Rachel Jagoda Lithgow
21 min readJun 18, 2021

--

Me and Pop at the circus, War Memorial Auditorium Buffalo, 1976

The Women in his Life: A Father’s Day Story

Women were my father’s Kryptonite. He fully immersed himself in each relationship he tried, and “She”, whomever the she happened to be in that month or year, became a temporary fixture in my life as well. She had many different names, but all of them were essentially the same woman with a few rare exceptions. She was petite and slender with mousy brown or dirty blond hair. She was his intellectual inferior, but much more devious than he. She suspected he had money, though he lived like a pauper, but always had cash. She was never Jewish, and knew nothing about Jews or Judaism. She was either desperate to have him marry her and carry his children, or she never wanted any kids at all. In either scenario, I was in the way, and she was having none of my malarkey.

Over the years as I matured, I got a first class education on the kind of woman I most assuredly did not wish to become. They manipulated, controlled and abused him, or put up with the most absurd behavior that a woman with an IQ above eighty with two shreds of dignity within her should never tolerate. They manipulated me as well. Some used me to try and get close to him, which even he could spot a mile off. Others would fawn over me in his presence and torture me quietly when his back was turned. Some tried to get him to dump me completely, only one came dangerously close, but ultimately, our bond was not going to evaporate, no matter how loudly the poor man’s Lady Macbeth whispered in his ear. It was almost too close for comfort, but I knew that he would never leave me, not only for my sake, but because even though he couldn’t say it out loud, I knew he needed me even more than I craved his praise and attention.

The women came and went. I got attached to none of them, but the few I liked rarely stuck around. The ones I hated after trying hard to like seemed to stay forever, like the final cockroach after an intense fumigation. To give a better picture, here are a few of his lady loves described below. These were the “She’s” I can actually remember; their names, their faces and some of our charming exchanges.

Shelly 1977–1979

Photo taken by Shelly, 1977

She was a petite and pretty brunette who loved to take pictures, and was the first I can remember beginning when I was about four or five. She had an elaborate camera and was desperately in love with my father. She used me to get close to him, and told me she loved me the second time I met her, which I found odd. My parents almost never told me they loved me, though it was implied. My father in particular wasn’t much for love talk, so this outward and very verbal proclamation of affection gave me the creeps. She also cried. A lot. In fact, other then taking pictures (after his death, I found hundreds of photos of me at the playground and a series of my father in various outfits on dozens of old contact sheets in an envelope in his desk drawer) it is the crying I remember most. The relationship dragged on a year more then it should have even though my father told me he was trying to extricate himself. Though I wasn’t totally sure what he meant when he told me she was “off her rocker”, the crying was a dead give away that something wasn’t quite right. I remember the last time I saw her, she embraced me and said “this is probably the last time I’ll see you, my best little friend”. I was pretty young at the time, six or seven, and distinctly remember thinking how sad it was that I was her best friend and I was a kid, but I figured keeping that to myself was better. I finally got up the courage to ask him a few weeks later when I was going to see Shelly again. Like fat Clemenza in The Godfather, he responded in his best mob guy voice “Shelly? You won’t see her no more.”

Iris 1979–1980

She was a short brunette and sassy as all get out. Together she and my father shared a love of sarcasm and smoking Old Gold Lights at a rapid clip. Iris had a dark sense of humor, a husky smokers voice, and a son who had a penchant for lighting things on fire, which she dealt with calmly. I thought I was a handful, but her son made me look comatose. My father had wanted me to be a boy, and from an early age, I received mitts, balls, rackets and other sports equipment I was mostly ambivalent about. Iris’s son reminded him of himself at that age I think, and he enjoyed the banter with his mother. Of course, because I liked her so much, their relationship was short lived. They parted as pals and stayed in touch. Years later, I learned that my high school boyfriend also knew Iris, because his father had dated her as well before his parents married, and they remained friendly too. She was one of the few that never took more than was offered, actually enjoyed spending time with me, and seemed to genuinely like my father for who he was, which was no easy feat.

