Therefore, the crucial distinction for me is not the difference between fact and fiction, but the difference between fact and truth . . . my single gravest responsibility is to tell the truth.
Toni Morrison, “The Site of Memory”
My father was a Communist Party organizer, a fervent believer in the political philosophy of Marxism-Leninism, the intellectual foundation of what became a faith, ideas that had nurtured and inspired him since his adolescence in “the old country” of Kishinev, Romania.
Or Russia — he would always add — Russia, Romania — borders changing with passing years and alterations in power, shifting national identities reflecting, it seems to me, other shifting borders and changes moving through my father’s life.
My father, a man with at least three names: his first, in the old country, Itzrael Lazarovitz; the one on his citizenship papers, anglicized by himself, William Lazar, later to become Lazarre, an elegant addition of letters made by his elegant wife, our mother; and his Communist Party name, Bill Lawrence.
I use all his names in this memoir, a story pieced together from chaotic shards of experience, memories both lucid and vague, at times consecutive and coherent, then suddenly crossing time and space as sounds and silence gather into images and words.
My father, Bill: a revolutionary leader, a commissar in the Spanish Civil War, and a teacher — labors with overlaps in methods and aims. He taught in a public square, and one of his early speeches there landed him in a Philadelphia prison in the 1920s. By the early 1930s he was teaching Marxism in the old Communist Party school on 12th Street in Manhattan. In 1931, the Communist Party sent him to study at the Lenin School in the Soviet Union. When he returned, he assumed a full-time post as a section leader to new Communist recruits and seasoned organizers. By the early 1950s, when his world and position had changed radically, he taught groups of Party members who were sitting around our living room to discuss current events and evaluate the swiftly changing politics of the time. And – always — through books, “discussions” and lectures at times — he taught his daughters, nephews and nieces, or any other Communist Children who were around and interested. He had been a writer too — of articles and essays about political ideals and strategies, and about the fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. My life as a writer and a teacher are in part a legacy from him. Through all the years, I have heard my father’s voice, asking questions, expressing conviction, searching for the best words as he tried to explain.
“My blood is coursing through your veins!” he would shout at us, his children, when he was insisting on his love, or when he was angry, usually at me, for some rebellion too far from his principles to abide. I feel his blood coursing through my veins now — material genes, palpable and energizing.
Beginning this story, I hear his voice reminding me that no one escapes the forces of history in shaping ourselves. As my own education continued over years and I became a teacher myself, I wanted my students to come to see how our individual voices and silences are mirrored in the broader history of voice and silence. As I begin to write my father’s story, I witness my sons, in different professional contexts also teachers, with the same questions and principles driving their work and growth. Blood seems to be coursing still.
I must have taken this knowledge in first with our childhood Sunday dinners — the broiled lamb chops and inevitable boiled chicken taking second place to dinner table talk about inequality, especially the inequalities of class — though he did not use that word with us when we were young. Working people, he would say — including Negro (the proper word then) workers, and women workers (“The Woman Question” always included in serious political talk) — were our people, the ones whose lives and interests we were never to move far from in our concerns.
But I was not always an ardent follower of my father’s views and examples. Perhaps even more than the typical adolescent, I rebelled against him and some of his beliefs. In high school, where I majored in painting and sculpture in what was then the High School of Music and Art, I encountered ideas that reflected what I had always felt yet could not fully express — the complex realities beneath conscious perception and manifest appearance. In college I became friends with a group of English majors and poets who were already immersed in Freud’s theory of the unconscious, how it applied to our intimate lives, illuminated the literature we were reading and planning to write ourselves some day. To use Toni Morrison’s perfect phrase, I fell in love with the “deep story,” and at the age of eighteen I began a long, traditional psychoanalysis. I was encountering a possibility of internal freedom not, in my mind, antithetical to my father’s, and one of our long-standing battles began.
