My Father’s Coat and Hat

My Father’s Coat and Hat

A special feature for Father's Day

Rochelle Lazarus is flanked by her mother, Marjorie, and father Leon, in this photograph taken shorty before he died. Photos courtesy of Rochelle Lazarus

Shush…. Daddy’s writing.”
As a young girl of about 4 or 5, before I really know my father, I am aware of his two distinct selves. First, there is my father the writer. He works for hours each day at a battered desk in my parents’ bedroom by a window that overlooks a small courtyard with a giant oak and a row of bent clotheslines, where the women in our building hang their laundry out to dry.

Perched on his desk is his scratched and dented Olympia, and from the other side of the closed door, I hear him peck away at the keys in a flurry of bird clacks, followed by long silences, during which I picture him gazing out the window into a sunny sky.

While he is writing, I am never allowed to enter the room. My mother speaks in whispers, and if I raise my voice in a moment of forgetting, she shushes me. Annoyed, I head for my room, down a long dark hall from theirs, and pause outside the door, wondering what looms in my father’s mind while he is sealed away in this other world of his – a silent world, where no phone rings, no music plays, and no one speaks in a voice louder than a hush.

But when my father is done for the day, the door to the bedroom swings open, sending a flood of light down the hall and into my room. It is like sun bursting through clouds. I hear my parents’ laughter in the next room and suddenly, my father’s solitary self is replaced by a warm and doting one – the one I know and love.

This other father wears a happy, handsome face. He is tall, with dark, movie-star hair and deep, ocean-green eyes. He is slender and smart and loves to talk and tease.

“Hey,” he calls to me. “How’d you like a great big ice cream sundae with chocolate syrup and whipped cream and a juicy cherry on top?”

“I’d love one,” I shout, rushing up to him with open arms.

Rochelle Lazarus is public relations and communications director for the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly. This memoir was written during a class called “Recording Jewish Lives” led by noted novelist Susan Dworkin and underwritten by Bernard and Ruth Weinflash.

His face grows grim with pretend seriousness. “So would I,” he says, “but there isn’t any ice cream or syrup or whipped cream or cherries, so I guess we can’t have sundaes.”

He pauses, watching my face for a reaction, then resumes his sunny grin. “But,” he exclaims, “I have an even better idea. Let’s go for a walk.”

He puts on his coat and hat, and soon we’re on our way. Sometimes, we walk to the local bakery, an adventure that begins with a stop at the town playground for a ride on the swings, then on to a narrow footbridge that arches over a sparkling creek, brimming with fish. We often pause on the bridge, and while we lean over the rails looking for turtles or tadpoles, my dad tells me stories. My favorites are about me and Christopher Robin, whom I adore. They all have similar themes. I help rescue Pooh from a cave or Piglet from a heffalump, and Christopher Robin showers me with praise and adoration until I’m bubbling with delight. I love these stories and wonder how they compare to the ones my father writes in his secret room, stories he never speaks about to me. The ones that pay our rent.

After collecting a few colored rocks along the bank of the creek, we cut across a big ball field and head on to the boulevard and bakery. A little chime tings when we open the door, and the baker’s plump, pleasant wife comes out from the kitchen to greet us. While my dad jokes with her behind the counter, I take deep whiffs of butter and chocolate and baking bread. I peer into the glass cases filled with pastries, wishing I could taste just one. In time, my dad accepts his bag of bagels and the baker’s wife suddenly turns to me.

“Pick something,” she says. “Anything you’d like – because you and your daddy are such nice people.”

She smiles and I choose a flaky doughnut, stuffed with chocolate cream, which she hands to me wrapped in a pastry tissue. Once outside, I carefully unwrap my treat, and savor it slowly on the long walk home, proud that my father’s charms could earn us other people’s favor.

Other times when we are out walking, we might meet someone passing in the street, and my father always stops and talks forever. He talks about fun places to take a Sunday drive. He talks about writers he likes and other things I don’t quite understand. I grow bored and restless waiting for him to turn his attention back to me. I’m tempted to scrape the tip of my shoe loudly on the sidewalk to remind him that I’m standing here waiting, but it’s my only pair, and I like them. Finally, he finishes and we’re on our way again.

“Who was that?” I ask, without disguising my annoyance.

“I have no idea,” he answers.

I stare up at him in semi-disbelief, angry that he’d give a complete stranger so much of his time. But even then I realize that this is part of his charm.

By the time I am 7 or 8, my favorite walks with my father by far are the ones we take in the big woods behind our apartment complex. It is lush and overgrown with paths that dead-end in a thicket or a ditch. I go there often with my friends to explore its wild and untamed depths, looking for Indians or pirate treasure. Personally, I believe it is inhabited by fairies and sprites, and I look for signs of them under ferns and tree roots. By day, it is a place for adventure, but I keep my distance after dark when it gathers like a black hole behind the brightly lit apartments.

