On my father’s side ours was a family of arguers. Whatever the subject – except Hitler and the Nazis of course – every position on the spectrum of possible opinion managed to find its enthusiastic proponent. About Mrs. Gratz’s daughter’s divorce, the war in Korea, Cadillacs vs. Lincolns vs. Chryslers, Stevenson vs. Eisenhower, the Red Scare, Reform Judaism, the best rye bread bakery in the city, the worst show on TV, everyone was unyielding, the women as opinionated as the men and often more forceful. No one was ever overwhelmed by irrefutable facts, because no one hesitated to refute them anyway. Sundays in my Aunt Sylvia’s dark living room, the relatives expounding from her maroon plush couch, stuffed floral armchairs, heavy mahogany sidechairs dragged in from the dining room, it was I suppose like being present at sessions of parliament in a small Eastern European nation, accents included, except when it resembled a courtroom cross examination, everybody simultaneously witness and prosecuting attorney.
Aside from the kids like me, whose opinions were not required and therefore could only listen as the adults piled up their arguments, the sole exception to the essentially good-natured, always vehement, sometimes acerbic debate was Joe Iserman, my cousin Dora’s husband.
Around fifty, diamond shaped, with a face the shape and color of a bulkie roll, he always wore a black suit, dark tie, black shoes and sat with his hands folded on his stomach. He could have been an undertaker, but he was by profession an upholsterer who worked in the back rooms of a large shop in the furniture district downtown.
Not only did Joe Iserman when present not partake of the enlivening flow of argument, counter argument and counter-counter argument, he never spoke at all. Never. He wasn’t mute, he was simply silent. He wasn’t enigmatic, he was an enigma. If he had opinions, no one knew them. If he had thoughts of any sort, no one could guess them. What the personal relations were between him and Dora, no one could imagine. In a reckoning of notable family occurrences, no one could ever cite a conversation with Joe Iserman.
At the Sunday get-togethers people used to address questions to him, perhaps to see if they could get him to talk, perhaps out of simple politeness, feeling that even if he didn’t say anything, he shouldn’t simply be ignored. No matter — he never answered; he’d shift in his seat, raise his eyebrows, lift his hands, still joined, three inches off his paunch; something like a smile would come and go. The interlocutor, only theoretically hopeful of an answer and anxious to proceed with the dispute, would accept that this was another non-response from Joe Iserman and re-aim the question at a more productive target.
If Aunt Sylvia asked what he would like to eat or drink, Dora, a bony, placid woman with a frequent smile, would reply for him. “Joe always takes his coffee black.” “Just a little lox on the bagel.” “No desert for Joe, the sugar, you know.”
As with every other topic the relatives divided on what this silence indicated about Joe and his relations to the family.
A small faction led by my deep-voiced and commanding Uncle Sol claimed that Joe Iserman was just stupid. He never said anything because he didn’t understand and couldn’t follow the arguments.
Nonsense, came the undaunted counter-claim, he’s just not interested. That doesn’t mean he’s stupid.
Oh really, smart guy? Then what’s he interested in?
Who knows? Maybe he’s got a whole set of subjects and calculations he’s tumbling abound in his head, in private there. Things we wouldn’t be interested in. We have no way of knowing otherwise.
Fine. But then couldn’t he say if he wants lox on his bagel?
Just what I mean. Anybody could say they wanted lox on their bagel, but he’s apparently not interested in that either.
My father’s opinion, shared by my mother, was that Joe wasn’t stupid, just intimidated by the family style. Nobody really knew anything about Joe Iserman’s own family, but, said my father, not everyone saw this kind of arguing as a form of exercise and entertainment, or was capable of participating. It required a certain degree of self-confidence, aggressiveness, willingness to put yourself forward and stand up for yourself.
Oh sure, for the first year or two, came the opposition, but they’d been married twelve, or was it fourteen years. By now he should’ve gotten used to it.
It may be that you’re missing the point, said my mother, he’s probably just a sensitive person; people don’t get over being sensitive that easily.
The most sensitive of individuals herself, she always managed nonetheless her two or three cents worth on any question, as someone else didn’t hesitate to point out.
Humorous younger cousin Florence wondered why silence had to mean a failing on Joe Iserman’s part; given the nature of the family and these disputations, he’d probably just been waiting fourteen years to get a word in edgewise.
