I pulled a thread. I started asking questions about my Uncle Ben. It had been so long ago, 53 years, since he and my dad had split. I’d been 14 then, I’m 67 now. But what I was curious about was a time about 20 years ago, just before Ben’s death.
When Ben was dying, my dad had driven from Canton to Cleveland to see him. I was thinking about how much that meant to my father, how despite everything there seemed to be something he liked about Ben. They were cousins and had grown up together. They weren’t friends. My dad didn’t trust Ben.
Ben was a con man, a grifter, an embezzler. He, along with another cousin, had forced my dad and his brother out of the family business and separated them from a lot of money. Then he and that other cousin drove the business, which had been doing well under my dad’s leadership, into disarray. Eventually, it was sold off. And that’s not the half of it. Ben was also a rake, a skirt chaser, an adulterer, a man who had had many affairs, some even conducted in the house he shared with his wife and children. He was not a nice guy nor an honest one.
At first, following this thread, I couldn’t get anyone to talk with me about Ben. I wrote one hometown friend who had alluded in passing once to Ben’s women. But this time when I asked her, she texted back only about remembering his mischievous smile. I pushed about his catting around, and she wouldn’t talk about it. Us small-town Jews protecting our ranks, even decades later.
I was frustrated. These days I’m so curious about the Midwestern silences we grew up with, what faces we wore and what was happening behind them. It’s occurred to me that right around the time my mom was telling me to wear white gloves, keep my voice down, and sit up straight, Uncle Ben, as we called him, was inviting women over to his house to spend the night. He’d do this, I’ve since learned, when his wife and kids would go to visit her family in Texas. I had no idea as a child, I thought my failures to sit up straight, to skip dessert, that those were sins.
Back in the present, I reached out to more hometown friends and found some willing to chat. When my dad died, eight and a half years ago, one of them had traveled down from Cleveland to Canton to pay his respects, and we had a great talk. Mainly about my dad, whom he liked, but also about others in the extended family including Ben. Listening to this friend, it occurred to me for the first time that maybe there was something compulsive about Ben’s misdeeds and harming people. He got caught so often, flaunted his sins.
When I’d first learned something about Ben’s misadventures after the family rift years ago, when I was 14, I’d thought Ben had chosen to be a bad boy. I’d wondered why he ran around with women in Canton, a fishbowl of a town, why didn’t he meet up with them in, I don’t know, Akron, or Mansfield? Why did he get caught embezzling from the family business? I wondered now if Ben was manic depressive or had another disorder, possibly undiagnosed?
Under the blanket of Midwestern silences, not to mention the emphasis on good behavior and correct appearances of us wanting-to-be-assimilated Jews, mental health often went untended to, still does. While Ben’s misdeeds were so visible, so talked about by other adults, were there parts of the story that were hidden and silenced?
The consensus now, though, as I talked with people, was that the brain chemical explanations could be left behind. One person thought maybe Ben’s misdeeds were responses to early (unknown) trauma. Ben was described as dishonest, charismatic, a bit of a con. A grifter. Bright, good with words.
I remember him as handsome, smiling, a little too slick. Turns out he was an alcoholic, and his mother may’ve been as well. The work he did for the family meat packing business was sales. Think Mad Men. Then there were stories about Ben when he was younger.
In his early 20s, Ben and a friend had proposed to the Sherwin Williams paint company that they would build a boat called the Sure Win and sail around the world with Sherwin Williams paint on board as a publicity stunt for the company. The company liked it and called the two twentysomethings in, only to discover that they knew nothing about building or sailing a boat.
So, Ben was fun when he was young. But after that, not so much. He hurt people, sometimes badly. He had an affair with the woman who later became his second wife for 8 years while married to his first wife, at the same time sleeping with other women, too. He embezzled more than once from the family business.
I look up some of the labels applied to Ben. He was a rake, a ladies’ man, a crook, a cheat. A rascal. Many of these words are part of a spectrum, a rake can be a charming person, usually a man, with multiple relationships. An adulterer, though, is someone who cheats on their spouse, who breaks a promise. Some of the words like smooth operator or skirt chaser have delightful, antiquated sounds. Ben was born in 1928, so these mid-twentieth century phrases, intended for gossip use, but also to cover up or excuse, fit. This was not, for most people, a time of mutually consenting promiscuous marriages. And in Ben’s marriage, there was hurt and deceit. Ben put others in difficult situations. Even for embezzlement, there are euphemistic words like skim that cover the crime and its aftermath. Ousting my dad and his brother by going into cahoots with another cousin, David, (Ben and David together owned two-thirds of the company’s stock) was cruel and for the victims costly. Then Ben himself was ousted when David appealed to the board to throw him out after (possibly) more embezzlement. Ben’s own father was on the board and voted against him.
Ben died at 74, in the care of the Cleveland Clinic, and separated from his second wife. Toward the end, Ben was visited by a panorama of people he had caused harm to, there to make peace. My father was one of them.
There is a script that could say forgiveness was important to my father. I don’t think so. It wasn’t something he talked about. I don’t recall him using the word much nor reciting platitudes like forgiveness allows the person who was wronged to release the weight of anger. I don’t think he was interested in forgiveness. Nor was he religious. He tended over the years to explain the split as business. A dirty, underhanded business, the ousting of his brother and him, especially since my dad had been one of the people to help Ben the first time Ben had been caught embezzling. But still, just business. Over time, my dad subscribed to the idea that David (the other cousin) had talked Ben into it. Others had heard that idea, too. I wonder if Ben had started that rumor. Or maybe it was true. Made sense that David, often overlooked, had wanted more power in the hierarchy.
What I know is that my dad was glad he had gone up to see Ben at the Cleveland Clinic. When he returned home, it was clear, and surprising, to me that he was fond of Ben despite not trusting him at all and knowing that Ben had wronged him. My dad’s gone, I can’t ask him about this. What I think in retrospect is that my dad, who valued honesty and trust, had long been appalled at what Ben had done to himself and others. And he all too well understood how much money Ben and David had cost him. But he liked his life—he had what he needed. And my dad was always fond of fun.
Ben was fun. They’d grown up together. Before Ben’s alcoholism, before the full-time adultering, he must’ve been entertaining to grow up with. Trouble, but fun. In those pre-World War II times of rules, of stringent antisemitism, of having no choice but to go into the family business, Ben’s wildness must’ve been a relief. My dad was mainly a good boy, and Ben mainly a bad one.
Did Ben drink when they were young, chase after non-Jewish girls? Pull other pranks than the Sherwin Williams one? He was tall and good looking. So was my dad. Maybe my dad liked how Ben stretched the rules when they were kids and teens. Dad, in his early twenties, fought in WWII, in the infantry, in deadly trench warfare, in a unit where deaths were common and replacements didn’t last long, sure after months of this he would not make it out alive, yet lasted the winter of the Battle of the Bulge sleeping outside in trenches when more Americans died from freezing than bullets. Ben, a few years younger, was too young for that war. A bit of a bounder.
I imagine my dad remembered that young Ben, and for that Ben–and for his own youth, for his lifelong, gentle irreverence and playfulness–went to visit the older, dying one.