Rejecting the Father

Few people knew of my family as well as the denizens of Saranac Lake, our hometown in upstate NY.  We were eminently recognizable, especially to our fellow congregants of the First United Methodist Church.

There was no missing us.  Every Sunday, with the consistency of a Swiss train, we arrived for services.  Unlike that Swiss train, we were never on time. We were wont to arrive ten to fifteen minutes after the minister made his welcoming address.  The choir would be putting away hymnals, the congregation rifling through prayer books looking for the Apostles Creed, and we would make a grand entrance.  All nine of us. 

Each week, the same usher, an elderly man with a large red mole that sat like a laser pointer on the top of his bald head, would lead us to the nearest empty pew, and each week, Dad would ignore the designated bench and lead the way to one closer to the altar.  That way we could parade by the entire congregation.  Dad would step deliberately, serenely, looking neither to the right nor to the left, fixing his gaze on the cross and squinting his eyes in pious prayer.  His children would follow him like biblical offspring – Carla, David, Helen, Alfred, Elizabeth, and John – the issue of his begetting – and we always made a scene. I scolding the young ones in harsh whispers, the youngest ones squealing and climbing onto the back of the pew, the middle whining about someone picking on her, and others cowering close to mom, who had brought up the rear. 

I was perversely proud to be part of the disruption.   These people were my posse.  An exclusive club to which only a Swett could belong.  Long after I knew it to be untrue, I believed that to be a Swett was to be superior in every way. We were imbued with God’s favoritism.

Until I was eleven, which is when I learned that things were not as they appeared.

I was in  7th grade when against the advice of my English teacher, I read Exodus, which made me dizzy.  I began to piece together the German, Italian, and Serbian fragments I’d been hearing all my life,  the hushed despair as telegrams arrived, the silent brooding.  Reports of my grandmother’s mysterious trip to Vienna when I was a toddler. I knew they were Jews. But it never occurred to me . . . . 

 “God is love,”  my dad insisted. And I believed. But how does a loving God . . . ?

My mother was a deeply good person.  She never denied Jesus, and she never rejected Christianity. When I was little, she told me about the adored sister she lost to meningitis and the beloved brother who died of anaphylaxis. She agreed with Daddy when he explained that God took innocents to be with Him as a reward for their goodness, that they were happily in Heaven reaping their rewards. 

But this new information was unjustifiable.  God is love, but God permits genocide? 

I read the book in a single Friday night then spent Saturday processing the revelation.  I cornered my mother as she stood at the stove frying our weekend breakfast pancakes.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Tell you what?”

“About Hitler.  About the camps.  About Europe. . . .”

“What’s to tell?  I lived.  Not interesting. “

The next day, when my Sunday morning alarm rang, I pulled the covers over my head and burrowed more deeply into my pillow.  Dad knocked on my door, and the sound was muffled, but I heard and did not respond.

“Come on, Carla. It’s getting late.”

“Go away,” I called through the door.  “I’m not going.”

“My father laughed. “Of course you are.”

“Nope.  I’m done with church.”

“Stop being ridiculous.”

I got up and opened my door.  Dad had already descended to the landing of the grand stairway that was right outside my bedroom.  I stood at the doorway and watched him for a moment. He was waiting for me, examining the snow on the roof outside the small window.

I shuddered and addressed him in a near-whisper.

“I am not going, Daddy.”

He got very quiet.  I knew what was coming.  I had experienced it a few times, and I often watched my younger brother endure it.

 The belt. 

Dad pivoted, climbed the half-flight of stairs, and went to his bedroom.  I ducked back into my room, back under my covers.  I was a big girl.  He would leave me alone if I held my ground.

But he didn’t. 

Dad entered my room and dragged me out of bed, out of the room.  I tried to escape by bolting downstairs toward the front door, but I tripped on the third step and fell onto the landing.  Dad was already there and stood over me, staring, the belt poised.

I could not take my eyes off his knuckles. 

Suspended above his head, poised to strike, the knuckles were ominous. Bulging, red, striated by the bleeding cracks wrought by repetitive frostbite. His oversized, gnarled hands, scarred by physical labor, yellowed from cigarettes trembled under the strain, misleading in their appearance.  I knew those hands as the ones that soothed my night fears when he rubbed my head as he chanted the Canterbury Tales in sing-song middle-high English.  I braced myself and looked at his face.  He seemed about to cry. I sighed. He was not the kind of man who would beat a child for disagreeing with him.

