Cycles of Rejection: An Elegy for My Four Parents

Alex M. Frankel

On the other hand, one day it happened that Frank, Marcia and I were sitting in Frank’s car and Frank was driving, Marcia in the front passenger seat with me behind her—yes, like a family! My new family! “It’s funny,” I said, “how the three of us are sitting here.” “You mean,” said Marcia, “because the male is driving, the way a male usually does? or what?” She didn’t get it and neither did he. Now it’s been twenty-three years since that reunion and I can’t remember whether I explained my thought or not (it was a simple thought: We are riding here like a family!). I didn’t want to impose on them my intense, private fantasy of erasing years of separation and starting over. At that moment I would have loved to erase Henry and Vera, but I don’t think Marcia was keen on the idea of erasing Sam and Sharon.

The letters had suggested, at times, a kind heart and an exciting future of dialogue and reconciliation, and she had her good moments during the reunion, but what she thought and couldn’t say was this: “We are having our one and only get-together. We talk and then we part. You have what you need from me; much more I cannot do.” At best, she could maybe accommodate me as a long-distance relative, to be seen and genuinely appreciated once every year or two. She often referred to me as “Spanish,” just because I lived in Spain. She was the only person ever to refer to me as Spanish. In Spain, the most common question I would get during the ten years I lived there was, “Why did you come here and when are you leaving?”

And I did leave Barcelona, eventually, and chose to settle in southern California. Before my move back to the U.S., though—and, in fact, only a few months after the reunion—I received this letter from Frank:

There is something I must tell you—a very important matter indeed—that may make things more difficult rather than less in the short run, though I have hopes that in the long run it will turn out to be better all around. It concerns my relationship with Marcia, your birth mother. It turns out that my relationship with her has developed into something considerably more than Platonic. I am aware, of course, of your initial skeptical prognostication on this score, perhaps too confidently (in the light of ensuing developments) expressed to me over dessert during the first evening of your visit in Fullerton. I am also aware that your skepticism was reinforced by remarks Marcia made to you in the first couple of days of your meetings with her. Of course at that time it seemed equally “off-the-wall” to Marcia that anything of a serious, more than Platonic, nature might develop between her and me. But it has. We have not only been talking a lot on the phone, but seeing each other a great deal, a logistical feat in itself, given that she continues to live in Hawaii.

My birth parents got married on a Hawaiian beach. A few of her friends and her adopted children, Sam and Sharon, were present. I wasn’t invited. They had, apparently, fallen in love again. When I used to tell people about this marriage, the story would elicit smiles, kind words and glowing faces. Perhaps Frank and Marcia thought they were in love and compatible.

She left Hawaii forever and moved into Frank’s old 1920s bungalow-style house in Orange County. I stayed with them there once, and late one night, I could hear movement in their bedroom. I could hear the creaking and squeaking of their bed and the headboard bumping against the wall and I wondered whether they had any inkling I was awake and nearby. At the time, I figured they were trying in an odd way to be very modern about everything. But they weren’t modern. They were 1950s people, products of their time.

I chose Los Angeles because it was near them; I wanted to get to know them better and I wanted distance from my adoptive father, who was not mellowing with age. The topic of my birth parents was taboo in his house; he refused to meet them or to acknowledge their existence.

He now had a new woman, a Jewish divorcee named Rhoda Goldfarb, who loved money and French restaurants as much as he did. There is not enough space, here, to go into Rhoda Goldfarb in much detail. I had to endure many meals with this woman; my father was devoted to her and she was devoted to his money. Henry Frankel had no friends; she was the only one who would accept him. They never married, but for twenty years this Rhoda, armed with much makeup and hairspray, held him in thrall, and he ended up—contrary to Jewish law and tradition—leaving all his property to her.

During one of those meals in our dining room, I noticed that my mother’s plates, stemware, and flatware had disappeared. I guessed he’d given them away to his Rhoda; when I asked him what had become of our heirlooms, he said, “I never told you? We were burglarized. Last year.” I looked at him: “Are you sure?” Then he screamed at me: “Dammit, you question me? Well you have ruined our relationship!” I never saw him so worked-up. He had a weakness for women—certain kinds of women—and he tried to hide their power over him, though my mother had seen it all too well.

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