Note: This is a very personal post and therefore unlike my usual content. It’s a memorial to my parents, both of whom died a few weeks apart in August. It’s not a very good memorial because I don’t have much experience in the genre and hope not to gain much more. It was simply something I personally felt I had to write for closure; that doesn’t mean it’s something you have to read.
Dad was a Brooklyn kid. Flatbush, I think.
His father was the son of Russian immigrants who’d lived in Lithuania before moving to America around the turn of the century. His mom was the daughter of a merchant seaman from Schleswig-Holstein and a woman born in Ecuador to American parents of English and Scottish origin whose presence in South America has never been fully explained to me. They were all northern European Christians.
Dad’s family, which was his parents, himself, and his father’s older sister, moved to Fair Lawn, New Jersey, when he was around ten. A few years later he got a younger brother.
Mom was raised in White Plains, New York. She had an older sister.
Her mother had been born in Cleveland to a Hungarian-born father and a Slovakian-born mother; her father’s origins are shrouded in mystery (I know only his own mother’s first name). They were all, so far as I know, central European Jews.
Mom and Dad were both still in college when they met: Dad at Lafayette, in Pennsylvania; Mom at Finch, in Manhattan. The story of their first date, which came within a hair’s breadth of being their last, is a family legend.
They were married in New York City in June 1963; Dad’s best man was his best friend from Fair Lawn, Mom’s maid of honor was her older sister.
By the time I came along they were living in Queens. By the time my memory becomes active, we were living in a suburb on Long Island and I had a little sister.
Ours was a little blue house on a small lot across the street from the town library, and about a hundred yards from the primary school my sister and I attended. That’s the house where Dad woke me up to watch the moon landing. I don’t remember the moon landing, only my father trying to explain to me why the unusually grainy images on the television were important.
We had a series of bad dogs—Lady (“who was a tramp,” my mother would always add: Lady bore some unwanted puppies one night while my parents were out and our babysitter was watching us), and Puff, a gigantic sheepdog who loved my sister and me so much that she identified every other child has a hostile enemy. Neither of them worked out. One day when I was about seven my sister and I were out with my mother running errands while Dad took a nap. We stopped in at the local animal shelter, where we all fell in love with a little schnoodle bitch. We rushed home and I remember the three of us tip-toeing into my parents darkened bedroom and my mother whispering the question to my slumbering father:
“Can we get a new dog?”
He was sound asleep.
“He didn’t say no,” my mother informed us. “Remember that: I asked and he didn’t say no.”
We went back to the shelter to get the puppy, but she’d already been taken. There was a male dog from the same litter, however, so we brought him home. Of course by then there was no possibility of Dad making us take him back. We named him Rags. He was a good boy, and he survived until my sophomore year of college.
Not long after we got Rags we moved to a new house in a nicer neighborhood across town. It was on a much larger lot. It had its own little playground in the backyard: a swing set, a jungle gym, a little dolphin on a spring. All our neighbors had kids around our age, and their parents and ours became lifelong friends.
I don’t know much about my parents’ adult lives at that point. Dad worked for big companies, companies you surely know the names of, as a data processing manager. And he was doing well. Mom was a stay-at-home mom, like most of her peers, and she took a lot of classes. Dad bought a little Penguin, a dinghy-type sailboat designed to be sailed in winter. He raced it every Sunday of the winter. I was his crew. I liked sailing but I hated winter, and most of all I hated having to pee in the bailer.
When I finally got to see Dad on what turned out to be the last day of his life, he introduced me to his (male) hospice nurse.
“He’s from Brooklyn,” Dad said. I think he liked the circularity of having a Brooklyn connection at the end of his life. “Tell him about the frostbiting.”
I told the nurse how much I’d hated peeing in those damn bailers in the middle of winter: having to struggle with the foul weather gear and my pants and underwear with my cold, wet fingers to pee into a sawed-off plastic jug of Clorox without losing my precarious balance in the unsteady little dinghy. When it was cold enough, and it often was, the pee would steam. And more than once I forgot the cardinal rule of life at sea and tried to unload the bailer full of piss into the wind.
The recollections made Dad laugh so hard I had to stop. He was dying for want of breath: laughter was not the best medicine.
When I was about ten my father got a job in Boston, so we moved to a suburb on its north shore. His new employer was a British company with a global presence, so he was frequently flying overseas on business trips. Within a few years of the move, my sister and I were old enough that Mom decided it was time to get back into the workplace: she got a job writing for the local paper. She was given the school beat on the news side, and also a column of her own in which she wrote about her life, which was our life, about which more in a moment.
In sorting through my parents’ stuff, I came across fan mail she received for her column. One writer expresses her appreciation of Moms’ columns, which she says “capture the magic of every-day life.” Another writes that “we all watch for your by-line and love your writing.” I was happy to think of the pleasure Mom must have felt to get mail like that. I hope she got more than the handful she kept.