I whispered desperately, “I won’t do it. I can’t.”

“Silly girl. Just get ready.  God will forgive you.  God is love.”

“No, he’s not,” I screamed at him.  “If God were love, mommy’s family would still be in Vienna. They’d still be Jewish. They’d still be  –”

Now, Dad’s face reddened and glistened with anger. His temple throbbed.  His April blue eyes darkened to a sinister gray.  I was sure the thrust was coming, so I jumped back,  thinking to break away. He caught me, and we struggled, locking one another in a desperate kind of wrestle hold.  If either of us let go, we would likely both fall down the steep stairs, undoubtedly to our deaths.   I held my breath and silently submitted.

He relaxed.

He calmly grabbed my shoulders and righted us both on the landing.  His face calmed.  The light returned to his eyes.

I heard my mother call us from the kitchen,  “Breakfast is getting cold.”

New London Daddy

Every summer until I was four, my mother’s older sister Herma and her Serbian artist husband Borislav invited the whole family to share their bungalow on a beach along the Long Island Sound in New London, CT.

My memory of the house – undoubtedly flawed by time and distance — is of a single-story expanse with multiple windows standing upright, tall in every room. Their diaphanous, draped white curtains fluttered and danced in the omnipresent breezes.  No matter how hot the air might be elsewhere, the briny, vanilla-scented cool of the beach enveloped us when we entered that house.

My father, usually staid, reticent, and subdued, transformed the minute we arrived. As he got out of our car, he shed his grumpy silence and turned giddy.  He seemed to me one of those sea creatures we used to order from the bubble gum cards.  Add water, we were told, and the creatures would animate.  Salt sea air was enough for Daddy. He would bound into the house, ebulliently embrace the assembled relatives, and rush to any corner that afforded him enough privacy to change into his swim trunks.

We children – the first three of eleven cousins-to-be – were always his first invitees. “I’m off to the water,” he’d announce. “Who’s with me?”

Cousin Peter, eight years older than I, remained aloof. He thought himself too mature to be so childishly exuberant. Johnny, eight months my junior, could only go where his mother took him. He adored my dad his Uncle Alfred, but he would stay behind.

I could not wait.  I would strip down to my crisp white drawers, ask my mother to secure my towhead mop into tight braids, and follow him into the gently undulating water. He walked slowly, watching my every move, coaching me to tiptoe carefully over rocks and shells, beckoning me to stop and marvel at the crabs and jellyfish that tickled my shins and scraped my toes.  Once, a crab mistook part of my foot for a tasty morsel and chomped down hard.  I screamed, more afraid than injured, and my father laughed.  “Too bad for that little guy. You’re way too big a prey for him.” 

In the afternoon, Dad would take a blanket down to the edge of the Sound, wrap himself up, put a hat on his head, and coo, “Nothing like the lullaby of the ocean to sing me to sleep,”

Then he would nap for what seemed like hours, while Peter, dressed in his cowboy chaps and holster, would point his toy pistol and chase Johnny and me all about the beach.  Our mothers would watch us, laughing and applauding, as though we were brilliant actors in a spellbinding film.

Nowhere else, at no other time were we all as insouciant as we were then. Uncle Borislav would join us on our beach blanket when he took a break from his easel, and if there were no Yankee game on the radio, Johnny’s father my Italian Uncle Fernando would be there as well. Borislav would do magic tricks, and Fred would tell silly jokes. No one ridiculed my father, cocooned nearby. We were, in those moments, entirely happy.

The best parts of any New London weekend were the early mornings. Daddy would wake me before dawn to walk with him and watch the tide come in.  We would stroll along the waterline, giggling at the horseshoe crabs scuttling away, peering strenuously into the darkness for a glimpse of a ship or a dolphin.  Wading in, we’d let the deepening water lap at our legs. 

Later , when the tide was lowest, he would invite me to a grand adventure.

“Come on,” he’d chortle. “Let’s walk to China.”

“I don’t want to go to China,” I’d laugh. “I wanna see Paris?”

“Sure!  But you have to hold my hand.  It’s a very long walk.”

As we walked further into the Sound, the water level remained unchanged for what seemed like miles. Further still, where I became buoyant, he’d hold me while I half swam among the sailboats lazing in the summer sunshine.