Karen 1980s

The mysterious Karen at Club Med, sometime in the early 80s

I am not totally sure where and when he met Karen, but I remember first hearing about her when I was eight or nine. She was a bit player, someone my father would call off and on when he was in-between women he was actually serious about. I would hear her name bandied about by a few of his pals, but I only met her twice. One Saturday afternoon, we made a stop at the local Fotomat to pick up pictures from his recent vacation to a Club Med tennis camp in the Bahamas. He and one of his closest pals, Mark, would go annually to work on their game and meet women. They would share a room because my father was cheap and argumentative, plus Mark was always entertained by him. The two had met in ’67, my father was his older brother Paul’s roommate. Mark was an incredible ball player and went on to play in the minors for a few years, and when they played softball, Mark was always their ringer. When they were re-acquainted in the early eighties, it was their love of gambling that reignited their relationship. They played together, invested together, and were one another’s most trusted allies. For the entirety of my father’s life, they spoke on the phone at least twice daily. They were like the odd couple: Mark was fastidious and neat, while my father was disastrous mess. On one trip, my father ordered a milkshake from room service before bedtime. He drank it and then put the dirty glass on the night stand between them and shut off the light to go to sleep. As he was about to drift off, Mark turned the light on, grabbed the glass and took it to the bathroom to rinse it out. Then he dried it, put it back on the night stand and turned the light off. They went to sleep, my father shaking his head.

As he was looking at the pictures over his Wendy’s baked potato and burger, I saw one with his arm around a petite, pretty woman, while Mark’s arm was around a tiny blonde.

“Who’s that?” I asked

“Whose who?” He responded, knowing exactly to whom I was referring.

“Oh, that woman? That’s Karen. You know, Karen.”

“No pop, I don’t know Karen. Who is she?”

“You met her, at the mall that one time.”

It happens that I did meet her at the mall once with my father, and he had forced me to pretend I was sick so that he could get out of the conversation. I remembered her.

“So what’s with Karen? You went on vacation with her?”

He looked uncomfortable.

“Not really. We were going, and she and her friend were going, so we went together.”

“That sounds like you went on vacation with her.”

“What are you, my mother? Hey, want a Frosty?”

When I next saw his friend Toby, I asked him about Karen.

“Rachela Rachela, she’s a lovely woman. More than that, I can’t say.”

It was mysterious, but I let it go, though her name would pop up every now and then.

I stopped by his townhouse the day after I came home from summer camp in 1990, and walked into the kitchen to find a pretty brunette sitting at his kitchen table.

“Hey there” I said, a little surprised.

“Well hi Rachel, long time no see. Your dad talks about you all the time.”

I had no idea who this woman was, let alone her name.

“Yeah, it has been a long time…you!”

Just then my father walked into the kitchen and saw us chatting. I shot him a quick look which he knew and interpreted very quickly.

“Kid!” He shouted. I had not seen him in a month, and he seemed genuinely happy to see me.

“Karen, you remember Rachel.”

Right. Karen. I immediately remembered who she was when I heard her name.

“Well, I’ll let you two catch up, I know you haven’t seen one another in a while. It was great to see you Rachel, let’s catch up soon, okay?”

Catch up? I barely knew her.

“Absolutely.” Was all I could say. And she was gone.

I turned to look at my father when the door closed behind her.

“She looks good, right?” He asked me.

“How do I know? I barely know that broad. You two an item again?”

“Yeah, we’re an “item.” I’m gonna pin her next week. Forget about her. I was just about to pick up a pizza, wanna take a ride?”

Leslie 1981–1983

The only photo of Leslie I have…fitting

She was small and blonde and looked like nobody I knew. All of my mother’s friends were classy ladies, who wore sensible outfits with matching bags and shoes. She wore leather pants and body suits with plunging necklines despite her flat chest. She was overly physically affectionate and hung on my father like a dress from the discount bin at TJ Maxx. The first time we met it was 1981 and I was eight . When my father went to buy us cokes, she narrowed her eyes at me.

“We won’t have any problems here, will we?”

I wasn’t totally sure what she meant, but I had a pretty good idea, and I assured her that problems would be kept to a minimum.

“None that I can see, Leslie.” I responded. “I’m easy, you’ll like me.”

“Hmmm” was her response. It looked like she was about to educate me on what she meant by problems, when my father returned with cokes and cocoa and asked how we were getting along.

“This is one great girl you’ve got here, Walter” she said, flashing him a come hither smile. He grinned.

“Yeah, she’s all right!” He responded and winked at me. As he tucked into his food, she cocked her head, narrowed her eyes, and raised her brows at me, menacingly.

It seemed an inauspicious beginning to a terrible relationship.

As they skipped through their disastrous years together, she would often tell my father that I “looked at her funny” or that I was “making faces at her”, and he would yell at me and tell me to “grow up.” Their relationship was tumultuous, and though she was clearly a manipulative witch, she was smarter then the others, and hung on for a decent amount of time. She finally left him permanently for another man in 1983, leaving behind a depressed mess out of my father and a very skimpy striped aerobics outfit under his bathroom sink. After a few weeks of sitting on his couch watching him chain smoke and stare off into the parking lot that served as the view from his crappy apartment, I was anxious to get back to our routine of junk food and movies. I decided to try and get him out of his funk.

