n late November, two weeks or so before my annual trip to Florida, I texted my sister Bobbie in Boca Raton to give her the date of my arrival and asked her to pass it along to our sister Freddy, who lives in nearby Delray Beach. Freddy, born Fradyl, now in her middle seventies, long ago decided to take a pass on the digital age, and has no computer, smart-phone, iPads, Kindles, or any of that other, as she calls it, dreck. The text that came back read, “I no longer speak to your sister. Tell her yourself.”
When I called Freddy to ask her what was going on, she said, controlled but with genuine anger in her voice: “Your sister’s son Jeremy, the fabulous stockbroker, caused my son-in-law Barry to lose some sixty thousand dollars, and at a time when the kids badly need the money. Leslie is pregnant with their third child, and Barry’s job is very shaky.”
“What did Jeremy do, exactly?” I asked.
“What he did was put Barry onto a stock that first rose and then plunged terribly. Jeremy claims he told Barry to sell before the stock crashed, but Barry claims he never did anything of the kind. Your sister, of course, is taking her son’s side. He was always spoiled, Jeremy, spoiled rotten.”
“How long have Bobbie and you not spoken?” I asked.
“Six, maybe seven weeks. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. She brags, your sister does, that her precious Jeremy made more than six hundred thousand dollars last year. Unless he makes good on some of Barry’s loss, I have no further interest in hearing from her.”
“How long do you expect this to go on?” I asked.
“You remember Johnny Mathis and his signature song? Unless Jeremy does something to restore my son-in-law’s money, I won’t be talking to your sister until at least two weeks after the Twelfth of Never.”
As soon as I got off the phone with Freddy, I called Bobbie. “First of all,” she said, “her son-in-law is lying. Jeremy assures me that he told Barry to bail out on the stock on which he lost all the money, but Barry, out of sheer greed, refused to do so. Whatever his other faults, Jeremy doesn’t lie. Your sister is all wrong about this. If she doesn’t want to talk to me, that’s fine with me. I can manage nicely without her.”
I found myself more than upset, more than saddened, by this feud between my sisters. Maybe because I’ve always felt Freddy and Bobbie were more than sisters to me. My mother, Florence Klein, died of leukemia when I was not yet three, and even now, some sixty years later, I strain to remember anything about her. I’m told she was beautiful, gentle, and beloved by everyone. My father, who had been in his late forties when she died, never remarried. He turned all his attention to his business. He was a printer, everything from clothing labels to mail-order catalogues to menus. He was as far as possible from a full-court-press father of the kind that is common in our day. Often even on Sundays he would go down to “the place,” as he called his single floor loft in a five-story building on North Avenue near Damen. You had only to see him for ten minutes at the place to know that it was there my father felt most alive.
Freddy was eleven, Bobbie nine years older than I, a late-life child, possibly, who knows, a mistake. I can’t recall when I first sensed the loss of a mother, for between them my sisters did everything a mother would have done, maybe more. When I was little they bathed me, prepared the family meals, set out my clothes; together they accompanied me to my first day of kindergarten at DeWitt Clinton School. Freddy took me to doctors and dentists, shopped for my clothes, imposed such discipline as was required; Bobbie made my school lunches, did my laundry, read to me, helped me with my homework. If they ever argued about any aspect of this arrangement, it was never in front of me. The bond between them was strong, unbreakable, or so I thought.
We lived in a three-bedroom apartment, on Washtenaw, a block south of Devon, in West Rogers Park. My father had his bedroom, I had mine, and Freddy and Bobbie shared the large master bedroom, into which they had moved after my mother died. The apartment had one bathroom. Somehow the single bathroom didn’t seem an inconvenience. Growing up in fairly close quarters with two sisters left me on easy terms with femininity. I would see my sisters with their hair in curlers, or occasionally hear one or the other crying. Kotex boxes would sometimes turn up, bras hung from the shower curtain rod. I must have been twelve when Freddy took me aside to explain some of the major differences between males and females, which I remember seemed more embarrassing for her than for me.
Freddy was dark complected, had always to worry about her weight, had problems with her skin, which caused her to go heavy on makeup. Said to look like our mother, Bobbie had deep auburn hair, was on the small side, had a good figure. Neither was much interested in school, though Freddy was a reader of romantic novels. Bobbie had lots of dates, Freddy not so many, but if there had been any envy or rivalry between them, I never sensed it.
