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 After his death, his daughter, Noni, sent me a giant box of his papers, including some of his many scrapbooks and two unpublished books, one a war novel of Korea and, most painful, a searing chronicle of Vivian's decline and death from lung cancer ('all the publishers said it was too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.