of “Kramer vs. Kramer,” I said to a reporter, “My wife and I would never have gotten a divorce. We would never have been able to determine who got custody of the anxiety.”
The rosebud in “Kramer vs. Kramer” was my parents’ relationship and their divorce in the working class Bronx of the 1940s when divorce was virtually unknown. This created some difficult events in my own boyhood, which I wrote about for the first time in my new memoir. Overwhelmed by her circumstances, my mother told me my father was dead. This was her story until I was twelve. Other family members, my older sister, aunts, uncles, cousins were complicit with what my mother chose to say to avoid social stigma. When I returned to my old elementary school some years ago, they gave me a present, a photostat of my admission record in first grade and next to father’s name it said, “Deceased.”
At twelve, by then disbelieving, looking to pry loose the truth, I said to my mother that in the Jewish religion if your father is dead you had to have your bar mitzvah at twelve not thirteen because you have to become a man sooner. An early fictional effort of mine.
My mother then decided to tell me that my father was not dead. He had disappeared from New York, she said, abandoning his family before my fifth birthday, leaving us to move in as boarders in the apartment of my aunt and uncle. He had never sent money, had never sent birthday cards to me or to my sister. She had no idea where he was. As an example of his character, she told me he had tried to hold up a candy store in the Bronx, was caught, but my mother pleaded with the man and woman who owned the candy store, imploring them not to press charges and he was released. At twelve I could not process how desperate he must have been. All I heard was that the father I didn’t know was a thief, whether or not he was sent to jail.
The rosebud within the rosebud is that the truth my mother finally shared with me when I was twelve was not entirely the truth. About a half dozen years later she expanded on the story to say my father had fled New York trailing debts and called her from somewhere in the South, asking her to bring the children and meet her. So it was not exactly abandonment. My mother chose not to go. They were formally divorced a few years later.
After my father left, my mother found a job as a stock clerk in Alexander’s Department Store in the Bronx and worked her way up to become a children’s clothing buyer with a long career. She earned the money for me to go to college, and then when I entered the business world, with her resolve as a model, I was able to say to myself, I don’t have to do this. I can be a writer if I want to.
When I became a father myself, I tried to find my father. I was in California where he was last seen, hired a private investigator, and learned he had died some years before. They are all gone now, my father, my mother, my older sister.
There I was, watching “Boyhood,” crying in the wrong place, so to speak, watching a dramatized version of a mother trying to protect her children from a marriage gone wrong, thinking of my mother. In explaining why she chose not to follow my father, she said to me, “I knew if we went, we’d be running the rest of our lives,” my mother, the heroine of my personal narrative.