“Don’t worry about her, pop. You’ll always have me, right?”

He crushed out his cigarette and looked straight at me.

“Thanks, kid. You know? You’re all right. Let’s get the hell outta here, I feel like a milkshake.”

Louisa 1988–1990

Louisa with the “cew”, late 80s

She was a pretty and brilliant professor of psychology at a very respectable institution of higher learning, and I liked her instantly. My father met her at his best friend Marty’s wedding, where he was the Best Man. Lou and Marty had a dramatic and tempestuous relationship years earlier, but had remained friends. Marty and my father had shared at least three girlfriends over the years. It wasn’t kinky or strange, but rather a product of the seventies and these transitions happened organically. She had curly hair and a huge smile and she was as crazy and neurotic as any woman who ever roamed God’s earth. She was the one and only woman he ever dated who was his intellectual equal, and this caused all kinds of problems. They argued about books, movies and politics, all good in good fun until it wasn’t. She wanted to marry him, warts and all, but more importantly, she wanted to have babies with him. Lots of babies. My father was adamant that he barely could handle the one kid he had (odd since he had roughly 8% custody of me, and his monthly nut in child support amounted to $200), and would never ever have another.

They worked on it, even going so far as to try and make a life together, half time in her city located a few hours away, and half time in Buffalo. My father wouldn’t stay or stray far from either the track or from me, and his time in her city was never enough. She had however gotten my father out of his comfort zone, and he had actually gotten on a plane and gone on a vacation. Up until then, the most exotic meal he had ever eaten was the fajita platter at our local Chi-Chis, but she had actually gotten him a passport and taken him to Mexico. His friends and I all took this as a good sign, but shortly after they returned, he ended the relationship.

I was pretty surprised, and when I asked him why, he explained to me that he simply could not see himself having another child.

“You’re my one and only kid. What can I say? I ain’t interested in any others.”

Julie 1991–1999

Me and Marty; the pool at one of my father’s dumpy apartments: 1980
My Father and Toby, NYC 1999…which was Bialystok and which was Bloom?

She was small and petite, with a killer body and dirty blond hair, and he was immediately smitten with what could only be described as a shiksa (non Jewish) goddess. She wasn’t an idiot, and could hold her own against my father, out manipulating him at every turn. They began to date in earnest right before I left for college, and when I returned home for my first Thanksgiving break, she was already living in his townhouse.

When my grandmother died in 1990, my father spiraled into a serious depression. He took the furniture out of storage from his childhood home, and plunked it down into the new townhouse he purchased. At first, we all thought that having a loving partner in his life would help him get through the depression. Then we got to know Julie, and realized a terrible mistake was taking place.

At our first meeting, I learned that she was a recovering alcoholic/addict, though the word “recovering” implies you don’t do the thing to which you are addicted any longer, and she was clearly addicted to opioid pain medication. The icing on the cake was the fact that she was bi-polar, and her behavior was as unpredictable as the weather in Texas. In one moment she could be confessional and warm. Three minutes later, she would be throwing things and sobbing uncontrollably, screaming, “It’s her or me, Walter. Her! Or! Me!” She was adamant that he never reminisce about his past or talk about his life before she entered it, which became slightly problematic for both me and the friends he had known for thirty plus years.

One year, I had no plans until late for New Year’s Eve, so my father invited me to dinner with his best friend Toby and his wife Susan and he and Julie at a fancy restaurant downtown. Because my plans didn’t start until about eleven that evening, I thought it would be a bit of fun, so I went. When we sat at the table, the waiter brought the menus, and my father cracked a joke with Toby that he looked like someone they had gone to college with. The two of them laughed and proceeded to tell us the story of this guy, whom it happened my mother really hated. Julie sat quietly as they joked around for about four minutes. Then she excused herself, and left the table. We all thought she had gone to the bathroom, but after about five minutes, Susan spotted her outside the restaurant giving the valet the ticket for the car. We all watched, confused, as she calmly climbed into my father’s car, and drove home, leaving us both stranded. We had just ordered, so we ate, and then Toby and Susan drove us home.

