My father, Herbert Lee Axel, died on May 4, 2005. He was 88 years old. The last 8 years of his life were robbed by Alzheimer’s and he did not recognize me when I visited.
I was not close with my Dad. For most of my life he was absent, and I have harbored a great deal of resentment about that. I don’t think he ever got over what happened to his childhood sweetheart. He married my mother when they were still in their teens and her mental illness just occasional odd behavior. As time progressed she became increasingly violent, shredding his clothes, spray painting his new car and hitting him. But she reserved the worst of it for me, and as I grew older the physical and sexual abuse required frequent interventions by police and social workers. My father responded by running away, using his “traveling salesman” job as an excuse to escape what had become an unbearable life at home.
When he was around, he was not warm or affectionate. He was quiet, kept to himself and hardly seemed to notice me. I did not think he liked me. He seemed to take no pleasure in my accomplishments or interest in my activities. He was a stranger.
Except for May to September weekends when as if by magic, he turned into a different man!
Herbert Lee Axel grew up poor in the tenements of the Bronx. His was a story common in those days. A first-generation child born to parents who fled Belarus for a better life. Max and Ida Axel were 16 when they arrived at Ellis Island with no money or language skills, no family or friends. They managed, learned English, found work; Max as a house painter and Ida as a seamstress. They lived in a one room flat with a small kitchen and shared bathroom down the hall. They took in a boarder to help with expenses. And they had two children: Pauline, older than my Father by seven years, and my father, Herbert. What little I knew about his childhood I learned from Pauline in bits and pieces. He never talked about it. Despite the age difference, they were close.
When my father was 7, Max Axel committed suicide by jumping off the fire escape outside the apartment window. Pauline, 14 and a bright student, left school to work as a clerk to help support the family. A few years later, my father followed her example. By the time he was 13, Herb was pushing racks of dresses from showroom to showroom thru the streets of the Garment District. Life was grim, but according to a friend of Dad’s there was one bright spot – Dad would sneak into the theater where Gypsy Rose Lee was performing! Apparently, he was quite a fan!
As he grew up, Herb had two passions. He loved to read, especially poetry. He and Pauline got their GED’s and took night school classes. And he dreamed of the great outdoors. Being by the water, swimming and fishing, camping and hiking.
No one else in the family shared his dream. They were city folk thru and thru. When he married and moved to Philadelphia to become a welder at the Naval Depot during the war, he began to plan his alternative life. And since my mother did not share his dream, he decided to share it with his only child – me.
The magical May to September weekends began. We rented a little cabin in the woods by a marsh on Barnegat Bay. Isolated and rustic, it had two small bedrooms, living room and kitchen and a barely working bathroom. When it rained the floors got wet. It was pitch black at night.
And there were lots of animals: deer, raccoons, skunks, a little red fox who became a friend, and even a small bear. Water fowl and beautiful birds. I picked all kinds of berries and baked the best blueberry muffins I have ever tasted. Since my mother hated the outdoors I spent hours alone, happily exploring, or just sitting quietly by the water reading. I was safe. It was my father’s dream come true, my mother’s worst nightmare, and the best time of my young life.
And so it was that from the time I was six until I began college, I was my father’s companion in all things outdoors, especially the water. He was a wonderful swimmer and taught me so I was good enough to be on the Swim Team and later earned money as a lifeguard. We bought our first boat when I was six. A giant piggy bank and five years of saving was enough for a 12-foot wooden boat with a 10-horsepower outboard motor. I could handle it myself by the time I was
seven. We spent hours on the Bay, finding isolated beaches and exploring inlets. He taught me to fish and made me hook my own bait. To his surprise and chagrin, I almost always caught more fish than he did. We went crabbing, bringing the blue claws back to our cabin in a basket where, invariably, at least two crabs would escape, running around the kitchen floor as my mother screamed and fled! When I was 14, he bought his dream boat. An 18-foot beauty with a 60-horsepower outboard. We learned to water ski. We flew around the Bay and ventured out to the ocean when it was calm enough. And we spent hours away from everything and everyone. Each of us in our own world, but managing to share the experience.
When we were on land, we hiked thru the marshes, watching the birds and finding turtles who frequently ended up as pets in the backyard until they found their way home. At night, we would sit on the porch in the darkness, burning cattails to keep the mosquitoes away. He would point out the various stars. Sometimes we would just be quiet and listen to the sounds of the night, content.
On an early August morning when I was 11 the magic was brutally interrupted. Dad and I had gone fishing while my mother slept late. When we returned, the cabin was strangely quiet. We called out hello but there was no response. My father opened the door to the bedroom. I heard him gasp. The door closed. I could hear him saying my mother’s name over and over. “Wake up Phyllis. Wake up!” He emerged, a look on his face I had never seen before. “Go to your room, Carole, he said. Your mother is not feeling well. Don’t disturb her. Stay very quiet and don’t go out. I will be right back.”
He ran out and and soon returned with a neighbor who was a policeman. I watched as they lifted my mother up, holding her between them like a rag doll. For hours, they walked her back and forth across the living room floor, calling her name, forcing her to drink coffee. Finally, she was able to sit on a chair, her head bobbing and eyes glassy. No one had said a word to me. By the next morning she was able to speak. My father gave her a shower, and the neighbor gave me something to eat. A few days later she seemed well. No one called a doctor. My father said not to tell anyone as it would embarrass her. We never spoke about it again. I learned later that my mother had taken sleeping pills in an attempt to kill herself.
The following weekend Dad and I went crabbing. And the magical weekends resumed.
Over the years, I lost or purposely pushed away those summer memories of my Father and me. Our relationship was always distant. When I was an adult we tried to bridge the gap between us.
It worked a few times. We traveled together to the Smoky Mountains and boated on the Chesapeake Bay. He divorced and moved to Florida and was a big hit with the ladies: tall, tan and good looking. An excellent athlete. A good dancer. I visited yearly. There was always a new girlfriend. He seemed happy. We loved going to Fort Lauderdale, watching the boats and having Early Bird Dinners on the deck of a local restaurant. I never sensed that he missed me. He never wrote or sent birthday cards. He rarely called. He certainly did not need me.
I was notified of my father’s death several days after he had passed. An administrative error, they said. He died in his sleep. As per his request, he was cremated. They told me there were no personal belongings left and sent me the ashes. I was strangely numb, and surprisingly sad. It was the first time I had to face the memories in decades.
Who was this man? Was there anything of him in me?
I went to Barnegat Bay, to the beach where we used to anchor the boat, ski, fish and crab. Amazingly, it was still largely untouched. I scattered his ashes over the water. I had written some notes, memories of our times together, and as I recited them, I realized for the first time that my father was just a man. Growing older had given me a new perspective. The anger and disappointment faded. He had done his best. His father took his own life when he was only 7. He never learned what it was to be a parent. But he must have been terribly afraid of closeness. People you love, leave. He did what he learned to do. Take care of his family by keeping a roof over their heads and food in the refrigerator. Don’t expect too much. I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for him to watch the woman he loved disappear into madness and attempt to take her life. And I am grateful that he had his magical summers.
As for me, I recognize the legacy of my father’s distance. I used it for most of my life to distance myself from people, to withhold love, distrust intimacy and reject vulnerability. I am letting that go.
I am, instead, honoring Herbert Axel for what he has given me. The love of the outdoors, the pleasure of doing all of those things he taught me those magical summers. They have been an integral part of who I am all my life. And now that I am 72, about the same age as he was when the Alzheimer’s began, and keenly aware of my mortality, I realize I am in so many ways, the best of ways, my Father’s Daughter.