Peter Coyote

My father, Morris, was only five feet nine inches—a giant to a child—but his nineteen-inch neck and fifty-four-inch chest made him imposing to adults as well, and men marked his presence. He was handsome, with a virile, charismatic manner; a witty man capable of immense charm and extravagant generosity. However, a stratum of magma lay just below his surface, leaking most visibly from his eyes.

Normally animated by a cool, appraising steadiness, those eyes were so dark the irises often appeared as black as his pupils. His gaze communicated a restless, barely sublimated irritation, as if their subject had already claimed more of his attention than it deserved. When he was angry, the intensity of his focus sliced like a paper cut, expressing with unmistakable clarity his intention to dominate or destroy what frustrated his will. He was not incapable of love and sometimes lugubrious Victorian sentimentality. These more tender feelings were not easily expressed to me in a form I could understand.

According to his family, even as a child Morris possessed extraordinary physical strength, which he further developed as a boxer, Greco-Roman wrestler, and black belt in judo. In a sepia-toned snapshot from his college days, he is lifting the front end of a Stutz-Bearcat car off the ground for the amusement of his friends. By seventeen, preternaturally muscled and “cut,” in today’s jargon, he became a sparring partner of Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, the Boxing Hall of Fame heavyweight most famous for being willing to fight men of any weight and color. Morris worked with Jack on a regular basis, lying about his age, until one day, crossing the Charles River on his way back to the MIT campus, he could not remember whether he was coming from or going to the gym. He abandoned boxing “to save my mind,” he said.

His mind was by all accounts worth saving. Besides winning early admission to MIT at age fifteen, he played chess every week with his friend, master player and chess author Edward Lasker, who once played twenty simultaneous games in our house by memory, sitting alone in the living room, while his opponents clustered around the dining room table marking his moves on their boards to keep track. My father loved the rigor and competition of chess strategy and counter-strategy.

Morris made his first money anticipating the Depression and selling short for a boss who made a killing and rewarded him. He had an extraordinary facility with numbers, and that skill served to build up a large investment house and several other businesses, all of which thrived. By the time I was able to follow his conversations, it was apparent he possessed encyclopedic knowledge about a vast array of subjects, claiming that such breadth was required of him to be good at his various activities.

His activities were indeed varied. My father is credited with having “invented” the over-the-counter market in New York, where he owned his own Wall Street investment firm. He became an expert in museum-quality American and English Colonial antique furniture and silver. In addition, he and a partner got into the cattle business, introducing Charolais cattle to the United States by painting black spots on the huge white French animals they had imported into Mexico. They ran them across the Rio Grande as Holsteins to elude the ban on the breed enjoined by the American Angus and Holstein lobbies. Among Morris’s other business interests, he was a principal in the Phoenix-Campbell Oil Company and president of the Hudson-Manhattan railroad. He was not Mitt Romney-rich, but he was rich enough to do damn near anything he wanted.

My father’s family were immigrants, but they were wealthy, secular, and cosmopolitan. His father, Benjamin “Jack” Cohon, an Uzbek from a family of loggers and tanners, had made an early living as a carnival strongman lifting a horse in a harness attached to a leather cinch at his waist by climbing parallel ladders. When I was a boy he delighted me by folding a handkerchief in his palm and laying the head of a heavy nail against it so that the point protruded between the fingers of his closed fist. Then, with a short, lethal punch he would drive it so deeply into a wooden door that I could not pull it out. He was also a successful inventor and a gifted artist. Years ago, poring over the family papers, I found a patent for a gasoline-operated machine gun he had designed and for which he had been commissioned a captain. He had had his own laboratory at the Corning Glass Works. When, later, he could not make a living as an artist he became a sign painter for the United Cigar Stores and eventually rose to vice president of the company. When he lost all his money in the Depression, he walked into the house, rocked back a shot of Scotch, and left again, taking a job as a cab driver the same day. In his fifties, he founded a lamp factory that endured to support his family.

No child understands how people as immense and powerful as their parents can be compromised and crippled by psychic history. My father was the product of two complex parents. His mother, Rae, was a proud and clannish Sephardic Jew from an ancient line, certain of her superiority over all others and especially the Eastern European Jews known as Ashkenazim—my mother’s people. Rae carried herself with the judgmental attitudes and high-status reserve of an aristocrat, and her pitiless gaze was cold as a raptor’s.

