A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Father's Day, 2020


He was my father.  I‘d known him for more than forty-seven years.  But after he died, I got to know him better.

“Your dad was my friend and one of the most incredible people I’ve ever had the pleasure to hang with.” 
The woman who told me this helped write his obituary, which ran in the newspaper for which they were both journalists. They worked together for decades.  She sent me two long and lyrical emails about her memories of him.  I knew her name, Joye.  But I’ve never met her.
I also received two detailed and moving emails from Colette, the Activities Director at the assisted living home where dad spent his final years due to the physical and mental ravages of Parkinson’s Disease.  I’d met her when I visited, but I had no idea that she would write hundreds of words about my father, recalling which songs he preferred, his prowess in trivia games, and his attempts – from his wheelchair, in his limited and subdued voice -- to rebuke another resident who was rude to her.
“You tend to fall in love with residents at these places, but your father was extra special, he was brilliant, he was funny, he was compassionate and kind.” 
Reading descriptions of my dad written by near-strangers elicited in me an odd mix of happiness, loss, fascination, and guilt.  Shouldn’t I have known these stories?  Shouldn’t I have known Dad better?  Been a better daughter?  Spent more time with him?  And yet, how wonderful to find that his life was deeper, richer, more connected, and more valued than ever I had suspected. 
What does it mean to know someone?
“Alas, poor Yorick.  I knew him, Horatio”.  Hamlet, in his classic skull-holding reminiscence, goes on to describe a kind-hearted and jovial man who gave the little Danish prince piggy-back rides and was able to get a crowd of people roaring with laughter.  But a child who is small enough to toss about was probably too young to understand half the grownup jokes.  Was Yorick sharing political gibes, or naughty innuendos about “swords”?  How many other Shakespearean characters would we have to interview to truly “know” Yorick?
Dad lived for thirty years before I was born, in decades I never experienced – the war-torn forties, the aggressively normative fifties, the rebellious sixties. Even if I untangle and reweave every story I can recall – from him, his sister, his parents, his college roommate, the context of history itself – I have only a sketch of a person. 
Not that the details don’t draw me in. Dad was a child of a socially and politically progressive and diverse immigrant family; his father, a Sephardic Jew, came from Turkey as a young man, and his mother, an Ashkenazi Jew, arrived from Russia as a little girl.  The path that Dad’s family saw to the American Dream -- open to those with white skin and relatively educated backgrounds -- involved rapid acculturation, financial struggle, and hard work by both my grandparents.  It built towards a house in the suburbs, baseball games, Christmas trees, crew cuts, and good grades in school.  Dad was a precocious and intellectual child, but with a goofy and irreverent sense of humor that he retained for his entire life.  He wasn’t much good at sports, but managed to fit in with the other boys by cultivating a taste for nerdy baseball statistics. Dad wore chinos and loafers and button-down shirts.  Dad went to Harvard, then piled on two Master’s degrees from Columbia in Journalism and International Affairs. He served his country as a diplomat in the Foreign Service, rather than getting sent to fight an unwinnable war in Vietnam.  He met a young woman working at the British embassy in Turkey, who became my mother. 
It’s a rich sketch, with several possible personal or sociopolitical essays buried within it, but it’s a sketch nonetheless.
By the time my memories start, in the mid-70s, Dad seemed established, iconic, and as ancient as any 33-year-old seems to a three-year-old.  Mom was the designated caregiver, who stayed home with the kids until I, the younger child, entered kindergarten.  The expectations of dad-hood have changed since the early seventies – a subject that would, itself, fill several more essays.
Dad disappeared all day to work.  He left wearing a suit, and came home with a newspaper, Newsday.  It took some time before I realized that the paper he brought home every day WAS his work.  I did not question his motives, his dreams, or his inner life.  Children don’t view adults that way.
When I was small, I aspired to be old enough, fast enough, smart enough, and capable enough to keep up with the things Dad did with my big sister, and with adults.  He was not the type to slow his stride or offer piggyback rides, so I learned to move my short legs quickly.  He was not the type to suffer through tedious games of Candyland or Uno, so when I was six I learned how to play bridge and Scrabble.  He was not the type to take me to Disney movies, so when I was seven, I watched all of War and Peace and I, Claudius as PBS mini-series. 
As I got older, I connected most with Dad over New York Mets games and Scrabble matches.  The Mets lost a lot, but we rooted for them anyhow.  I lost a lot, but still enjoyed finding new words.  I looked up to Dad, but not in the way that others did, and not for the same reasons.
From age eleven to age fifteen, I delivered Newsday -- proud on my three-speed bike with the big wire baskets.  I thought of it as Dad’s paper, but I wasn’t particularly impressed by his byline.  I didn’t put much thought into who knew my dad, or what they thought of him.  When he was part of a reporting team that won a Pulitzer Prize, I was like, “Huh, what’s that?  Oh, okay.” 
Every night at the dinner table, I heard about Dad’s successes and frustrations as a reporter. I recall that he admired Joye’s work, her smarts, and her pluck, and I distinctly remember his glee when she helped him subvert a bad decision by an editor.  I also heard tales of many other invisible strangers: Rich, Howie, Bob.    Some of the stories were interesting.  Some were hilarious.  But I was a kid, immersed in my own world and unconcerned with the professional connections and status of my parents. 
Things got complicated during my teens. 
In that sentence lie several other essays yet again, best left for another time.  Suffice to say that Dad was struck hard by clinical depression and anxiety, and some of that pain cascaded onto my shoulders.  My shoulders were not strong enough.
We pulled through.  Dad got the help that was beyond my power to provide. Things got better.  And I grew to know Dad through different lenses.  Closer, more adult lenses.  Less perfect lenses.
Three decades after my dad went to Harvard, I went there, too.  As a book-smart and world-dumb eighteen-year-old, I was aware that Dad was glad I was following in his footsteps, but I didn’t really feel the continuity.  The world had changed a lot -- letting women into Harvard, for one thing.  I had my own memories to create, although at the time, I didn’t think about it that way.  Teenagers are not preemptively nostalgic.  The closest I got was joking with my new roommates, when Dad’s good friend and former Harvard roommate sent me a nice desk lamp. “Does this mean that I have to give your kids lamps in thirty years?”
I haven’t gifted any lamps yet.  Maybe I never will.  But a year ago, when I attended my 25th college reunion, I did gain a new perspective on what it means to know others, and to be known by them.
I expected the reunion to be fun, nostalgic, a bit of a whirlwind, and a little cheesy at times.  It was all of those things.  It was also deeply connective.  My long-ago friends – not just the very few I’d assiduously kept up with, but also all those I hadn’t -- seemed closer than I expected them to feel.  We were not awkward acquaintances, but people with shared memories, remembered jokes, and common interests undulled by time.  What I found were pieces of myself, held in safekeeping by others. 
In the Harry Potter series, we learn that Voldemort seeks immortality by tearing apart his own soul and hiding pieces of it in objects – “horcruxes”.  This is obviously a hideous distortion of a meaningful life.  And yet it strikes me that the dispersion of oneself sought by “he who shall not be named” is at some level something we all long for.  We all make beneficent horcruxes out of each other, by offering up parts of our inner selves in friendship, in love, in connection. 
The offering -- and the vulnerability engendered by that offering -- can be terrifying.  To offer invites rejection and loss.  To be known, truly known, means to inevitably reveal all our flaws, inconsistencies, unrealized dreams, failed ideals, hidden biases, foibles, mistakes, and weaknesses.  Close relationships of all kinds are difficult, and sometimes painful.  It’s not easy to accept and love a complicated, imperfect, damaged, maddening human.  It’s not easy to be such a human – as we all are – and reveal oneself to another. But does anything feel better, deeper, and more joyful in this world than to feel that someone knows you, and loves you nonetheless?
Love notwithstanding.
At my college reunion, people brought out details about me that I’d all but forgotten myself.  Each memory was like an old silver coin to which someone applies a touch of polish.  Oh, was that sparkle there all the time?  The fact that others had been keeping these pieces of myself, holding them safe for a quarter century, was astonishing and humbling.  Yet I found I, too, had so many shining coins to share. 