“Maybe we won’t get all the way to Paris today,” Daddy would sigh at last.  “Let’s come back tomorrow.”

Dad’s ordinarily worked tirelessly, as he had a lot to prove. To his in-laws, he sought to prove he was worthy of my smart, well-educated, cultured mother. To his children, he needed to prove that he was impervious. Most, of all, to himself, he had to prove he was worthy of redemption.

Work and prayer were his salvation. He had devoured Calvinism as a boy and was convinced that any outward show of happiness might bar his way to Heaven. Only by the water did he allow himself spontaneous expression of pure pleasure.  

At the beach I savored his fleeting laughter. I milked his joy and made it mine. 

Taking Cover

A Rant: The Trouble With Guns.

Columbine changed my relationship to America. 

Once upon a time, I was proud and unabashedly grateful to be a part of this remarkable experiment called the USA.  Then suddenly, in a blaze of terror, fifteen children were brutally assassinated, 24 more were wounded, and countless more left with interminable PTSD.  In the aftermath, our collective failure to heal the national addiction to guns murdered my faith in my country. Today, I feel like an orphan. The country that gave my family refuge, the place I felt comforted, safe, no longer feels like home. 

I began to feel betrayed.

Just weeks after the Colorado tragedy, as I prepared to teach my first period of the day at a Connecticut high school, a shooter invaded our premises. The principal commanded us to lock our doors, to stay on the floor where we could not be seen through the windows that faced the hallway, and to wait there for updates.  My students and I crouched against the wall of the room, terrified of what might happen. 

Nothing did. The gun-toting stranger never fired a shot and was caught.  But I decided then and there that I could not put myself in this kind of jeopardy anymore.  I wasn’t just afraid of being shot – though I definitely was! – I could not envision being forced to watch in terror as children were mutilated.  I didn’t have it in me.  I quit teaching, went on to other things. And I got involved in trying to make a difference.

I wrote letters, posted blog rants, called lawmakers, and spoke out wherever and whenever I had a platform.  Sent money to the groups promising to fight for regulations.

Guns proliferated. Every year brings a new array of tragedies wrought by angry teenagers or disgruntled postal workers or distraught fathers or rabid fundamentalists. . . all armed with guns.  And oh, Sandy Hook.

Surely, I told myself, the images from Sandy Hook must change everything.  Even if the men in our culture insist on suborning murder by clinging to their guns, surely Grandmothers, mothers, aunts, teachers, sisters. . . the women of America will rise up to ensure that our babies are not so easily jeopardized.  Sure there will be an outcry to eradicate the monstrous misuse of weaponry that inflicts such terror.

I was wrong.  Even as Alex Jones defamed the Sandy Hook victims, even as assault weapons continued to violate sanity, nothing changed.  The horror persists. Today, I a longtime friend, a woman I respect and admire, posted a plea on Facebook for concerned citizens to write to Congress and demand they defeat the assault weapons ban, that they protect our right to bear arms, that they stop the Democrats’ bill to curb the insanity.

How can anyone justify the stockpiling of semi-automatic pistols and rifles?  I empathize with those people who feel so threatened they might put their faith in a gun, but I reserve none for those who believe that our government should not – cannot –  regulate the way in which guns are bought, owned, operated. Without regulations, our children are never out of danger.


Since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, nearly 300,000 students have been on a campus during a school shooting.  949 school shootings have taken place since the Sandy Hook Elementary School exploded in December 2012.  Just yesterday, February 13, four more people were shot to death at Michigan State University. So much carnage.  Not only the dead. . . . the wounded, the destroyed families, the traumatized children and teachers who bore witness.  Communities forever changed.

In January 2023, a six-year-old child walked into school with a 9 mm handgun in his little backpack.  He shot his teacher and was miraculously stopped before he turned the gun on his classmates.  The trauma of that day will live on in every one of those first-graders’ hearts and minds to their last breaths.  Yet “given the child’s age, no charges will be brought,” reported the local police chief.  Nor have charges been brought against the parents.

The absolute degeneracy that the case of the six-year-old shooter represents is stultifying.  We live in a time, in a country where a small child, who must be reminded to put shoes on his feet to walk out the door, can blithely pack a gun and shoot his teacher.  Ours is the only country in the world where this is possible.

