The Inventors: A Memoir (Hawthorne Books, 2016) by Peter Selgin explores how two very different men, his father and a man that he calls the teacher shaped his life. Selgin’s father helped design the proximity fuse that hastened the end of WWII while the teacher was an advocate for indigenous peoples and refugees from Southeast Asia. This excerpt introduces both men that Selgin held in such high regard.
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I believe it was the ancient Chinese who cursed each other by saying, “May you live in interesting times.” I had an interesting father.
You’ll note that I’m not properly dressed for this occasion. In honor of my father, I’m wearing one of his moth-eaten cardigan sweaters, an affront to good taste, fashion, etiquette – all the things my father thumbed his nose at.
As most of you here probably know, my papa was an iconoclast. He had too many other things on his mind to worry about protocols or conventions. Though he was once the director of a division of the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., his social standards were anything but exacting. Chesterton’s “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly” was among his favorite sayings. An electronics engineer and inventor, he disdained all things irrational and considered all forms of tribal ritual and worship barbaric. He loathed – his word – all religions. Nor did Papa care much for parties, parades, sports, movies, concerts, the theater – anything that made him part of a group or audience and divided him from the fertile depths of his own polymath mind. He had no stomach for pomp, ritual, or any form of regimentation or conformity. He hated crowds and large gatherings. Weddings and funerals weren’t his cup of tea. This one, unfortunately, he had to attend.…
After the memorial service, as the respectful file out of the funeral parlor, you gather up the relics that you and your twin brother George assembled for the commemorative altarpiece: your father’s portable Royal typewriter, his oscilloscope, a Color Coder (one of his inventions), his favorite eggcup, the split-spined German dictionary that he kept next to his rocking chair in the living room.
As you do a stranger approaches you. She’s in her late seventies or early eighties, tall and thin, with a bent nose and short silver hair. She wears frameless octagonal eyeglasses and a reindeer- and-snowflake sweater in cheerful primary colors that offset her wintry complexion. As your brother chats with your half-sisters Ann and Clare (your father married three times) a dozen feet away, the woman walks straight up to you.
I was a friend of Paul’s – of your father’s, she says, taking your hands in hers. We knew each other for over forty years, she says. She has an accent – heavy, German. Her fingers are bony and icecold. She holds her winter coat draped over one arm and smells like the winter weather outdoors.
Nice to meet you, you say. (Forty. You do the math. Since you were in diapers.)
We knew each other very well, your father and I, she says.
You smile. You’re certain you’ve never seen her before.
Very well, she repeats. Then: Did you know your father was Jewish?
At first her declaration strikes you as no less peculiar than the woman herself, who, for all you know, has come from the neighborhood homeless shelter or from Fairfield Hills, the mental hospital in nearby Newtown. For all you know she drops into memorial services regularly to confront mourners with absurd pronouncements
concerning their dearly departed. You’re about to dismiss her claim as ridiculous when a memory comes back to you, that time in Italy back in your early twenties, at a villa in the hilly outskirts of Piacenza, where you’d gone to visit some relatives on your mother’s side of the family, when one of a small army of second and third cousins no sooner set eyes on you than she declared, Ma lei e’ ebreo! (But you are Jewish!). Her judgment had something to do with the downward curve of your nostrils. But you didn’t take it all that seriously, in fact you forgot about it completely, until now.
All this time you’ve been staring at the old woman, who keeps holding your hands, shaking them.
Excuse me? you say to her.
He never told you?
Who are you?
My name is Bernice, says the woman. Bernice Mundt.
Bernice. Berenice. Beh-reh-nee-chay.… The name bubbles up from deep memory. It’s one you heard often growing up, during your parents’ frequent vicious fights.
I’m afraid you’re mistaken, you say. My father wasn’t Jewish. He was raised Catholic. My grandmother – his mother – went to mass regularly.
To this the old woman smiles, affirming not your reasoning but your naiveté. You turn to your brother, who’s still talking to Ann. Your mother is busy with other people on the far side of the chapel. The memorial service has been more celebratory than solemn. Your father’s death was anti-climactic, the cumulative effect of a series of strokes that removed him bit by bit from the land of the living, leaving a cheesy body in a nursing home to dress and feed, until his appetite died. Now his body burns to dust behind the funeral parlor’s draped walls. No one else sees the old woman talking with you. It’s as if she’s not really there, like she’s a figment of your imagination, her and her wintry odors and reindeer sweater.
Your father was Jewish, she says at last, firmly, smiling and shaking her head like a tolerant schoolmarm coping with an especially slow pupil. On both sides of his family, she says. They were prominent Jews.
Who told you this? you say. Where did you hear it? (You make no effort to conceal the accusatory tone of your voice.)