Recently, I was standing on the shore of a peaceful bay at the tip of Long Island where on a clear day you can see the land across miles of water — the trees, the hills, a lighthouse, a boat approaching. Color and shape change dramatically with the angle of the sun. In a certain remarkable light that suffuses that stretch of beach as evening approaches, pinks and golds stripe the sky, lending striking triangular streams of glitter to the water that look like, though they are not, starlight. Both panoramas — the clarity of the first, the lit-up creation of the second — are equally necessary, equally real.
As I think about that view across the bay, the need for realistic perspective and also for lit-up imagination, I wonder about what Christa Wolf once called “the shape of conscience.” Violence spreads across the Earth. Iraqis, Syrians, Nigerians, African Americans, and Latino Americans in our own cit ies, Americans of all backgrounds, including young children, are murdered, made homeless, incarcerated, suffering unbearable loss by the thousands. A few miles uptown from where I sit writing, my son directs an organization in Harlem that serves children and youth [i] — academically, emotionally, ethically, and legally — children who, if not for independently created organizations like this one, would be largely forgotten by a society of incomparable wealth, power, and possibility. My thoughts turn again to my father, the Communist, of his concept of human freedom, whose sources and contours for him were always social and economic, but a concept that without an imagined ideal would quickly have died.
His passion was for the world and its people. From his earliest years in the old country of his birth, he lived to increase justice, human equality, dignity — he would have called it. He risked his life and reputation to this end. But his most immediate and, it turned out, most compelling passion, especially after his wife died, was for the children — his two girls.
About a year ago, in dreams and unbidden fantasies, I was repeatedly crossing a bridge that reached across a river as wide as the Hudson that flows only a few blocks from my home. In my dreams about this bridge, coming toward me from the other side, sometimes vague in a cloud of mist, sometimes as clear as the city on a cold and bright winter afternoon, is my father.
I enter into his story as if into unknown territory, even though, unlike my mother who died when I was seven, I knew him long enough to really know him –even given the long years of idealization and anger we all retain for our parents, those easily blamed and eagerly criticized souls. I knew him in ways I never got to know her: I know his stories, or enough of them to have a good sense of his history over nearly seventy years, to be able to guess with at least some confidence how to fill in the blanks. I knew his power of language and analysis, the depression that stalked him on and off for years, his love of stories and of books, how nervous and anxious he could suddenly become. On Sunday nights, he would come into our room, sit on one of our beds, and begin a tap-tap-tapping motion with his fingers on a nearby surface, one of many motions signaling his anxiety. One of us named this feeling “the creeps.” “I have the creeps,” he’d say — and we’d all smile in recognition. We had no idea, then, he was anticipating a futile weekly job search that lasted for years after his leadership position in the Communist Party came to an end.
Every morning out he went, dressed in a pressed suit, always navy blue, a tie, blue-and-red-striped or a patterned blue and gray, fitted neatly beneath a freshly washed and ironed shirt, usually pale blue but sometimes white, and going — where? We did not know for years and did not ask. He must have walked the city, stopped in for a sandwich, gone to the library. Perhaps — I hope — he visited an old comrade in a similar position, lost without the Party, unemployable and untrained.
“What should I have put on my resume when they ask for employment history?” he’d ask us later when we were old enough to understand. “For the past several decades I’ve been working as a section organizer and high-level officer of the American Communist Party? And as for education? Finished fifth grade in Kishinev, Russia.”
Now that I have passed the age of sixty-eight, the age he was when he died, I know there is no certain blessing of absolute confidence in one’s own memory or point of view. But at times and in some ways there can be a feeling of solidity and clarity, like standing in an old familiar place and thinking, Yes. I know what happened here;I know who he or she is. Or was. Or even,I know who I am, who I have been, and who I have become. Becoming a grandmother, being the daughter of a Russian Jewish immigrant and a Communist, being the white mother of two black sons and the wife of an African American man for over forty-five years — all these have shaped my consciousness and my conscience.
