Philip Roth was a Pulitzer Prize winning American novelist, considered by many to be a national treasure, having received almost every literary award presented to a writer. I watched his career blossom as I blossomed as a teenager and young woman. I knew that he was an incredibly gifted writer who understood the human condition, and his voice was strong and clear.
Even as a young writer, Philip had an incredible gift of helping the reader feel they were with him as he traveled from his home in Newark to other locales in the area. In GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, his hero, of modest means, is overwhelmed by the abundance of fresh fruit served at the home of his wealthy girlfriend. I, too, felt overwhelmed upon visiting my aunt and her family, also quite wealthy. The bowl of fresh fruit on the table was overflowing. My experience with fruit until that time was canned in syrup, and overly sweet. I can still taste the burst of freshness upon biting into the peaches and the high color of the plums. Philip helped me savor that experience, and although the movie didn’t capture the dichotomy between those who had, versus those who looked in on those who had, I loved his writing and read his short stories with relish. Knowing he was from Newark, so close to where I was living in Union, New Jersey, made him my favorite author!
I was certainly not, however, thinking of books and authors at the end of June, 1969, when my young father died suddenly. We had no chance to say goodbye…it was excruciatingly sad. My mother, sisters and I were sitting shiva (receiving visitors offering condolences,) and our grief was palpable. It was hot, very hot, perhaps the hottest I can remember in our home, and because there were so many people gathering in the living room, the heat was even more oppressive. I remember a somewhat older couple than my parents walking in, sitting down and chatting with other relatives. “How are you, Herman?” My ears perked up, since that was the name of my now deceased father, although everyone called my father Hy. “What, you want to know about my hemorrhoids?” Herman answered combatively. Hemorrhoids…in the 1960s, when nobody discussed the body or any of its maladies openly. Bessie Finkel Roth, Herman’s wife, explained that since the book PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT, written by their son, Philip, was published; everyone wanted to know about Herman’s hemorrhoids! Not having been allowed to read that book by my father, I quickly made a mental note to now read it, as did all of my friends who had been forbidden to read such mature material.
But wait…there was something much more meaningful here than reading an illicit book. Bessie was my father’s first cousin, and as such, Philip was my father’s second, and my third cousin. I wondered if my father realized that THE Philip Roth was his cousin Philip Roth? My guess is had he put it together, he would have been the first to extol praise on him, and all of his books would have been mandatory reading for me and all of our family.
Over the years, we admired from afar, our cousin, this world renowned writer. When he appeared in photos, I studied his picture with sadness and pleasure. He looked so much like my father, and as such, I had an opportunity to see how age would have changed my parent from a 45 year old man to a middle age and older man. I had the opportunity to see the dark hair become a little whiter, his dark eyes set well in his aging face, his stature hunch a little. While my father had twinkling eyes, Philip had intensity in his that took him to his typewriter and computer to write with incredible purpose. But the shape of them, like my own, is a familial trait, and they gave us a window into what my father would have looked like had death not robbed us at such a young age.
And when Philip Roth died this year it was a blow I had not expected. It brought me back to the hot shiva house in June of 1969 when I was a lost soul, not knowing how I or any of us would go on.
I had often thought of reaching out to contact Philip…after all, his mother and I had the same maiden name, one that gave my father great pride. But I didn’t reach out, and I didn’t say goodbye to him, either. All of these years he had given me the greatest gift, a vision of the man I had lost. The portraits of our great America Pulitzer Prize winning novelist will have to be enough to keep my father alive for me, and for that, I am truly grateful!