Saturday, December 06, 2014

I Remember Mommies

After many centuries of my family kicking around Poland and Lithuania (and Spain, before that), my European grandparents settled in Elmira, New York, where, in the early 20th century, both my parents were born.

My brother and I came along after WWII, and it was a swell place to live and grow up.  The synagogue and our little Jewish community was, without any doubt, the absolute center of our lives, with all my conscious years filled with Hebrew School and weekly attendance at services.

My father made late, irregular appearances at services.  I always sensed that he regarded Jewish ritual with bemused, minimal involvement.

On the other hand, my mother's apparent belief in God was undoubtedly totally sincere and deep. There was no question that Saturday mornings (and often Friday nights) were going to be spent with Mom at the schul, where we had our usual seats.

The sequence, words, and melodies of the service were absolutely, totally imprinted in me, and I am still astonished at my continuing total familiarity with Hebrew. However, despite a sincere and deep fascination with both Jewish history and the music at services, I never quite got with the God program. 

I remember Mom handing me a children's book entitled, "Let's Talk about God", and, after reading it, I think my reaction was pretty much, "you're kidding, right?"  Sorry.

This is not to say that I have rejected Jewishness.  On the contrary, how could my basic identity be anything other, even though my ritual participation in our Portland congregation hovers just above Absolute Zero.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a letter from my congregation, reminding me that my mother's Yahrzeit (translation:  annual anniversary of a loved-one's death) was coming up, and, that her name would be read at services on December 6th.  I put a note in my phone calendar at the time, and was slightly surprised when the reminder went off around 8 this morning.

Naturally, my first impulse was to guiltily delete the reminder, but I got dressed and made it to Saturday morning services today, and it was totally and uncannily familiar.  My mother has been gone now for several years, but, as I was driving downtown, I remembered that this week is also the one-year anniversary of Sylvia, my mother-in-law, leaving this world, at 102.

Their death-dates are separated by four days.  A hospice nurse told us, "there's something about 'two weeks after Thanksgiving'".

So, when it came time to say Kaddish, I was filled with the memories of Two Mommies, and I now know that this sense will, for the rest of my life, always be an event of early December.

Here's Sylvia, Thanksgiving 2013, two weeks before she died.

And here's a 1987 photo of my mother, Dorothy Barcus Lavine, happily holding her grandson Benjamin (who I named after HER father, Ben Barcus).

Monday, November 24, 2014

August 1962

I grew up in a little town in Upstate New York.  The recent photos from Buffalo reminded me of epic snow-storms of my childhood, staring out the window at the delicately-carved canyons created by the wind howling around the corner of our warm, secure house.

Every morning, my mother would listen to the 'CBS World News Roundup' on the radio, as we ate breakfast. I vivdly remember the one magical morning, when Richard (C.) Hottelet announced that 'this morning, the coldest place in the country is Elmira, New York', before moving onto the next story.  We glowed with the sense of being, for a brief moment, nationally recognized.

But I digress.

The flip-side to the brutal winters was the endless, humid, firefly-filled summer.  Our best friends had a house on Keuka Lake, and many weeks were spent there - just the Moms and kids.  The Dads continued working, of course - we never thought about them, just trusted that they would appear on weekends.

The world of adults rarely had any impact on the daily swimming, boating, and explorations that filled our days.  This is appropriate - meals and calamine lotion just appeared, as needed.
Every once in a while, we got a glimpse of a world beyond the lake. One summer, the original cast recording of 'West Side Story' showed up, and we played it over and over, amazed at both the music and Anita's inflection as she snarled 'A boy like that, who keeled your brother..'.

Among the abundant child-centered memories, I can only bring-up two where the adults were front and center. 

One weekend, several of our parents' friends came out, to spend an afternoon at the lake.  I had some long-forgotten reason to intrude on the adults. They were all sitting down by the water, no doubt laughing along with my own entertaining father, who was endlessly cracking jokes and smoking the Parliaments that would eventually murder him.

I approached and noticed one man sitting there who looked vaguely familiar, but, then again, not.  I sort of knew the face, but who was this slightly-chubby man, in the sun-glasses, colorful shirt, and bermuda shorts, chuckling along with the others? 

A pause, and a Revelation.

It was our Rabbi, James I. Gordon, who I had never seen outside of the dark-suit, solemn-intonation, divinely-infused world of our Conservative schul. The world expanded at that moment. 

A footnote:  Decades later, after I had moved to Portland, Oregon, I happened to see a VERY young Rabbi Gordon in an old photograph.  Turns out that, before he went to Elmira, one of his first posts was out here.  At that moment, he and I were strangely linked, both having made a transfer between Portland and Elmira, at different times, in opposite directions, for entirely different reasons.

I digressed again.