“We dwell in one another”.  My friend Steve chose those words to describe this phenomenon, when reflecting on the reunion soon afterward.  It was manifestly true.  I don’t just “know” my friends, to varying levels and degrees.  I have internalized small aspects of them, and they of me.  In some cases – such as with Steve – the friendship forged some indelible part of me. 
A year later, Steve’s words came back to me, as I read the many thoughts shared by those who knew my dad.  Some memories were general, and some were particular, sweet, insightful, and funny.  They did not contradict my own knowing of my father, but they enriched it.
“Please know that your dad was respected.  He was loved.”
“I am very sad, but I still have hundreds of happy memories going back to our being roommates at Harvard. Bob began his love affair with journalism as a WHRB newscaster, and he followed the weather on Long Island much more closely than he did that in Cambridge. His Long Island weather addiction continued through his life. I will miss him very much.”
“I cried when I read of your father's passing.”
“At Newsday, Bob was a formidable colleague. He helped — naw, hell, he was key — to my first project. I’d wanted to find the biggest slumlord in Long Island. And he was far, far better than I at digging out records and making sense of them. We shared a byline, but I got the best of the partnership since I learned so much. We would work together on several more projects together. And we worked well. Your dad was a perfectionist.”
“One sweet singer named Mary would walk around with her mic and often go right over to your Dad put it up to your Dad's mouth so that he could sing.  She just loved your Dad too.”