Paul – your father – he told me. Long ago. I thought you would want to know. I’m very sorry, by the way. He was a brilliant man, your father. A wonderful man.
The woman turns then and – as quietly as she came, with you watching after her – walks out of the funeral parlor.
I hardly knew my father. However kind and (in his way) loving, he kept a distance between himself and all others, including me. In other ways I’m so much like him that to speak of distances between us is, if not altogether absurd, irrelevant. In a way, his death only brought us closer by eliminating the false dichotomy suggested by our separate bodies. He was as much my twin as my brother, maybe more so. I can’t mourn him without feeling as though I’m embracing a solipsism, like I’m mourning myself.
That I knew (and still know) very little about my father’s past doesn’t lessen this feeling at all. If anything the mystery augments and strengthens it, since the people we know least well are ourselves. If we think we know ourselves better than other people do, it’s because we have access to more memories than they do. We know our stories better – so we tell ourselves, though in so doing we forget that they’re stories and not the truth, which is much harder to grasp.
The best if not the only way to discover ourselves is through others.
The discreet subject of any biography is the biographer.
Six years later, you’re surfing the web when you stumble on the obituary:
University Professor and Indigenous rights advocate dies
It’s two in the morning. You’re in your studio, the former master bedroom of the apartment you and your wife share in a section of the Bronx called Spuyten Duyvil. The name derives from the treacherous whirlpools generated by the confluence of the Hudson and Harlem Rivers, where many an aspirant swimmer and many more
suicidal jumpers have met their dooms. Depending on what authority you appeal to, the pseudo-Dutch name means either “spitting devil,” “spouting devil,” “in spite of the devil,” or “spit on the devil.” On one side the view is framed by the Henry Hudson Bridge, on other the Palisades, with one of the oldest functioning swing bridgesin the country – across which Amtrak trains thunder toward Penn Station – dividing them. On sunny afternoons the Palisades glow turquoise; the bridge is a monochromatic rainbow of blue steel. But it’s two a.m., and the bridge looms black against toll plaza lights.
Thanks to your insomnia, you and this view have gotten to know each other well. Over the top of your computer you gaze at it from time to time while traipsing through cyberspace, as you’re in the habit of doing whenever sleep forsakes you. You search for people you haven’t seen or heard from in decades, classmates and
teachers you went to college or high school or even to first grade and kindergarten with.
And you search for him, your eighth-grade English teacher, the man who was your dearest friend, a hero and a mentor and even something of an idol to you, and who you hadn’t seen since the summer of 1980, when he more or less threw you out of his home.
The website on which the obituary appears is that of a local Oregon newspaper, the notice dated January 5, 2006. It describes the deceased’s accomplishments as a university professor, noting his achievements as a champion of human rights and diversity dedicated especially to the causes of indigenous peoples as well as
refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. The notice explains how as a student the deceased did anthropological fieldwork in Thailand and Laos, how he worked briefly for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, that he was fluent in French, Vietnamese, and Seneca, one of several languages spoken by the Iroquois tribes in what is now New York state. The notice ends with a quote from one of the teacher’s university associates, who relates the teacher’s conviction that “there would come a time when people of compassion would come together from all over the world to help make it a better place, a place where love, peace, and wisdom can survive and flourish.”
Castalia, you say to yourself. The unreachable star.
According to the obituary, your former teacher was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1943. There’s no mention of his having been a Rhodes Scholar or attending Oxford or Berkeley. Two survivors – a sister and a brother – are alluded to. Nothing about being adopted or having a paraplegic older brother. The cause of death isn’t specified.
The article also states that he was a “member of the Seneca Nation of Indians.” In the photograph that accompanies the article he wears a Navajo-patterned vest. A bone pendant dangles over the triangle of bare flesh exposed by his opened shirt collar. From the khaki baseball cap he wears a scruffy black ponytail protrudes. When you knew him the teacher was blond. His eyes were blue.
You spend the next hour scanning other websites, looking for what you’re not sure, until you find it – another obituary, that of the man the teacher had been living with when he more or less threw you out of his house. Like you, the man had been a former student. Like you, he had been nurtured and influenced by the teacher. Like you, he had been among a very few select people the teacher numbered among his friends.
This man’s obituary is dated February, 2006, less than one month after the teacher’s. At the request of the deceased’s family the cause of death isn’t disclosed.
You shift your gaze toward the window, to the unbroken string of red brake lights winking their way toward the toll plaza.
You recall the strange woman at your father’s memorial service.
You wonder: Can we ever really know anyone? Can we even know ourselves?
Who was my father? Who was the teacher? Who were these two men who were so responsible for making me who I am? Dear Past Self, do you know? Can you tell me?
Reprinted with permission from The Inventors: A Memoir by Peter Selgin and published by Hawthorne Books, 2016.