In the spring of 1992, they got married. I was the reluctant maid of honor, returning home from college to attend the festivities, but only after he begged me to do it and promised me that all their issues would be worked out. My two closest friends from my high school class, Michael and Suzanne, were at the wedding for moral support and virtually all but Julie’s AA friends were drunk before they walked down the isle, including my father, who didn’t drink. When I arrived at his home where the wedding was to take place in the public courtyard, he was wearing his dress pants and a wife beater undershirt, holding a bottle of scotch in one hand and two glasses in the other. His best pal Marty was his best man, and was equally reluctant to stand up for him as I was, but did it for the same reason I did, because he loved him and knew that he was hell bent on doing it not matter what anyone else said. As I entered the house, he turned to me and said, “Scotch?”

It was 10:15 in the morning.

“Um, no thanks pop. And if I were you, I’d go easy”

“Don’t worry about me, kid” he replied. “I always get drunk at my own weddings.”

As always, my best friend Michael was there for moral support, and my other closest friend from my high school class, Suzanne came too. She was (and still is) an extraordinary violinist, and as a favor to my father, played a beautiful piece which was lovely, but somber, almost funereal, which ultimately summed up the tone of the moment perfectly.

Once the blessed event was over, he and Julie moved into the condo in Ft. Lauderdale that his parents had owned since the early 80s, and she retired from teaching at 40. Later, they bought the penthouse on the top floor of same building and gutted it to match Julie’s taste, which was somewhere between mid century modern and bordello. In 1996, I was living in Los Angeles, and one night, at about 8PM PST, my phone rang. It was Toby and Marty, my father’s closest friends.

“Hey Rachela!” Toby began.
“Hi guys, what’s wrong?” I asked.

There was silence on the line

“Have you heard from your father lately?” Marty asked.

As a matter of fact, I had not, and I had left him a few messages over the last week, so I told them just that. Again, there was an uncomfortable silence.

“So here’s the thing, Rach. We think Julie may have killed him. Nobody’s heard from him in a week.”

This was news. My father was a lot of things, many of them not great, but he was religious about returning phone calls and had a real thing about people who didn’t return his calls. I had never left him a message that wasn’t returned within eight hours. Additionally, I had no idea the extent to which his closest friends didn’t like Julie, nor did I understand the depth of the dysfunction to which their bizarre relationship had fallen. It was decided that I would call Julie and say the following:

“Julie, if you do not produce my father in the next thirty minutes, I will have every police officer in Dade County at your front door. Do you understand?”. I had never threatened anyone in quite this manner, and I was nervous, but Marty and Toby told me to do it, and I trusted them implicitly so after we practiced what I was supposed to say a few times, I dialed the phone and told her just that. But as though I was on speed.

“JulieifyoudonotproducemyfatherinthenextthirtyminutesIwillhaveeverypoliceofficerinDadeCountyatyourfrontdoordoyouunderstand?”

Twenty eight minutes later my father called me back.

“Hey kid, I heard you been looking for me. What’s up?” was his greeting.

“Pop” I said exasperated, “what in hell is going on? You haven’t returned anyone’s calls in weeks. Do you realize that Marty and Toby think you’re dead and that Julie killed you?”

“Huh, well, I’m talking to you, aren’t I? I guess I’m not dead” was his response.

He went on to tell me that she had thrown him out of his own apartment, and that he was giving it a few days to cool down. I thought this was outrageous given the circumstances, and I told him so in no uncertain terms.

“What do you want me to do, kid?” He asked, genuinely. “Maybe you forgot this, but I took vows with this woman.”

His tone and self righteousness infuriated me. In the first place, he was not a “vow” guy in general and typically thumbed his nose at and took pleasure in violating any societal norm or convention. In the second place, he had also taken vows with another woman that he did not take nearly as seriously.

“Hey dad” I started lightly, “I totally get that whole vow thing, but remember that day in July of ’69 when you took vows with that other woman? The one who then went on to give birth to me? How about those vows?”

He paused for a second.

“Yeah? Well that was then and this is now, and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, okay?”

It was ultimately decided that they would separate, and he plunged into a deep depression. Ultimately, the divorce was finalized, and he met his next romantic partner at the same gym in 1999 where he had met Julie before the ink on the divorce was dry. Four years later, Julie overdosed and died in bed in the Florida penthouse she had shared with him for seven years with one of her lovers, a craps dealer she had met on a gambling boat, but only after she had tried unsuccessfully to clear out all his bank accounts. As her parting gift to me, she stole all of my grandmother’s jewelry.