“I remember so many long political and intellectual conversations at your home, covering every topic imaginable.”
“Many Newsday people have responded with sadness at his passing and very fond memories of their own.”
“I am so honored that I got to meet and know your father.  He positively impacted not just my life, but others’ lives too. What a nice, compassionate, caring, fun and brilliant minded man.”
“One March 15, he had posted a note on the fridge that said, Beware the Ides of March. Two days later, he replaced it with one that said, Beware, the Irish march!”
“I remember a pun he sent you in one of his letters.  ‘It has been raining and raining – it’s like terminal moraine.’ “

“Intelligent, amusing, kind are words that come to mind when thinking of Bob.”
“Bob was an early adopter of data-driven reporting techniques — he was quick to grasp how complex systems worked and had encyclopedic knowledge of the Island’s counties, towns, cities and villages.”
“I remember him having a little twinkle in his eye to go with his sense of humor and wry smile.”
“He loved his work and attacked every reporting assignment with an unabashed earnestness.”
“He would not do well on entertainment questions, but difficult ones he always got. And people, not the more competitive residents, hehe, but people loved watching your Dad get the answers.”
“He was a journalist with integrity, respect, and compassion. A lovely man.”
“Your Dad took me into his work on one trip… it was in the late 90's and I remember taking this photo of him at his desk.”
“This may seem odd, but I don’t have any memories of your and Jay’s wedding - except for the extraordinary pleasure of meeting your dad. Was there a certain kinship, both being Long Islanders, or was he just an unforgettable person for everyone who met him?”
“He was above all smart and intellectual.  You could talk to him about everything — he knew literature, he knew music, but he loved to talk about his daughters. He was so proud of his daughters.”
So many facets.  So many views.  So many ways of knowing.  He hated peas.  He wore black dress socks with shorts.  He was terrible at Pictionary.  He preferred to drive a standard transmission. He liked fresh New York bagels with lox.  He read Dick Francis mystery novels.   He walked at Caumsett.  He jumped in the surf off Long Island. His facial hair was too coarse for electric razors.  He had size nine feet.  He completed the New York Times crossword puzzle every day.  He always liked to get cake and presents on his birthday, but didn’t much care about Father’s Day, which he called a Hallmark Holiday.
We dwell in one another.
He was my father.  I‘d known him for more than forty-seven years.  But others knew him, too.  In hearing some of those memories, I’ve not only gotten to know him better, but myself, as well.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

One Century


Back: Reuben, Irwin, Sarah, Fenya
Front: Elizabeth, Pauline
circa 1915
Pauline, Irwin, and Elizabeth circa 1980

Dear Great-Grandma Fenya Zlochevsky – I never knew you, but I see you. You were a wonderful woman – strong, brave, and loving even in the face of the steep challenges of escaping the Russian Revolution, immigrating with three young children, making a life in a new country that was not always welcoming, and trying to build a feeling of love and safety during a worldwide war.  My grandma, your little Elizabeth, told me about you, her mother.  She was in her seventies then, and I was ten, but there were tears in her eyes nonetheless.  You died when she herself was ten -- in the influenza pandemic of 1918.  But I see you still.

Dear friends in vulnerable categories – older friends, friends with medical conditions, friends with compromised immune systems -- maybe you are struggling.  Maybe you are worried.  Maybe you are feeling blamed, or ignored, or sidelined, or already triaged by a cold and indifferent world.  You deserve better.  You deserve everything humanity as a whole can muster to keep you safe. You are us, and we are you.  I see you.    

Dear friends who are healthcare professionals – doctors, nurses, aides, all of you -- you have done the math, and you know exactly what this may look like, and you know how horrendous your world may look, for weeks, for months.  You know how many hours you may work, what hideous life and death choices may be placed in your hands, and what huge risks to your own health are looming.  You will do your best, because you are incredible human beings, but you’re painfully aware that your best may not be good enough.  You need the rest of us to do whatever we can to lighten your load.  I see you.

Dear friends who are not in a vulnerable category – you may be struggling in other ways.  You may suddenly be stuck at home with kids too young to care for themselves.  You may not be able to do your job, or earn a living.  You may be uncertain as to whether you’ll be able to get groceries.  You may be facing the cancellation of something you endlessly trained for, or rehearsed for, or longed for.  You may be unable to visit people you care about – and may never get another chance to see, ever.  You may be wondering how you can help, and feeling lost in your inability to do more.  Your hands may already be raw from washing, and your heart may already be raw from uncertainty.   I know.  I see you. 

Dear friends everywhere -- I won’t mention your names.  You don’t need to be called out.  You are already aware of who you are – in some cases, all too aware.  But I am thinking of your names.  Graphs are important.  Graphs remind people who have forgotten their algebra exactly what uncontrolled  exponential growth looks like.  But graphs show numbers, and mathy folks like me are often reminded that most people don’t think in numbers.  They think in names.  So I’m thinking of the numbers, but I’m also thinking of your names.  I see you.

Dear Great-Grandma Fenya Zlochevsky – You were a wonderful person. I know this because your sister and all three of your children told me so.  They all lived long, interesting, and productive lives.  Your husband and son lived to old age.  Your sister lived far into her eighties.  Both your girls made it to their mid nineties; they saw the turn of the millennium.  The millennium!  It’s a different world now, from the one you left 102 years ago.  But it’s also the same world.  We have terrible problems, and wars, and sad inequities, and we don’t treat immigrants the way we should.  But we want and hope and strive to be better than we are.  We love our children.  We love our grandparents.  We do the best we can.  Your little Elizabeth was my grandma.  She lived to see three great-grandchildren, and to know that two more, my twins, were on the way.  I’m looking at those twins right now.  I’m looking at the girl I named Elizabeth, after your Elizabeth.  I think you’d like to know all this.

I see you.