On grief and “Seinfeld”: A Festivus story

My dad and me, channelling Morty Seinfeld and Elaine, 1990. ©Joyce Millman
My dad and me, channelling Morty Seinfeld and Elaine, 1990.
©Joyce Millman

[NOTE: This piece was written in December 2014, in memory of my father, Jerry Millman.]

Ever since my father died in July, I’ve been watching Seinfeld reruns every night. Oh, I’ve seen the whole series before, nine seasons’ worth, top to bottom. This is different. This viewing feels like compulsion, borders on ritual. Perhaps I’ve discovered a new stage of grief, the one where Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer appear to you in a flickering vision and whisk you away to a land of familiar punchlines, where only happy memories dwell. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Seinfeld has always resonated with me;  it was the first TV show that reflected the particular brand of middle-class Jewish nuttiness from which I sprang. I always thought my family was unique in this respect, until I saw Jerry’s (fictionalized) parents, Morty and Helen Seinfeld, and George’s parents, Frank and Estelle Costanza. It’s true that Costanza isn’t a Jewish surname, but, come on, I know these people. I was raised by these people. The yelling as the default level of speech, the “why me?” melodrama, the obsession with getting a deal — I’m sure I’m related to the Seinfelds, the Costanzas and their creators, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, somewhere in our family trees. How else could the tone of the show’s humor be so closely aligned with the tone of my father’s humor, equal parts sarcastic, warped and silly? My dad was the one who introduced me to Allen Sherman, Nichols and May and the Three Stooges at an early age. I was glad to repay the debt in 1990 when I, Miss Big Shot TV Critic, told him, “You have to watch Jerry Seinfeld’s new show!”

As much as I loved Seinfeld, my dad loved Seinfeld (and David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm) even more. In our weekly cross-country phone calls, we spent more time rehashing Seinfeld episodes than we did talking about real life. Real life, deep soul baring, was awkward. Humor was our preferred mode of communication. It’s possible that we both had an identification with Seinfeld that verged on over-the-top. But who could blame us, when the show hit so close to home?

My father was a perfect blend of Morty Seinfeld and Frank Costanza. Like Morty, he had been in the garment business, was happy to shlep around on the bus rather than pay for a taxi, and he could have been Morty’s wardrobe double in his old man jeans, short sleeved plaid shirts and windbreaker jackets. Like Frank, there were a lot of dismissive “ughs” for dramatic effect, and Frank and Estelle’s bickering over the trivialities of life was an exaggerated version of my parents’ (more affectionate) jousting. I give you this exchange between Frank and Estelle from “The Puffy Shirt” (1993), which I watched the other night:

ESTELLE: Georgie … Georgie, would you like some Jell-O?

FRANK: (Voice rising) Why’d you put the bananas in there?

ESTELLE: (Yelling) George likes the bananas!

FRANK: (Yelling) So let him have bananas on the side!

Welcome to my world, circa 1972.

Perhaps sensing a kindred spirit, my dad was absolutely cuckoo for Jerry Stiller, who played Frank. His eccentric line readings and barrel-chested weirdness sent my dad into fits of laughter, and, mind you, that laugh was high-pitched and uncontrollable once it started. It’s part of family lore that you couldn’t risk going to see a funny movie with Jerry Millman because his spasmodic cackling was going to get you thrown out of the theater.

My father and I were in agreement that the Festivus episode (“The Strike,” 1997) was Frank Costanza’s finest (half)hour. This was the episode where it became clear that Frank was a raving lunatic. His irritably declaimed tenets of the holiday he’d devised as an alternative to Christmas commercialism are seared into my brain: “A Festivus for the rest of us!”; an aluminum pole instead of a tree (“It requires no decorating. I find tinsel distracting”); the traditional Airing of Grievances (“I got a lotta problems with you people. And now you’re gonna hear about it!”).  The fact that Festivus falls on Dec. 23 — my sister’s birthday — made it seem even more like this was our own personal holiday, proof that Seinfeld was speaking directly to us.

For the past three years, I watched reruns of the Festivus episode on Direct TV on the JetBlue flight to Boston for the holidays. On each of those visits back, there was less and less of the robust, jovial dad I knew. My siblings and I fell back on familial black humor and a Seinfeld-reference-laden shorthand to draw him out. We could always get a laugh out of him with an exclamation of “It’s a Festivus miracle!” or of Frank’s bellowed meditation mantra, “Serenity now!” How deeply is Seinfeld embedded in our family psyche?  The night before my father’s funeral, my brother and sister and I got into a giggle fit talking about the episode where Kramer was giving carriage tours of New York with a flatulent horse called Rusty.

It’s strange. I was numb or stoic (not sure which) at my father’s funeral. I do know that I was relieved, given all he and my mother had been through in the past two years. But it’s only now, in this holiday season, that the heavy fog of sadness is descending on me, hard. I know that watching Seinfeld reruns every night is the equivalent of curling up in the fetal position, but I don’t care, because it brings me bittersweetly close to my dad. Festivus will never be the same without him.

 

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014