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Keeping it in the family

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This photograph was taken on June 26, 2005 at Bottino on Tenth Avenue in New York City. My father has just walked through the front door of the restaurant for my wedding reception, and the two of us are now, somewhat awkwardly, standing together in the entryway. I haven’t seen my father in over six months — even though we both live in New York City — and by the look on my face I seem to be conflicted by his presence. The actual wedding ceremony itself had taken place the day before on a small sailing yacht in the Hudson River, with twenty or so friends and relatives in attendance, and presided over by the captain. But my father wasn’t able to make it. When I had sent him a ‘save the date’ email six months earlier he had written back right away that he was so sorry to decline but unfortunately he would be in Iran for the annual Tehran International Book Fair; an event he’s attended nearly every year, acting as the Persian-language editor for Pathfinder Press, the publishing house of the Socialist Workers Party. My father has been a member of the Socialist Workers Party — both in the United States and Iran — for nearly all my life, and when I received his regrets it did not come as a surprise.

He had abandoned me, after all, when I was nine months old, mostly so that he could devote his time, energy and money to the cause of workers’ revolution. I had hoped, however, that thirty-five years later there might be a chance he would put aside political considerations for my wedding. No. In his email he wished me well, said June was a great time to have a wedding as roses will be ‘permeating the air’, and that he would be sure to celebrate in Tehran with his brother. This was no consolation for me. And I called him and told him so. Then I cried. Sobbed really. I had never done that in front of him before. I also swore at him. Finally, he said, okay, okay, he’d see what he could do. Which was also no consolation. And then since my birthday was coming up he wondered if I would like a subscription to National Geographic which a month before had run an immensely popular photograph of the earth at night, clearly displaying the great inequity in access to electricity in the Third World.

After that I didn’t speak to him. But about a month before the wedding I learned that the Tehran International Book Fair wasn’t going to conflict at all and that my father was in fact going to be in town. This put me in something of a quandary. Because now if I didn’t re-invite my father to the wedding I would be construed as the one who was petty and vindictive, unable to forget old wounds, shunning and punishing my father for a wrong that had not even happened; somehow the tables of victimization had turned. But if I did re-invite him to the wedding, and he decided to decline again, or just didn’t show up, or showed up late — the yacht was due to set sail promptly at one thirty—I would be in for a psychologically torturous wedding day. Just a few years earlier I had sat waiting for him in my apartment on a summer afternoon until I finally called him and he told me, ‘What are you talking about? We never made plans to see each other’.

So I decided to split the difference and send him an invitation to the wedding reception, where, mixed in among one hundred guests, the painful effects of his possible absence might be mitigated.

The honour of your presence is requested on June 26, 2005…

And I had been right to do this. Two days before the wedding I got a call from him at work, congratulating me on the big day and then launching, unprompted, into a discussion about my relationship to my fiancée, relationships in general, relationships under capitalism in general, and how the church and the state should have no bearing on what is essentially a private matter. So instead of coming to the reception, he would like to just take the two of us out to a nice quiet dinner at a later date.

Thus when my father walked through the front door of the restaurant I felt conflicted to see him. And this photograph has captured some combination on my face of dismay, disdain and disillusionment. By the look on his face he appears to be conflicted, too. For what reasons, I do not know. Or maybe he’s simply scared. Is he scared of the person taking the photograph? Perhaps. Paranoia has always been a defining trait for members of the Socialist Workers Party. As a child my mother and I were always speculating on which party members might actually be FBI agents. What a wonderful coincidence that on the wall above the bar is a prominent sign that reads, ‘Government Warning’.

I’d never seen my father in a suit before, and I remember thinking that I was surprised that he had worn one for the occasion. I also thought that he looked pretty good in it. For a man in his seventies he carries himself with vigour and style.

About thirty seconds after the photograph was taken my father thrust into my hand a small key ring from Iran. ‘Here,’ he whispered to me, ‘you wanted this. Now I give this to you.’ It sounded accusatory, as if I had asked for the key ring and he had gone to great trouble to hunt for it at a bazaar in Tehran and then bring it all the way back to the United States. He had given me Iranian key rings in the past and I had always been appreciative. I didn’t feel terribly appreciative now. ‘Gee, thanks Pop,’ I said anyway.

And about thirty minutes after this photograph was taken my mother arrived at the restaurant, carrying, as always, her enormous knapsack, and thus marking the first time I had seen my parents together since I was nine months old.

And about two hours after this photograph was taken my father would take it upon himself to procure the microphone and make a toast to the newlyweds. After years of giving speeches on Trotsky and capitalism and Iran and the Baku Congress of 1920, he’s a natural. Full of charm and wit. Much to my chagrin he easily won over the crowd. At least those of whom had no idea that he didn’t want to be there in the first place. When he was done commending my wife and me, he inappropriately devoted the rest of his toast to extolling the merits of another guest at the reception: my uncle, Mark Harris (my mother’s brother), the author of the novel Bang the Drum Slowly, who was sitting at a nearby table in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s. My father hadn’t spoken to my uncle in probably forty years, nor has he ever been much of a reader of fiction, but here he was suddenly declaiming that ‘Mark Harris is a pillar of American literature!’ There was a smattering of confused applause. And then he added, ‘Next time you’re in a bookstore pick up a copy of one of his books’.

That night my wife and I stayed at The Maritime Hotel on Ninth Avenue in Chelsea. Paid for, incidentally, by my wife’s enormously caring and generous parents who I was delighted to have as in-laws. The hotel had originally been the headquarters for the National Maritime Union, and our little room had a cute porthole window that faced out onto the street. It happened to also be Gay Pride that day and there was lots of celebration going on outside. People were shouting and laughing and screaming, and at some point fireworks were set off by the Hudson River. My wife and I looked out of our window and pretended the festivities were for us.

In the pocket of my suit jacket was the key ring that my father had given me earlier that day. Examining it closely I saw how cheap it was, how poorly made. I was sure it could not have cost him more than a few cents. Years earlier I would have cherished that key ring. I would have used it until it had broken a month later and then I would have tried fixing it and using it some more.

That night I threw it straight into the trash.

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