In my father’s company, these woods are another place entirely. On hot summer days, we follow a narrow path until the air grows cool and pungent with pine. When we can see nothing but trees in every direction, we settle on the grass or a sunny rock with our sketch pads and pencils, ready to draw.

My father tells me to squint my eyes to study the landscape. “It makes the world look flatter,” he explains. “When you draw, you need to put the three-dimensional world onto a two-dimensional piece of paper. It’s easier to do if you can make the world look flat.”

So, I squint and squint until the sunlight and the trees look like they are a single object and I try to draw them as light and shadow. My father looks over my shoulder and makes minor suggestions. He explains how colors get softer in the distance and how to use the white of the paper as part of my composition.

“Sometimes, what you leave out is as important as what you put in,” he says. “It’s like words. What’s left unsaid often says more than what you actually say.”

I listen and try to understand. I know I miss some of what he is trying to teach me, but I hold on to his words, believing there is great wisdom to be gained from them.

When we finish our drawings, I sit close to him and lean my head against his shoulder, breathing in the safe scent of him. We prop our drawings side by side in our laps and compare how each of us has taken in the landscape through different eyes. His drawings are always better than mine, but it never makes me sad. He is eager to teach, and I am eager to learn, and that’s all that really matters.

We live in a lovely garden apartment complex in Ridgefield, with park-like lawns and trees filled with birds. Howard, my next door neighbor, is my best friend, and we run in and out of each other’s apartments without ever thinking to knock. We stand on chairs in front of the stove, concocting our own crazy recipes like eggnog soup. Or we walk along the skinny ledge of his high bunk bed, pretending we are captured slaves walking the gangplank. When we grow hungry for an outdoor adventure, all we need to do is step into our courtyard, where we can round up at least a half-dozen eager children in 10 seconds flat.

I relish the magic of this charmed and perfect life ““ until two things happen.

On Sunday mornings, my father often sends me to the local deli to buy The New York Times, his Muriel Air-Tip cigars with the dark-eyed gypsy woman on the box, and some bagels and lox for brunch. Occasionally, he asks me to buy the paper and some bagels for our downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Tahl, an old German widow who survived the war and now lives alone. Always kind and thoughtful, he likes to do small things for her.

I make the long walk to the deli, which smells like sour pickles, and, loaded down with packages, I trudge my way home. When I arrive, I rest the groceries on the stoop and knock on Mrs. Tahl’s door. She always takes a million years to answer. First, I hear her shuffling feet, slow and heavy as she crosses the floor, and then, I hear her unbolting the locks on her door. One tumbler turns in its lock, then another and another.

I stand there in the dark hall for what seems like an eternity, thinking how strange this is, since we never lock our doors at all. Finally, when the last bolt is undone, she opens the door a crack to receive her parcel. She is tall and heavy with sad eyes and a long, thin mouth.

She never smiles or invites me inside, but in her thick German accent, she asks me to thank my parents for their kindness, then clicks the door closed. I often stand for a moment on the landing, listening as all the bolts slide back in place, before I run upstairs.

One day, when I am outside on the front lawn, playing with my new little puppy, I see Mrs. Tahl watching me from her window. I wave and she waves back. A few minutes later, her door opens, and for the first time ever, she invites me inside.

I’m a little reluctant, but I follow her in. I’m surprised to see that her apartment is the mirror image of ours, but it looks completely different. It is dark and gloomy, with heavy drapes, bulky old tables and chests, and half-dead plants drooping on every windowsill. It is sad, and a little scary, just like her.

“I was watching you and your puppy,” she says. “Is it a boy or a girl?”

“A girl,” I answer. “Her name is Pixie.”

“Ah. Come, let me see her.”

Pixie bounds in and jumps on her with dirty paws. I hear Mrs. Tahl laugh for the first time ever as Pixie tries to nose up her dress.

“You know,” she says, “I once had a little girl and we had a little white puppy that looked very much like your Pixie. Would you like to see a picture of her?”

“Sure,” I say, surprised she is actually talking with me.

She leaves the room and returns with a black leather pocketbook. Cracked and worn, it clicks open on a tarnished brass button. She takes out her wallet and ruffles through its contents for what seems like a very long time, and then produces a tattered photo. She holds it out for me to see.

The picture is so old and faded, I can barely make out the faces, but there is a ghostlike image of a dark-haired little girl in a summer dress holding a white puppy, with a tall, slim woman standing beside her, dressed in a suit and hat.