Beneath an aura of Sephardic physical beauty and Uzbek power, a carmine strain of violence was passed down to my father through both bloodlines. For example, when Jack’s horse bit him, my grandfather killed it with a hand sledge, striking it so brutally in the forehead that it collapsed in its own footprint like a demolished highrise. The year after Jack killed the horse, while clearing leaves in his yard, he stepped on the tines of a rake, smashing himself painfully in the face with the handle. For my father, still in short pants, it resembled a comic turn in a vaudeville slapstick routine, and he laughed aloud involuntarily. Maddened by pain, bleeding from his nose, and enraged at being ridiculed, Jack turned vengefully on his six-year-old son.

“You little son of a bitch,” he spat, and chased him with such obvious murderous intent that Morris fled into the house, screaming for help. He scrambled up one flight of stairs and then another, terrified and calling for his mother, inches ahead of Jack’s grasping hands. Morris turned into the steep, narrow stairway to the attic and slammed the door shut behind him, holding it fast with his feet and wedging his back against the stairs. Alas, he had smashed the door on his father’s fingers. Jack screamed with pain and rage while Morris, gibbering with fear, remained paralyzed, afraid to release the door.

In a paroxysm of wrath, Jack stove the door off its hinges with his shoulder and seized his terrified son. When Grandma Rae arrived to investigate the uproar, all of Jack’s will was intent on squeezing their son’s shoulders through the small circular window in the roof’s peak, three stories above the ground. Unable to get through to him with either entreaties or physical strength, Rae finally bludgeoned him with a heavy brass lamp, knocking him unconscious and saving her son’s life.

I was the age my father had been at the time, six or seven, when I first heard this story. The night I heard it, Dad, Rae, and Jack were sitting at our kitchen table laughing, sipping neat whiskey, and playing klabiash, a complicated Eastern-European card game. They raised their hands high, slapping down their cards with relish. As they drew and tossed their cards, they recounted this ancient tale with high merriment, while I looked on, confused, uncertain, transfixed. Their faces were flushed as they choked with laughter and my grandmother beamed with satisfaction, proud of her strength and the determination that had vanquished a man of such power.

Struggling with incomprehension and rising horror, I observed them, as vivid as actors on a movie screen. They were physically dense, radiating power and confidence, apparently impregnable, nothing like the restrained parents of my playmates. Fear and doubt seemed foreign to them. They were an alien species roaring with laughter about a father’s attempt to murder his son.

Many of my early impressions of my father were either of a force projecting itself through space or of his merriment and love of laughter. He surrendered to laughter, slapping his legs, weeping with joy, and sobbing for breath. It was such an amazing display that it never failed to delight my sister and me.

But Morris was as quixotic and changeable as a tempestuous day, his emotions undependable and uncertain. On a good day he might tousle my hair and laugh at something I did or failed to do. In the next moment he might be distracted, irritable, or angry. Not knowing what to expect galvanized my attention to him. I studied his certainty and his forcefulness as if he were a textbook on manhood, trying to determine how he managed it, how he asserted his will and expected compliance.

The place where I came closest to getting what I sought from him was our farm, called Turkey Ridge. This was the great love of Morris’s life, a two-hour drive from Englewood, New Jersey on the border with Pennsylvania, just a few miles south of the Delaware Water Gap. The gap was a deep notch in the Appalachian Mountain range carved out hundreds of millions of years ago by the river and tectonic collisions. Perhaps he loved it so much because the evidence of vast forces that could cleave mountains was clearly visible there.

It was an old homestead and farm on about 150 acres. The solid nineteenth-century house with clapboard sides stood on a stone foundation. Next to the house was a small shed, and next to that was a large, two-story barn. The property had a machine and repair shop that could hold six vehicles, and an old manager’s cottage my dad used as an office, also painted barn red and, like every building on the property, topped with local slate from the Bangor quarries.

Morris spent every moment he could there. The farm’s thriving cattle business eventually generated more income than his Wall Street firm. He drew the blueprints for additional barns and sheds himself, and he acquired property ceaselessly, until by the time of his death, he owned six farms and nearly three thousand acres of land. From the time I was six, we summered there and spent as many weekends as my mother would bear. When she could bear no more, or when it was too cold, icy, or rainy, Morris went to Turkey Ridge by himself, leaving at the slightest excuse. A patter of rain on the roof in Englewood would move him to call his chauffeur to deliver him to the farm so he could sleep in the rain there. On snowy mornings when I was with him, I often found him in a sleeping bag on the farmhouse porch, huddled against the stacked cordwood and drifted over with snow, sleeping like a baby. I never saw Morris happier anywhere else and especially in inclement weather. Nor did I ever understand how the side of him that relished hunkering down against the elements dovetailed so seamlessly with the part of his personality that demanded comfort and indulgence.