Yet only recently have I come to appreciate the depth of my similarities to my father, the virtues and faults I share with him, the very ones I used in fervent differentiation. ( At least I am not like that! I would never do that to my child!) And I also know the opposite truth — how dfferent I am from him, how different one can be even from those closest and most loved — a husband of nearly fifty years, two men who were once my own boys.
How different I am from my father.
How like him I finally see I am.
As I began this work I wondered, How close to the bone dare I write? What shall I try to remember? What old notebooks do I retrieve from their high dusty shelf and reread? What is the scope of this search, this research — how to shape a blend of imagination, recorded history, and personal memory? What shall I make up? What does that childhood phrase even mean? How to capture in words the tones of a man long dead yet whose voice in my head is as clear at times as the actual voice of my husband, or a friend I may talk to every day. A man whose words could range from what now sounds like predigested rhetoric but was then a revolutionary vocabulary defining an ideology that promised to rescue the world; to the most naked cries of unmasked pain spat out into sound to the lyrics of songs in English, Russian, and Yiddish, memorized perfectly because they so perfectly fit his often overflowing emotions, to shouts of disdainful criticism; to a laughter so complete it generated liquefying spills from eyes and skin and mouth, all quickly wiped with a white cotton handkerchief grabbed out of a pocket, crushed into his fist for compulsive twisting and untwisting as he spoke; to frequent declarations of love for us, his daughters, the sacrifices he made for us backing up his passionate words.
My father: it might be possible to scale his-my-our story down to a clean boneline if his bones were not dust, cremated long ago, buried by me in the earth of my mother’s and his brother’s graves, which lie side by side in a huge, somewhat overwhelming cemetery in Long Island, New York, both graves overgrown and neglected for many years.
“Forgiveness,”[ii] I called the story of that makeshift, long ago burial, and I believe I did forgive him, then newly dead and I, just twenty-eight with a two-year-old son to adore and a new husband to love. Everything seemed possible. Why not forgiveness? And forgetting. That too.
Now I am thinking of him daily again, the father I loved and admired, the father I raged against, whose judgments I railed against, one of the men — my life is filled with such beloved, powerful, endearing, at times intimidating men — who influenced me in immutable ways.
But it is not only my aging, of course. For many years he’s been back and forth, out of sight and mind, then suddenly shouting and lecturing again, whispering love, singing old Russian lullabies and union songs, igniting my nightmares and my dreams: he’s been alive all these years, huddled in an abandoned empty room, and I have neglected him, forgotten him, wreaking punishment, managing escape; or he is weeping those old prolific Russian tears, sobbing into his large, strong, heavy-knuckled, pale, beautiful hands; or he is smiling tolerantly at me after a battle about my current boyfriend, or a principle of political reality I have failed to grasp, the warmth and unashamed vulnerability of his being revealed as he pulls me to him, calling me “Baby,” or Ketseleh, and we are both disarmed of our indignation and righteousness. He mumbles something in Yiddish or Russian. I can hear him laugh.
Not long ago I Googled him.
Imagine if he read this line. He’d think his crazy daughter had nally gone truly mad — he who died before telephone answering machines, television remotes, cell phones, computers of all kinds with their mysterious, industrious engines. Yet there he was, in Wikipedia, leading a strike in Baltimore with his old pal Joe Carlson.
So the voice comes. For now.
Jane Lazarre, a former faculty member and Director of the Writing Program at Eugene Lang College, is a writer of novels and memoirs, as well as many stories and essays published in print and on line. This essay is the prologue to her new memoir, The Communist and the Communist’s Daughter (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.) You can download this excerpt, reprinted by permission of Duke University Press, here.
[i] The Brotherhood-Sister Sol, an organization serving the needs of children and youth in New York City.
[ii] Jane Lazarre, “Forgiveness,” a story in the Village Voice, May 19, 1975.