My father was a fat man, not burly or chunky or portly, but an old
fashioned, big-bellied 5 foot ten inch, 325 pound, morbidly obese fat guy.
Think Sidney Greenstreet, the urbane thief in The Maltese Falcon. But
Greenstreet wore his fat lightly, in elegantly tailored suits, while sporting a
roguish grin that made his bulk seem, if not invisible, then certainly
My father was neither roguish, nor could he afford tailored suits. He
bought his nondescript clothes off the rack at Sig Klein’s Fat Man’s Shop.
It was a real store and that was its actual name. It dated from the mid-
19th century, a time when people had a more accepting attitude towards
As a child I had a similar attitude. I suppose I was aware of my
father’s fat, but I didn’t think of my father as fat. He was my Daddy. He
wore glasses. In the morning his hair was messy and he needed a shave.
And oh yes: he had a big belly.
Actually, I loved that belly. I’d climb into his bed and crawl under
the covers. He’d be waiting with a comic book. While he read, I’d burrow
my face into his neck and put my hand on that warm comforting mound
of flesh. I’d purr.
Years later my sons and I would snuggle on the couch while we
watched a Yankee game. I remember one of them petting my stomach like
it was a puppy. “It’s so soft,” he said. I winced.
When did my feelings change? One particular day stands out. I was
about eight or nine. My father and I were on the beach. This was highly
unusual. Even though he was a good swimmer, and we lived two blocks
from the beach, my father rarely went. He was a cab driver. He worked
nights and slept until noon. He was always too tired to go. Or so he said.
Now I think: maybe he just didn’t want to be seen with his shirt off.
I am standing on the shore watching my father come out of the
water. As he walks toward me, his stomach suddenly seems enormous, a
massive globe of pale flesh hanging over a much too-tight bathing suit.
He puts his hand on my shoulder. I am certain than everyone — my friends,
their normal bodied fathers, strangers — are all staring at us. I hate that
I’m with him. I can’t stand that he’s touching me.
I remember that day because it was awful. But it couldn’t have
occurred in a vacuum. Attitudes don’t shift overnight. When did my father’s
fat change from comforting to shameful? Was it hearing my mother call him
a fat bastard during an argument? Was it our new TV that brought Oliver
Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Jackie Gleason, and fat jokes into our living
Perhaps none of it would have mattered had I remained the skinny
kid who crawled into his father’s bed. I didn’t. At eight, adults were calling
me chubby. Kids just called me fat. Fortunately, there were kids a lot fatter
than me like Eugene. The schoolyard wits called him Huge Gene and yes,
I laughed along with everyone else. Okay, probably louder than everyone
else. But the more I looked at my father, the more convinced I was that I
would one day surpass Eugene and become him.
I didn’t have the usual teenage battles with my father. I just avoided
him as much as I could. At the same time, I feared for him. Everyone did.
My uncle, the pharmacist, pushed amphetamine-laced diet pills on him. His
doctor warned him about the burden he was putting on his heart. My
mother, as usual, was more direct: “You’re killing yourself,” she screamed.
But it was a magazine article that really got to me. I don’t recall the exact
subject but I very clearly remember the chart that accompanied it. It listed
heights, appropriate weights, and on the far right, a danger zone in bright
red. My father was a hundred pounds over the red line. It hit me. He was
going to die and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. There’d be nights
I’d go to sleep certain he wasn’t coming home in the morning. I’d lie there
sad, frightened and furious.
He had the decency to wait until I was 25 and out of the house. I got
the call and drove to Coney Island. I found my mother huddled in a corner
of the kitchen as if she were hiding.
“He’d called to tell me he was at the airport waiting for a fare,” she
said. “I told him to come home. I made a duck, I said. It’ll get cold. Can
you believe that? I yelled at him about a duck.” She started to laugh and
then began to sob. A roast duck was in a pan on top of the stove, its skin
glistening with congealed fat. I wanted to hurl it out the window. I wanted to
set the kitchen on fire
That was a long time ago. When I think of my father now, it’s with
affection, sadness, and more than a little shame. I rejected a sweet, kindly
man who loved me. How cruel. How ignorant. Yes, I’m aware that what
goes on between a parent and a child is too complicated find a single
cause or one guilty party. I’m also aware that my father could be a difficult
man and I was certainly not an easy child. Still, the distance between us
began with one simple fact. I was ashamed of him. Where could I go from
There are regrets that come with sudden death. After my father’s, I’d
stay up nights talking with him, saying the things we never said. But
closure is a fantasy. Whether death comes in five seconds or five years,
there’s never enough time. There are always more words. Files remain
open. Debts go unpaid.
A Eulogy for Joe Waldman, 49 Years Overdue
In a small apartment on the top floor of a three-family house in
Coney Island, a little boy lies in his parent’s bed. He is on his stomach,
resting his head on his father’s belly, listening to the story of Superman’s
birth. It is the boy’s favorite comic book. His father has read it to him so
many times that the boy doesn’t have to look at the panels. He can see
Krypton in flames, Superman’s father putting the baby in the little rocket
ship, Krypton exploding, the ship a tiny dot floating in the blackness of
space. He thinks that the little baby must have been really lonely. But he
also thinks that he must have been cozy, nestled in that little rocket ship
that his father built just for him. Cozy and safe
With the tip of his index finger, the boy traces a circle on the mole
beneath his father’s armpit. He shinnies up his body and rubs his cheek
against the scratchiness of his father’s day-old beard. He sniffs his neck,
taking in the musty smell of morning sweat.
His father stops reading. The boy’s head pops up.
“Again, Daddy. Again.”
“The last time. I swear. Please. Please”
My father sighs. He reaches down and strokes my hair. He picks up
the comic book. He begins to read. I lay my head on his stomach. The
winter wind howls off Gravesend Bay. It pounds on the walls. The flimsy
windows tremble. I am safe.