Book//mark – Patrimony | Philip Roth, 1991

Patrimony, a true story, 1991                                                                            Herman, Sandy and Philip, Bradley Beach, 1937

“−Look, put on your sweater and put on your walking shoes. It’s a beautiful day and you can’t sit around inside like this with the shades drawn and so on.
−I’m fine inside.
I then spoke four words to him, four words that I’d never uttered to him before in my life. “Do as I say,” I told him. And they worked, those four words. I am fifty-five, my father almost eighty-seven, and the year is 1988: “Do as I say,” I tell him−and he does it. The end of one era, the beginning of another.”

“He could never understand that a capacity for renunciation and iron self-discipline like his own was extraordinary and not an endowment shared by all. … He had no idea just how unproductive, how maddening, even, at times, how cruel his admonishing could be. He would have told you that you can lead a horse to water and you can make him drink. You just hock him until he comes to his senses and does it.”

“We’re the sons appalled by violence, with no capacity for inflicting physical pain, useless at beating and clubbing, unfit to pulverize even the most deserving enemy, though not necessarily without turbulence, temper, even ferocity. We have teeth as the cannibals do, but they are there, imbedded in our jaws, the better to help us articulate. When we lay waste, when we efface, it isn’t with raging fists or ruthless schemes or insane sprawling violence but with our words, our brains, with mentality, with all the stuff that produced the poignant abyss between our fathers and us and that they themselves broke their backs to give us.”

“His obsessive stubbornness — his stubborn obsessiveness — had very nearly driven my mother to a breakdown in her final years: since his retirement at the age of sixty-three, her once spirited, housewifely independence had been all but extinguished by his anxious, overbearing bossiness. For years he had believed he was married to perfection, and for years he wasn’t far wrong — my mother was one of those devoted daughters of Jewish immigrants who raised housekeeping in America to a great art. (Don’t talk to anyone in my family about cleaning — we saw cleaning in its heyday.) But then my father retired from one of the Metropolitan Life’s big South Jersey offices, where he’d been managing a staff of fifty-two people, and the efficient, clear-cut division of labor that had done so much to define their marriage as a success gradually began to be obliterated — by him. He had nothing to do and she had everything to do — and that wouldn’t do. ‘You know what I am now?’ he told me sadly on his sixty-fifth birthday. ‘I’m Bessie’s husband.’ And by neither temperament nor training was he suited to be that alone. So . . . he settled down to become Bessie’s boss — only my mother happened not to need a boss, having been her own since her single-handed establishment of a first-class domestic-management and mothering company back in 1927, when my brother was born.”

“He was the vernacular, unpoetic and expressive and point-blank, with all the vernacular’s glaring limitations and all its durable force.”

“‘Don’t tell the children,’ he said, looking up at me from the bed with his one sighted eye.

‘I won’t tell anyone,’ I said. ‘I’ll say you’re taking a rest.’

‘Don’t tell Claire.’

‘Nobody,’ I said. ‘Don’t worry about it. It could have happened to anyone. Just forget about it and get a good rest.’”

“It was more anxiety and bewilderment. This was all new to me, all new to him, and I felt powerless to find a way to help him. We went through this experience together.”

“In keeping with the unseemliness of my profession”

“You must not forget anything.”

“Even the bastards die. That’s about the only good thing you can say about death–it gets the sons of bitches, too.”

“To be alive, to him, is to be made of memory—to him if a man’s not made of memory, he’s made of nothing.”

“I thought I couldn’t have asked anything more for myself before he died – this, too, was right and as it should be. You clean up your father’s shit because it has to be cleaned up… why this was right and as it should be couldn’t have been plainer to me, now that the job was done. So that was the patrimony. And not because cleaning it up was symbolic of something else, but because it wasn’t, because it was nothing less or more than the lived reality that it was.

There was my patrimony: not the money, not the tefillin, not the shaving mug, but the shit.”

Philip Roth, Patrimony, a true story, 1991

Philip Roth with his mother Bess at Belmar beach, 1935

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *