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Mom and Dad and Ruth and Bernie

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“Give me a break, Mrs. G.” My mother reminded him of the terms of their deal, paid quarterly. “Don’t worry. I’ll make up the $17 to you next quarter.” What she required was a check for seventeen dollars and 63 cents this quarter. “Mrs. G., ya killing me,” he would say, laughing.

“On the contrary, Bernie,” Mom said, “I pray for your health daily.”

When Bernie came around looking for investors, my mother succumbed to the allure of the ground floor, to be the very first. When he met with my folks, he showed them his bank statements from 1960. He had invested $5,000 of his own money, all he had, in himself. Mom and Dad liked that. Years later, in the lobby of the St. Regis Hotel, I watched Bernie cajole $300,000 more out of my mother. This was after my father had died. She continued to admire Bernie, and Bernie always flattered her—“I’ve got a lot to learn from you, Mrs. G.” Bernie, in his mid-thirties, leaned in so that his head was slightly below hers, an energized supplicant.

There was only one thing that made my mother nervous: Bernie’s twitch. Bernie’s twitch began in his right eye and spread to the left: There were also other facial tics, random body tics, elbow tucks, jacket-pocket tappings. Maybe the business was driving him crazy, Mom thought.

But Bernie developed his tics as a diversion from his stammer. I noticed this once, when he began sputtering as I talked with him about my account. The only position Bernie had me in was thousands of shares of Merrill Lynch, and when I asked him why, he mumbled something about the financial sector, but he became caught on a word and the eye twitch kicked in. My eyes rose from his mouth to his eyes, and in that one moment, I think he believed he had me, any of us, at a disadvantage, an eye blink’s worth of time to gain the upper hand by spinning another story. Years later, I was with my tax attorney at year’s end, going over my Madoff statements. The attorney informed me that I was wiped out. I called Bernie; he was calm, he told me not to worry, he would make back everything I had lost. And six months later, Bernie called me to tell me that everything was all right, back to normal. It was his unceasing ability to rebound that fostered my belief in him.

Bernie could be mean, but not consistently so mean that he could be written off as a crank. He was especially tough on my sister, whom he purported to adore. Bernie said the worst imaginable things to her—“If you think you’re any prize, and that your husband should kiss your ass for the measly couple of million bucks you stand to inherit, you are fuckin’ delusional.”

There was something Borscht Belt in Bernie’s delivery, an air of unreality, which must have been why my sister not only put up with it but was often the loudest laugher at her own expense. Mostly his remarks were about my sister’s weight, which really only fluctuated in a seven-pound range, from around 118 to 125. In retrospect, I realize that what Bernie said to my sister he wanted to say to his own wife, because while Ruth was attractive, she wasn’t perfect.

I don’t know who else is involved in Bernie’s crime. The boys, Mark and Andy, whom I have known since they were babies, always seemed, respectively, guileless and misplaced, not larcenous. And whether or not turning in their father was staged, I want to believe that Bernie had some notion of family, that surely he must have protected them (and his brother) by keeping them out of whatever was criminal. It was assumed that Bernie loved his boys, although he often demanded center stage in the family; his moods and needs were paramount.

Ruth’s culpability is up for grabs. I can’t decide for myself about her, because it is not enough to blame it on love—the standing-by-your-man thing. What speaks volumes is the way that, increasingly, to me she seemed disconnected. How disconnected did she have to be to ignore what was happening?


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