Advanced opinion, led by college educated cousin-in-law Fred, claimed that Joe Iserman was simply depressed, alone in sad darkness inside his head, unable to respond to the outside world even if he wanted to.
Ridiculous. Now Alma Klein, she’s depressed. She can’t even get out of bed sometimes. And look at the way Joe dresses, very neatly, he takes care of himself, never misses work, doesn’t shlump around, eats moderately, but with an appetite. How on earth can you say he’s depressed?
Aunt Frieda’s little faction proposed that Joe Iserman actually felt superior to the family, viewed their endless argumentation as foolish, inwardly disdained the noise, the vulgarity, the inconclusiveness. That he was in fact a secret know-it-all who felt he was too good to share his knowledge with the dopes in front of him.
What could possibly make you think that?
That little smile of his. I know that smile. Remember Gloria Silverman.
This was a one-time friend generally viewed as a traitor in Freida’s circle because she’d abandoned their bridge club for a more ‘hoity-toity’ one.
Gloria used to smile like that. And look what she did.
Ai, there’s no similarity. If anything that smile looks like embarrassment.
If it’s not gas, Freida.
Besides, you tell me what he’s got to feel superior about.
You don’t understand at all. What did Gloria Silverman have to feel superior about? The number of times she revoked, and her bidding, it was straight out of the middle ages. But she felt superior anyway.
No one pursued this subject since Gloria Silverman’s bad bridge habits had been ventilated thoroughly over the past few years. But someone did declare that, frankly, a fast moving smile was next to nothing to base a theory of personality on.
Alone in another point of view, though somewhat related to Freida’s, was Aunt-by-marriage Helen, who proposed the notion that Joe was a secretive brooding man who hated the family and meditated who knew what unpleasantries in his chair, and in point of fact only came to family get-togethers to think evil thoughts of everyone.
Helen’s idea was universally dismissed. Impossible. Dora couldn’t live with a man like that and be as happy and untroubled as she seemed.
The problem was that no one could test their theory against the experience of the only person who might provide irrefutable concrete evidence: Dora. Because not even to her mother, Aunt Sarah, did Dora disclose the smallest detail of what went on when they were alone together in their house and of what he was like in private. Family opinion also divided on what this meant.
Then after a Wednesday night brisket dinner at home, Joe Iserman, fifty-four, had one of those no precursor, sneak-attack massive coronaries, keeled over and died as he had apparently lived, without saying a word.
Amidst the solemnity and the sorrow, largely for Dora, speculation abounded in the temple vestibule as to what the Rabbi might say in his eulogy; if Dora, brought to speak about Joe Iserman, might finally have provided details that would reveal what went on in his mind.
But it was not to be. The eulogy was perhaps the shortest in the history of praise for the dead. The Rabbi tried hard, filling out his tribute with irreproachable generalizations and apt if unrevealing biblical verses. “As he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” “Better is a handful of quietness, than both hands full with travail and vexation of spirit.” But when direct references to the deceased were extracted, it turned out he was a loyal husband, a hard worker, a good provider, a man who did nobody harm and whom nobody could dislike. Virtues not to be scorned by any means, if deeply uninformative to the family at large.
Finally however, Dora spoke to her mother, and her revelations percolated through the family. She couldn’t think of anything else to tell the Rabbi because Joe Iserman at home was just as he was in public. Silent. It was peaceful, she said, living with him, though sometimes it was as though he weren’t there. The physical stuff he’d never been very interested in, but he was a warm body every night in the bed next to her. Around the house he did what husbands were supposed to do, and the money he made, she got whatever she wanted. But other than basic needs, Yes to this dinner, No to a cup of tea, she herself never had the least idea of what he was thinking either. When they married, she thought he was just shy or thoughtful and would open up as they lived together, but he never changed. She never said anything before because, well, really, there was never anything to say.
You would have thought the family would seize upon this eternal lack of information as an excuse for further irresolvable argument. After all among themselves no questions were ever settled, and up to now no one had ever seemed to mind. Instead, in every reference thereafter to “poor Joe Iserman” you could hear an undertone of dissatisfaction edging towards resentment, as if by dying in that way at that age, he had illegitimately taken himself out of the ambit of their permissible speculation. It was almost the same tone I heard them use about people who committed suicide.