I have sometimes heard a person’s life described as a tapestry. If this were truly accurate, that life would be of a piece, an intricately embroidered fabric whose threads all formed a single image or pattern. But life is far less neat and predictable than this. There are many loose ends and false starts. Most lives would most certainly not resolve into a neat single pattern. This is the case of my father, Mish Kellman, a complicated man who, while he was gentle and kind, full of life and compassion, was at other times violent and contradictory, morbid and preoccupied with death.
Part of this changeability may be chalked up to his neurology. My father was bipolar, and had Tourette Syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Lifetime movies aside, mental illness is truly not romantic or interesting. It is boring and tedious, difficult to deal with, and wreaks havoc not only on the life of the person with the illness, but on his whole family. This was certainly the case of my father.
He was born in 1916; a week or so after his 40 year old father died of a heart attack in the middle of the street while at work in the family’s trucking business. I know little of his father’s family except that they were comparatively wealthy and disowned my grandmother and her children. What I know for sure about my father begins with what he was able to remember himself.
After this he told me my grandmother took in sewing, but it wasn’t enough to bring in food for the children. My father, small and slight, tried to help by squeezing under the pushcarts parked along the street to steal fruits and vegetables for the family’s dinner. He and the other urchins of that hungry time would gather coal from the passing trains to heat the house.
As a schoolboy, in an unforgiving Philadelphia school system, he was punished for his inability to remain still and the terrible shooting pains behind his knees. He told me when his legs would press against the hard wood of the chair he would cry out. His teachers interpreted this as deliberate bad behavior so he was finally expelled as incorrigible.
At that time Tourette’s and multiple other neurological disorders were frequently misunderstood. He ended up in a hospital because of his tics, which were mistaken for some sort of communicative disease. No one came to visit him for two months in the hospital. In my lifetime, his difficulties continued, though his Tourette tics and twitches had virtually disappeared.
Prone to attacks of rage that made him difficult to be around, my father nonetheless managed to be funny, imaginative, kind and generous much of the time. Though not formally educated he was intellectually curious, and fiercely concerned about justice. Most of the time, he loved life above all things.
I remember one incident from my childhood that illustrates this. The children of my neighborhood loved my father, but were also afraid of him. One never really knew who would answer the door—the bipolar monster who would lash out violently for no reason, or the kind, funny man who played like a child. One day, my dad, an electrician, told me to assemble the children on the block for a treat. A long line of impatient kids stretched out the door and down the cellar stairs to watch my dad electrocuting hotdogs. He had rigged up a device, attached to the light fixture, impaling hotdogs on sterilized nails. They would hiss explosively, then burst open in a sizzling spurt. We used up three packs of hotdogs that day, and as many buns.
As a young adult, my father left home early and joined the Air Force, where he learned to pilot planes. Because of his volatile temper, he never formally became a pilot, but he was a flight mechanic, and ended up as part of a crew that flew 35 or more missions over Germany in WWII.
After the war, he went to Israel, smuggling guns into the country, along with his brothers, and helped to found one of the first kibbutzim, a communal farm devoted to a strictly socialist ethic. There he met my mother, who had come from South Africa with her sisters, and married her in a ceremony that joined a number of couples at once.
Despite his devotion to the idea of the nascent state of Israel, he was dubious about the kibbutz system, which relegated him to picking bananas, while the schoolteacher attempted to take care of the electrical system. Everything had to be strictly equal; it would have been viewed as elitism to allow the electrician to care for the electrical system, the teacher to run the schools. His choice words on the subject got him expelled from the kibbutz, as he had been from so many other institutions. It was just as well: he had tried to learn Hebrew, but was never able to, despite his efforts.
He returned home to Philadelphia with my mother where he worked for 35 years before retiring and caring for my mother who had dementia.
Because of his bluntness and uncontrollable temper, much of his life was very difficult and unhappy. Sometimes he lost jobs because he would speak out or act inappropriately. He was violent and often depressed and morbid, a difficult husband and father despite his love for us. But every Friday, he put a silver dollar in a piggybank for me. This later funded my college tuition because some of those dollars were worth thousands each. He would bring me a different book every Friday evening. This was his way of celebrating the Sabbath. During the good times, he would wake me at 5am to take the dog for a walk. He would point out the colors of the morning sky; nourish in me an appetite for stories and teaching me to be kind and compassionate.
At 89, the second phase of his life began when he had a stroke. Things had deteriorated in the house in Philadelphia. Despite my pleas, he had allowed my mother’s hoarding and dementia to overwhelm them both. I could not get him to have the house cleaned out and sold. He was convinced he could not afford to come to California to start a new life. He had thousands of dollars buried in the house, amid bags of trash, and had invested wisely in stocks over the years. I did not learn of this until I took up the reins of his finances.
After the stroke, when I was able to assume control of my parents’ affairs, I had my father assessed by a psychiatrist, who was able to come up with a cocktail that made life livable for the first time. I sold the house before the market crashed, and made use of the money my father had saved to make them a better life, the kind he had always dreamed of, in California.
According to dad, these last five years of my father’s life were the happiest he had spent in his entire life. For the first time, he was put on medication for his disorders. He became a completely changed person, a much happier one, and much easier to be around. He blossomed. With the care of doctors and the caretakers who tended to him, he became the kind person he always was, deep down. He was able to nurture a love for gardening, Sudoku puzzles, good food, and most of all, conversation. He was a completely changed person, a much happier one, and much easier to be around. Dad would call me every day and say, “It’s a beautiful day,” even if it was pouring, because he was just so happy to be alive. I will miss him and feel privileged to have been his daughter.