I received Morris’s best there as well. As soon as he reached the farm, his mood lightened. The concerns and tensions of Wall Street and making money evaporated. While I was free to wander the woods, hunt for snakes, fish, and daydream to my heart’s content, he’d change into his long-sleeved Henley undershirt, his black hat, sheepskin vest, and boots, and dive into the life of the place, working at his blacksmith’s forge forcing cherry-red iron to his will, and with his farmhands, planning, repairing, branding, and medicating the animals, deciding which fields would be for hay and which for grazing, assessing the equipment, and deciding about repairs and purchases. This was the concrete life of the body and the solvable problems that he really adored, and I received the spillover of his affections.

During the heavy summer rains, when the sky lowered, the thunder cracked, and the air felt dense enough to wear, he would sometimes gather me under an arm and climb to the top of a haymow in a newer barn, directly beneath the slate roof. Wrapping us in a rough horse-blanket, he sipped pear brandy until he fell asleep and, enveloped by the sound of the drumming rain, I lay beside his enormous chest, which sheltered me like a cliff face. There has never been a rainy day in my life since when these memories have not returned as mnemonics of childhood happiness and safety. He had chosen to be with me, and at such moments my heart would open as only a needy boy’s can, and I loved him totally, without measure or reproach.

Jasmine Bravo, Sister’s Keychain


Many talented individuals are featured in the West Marin Review. Please click below for this volume’s contributors.

  • Cover
    • Jasmine Bravo   Sister’s Keychain
  • Prose
    • Peter Coyote   Fathers
    • Susan Trott   Plain Jain
    • Judy Brackett   Chicken Crossings
    • Lynn Hoggatt   Madame Alvida Turns a Card
    • Florence Caplow   Elders
    • Frances Lefkowitz   Flash Fiction in Two Parts
    • Tim Foley   Machinery, Waiting
    • Ellen Shehadeh   Shortcake for Breakfast
    • Chris Reding   The Summer Palace Vase
    • Muriel Murch   Morning Rounds
    • Joan Thornton   Maxine
    • Claire Peaslee   The Sand Swimmer
    • Carla Steinberg   Snapshots
    • G. David Miller   Conversations with a Righteous Man
  • Poetry
    • Gina Cloud   January
    • Laura Juliet Wood   Composting
    • Ryan Connolly   Marsh Hawk
    • Olivia Fisher-Smith   My Wings
    • Howard Norman   Novel Made of Haiku
    • Margaret Stawowy   Vagrant
    • Carolyn Losee   First Miwok Poem
    • Meredith Sabini   Fallen from Grace
    • Judith Shaw   Poem
    • Dean Rader   Notes on Inequality
    • Helen Wickes   Day After Easter
    • Linda Pastan   Peace Process
    • Eileen Puppo   El Patrón
    • Bob Kubik   Point Reyes Station
    • Zea Morvitz   Crossed Trunks and Inverness Drawing #4
    • T. C. Moore   …in a smooth and flowing manner #5 and #4
    • Terry Murphy   Farrier
    • Celt Carr   Self-Reflective Portrait
    • Channon Miles   Self-Reflective Portrait
    • Blaize Adler-Ivanbrook   Self-Reflective Portrait
    • Jennifer Gutierrez   Self-Reflective Portrait
    • Grady Salas Hecht   Invisible World
    • Clare Elsaesser   Flower Child
    • Emmeline Craig   Laundry in the wind with green hills
    • Burt Bacharach, Steven Sater   Living with a Ghost
    • Anna Dal Pino   Investigation of a Raven Investigating Me
    • Kerry Livingston   Blackbirds over the Wetlands and Singing by Firelight
    • Claudia Stevens   Traditional Botanical Paintings
    • Britta Kathmeyer   Gossip
    • Sarah Myers   Polka Dot Pathogen
    • Claudia Chapline   New American Garden Book
    • Barbara Vos   Spring Fed
    • Ryan Dunbar   Simple Complexity
    • Carolyn Krieg   Red Deer
    • Timothy W. Graveson   Farm Book
    • Susan Putnam   Untitled #216
    • Randall Gray Fleming   Winter 1
    • Elizabeth Hansen   Green River
    • Debbie Patrick   Are We There Yet?
    • Rebecca Young Winslow   Butterfly Collage
    • Celeste Woo   Nudibranchs
    • Chelsea Buteux   Breach in the Pacific and Oncorhynchus kisutch (Coho)
    • Mary Siedman   Arroyo Hondo
    • Wendy Schwartz   Conversation
    • Mark Ropers   Limantour Scoters