Susan 1999–2019

Susan holding my newborn daughter, 2005

She was the longest and last romantic relationship of his life, and by far, he saved the strangest for last. From the beginning the relationship didn’t track. My father always dated younger, petite and very beautiful women. Susan was ten years his senior and odd looking. She was dubbed “Old Barbie” by my friends, and the name fit perfectly; Six feet tall, with bleached blonde hair the look and texture of cotton candy, teased a foot off the top of her head once a week by her “girl.” She had the body of the original Barbie doll, complete with tiny waist and rock hard, fake breasts that defied gravity and hurt when she hugged you, but with enormous size 11 feet. On top of this body, she had the head of a strangely molded old lady who had undergone significant plastic surgery before the medium was perfected. Her nose was misshapen with one nostril significantly larger then the other, and visible scars from the mediocre facelift by her eyes and ears. Her eyes were pulled back so tightly that she looked like a cross between a Siamese cat and a hurricane survivor.

She dressed like a twenty five year old and had a penchant for tight pants, short skirts, and tops that were decorated with rhinestones to form pictures of things like high heeled shoes.

She was as dumb as a box of hair, but she also took care of him in a way that no other woman had ever done. She cooked, cleaned and catered to him, and I took to referring to him as Fred Flintstone when he would order what he wanted for lunch from his seat on the couch, yelling about what bread to put his salami on and which mustard to use. I didn’t get it, and actually none of his friends got it, but he seemed happy. She had two sons and a daughter who were totally devoted to her. My father, who had craved a family for the entirety of his life, glommed on immediately.

While she waxed the kitchen floor and spent my father’s money, he would complain endlessly about her habits and her children, particularly her two sons, one of whom he disliked immensely, while I would politely listen and say things like “really?” And “you don’t say!”.

Susan’s family named their pets after alcoholic beverages, and wine o’clock began roughly at five PM and streamed steadily through dinner and the rest of the evening, particularly on any occasion when more then two of them were together. Their family motto was “looking good is more important then feeling good” which ran antithetical to my core, and I thought, to my father’s core. After all, this was a man who bragged about wearing five dollars pants and wouldn’t pay for movie candy at the concession stand because it cost twenty five cents more than at the drug store. Each member of Susan’s family was more shallow, image conscious, and materialistic then the last. Susan now had a rich man’s wallet but dime store taste that ran to cheetah prints and figurines. Consequently, my father ended up living in a house which he had paid for, but that had not a hint of him within it, and he would sit on the white uncomfortable oversized furniture surrounded by statues and fake plants in his ratty old t-shirts and sweat pants looking like a pig wearing lipstick. When they moved to a new house in Florida, Susan had a decorator do his office with old books purchased as “props” for the tasteful, built-in book shelves. My father was a voracious reader, and read at least one book a week for the entirety of his life. But after all, books take up a lot of valuable real estate that could be used for vases with fake flowers and statues of little animals that were seasonally appropriate.

Susan did not like to be sad, or upset, so news was censored and conversation severely restricted and monitored by my father’s newly acquired system of hand signals and facial expressions meant to shut you up if you mentioned anything that might upset Susan. Her family was deeply Republican and loved Donald Trump. Like several other women he had previously dated, Susan and company seemed to have a problem with Jews and Judaism. She insisted on decorating their house at Christmas, Easter, and all other Christian holidays much to his chagrin (“What kind of nonsense is this?” He would ask me over the phone while he sat at the mall watching her spend his money on glass balls with pictures of snowmen on them). Despite his complaints, he paid for her giant bunnies and life sized nutcrackers that flanked every corner of the home they shared during the holiday season at her insistence while endlessly kvetching to me behind her back.

The day after he died, Susan shut me out of the home they had shared for twenty years, and I was told through her son that she would be keeping every one of his personal possessions including the four remaining things that had belonged to my grandparents because “Walter would have wanted it that way.” After suing me three different times, I paid her triple what the few things were worth, but I didn’t care as long as I could keep my family history in my actual family. She stopped speaking to my children, whom she had treated like her own grandchildren from the day they were born, and after his funeral, we never saw her again.

Her behavior made everyone who knew and actually loved my father for who he was draw in a breath and take a minute to wonder if any of her feelings for him were remotely real or if he understood that in his lifelong quest for love, he had been both the luckiest and unluckiest man in the world. Few men were ever loved as fiercely as he had been by his band of friends, closer then brothers, and his one child who had put up with all the craziness. The truth is, he never quite found the love he craved from a single partner, and only appreciated the love that had always been there for him, staring him in the face and quietly waiting, until it was too late.

As dressed up as he ever got, Dad in the 90s

--

--

Rachel Jagoda Lithgow

I’m your average, witty, smart Jewess, creating a chapter two as a full time writer while trying to raise two kids without doing too much damage