Freddy went three years to the University of Illinois in Chicago. Bobbie got a teaching certificate at National Louis College. Neither of my sisters’ ambitions really extended beyond marriage, and both married, in the fashion of the time, young, Freddy at twenty-one, Bobbie at twenty-three. Freddy’s husband, Lou Koenig, was in business with his father, who owned two dress shops in the Loop. Bobbie’s husband, Larry Hirsch, was a CPA.
I’m not sure what I expected in the way of brothers-in-law, but these two, though nice enough, didn’t, somehow, fill the bill. I often felt I could finish their sentences for them. They made all the predictable and safe moves as they went through life, and took my sisters with them. They bought houses in the approved places, Lou in Northbrook, Larry in Highland Park; later came the Delray Beach and Boca Raton condos. Each couple had two children: two daughters for the Koenigs, two sons for the Hirsches. They were members of the same Reform synagogue, and voted Democrat. Lou and Larry were careful in their investments, passionate, as far as I could make out, only about golf.
Their husbands were responsible guys, grown-ups, male protectors, adults. They never did me any harm, though because of my own line of work I suspect they were mildly contemptuous of me, a man who never had to meet a payroll and thus without understanding of how life really works.
Around the age of eight I was discovered to have a talent for mathematics. I was able to multiply and divide large numbers in my head. I enjoyed manipulating complex fractions, I found differential equations fun. Noting this “knack,” as my father called it, my teachers encouraged me, and persuaded my father to send me to Francis Parker, a private high school. The math teachers at Parker couldn’t keep up with my deepening skill. The principal arranged for me to spend Tuesday and Thursday afternoons taking instruction in mathematics at the University of Chicago. I flourished there, and acquired a Ph.D. in mathematics at Chicago at the age of 22.
I was regarded as a coming genius, but I never actually arrived. I was hired and fairly quickly given tenure at the U of C, where I still teach. Now in my sixties, whatever my regrets—and, as with all lives, mine have not been few—my career as a mathematician is not among them. I have always considered myself lucky to have been good at something I loved to do.
Work and family are the two chief sources of satisfaction in anyone’s life, and I found mine only in work. By which I mean my own failures at marriage—I should say marriages, since I’ve had three of them. Who was it who said, “Married, single, neither is a solution?” What, you might ask, is the problem to which the solution is sought? I believe I now know. Marriage means the ultimate intimate companionship and, through children, a stake in the future, no small items, either of them.
I have no children. I had been too young for my first marriage; too deeply involved in my work for my second; and my third wife, 27 years younger than I, turned out to be too young for me. All my ex-wives were academics, and none, I’ll say this much for them, crushed me with financial demands upon our divorces. When I mentioned their leniency in this regard to my friend Dan Singer, he said, “They must have been pleased to get rid of you.”
My only enduring family connection has been with my sisters. For many years, I’ve gone down for a week or so to visit them after my autumn quarter break. I’ve stayed with Freddy for the past six years, after her husband left her for a much younger woman. Sad stuff, but she seemed to be carrying on well, I thought. Bobbie’s marriage to Hirsch, her CPA, has held up.
With this split between my sisters, I began to wonder if something more than Freddy’s son-in-law’s lost money was behind it. Bobbie has been luckier in life than Freddy. In the gene lottery, she got our mother’s looks, Freddy got our father’s less than noble visage. Bobbie’s husband turned out to be a more powerful moneymaker than Freddy’s, and, as time showed, more loyal. Bobbie’s two sons were good at school: Jeremy went to Penn, his younger brother Jason to Amherst. Freddy’s daughters, Leslie and Lauren, both went to Northern Illinois, and only Lauren finished. Bobbie played tennis, did Pilates, prided herself on keeping up to date on things; Freddy had no interests other than that of her children and Ranger, her fourteen-year-old cockapoodle.
An elephant graveyard, Florida, or so our father used to call it. Too many reminders of the endgame down there: half the population on walkers and ambulances constantly whirring by, hospitals and Walmarts ubiquitous. So I’ve spent all my time in Florida exclusively with sisters, going out only for meals or the occasional afternoon swim. We’ve talked about our days in West Rogers Park: of our father, who died at eighty-one, at work, with his boots on, as he wanted, at his place of business; of their memories of our mother; and most of all about their children and now grandchildren.
We didn’t have much, or really anything, of an extended family. My father had a sister, who never married and who moved out to Los Angeles, and with whom he was never close. My mother was an only child. After my father’s death, there were just the three of us: Freddy, Bobbie, and their kid brother, the math genius who really wasn’t quite a genius. Which made us, until now I always thought, all the closer.
