So many words stung, more words healed. Today, I celebrate where I have been – though I could never have articulated it as magnificently as Shane Koyczan. TGIF all..
Were we old friends? In the very broadest sense of the word, I think. We traveled in the same pack of prepubescent kids, falling over each other and ourselves like puppies, but far too gawky and awkward to ever be considered really cute. In retrospect I see us all as adorable and goofy, hypersensitive and phenomenally clueless, not fully prepared to be accountable for our words or deeds, yet quick to pass notes and judgment on the unforgivable behavior of someone else.
So after forty-some-odd years, I drove into DC looking forward to seeing Alan and wondering if I’d recognize him in a crowded lobby. We are friends on Facebook, so there are some elements of his life that I have seen. His magnificent wife and daughters – pictures posted which require no artificial light for they seem to glow with the richness of love. There is no contrivance or pretense; they look like people I would like to know and more importantly, like people who are genuinely enriched by each other. He has built a successful greeting card company (greatarrow.com – their graphics are really lovely and unique) and is also an extraordinarily gifted photographer. His photos capture the magnificent moodiness of the sky, the sun in fits of pique. He has an impressive collection of Stetson hats and wears them well. All of this is well and good – but how do you find someone in a hotel lobby? I told him to look for a short, blond woman in her renaissance.
Fortunately, the lobby wasn’t crowded – but I would have known Alan regardless. Something about his walk (though the Stetson helped). Bobby used to walk a bit on his toes, Jo’s heels would scuff the cement, Bruce kind of pulled the sidewalk along with each step and Gary had a sort of walk/run. Alan’s shoulders were a little rounded, his eyes looked directly ahead despite the suggestion of the angle of his head and his feet always seemed to touch the ground gently. Our pack traveled in relative quiet – our shoes reinforced with layers of rubber. The cooler kids had metal taps on their shoes – stepping in a perpetual dance with sound and rhythm. Perhaps our development was more muted. It seemed loud to us, though I think for the most part it reflected sounds only we could hear.
Where do you pick up after lifetimes have passed? You can’t really say nothing is new, for to the listener everything is new. I didn’t know he thought I had a great voice, he didn’t know that I thought he had an artistic and thoughtful aspect I always liked. He designed sets for theatrical productions; I performed in them. He went to Stuyvesant (a high school for the seriously smart); I went to private school. We all dispersed for college. So it goes.
And yet after two and a half hours, we still had stories to tell. More than the memories of who we once were, we shared an understanding of those invisible threads – the ones that constitute the preliminary stitches which outlined the design of who we became. He became a warm, loving, devoted, creative man. I chose a career that required decades of performance and appealing to wide audiences.
Alan will return to DC next year for another annual meeting. I hope we meet again same time, next year. Were we old friends? We are older, and yes, I believe we are friends. We share seminal moments in our respective histories, and the comfort to quote Samuel Taylor Coleridge, of “a sheltering tree”.
This is one of the few pictures we have of my mom and her family before the war. She was an adorable little girl who grew into a beautiful and haunted woman. I think some of the relentless, unforgiving thoughts that defined so much of her persona were driven by memories such images evoked, further fueled by the unanswerable question, “what if?”. ”What if” there had been no Holocaust? ”What if” they could have remained in Vienna along with their sizeable extended family? ”What if” she had been able to grow up with frivolity? ”What if” her back story was so benign, so unremarkable that it didn’t inform her entire life?
Holocaust Remembrance Day – I wrote of it last year. I honor it again. Elie Wiesel once said, “To forget the Holocaust is to kill twice”. With a bowed back, I realize that he is right – for this is a lesson the world has yet to embrace. The irony of unanimous agreement that humanity is precious and the disparity that clearly exists in its definition. And we bear witness over and over again – the self-righteous rationalization about the expendability of some people over others. We’re not talking about Darwin. After Kristalnacht, my grandfather went to schul with the conviction that the answer to this horror would be found in more devout prayer. This is not about evolutionary theory. This is a human tale.
My mother’s story lives now in my sister and I. It has been with us since we were born, whispered to us as we were carried by our grandfather, packed in our lunch boxes, tucked into our clothes. We honored it because it was so big and inconceivable and intangible, yet as real and palpable as mom herself. It was every nightmare that would wake us when she screamed. It weighted every argument in mom’s favor when I fought my way through adolescence. It remains as a part of every prayer I mouth to the sky in the morning – sending love to my parents, appreciation for this life, my family and friends, and imploring that we all continue to be blessed with health and love. It lives in me. Perhaps it will remain in her grandchildren, and so on. Time has a way of diluting even the starkest memories. The ones you swear you’ll always remember. Maybe the details will get lost, and what will survive within them is a more sophisticated palate – able to taste the exquisite, indescribable sweetness to life. The passionate advocacy for the value of humankind.
When mom passed away in 2005, her obituary ran in the New York Times. It read in part, “Dee was born and spent her early childhood in Vienna, making her one of that shrinking cohort who experienced and survived the monstrous storm of Nazi violence. Her father and mother…took the family out of Austria shortly after the Anschluss, making their way first to Belgium and then through occupied France. The family made its way to Portugal, where on August 16, 1941, they found passage among 765 other refugees on the Spanish freighter Navemar – one of the last voyages of escapees from Europe. Dee’s children and grandchildren bear in their hearts eternal, existential gratitude for her family’s valor and persistence. Her intelligence, humor and immense energy were a gift to us all. Our family’s particularly gladdened that Dee lived long enough to know of the safe return..of her eldest grandson, Matthew, from Iraq, where for the past year he has served in harm’s way the country that gave his grandmother safe haven.”
