In the jagged, inscrutable ways of families, Eunice Lipton’s A Distant Heartbeat is a love story.
It is a love story that encompasses affection, loss, flight, innocence, competition, anger, sex, idealism, arrogance, fear, courage, longing, martyrdom and betrayal.
It centers on Lipton’s uncle Dave who, in 1938, at the age of 22, snuck away from his Jewish family’s New York City life to volunteer to serve with other American Communists in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Three months after arriving to fight for the Republic against the fascist forces of General Francisco Franco, he was dead.
One of Dave’s friends later told Lipton:
I was checking our position at the front when Dave walked over toward me asking if he could return to his regular squad. Just as I yelled to him to get down, he was struck by a sniper’s bullet sinking slowly to the ground in front of me.
“Like a religious act”
This was before Lipton, who is a friend of mine, was born. Yet, even as a child, she quickly found that Dave’s death — his absence — was a mysterious presence at the psychic center of her family of first generation Latvian immigrants. It had touched everyone in different ways, in particular her grandmother, Dave’s mother, and her father Louis, Dave’s brother.
And also Lipton herself who, over the past quarter century, has been researching her uncle’s life and wrestling with its meaning for her and for her relatives.
Growing up, she and her younger brother (also named David) used to watch their father take out from the back of his closet a shoebox in which he had stored Dave’s letters home, some photographs and other mementos of their dead uncle.
[He is] bending over it, almost davening as a Jew praying would. I never see him examine the contents piece by piece. He just holds the box in his hands and then puts it away. The simplicity and repetition of the gesture drops into my memory like a religious act might, a medieval saint holding the instruments of his torture, or the young Mary folded into herself as the angel Gabriel whispers her awful fate.
Rough spots and vistas
It may seem odd that Lipton, in a book about the actions of progressive non-practicing Jews in the 1930s, would draw comparisons between her father and a Catholic saint and also the mother of Jesus.
But, as she notes, she spent much of her adult life as an art historian and teacher, specializing mostly in Christian paintings and letting “the gold backgrounds and angel wings and sweet Madonnas smooth over the rough spots of life, open up vistas where I wandered in peace or where I could hide and write and even fantasize that there was an afterlife.”
A Distant Heartbeat is as much about Lipton as it is about her uncle. And as much about her father Louis and his relationship with Dave.
Over and over, throughout her researches, Lipton learned that, like many brothers, Louis and Dave were very different:
Louis pushed into things without reflection; Dave held back, watched, and waited. Louis expected the worst from people; Dave the best. Dad was acerbic and witty; Dave plainspoken and earnest.
Lipton’s book is filled with such comparisons of the two brothers — Louis, the cynical, self-centered womanizer, and Dave, the good listener who believed enough in the ideals of Communism that he went to Spain and who was so inexperienced romantically that, during a stop in Paris, he visited a prostitute so he would know what it was like to sleep with a woman.
Unwieldy sorrows and joys
Louis is a looming presence in Lipton’s life. Much of her 2007 book French Seduction: An American’s Encounter with France, Her Father, and the Holocaust dealt with their relationship.
Dave, though, for all of Lipton’s searching, for all of the facts she marshals and all of the interviews she conducts, remains always, for her, somewhat obscured.
When, during a visit to Spain with Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans, Lipton goes off to the Prado, she studies the image of Christ on the Cross, painted by Diego Velazquez. The genius in the work, she writes, is in the “moment of privacy” that the artist accords Jesus.
He paints Jesus’ hair falling forward over one side of his face, like the blood streaking his body and the tears we know are coursing down his mother’s cheeks. No one knows what happens behind this veil of hair. Jesus is alone there. Or was he with his God?
And whom is Dave with?…What are the narratives that tell the truest stories about this man, my uncle, my father’s brother?
Anyone interested in the barbed landscape of families and the awkward, painful, jerry-rigged nature of family relationships will find A Distant Heartbeat a rich and weighty book.
There are mysteries here, and a deep, dark betrayal.
But A Distant Heartbeat is less about surprises than about unwieldy sorrows and joys at the heart of what we call family life.
Patrick T. Reardon