I have a colleague in the math department, Bernie Salkin, who regularly regales me with the sagas of his extended family, which are mostly about the disputatiousness of his parents, brothers, cousins, the whole Salkin tribe.
“You wouldn’t believe,” Bernie said to me over coffee not long ago, “how little it takes for my family to form resentments that in no time, under careful cultivation, grow into serious grudges.
“My older brother Irwin and his wife Hannah were not invited to my cousin Ernie’s grandson’s bar mitzvah in Cleveland, so Hannah and my brother have decided never to speak not only to Ernie and his wife, but that entire branch of the family. Ernie, meanwhile, blames my brother for not sending at least a card of congratulation to his grandson.
“When I was growing up, my parents were very close to a family named Perlberg. Used to see them regularly, had them over for holiday dinners, went on trips with them. Then suddenly, boom, the Perlbergs were out of the picture. Years later, long after my mother died, I asked my father why he and my mother broke with the Perlbergs. ‘I don’t remember,’ my father said, ‘but it must have been something significant.’
“My mother was a nationally ranked grievance collector. She could find an insult in a salutation, a slight in a Hallmark greeting card. My parents one day dropped in, in Skokie, to visit my father’s cousins, the Rosenbergs. Turns out Sam and Harry Rosenberg left to play golf soon after my parents arrived. My mother never forgave them abandoning my father, who himself, far as I could tell, didn’t much seem to care, since he always thought Sam and Harry Rosenberg braggarts and bores anyway. She never spoke with the Rosenbergs again. ‘They just up and abandoned your father,’ my mother said, ‘and for what, a silly game. Besides, Jews shouldn’t play golf. It’s a sport for the goyim.’
“At dinners with our cousins you could you could feel the envy, jealousies, rivalry at the table, almost taste them in the food. Afterwards my parents would dissect what was involved in these bad feelings, some of which went back decades, generations even. If I had a dollar for every time I heard my mother say ‘she has a nerve’ about some cousin or in-law, I could cancel my payments into my TIAA-Cref retirement plan right now and live out my days on the ‘she-has-a-nerve’ funds alone.
“Growing up I took all these disputes as the way family life is. I didn’t know there was another way. Then I married Patricia, who is not Jewish and who grew up in Hinsdale. You know Hinsdale? The western suburb? When we visit there, driving out on the Eisenhower Expressway, I kid Patricia, asking if she noticed we just passed a sign reading, ‘Next Jew 80 miles.’ That’s Hinsdale, and the western suburbs generally. Utterly Judenrein.
“Anyhow my wife’s sister Ellie has five children, all grown, all now with kids of their own. We drive out every year to Thanksgiving dinner in Hinsdale, where she still lives. Everyone in that family seems genuinely to like everyone else. I look for signs of secret envy, hidden grudges, free-floating resentments, little tinges of competitiveness. Nothing! Isn’t Ellie’s daughter Emily the least ticked off that her brother Jack’s kid Tyler got into Princeton, while her own daughter, Cooper, had to settle for Drake? That her other daughter Letty married a guy who’s cleaning up in the commodities market—doesn’t that get under the skin of her son Zach who has his hands full with medical bills for a wife who turned out to be bipolar? Nope. Nothing but godamn good feeling in the room. They all really like one another. Beyond me. I just don’t get it.”
Until now we Kleins had nothing of the Salkins’ disputatiousness. My father was too engaged in his work to have much of a social life or interest in gossip. Freddy could be a touch acerbic about friends and later about her ex-husband; Bobbie tended to be upbeat, optimistic generally. The reigning emotion in academic life is resentment, but I’ve been fortunate in not being much touched by it during my career.
Because of all this I felt myself hit particularly hard by the breakup between my sisters. I couldn’t bear the thought of going to Florida and seeing each of them separately, pretending, at least in conversation, that the other didn’t exist. So I texted Bobbie and called Freddy to let them know something had come up that caused me to cancel my trip this year.
Yet I couldn’t get their quarrel out of my mind. I would find myself setting out a proof on the blackboard in class and my mind would jump to the thought of my sisters’ argument. During Friday afternoon Chicago Symphony concerts, the idea that Freddy and Bobbie were living within a few miles of each other and not speaking would spoil the music. I’d be drifting off to sleep and there it was: my sisters, whom I’d always thought so level-headed, so sensible, ruining the last years of their lives over this stupid dispute. How could these two women, the two people I loved more than anyone else in the world, have come to dislike each other?