In acknowledging this day of Remembrance, I honor my family. I honor the memories that once glared in every corner, and now have softened to shadows. I will do my part to make sure that though they may dim and blur, they should never be forgotten.
My sister and brother-in-law are in the midst of moving into their recently renovated house. It’s been the longest labor and delivery – literally and figuratively. And now that they have their little parcel of joy (so to speak), I hope they love and enjoy it and make it their own. Needless to say I can’t wait to see the new addition to the family (I know that was a groaner, but I couldn’t resist).
There is a gentle irony in her move to this house. Although we didn’t grow up there, it’s proximate to where my parents lived (they bought their house when my sister and I were already in college. I used to say that had we moved to the suburbs before I finished high school, my graduation gift would have been way better than a Panasonic stereo). It is where I remember them at their happiest. And it became home – because it was where they were, where my children crawled and toddled and ran – where so many memories were made. My sons always reference this house when remembering their grandparents – the backyard with apple trees as bases and dad throwing pitch after pitch after pitch, looking for shells down at the dock, creating innumerable ways to take indoor soccer to new levels of hilarity. It’s where Andy and I got married.
I can’t wait to visit my sister and yet, when I think about driving up 95 and getting on the Hutch, my eyes cloud with tears and there are no words. No words. Perhaps because my heart is too full. There are some things that time doesn’t temper. There are some moments that may change in hue or shading, but remain the same in form and substance.
This sentimentality is heightened by another serendipitous experience. My parents had a circle of friends (all European but for our dad) that was arguably too close, too intimate, too ‘Mad Men’. They were known as “The Group” – they had their children within months of each other, summered together in the Catskills, wintered together at each other’s houses. As their offspring, we identified with each other in so many unspoken ways. All first generation Americans (again, dad being the exception), all growing up with a European perspective of child-rearing, all connected by an emotional cord tied by our parents. Until it unraveled when we were young adults.
You know where this is going – Deb and three of these women have picked up that cord once more. They had dinner together recently, and she described it as warm and loving. They will see each other again; I’m hoping to join them. And slowly I feel the ground shift, the angles inherent to any journey smoothing and perhaps unresolved elements coming full circle. I find myself gravitating to these memories and holding myself back, venturing forward with some reluctance. I need to protect the little girl who is in my care; she still has hurt along with the delight. She’s never been very good at self-protection.
So I sit here in the silence that arrives with snowfall, recognizing the wonder in the nexus of these moments, their undeniable connection to the past and their inextricable relevance to the present. As to the future? It’s not mine to predict – I just know that it makes me smile, albeit with one tear.
“You don’t raise heroes, you raise sons. And if you treat them like sons, they’ll turn out to be heroes, even if just in your eyes.” – Walter Schirra Sr
See that gorgeous baby? Today he turns thirty-one – at around 10:47AM. As much as he will shake his head with disbelief and some embarrassment that I am writing about him today, he can be comforted with the knowledge that he remains anonymous to most who will read this. Truth is, it’s his birthday to celebrate; it is mine to remember.
I’ve assumed many hats in my life, and played at many roles. We all do this – it’s part of growing up. The one hat that I always wanted to wear was that of ’mom’. I couldn’t wait. I would admonish my six-year-old peeps if they were rough on their stuffed animals (my theory being that all these toys came to life once we slept, and their retribution would be fierce). I was a maternal kind of friend before I could spell ‘maternal’ - or even knew what it meant. Whatever I became professionally was serendipitous; becoming a mom was my touchstone. If I became nothing else, so be it.
Memory blurs years together which must be why they pass so quickly. One moment a baby is born and from that point forward time accelerates, making it impossible to isolate and hold each moment. I can still remember holding and bathing him, the smell of his neck…I thought his baby toes were replaced with ten little pearls. He squinted like Mr. Magoo, the lights were too bright. So I’d squint back at him and dim the glare. When he was nine months old he spent an entire night pulling himself into a standing position and then plopping down on his butt. The next morning, he held on to a chair as he rose and wobbled into the dining room. I was on the phone with my mom while I watched in disbelief – he had only crawled for four days! Where were these days going?
We developed our own language and as awful as it sounds, I reluctantly brought him for speech therapy. I wanted him to be able to converse with everyone; I wanted him just to talk with me. He had one of those baby laughs that bubble up from the belly and just erupt into the room. His grandmother’s toes were a real hit, don’t ask me why. I couldn’t get enough of this child – I still can’t.
He is of course now a man – a really, really good man. I respect him tremendously, though I love him more than that. I love his heart – he will dismiss this publicly and appreciate it privately. His sense of the greater good, his relentless work ethic. He’s loyal and highly principled. I love how much he loves his wife, how close he and his brothers are. He’s very handsome. I appreciate that he asks for my opinion though I fully expect him to do what he thinks is best. I understand that I had to let him go into his life, and he understands that in many ways it is impossibly hard to do. I keep trying to get that balance right. My sons have grown into heroes in my eyes – not because of me, but in spite of me.
There are days when I just want to stop time and make cookie pizza, hold one on my lap and the other under my arm and repeat the chorus from “Horton Hatches An Egg”. I want to watch a high school baseball game and learn secrets that most moms don’t get to hear (I am very very aware that I wasn’t told all of the secrets by any stretch). It’s okay to want all of this, but time has its foot on the pedal and is driving this train. So I’ll savor today and celebrate his birthday, from his first breath to the man he has become. May each day bring him all that he wishes for and may he wish for all that he has. I love him all there is – Happy Birthday..