I have a daughter and a grandchild living in Turkey. Every day someone asks me how I can stand knowing the dangerous conditions of their life there.  I am frequently asked, “Can’t you insist they come home?”  Danger?  Sure, there are difficulties for a western woman living there, and there is volatility.  But no one in Turkey, except the military police protecting the airports, carries an assault weapon.  No child would dream of going to school with a pistol in his pocket.  In Turkey, even earthquakes are more predictable than gun violence is in the US.

The gun industry is a cartel.  It controls our lives in subtle and critical ways.  And we allow it to keep on keeping on.

Moving Day

I was nine in 1957, when my father wrenched us from our Longmeadow, MA, home and relocated us to Saranac Lake, NY. The trip, in those days, was a long one.  None of the endless interstates we now take for granted existed.  The journey took us along country roads through western New England, and we meandered into the Adirondack High Peaks area by way of Brattleboro, Rutland, Ticonderoga. 

In truth, we didn’t meander.  Our makeshift caravan – a small, rented truck and a white Pontiac Chieftain – was far slower than that. Each of the vehicles inched its way north, groaning beneath the weight of the burden it carried: our lives. 

Dad had extended the truck’s driver and passenger seats with boxes, crates, and books, which he covered with blankets and pillows on which my 6-year-old brother David and our 3-year-old sister Helen could luxuriate. The Pontiac resembled a Grapes of Wrath conveyance, windows and doors straining to hold back a tsunami of small furniture, pots and pans, household goods; a bicycle and a tricycle strapped to the exterior. Mom, 8.5 months pregnant with her fifth child, drove the car, and I rode shotgun . . . wishing for a gun.  It was my job to wrangle and entertain 15-month-old Alfred, restlessly climbing, relentlessly squealing, refusing to sit still.

After stopping for dinner in dark, cold Rutland, Dad adjusted the blankets and pillows in the truck so that David and Helen could sleep. Mom and I did the same for Alfred in the backseat of the car.  We still had a long way to go.

Instead of sleeping, Alfred wailed and screamed and climbed back and forth between the car’s seats, using my shoulders as a diving board, pulling my hair, prying at the door in attempts to jump out. Mom never stopped driving.  Dad had no way of knowing what was going on in the car, and she could not risk losing sight of the truck. When I finally managed to wrestle Alfred down, force him into my arms, and wedge a bottle into his mouth, I sang, rocking him, till he passed out. 

It began to snow, and Dad stopped to put chains on the tires. Our destination was yet four hours away.

“Don’t you move, Carla,” my mother hissed when Alfred was finally asleep.  I bristled at the menacing tone, unempathetic to the fact that she was monstrously pregnant, hardly able to fit behind the wheel of that car, robbed of any residual patience for a petulant tween or a perseverating toddler.

For four straight hours, I sat with the pressure of that large little person on my lap and a growing pain in my coccyx. 

The temperature dropped to -46º.  Wind swirled in a cacophony of winter wonders, and the snow danced blizzard-like about us.  Neither mom nor dad could see five inches ahead of them, but they drove on.

Anyone who has traveled the North Country through dark winter mountain nights knows how treacherous that drive was, how close we likely came to oblivion. 

We arrived in Saranac Lake in the wee hours of the next morning. 

Dad’s truck haltingly crawled its way to what he remembered was the road that led to the cavernous house he had rented, nearly careening off a railroad bridge in the process. As soon as he righted himself, he stopped.  We all stopped. 

Mom rolled her window down a bit.  Dad yelled to be heard above the din and rage of engines and wind, “Don’t turn the motor off.  We’ll never get it started again.”

He dismounted from the truck to look around with his flashlight. More blowing snow reflected back at him as he walked a few feet in every direction and then stood at the foot of a hill, squinting and grunting. 

Helen began to cry.  Worried that we might wake people in the area, Dad opened the truck and lifted her out of the warm bed.  The cold stung her, and she wailed again. 

“I think this is it,” he finally said as he absent-mindedly put Helen down next to him. 

Suddenly the air was pierced by a howl more terrifying than any banshee or dybbuk could have emitted.  It was Helen’s. She was standing barefoot.  On icy pavement. At 46 below zero.

I placed Alfred on the seat and jumped out of the car to scoop her up and put her back into the truck. Dad grunted again and returned to his driver’s seat.  Mom motioned to me to put my now-squirming little brother back on my lap.

We continued the last three-tenths of a mile to our new home, and two days later, Mom taught us to ski down the hill we had climbed.