“That is me and Gretchen, my little girl,” she explains. “She was about your age in this photo. And there, in her lap, is Treasure.”

I study the photo for a few long seconds, not knowing quite what to say.

“Where are they now?” I finally ask.

She doesn’t answer. She stares down at the photo in her lap. Her face is blank, and she is so lost in thought, I think she has forgotten I am here. But finally, she speaks.

“They are gone,” she says. “It was not safe from bombs where we lived, and my husband and I decided to send Gretchen away for a while, where she would be out of harm’s way. We put her on a train, and I never saw her again. Later, I lost my husband, as well, and that is why I live here all alone.”

I sit there in her gloomy parlor with its strange plants and shadows, utterly speechless. The truth is, I know very little about the war. I know my father served in the Air Force, but my parents never speak of that time, and Mrs. Tahl’s story is a terrifying shock. The idea that a child could board a train and vanish is unthinkable, and I stare down at Mrs. Tahl’s big black shoes, afraid to meet her gaze. I begin to dimly understand why she keeps so many locks on her door, and why her house seems so sad.

After an interminable silence, Mrs. Tahl tucks the photo back in her wallet and clicks her purse closed. It makes a startling snap.

“Auf wiedersehen,” she says. “Take good care of that little dog of yours.”

I leave her apartment and race upstairs, eager to escape the sound of her locks bolting closed behind me. It is the only time I ever entered her house, and the experience leaves me with a terrible, gnawing sadness. I can no longer pass her door without feeling a stab of fear because she’s shown me that life is not as safe or perfect as I imagined. Every time I climb the stairs to our sunny home, I find myself wishing that my father would never again send me to her house with a bag full of bagels.

I never say a word to anyone about my conversation with Mrs. Tahl. I want to bury the memory so it won’t haunt me. But haunt me it does, and not long later, I have a second experience that makes forgetting impossible.

It is a sunny, ordinary day in my little-girl world. I return from school as usual to find my father busy writing and my mother busy preparing dinner, so I turn on the TV just as the Million Dollar Movie is about to begin. The feature this afternoon is “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and I settle down to what I think is going to be a fun film about a happy teenage girl. But as I sit with the volume turned low so as not to disturb my father, I watch in horror as her story unfolds.

When the movie ends, I am rooted to the floor, unable to move. It’s dusk, and the room grows dark and strangely unfamiliar, as though under water. I sit for a long time, watching the shadows shift across the walls and floor until it becomes so dark, it could easily be Mrs. Tahl’s parlor I am sitting in. And then, from far, far away, I hear pots clattering in the kitchen, followed by my mother’s chirpy voice, calling me to dinner.

I keep my terror of Anne Frank’s story to myself, and it grows and grows inside me into one all-consuming fear: Where in the world will my family hide if the Nazis ever return?

I begin exploring every possibility. I try crawling under the couch with Pixie, hoping the shadows will swallow me, but I figure this will be the first place the Nazis will look and I’ll be found in an instant. I consider ducking into the cabinet under the kitchen sink, behind all the bottles of cleansers, but it is such a shallow space, I am sure I’ll be seen. I hide in my parents’ bedroom closet and stand behind my mother’s dresses, but I know if the door is flung open, my legs will be exposed and I’ll be discovered for sure.

I spend weeks in an agonizing panic, searching our house for my equivalent of a secret annex. And then, one day, I find it.

In the back of our living room closet is a single garment bag, where my mother stows our off-season clothes. Hanging from the bar on four hooks, it is about two feet wide and can be unzipped down the middle, straight to the floor. Inside, it is packed with our winter coats and sweaters.

I unzip the bag and catch a whiff of mothballs and wool. Then, I part some of the coats and step inside. The hooks hold my weight and I find that I can curl up in the bottom, which rests on the floor.

This could work, I think and zip myself inside. It is spring and I can hear the birds singing outside, but huddled in here, it smells like winter. I take one of my father’s bulky sweaters and lay it over me like a blanket in the bottom of the bag. And then, I practice lying very, very still.

I practice long and often, and hunkered down in this borrowed darkness, I think of Anne Frank, pouring her heart out into her diary. I think about Gretchen, Mrs. Tahl’s ghost-faced little girl, boarding a train in a pretty dress, waving good-bye to her parents and her little white dog – wondering if she wound up in the Bergen-Belsen camp like Anne.

Burrowed in this bag in my living room closet, I know that I am forever changed. I know that children can vanish and that people lock themselves away. There are still Christopher Robin and forest fairies, but I am beginning to see the world through different, not-so-trusting eyes. It is dark and forbidding in this secret hideaway, but it smells safe like my father’s coat and hat, and I take comfort in the hope that this can be my haven, my annex – a place I can go, just in case.

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