The next memory has me in the water, looking up at the dock, where adults were sitting in the sun.  They were quietly talking and one of them held up the newspaper, whose very large headline said 'MM DEAD'. 

I was 10 at that time, and, now, at 63, it's easy for me to imagine folks of that generation getting conversational fodder out of the question 'do you remember when you heard that Marilyn Monroe died?'.

1962 was the time of their middle-age: kids, work, friends, the daily news.

Last summer, the family gathered in Elmira for three busy days, for the funeral of my 101 year-old uncle.  After the burial (full military honors), I walked around the cemetery and visited my parents, all four grandparents, and several of our family friends, many of whom were at Keuka Lake the day Marilyn died.

My only memory of that day is that headline. 

I no doubt went back to enjoying the water and looking forward to dinner, not knowing what I now know:  that Soviet missles were heading towards Cuba, that Lyndon Johnson would be the next President, that John, Paul and George had just replaced Pete with Ringo, and that, more than fifty years later, I would understand the inevitability of my time becoming the quaint, innocent past.

It's only natural to look back at earlier times and wonder 'what the heck were they thinking?'.  Imagine the incredulity of our descendants, when they do the same.

Friday, June 06, 2014

thinking about my 'Uncle Mordechai'

I don't remember where that name came from - I think he referred to himself that way in one of his many letters to me, years ago.

Sanford Zalburg was my mother's first cousin, and was, by far, the most incredible figure in our family circle.  I remember, as a child, his infrequent appearances in our Elmira, New York home - an impossibly tall man, who my mother clearly admired, who was always either departing for or returning from the world's exotic places.

He grew up in Elmira during the dismal 1930's, and was, understandably, extremely eager to get away from the poverty and his stern step-father.  He had little nostalgia for Elmira, referring to it in his letters as the 'Queen City of the Southern Tier' (always in quotes, emphasizing the irony).

He settled in Hawaii after the War, and married a local Hawaiian beauty, the vivacious and outspoken (an understatement) Vivian, who blew everyone's mind when she swept into town in 1964 for my cousin Steven's bar mitzvah, bearing the most amazing flowers that provincial Elmira had ever seen.

Sanny (family nickname) was a journalist, based in Honolulu. He started out as a reporter there and ended up as the City Editor of the Honolulu Advertiser for many years.  Read about that here.

He traveled the world, often sending us clippings of his entertaining, informative columns. After his death, his daughter, Noni, sent me a giant box of his papers, including some of his many scrapbooks and two unpublished books, one a war novel of Korea and, most painful, a searing chronicle of Vivian's decline and death from lung cancer ('all the publishers said it was too grim', he told me).

I exchanged letters with both him and Vivian for many years.  I could write to them about things that I couldn't talk to my parents about, and they were not shy about expressing opinions (another understatement).

Eventually, he stopped flying due to severe vertigo, so the only way to see him was to come to Hawaii, and I did so several times, enjoying his company and conversation immensely.  One time, long after Vivian died, my whole family went to Kauai.  I left them a couple of days early and flew to Honolulu to spend time with Sanny.  We talked and talked for hours, and on the final day, he drove me to the airport and stayed around to wait for Karen and the boys to arrive, prior to our flight home.  He seemed genuinely pleased to meet my mishpocha.

Why am I thinking about him today?

One day, in the bright Honolulu sunshine, sitting on the breezy lanai of his 10th-floor condo overlooking Waikiki, he patiently sketched out for me, on a paper napkin, a drawing showing the position of the German guns that were pointing directly at him, and the path up the bluffs that he was hoping to reach, as he hit Omaha Beach.  He didn't want to talk about the carnage surrounding him, but there was, apparently, plenty.

He also bequeathed to me his treasured recipe for tandoori chicken, involving (now it can be told) yogurt, sherry, and mango chutney.

'The Greatest Generation'?  You betcha.

Monday, May 05, 2014

slightly Out-of-Synchronicity

This post is silly, but I had a startling 'ain't-it-odd' experience this morning.

It started when I happened to glance at Paul Krugman's current blog posting, where he mentions a song by Alison Krauss, an artist I don't really know too much about.

Then, a couple of minutes later, I happened upon Digby's post about the anniversary of the Kent State tragedy. Accompanying that post is a link to a video showing scenes from that event, with the famous CSNY song.  I watched the video and it was very moving (I was a freshman in college that Spring, and had been arrested a month before at an anti-war protest in Baltimore, but that's another story).

The jarring moment came when we see a photograph of the memorial to the 4 students killed, and the name at the top of the list is Allison Krause.  Here's her Wikipedia page.

I thought that the synchronicity was especially strong with that connection, but was even further spooked to note that, as it says in the 'References' at the bottom of the Wikipedia entry, her eulogy was given by Ms. Krause's boyfriend, Barry Levine.

Yes, these things are happening all the time.  And yet, ain't it odd?