By March I could no longer stand it. I got in touch with Freddy and Bobbie and told them a lie—that I was to give a lecture at Florida Atlantic University in Boca. I invited them, separately, to join me for dinner at the Hilton during my one-night stay in town. I asked Bobbie to meet me there at 7:00, Freddy at 7:30.
Bobbie, always punctual, walked into the restaurant at 7:00. I was sitting at a table near the entrance. I had reserved a table for three, but instructed the waiter to set the table for two until my other guest had arrived. My sister, now in her early seventies, still seemed youthful, attractive, and I thought of how much I loved her.
I had ordered a bottle of Riesling. She asked me how my lecture went. I said fine, embroidering my lie by adding that the audience was small but seemed enthusiastic. I asked about her kids and her tennis, for one of the advantages of her living in Florida was that she could play outdoor tennis all year round. We had begun to talk about our father, when Freddy walked up to our table. The air froze around the three of us.
“What’s this about?” Bobbie said. “I thought this was supposed to be a dinner for two.”
Freddy’s face took on a hard look. I could sense the tension in Bobbie.
“Sit down, Freddy, please,” I said. “I’ll explain.”
“Will you?” she said. “I can’t wait to hear it.” She remained standing.
“Look,” I said. “I hate this. I hate that the two of you are not getting along. Really hate it. You two are all I have by way of family in the world, and you mean a lot to me. Can’t we find some way to work this out?”
“And just who appointed you as United Nations mediator?” Bobbie asked.
“No one,” I said, “but I thought if we three could just sit down and talk about it, we could clear things up.”
“Let me get this straight,” Freddy said. “You, a man with three failed marriages under his belt, are going to act as the great peacemaker for his sisters? And you are going to do this precisely how? Through mathematical logic, no doubt.”
“I just wonder if both of you aren’t overreacting,” I said.
“Really?” said Bobbie. “And how would you react? She calls my son a liar, and I’m supposed to take that in stride? Brush it off? Forget about it? Is that what you’re suggesting?”
“You shouldn’t be sticking your nose in,” said Freddy, “since you obviously have no notion of what is going on here. My nephew, the powerful moneymaker Jeremy Hirsch, causes my daughter and her husband to lose their nest egg, and I’m to say nothing about it. To take it calmly? Get over it? Is that your suggestion?”
“Forgive me,” interjected Bobbie, “but you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. You’ve never been particularly strong on details, you know.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean when Dad died you were supposed to make arrangements with the funeral home in Chicago, but because your pooch—Ranger, Stranger, whatever’s his name—was at the vet’s, it all fell to me.”
“Interesting,” said Freddy. “I suppose next you’ll tell me that you did all the heavy lifting, when we were raising our baby brother, the Great Negotiator, here. My memory is that you spent lots of time preening for dates, though I could of course be wrong.”
“I apologize for having lots more of them than you,” Bobbie answered.
“Why are the two of you bringing up all this old stuff?” I asked.
“Oh, dear, you’re not sorry about bringing the two of us together to work our little difficulties out, are you, baby brother?” Bobbie asked.
“Maybe you should go back to school for another Ph.D.,” Freddy added, “this one in common sense. Arranging this meeting is one of the stupidest things you’ve ever done. I’ve had enough. I’m taking off.” And she walked out of the restaurant.
Bobbie and I sat in silence for a few minutes. “Well,” said Bobbie, “that certainly worked out nicely.” She rose from the table, took the Reisling out of the ice bucket, and left without another word.
That was last night.
As I boarded the plane back to Chicago, it occurred to me that the one thing on which my sisters seemed to agree was their opinion of me. They think I am impractical, naive, that I know nothing about real life. I had always thought they were proud of me and pleased with my accomplishments, even if they had been unable to understand them. Apparently not. All these years they had really thought me little more than a boob, lucky to have been saved from the real world through a sinecure in a university.
Last night made me wonder for the first time if I were a fantasist—a fantasist, in particular, about family. Well, I don’t suppose you could call a man with three failed marriages a realist. Was my greatest fantasy of all that of my sentimental feeling about my two substitute mothers and myself as the beloved child of their youth? As the plane began its descent to O’Hare, I closed my eyes and when it landed with a bump I woke abruptly to the realization that I might never again see Freddy and Bobbie—and that I was no longer, and perhaps never had been, a sisters’ boy.