It wasn’t easy being a character in a widely-read weekly column. There was still such a thing as privacy back then. As a sophomore in high school, for example, all the upperclassmen on the football team called me “my son Greg.” As in, “Nice tackle, my son Greg.” Or (more often), “You suck, my son Greg!” My sister was mortified whenever Mom wrote about her, but I kind of liked the notoriety. The needling from upperclassmen could be annoying, but at least they knew my name. I liked that. Teachers would sometimes refer to things my mother had written about. So, eventually, would employers and coworkers (I got my first paper route when I was around eleven and began working in restaurant kitchens at about thirteen; except for the first couple of years of college, and one glorious summer in high school, I’ve always had a job).
I also liked my mother’s writing. She had a knack for writing a weekly column: she was good at getting your attention, holding it, and wrapping things up neatly all within a few hundred words. She had a cool, breezy style that was nevertheless sharp and succinct. Which is very much how she was as a person. She had such an easy manner it was all too easy to forget just how sharp she was: she saw straight through all pretense, artifice, and bullshit. She was always laughing about her own naivete—she loved recounting how I’d once persuaded her that “gullible” wasn’t in the dictionary: I’d always assumed she’d just been playing along with the joke, but she sold the story so convincingly for so many years I’m no longer sure. But that was part of her camouflage. I never really fooled her when I wanted to. She sometimes let me think I had, but I would always later learn she hadn’t been fooled for a second.
Dad was just as perceptive when he was paying attention, but his attention was limited. He didn’t like superfluities: he liked people to get to the point quickly and without extraneous nonsense. If he sensed he was receiving extraneous nonsense, whether in conversation or in writing, he blinked right out. And if you asked his opinion on something, you got it. Immediately. Succinctly and without ambiguity or ornamentation. (And you frequently got it when you hadn’t even asked for it.)
That’s not to say he was crusty or curmudgeonly. He could seem that way if you didn’t know him—I think he wanted strangersto think of him that way—but he was actually quite elastic in his thinking.
At one point when I was about 19 or 20 I was trying to work out a philosophy of life. I was writing it all out on my mother’s IBM Selectric typewriter. It was utter nonsense, obviously—I was 19 or 20—but it was a good faith effort. One afternoon I went in to pick up where I’d left off, and found a handwritten note scrawled across my great philosophical opus. It was Dad’s handwriting, and it said, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but an experience to be savored.”
That was an anecdote I’d made up my mind to share with him on the drive down to see him the day he died. In all the confusion and emotion of the moment, however, I forgot all about it. I would have liked to let him know what an impression that had made on me.
It’s worth remembering, however, that this was his rebuttal to several sheets of convoluted adolescent philosophy. A simple declarative sentence that turned the whole project on its head. He could do that. He often did.
Mom was just the opposite, because Mom’s biggest fear was hurting someone’s feelings, and Mom was as chatty as Dad was terse. She would talk around a thing very pleasantly and delicately, hinting at the many ways in which she thought you might be wrong without ever saying them directly. It would be easy but inaccurate to call it a “passive-aggressive” approach: it was indeed passive, but never aggressive. She bore you no malice, you see,—she really didn’t—she just wanted to bring you around to a personal understanding of how very wrong you were. This often made her disapproval and objections more difficult to bear than Dad’s: Dad would just say “you’re wrong,” and if you needed an explanation he’d give it to you straight up, no chaser. Mom would spend half an hour weaving a web of disarming and conciliatory language around you, only gradually communicating that it was hard for her to understand, or to see the point of, or to sympathize with your position. Mom killed you with the kindness of a thousand cuts, Dad took you out with a shotgun blast to the face.
Such a couple inevitably had a very interesting dynamic in their own communication with each other. I once described it as chirping and humming: when you overheard their conversation through a wall or a closed door, that’s what you heard:
“Chirp chirp chirp. Chirp. Chirp, chirp. Chirp chirp chirp chirp.”
“Chirp chirp chirp. Chirp chirp.”
They were very different people in very many ways, but in two important ways—to me, at least—they were of one mind: they were almost fanatically social, and they were omnivorous readers.
When I call their reading “omnivorous,” I mean as a team. Individually each of them read things the other wouldn’t, and between them that covered just about everything. It would be a cold day in hell before Dad poked his nose into one of mom’s racy romance novels or Mom sat herself down with some of Dad’s science fiction, but between them I can’t think of a genre that wasn’t represented in the books that piled up in great heaps everywhere we ever lived as a family. They never organized their books in any way; they read them and then crammed them on whatever shelf would hold them, or tossed them on top of the pile in whatever closet had been assigned that purpose. (I’m talking mostly about paperbacks: hardcovers were taken slightly better care of.) I don’t remember their ever reading the same book at the same time and talking about it: that’s not how it worked. It wasn’t something they did as a couple but something each of them did as an individual.
But for all that reading, no one who knew them would ever call them “bookish.” They were, as I said, an almost fanatically social couple.
They were always throwing parties, and I will live the rest of my life without enjoying a meal that can hold a candle to the smorgasbord of leftovers that my sister and I would tear into after one of their bashes. One of my oldest and closest friends has told me repeatedly that for all the partying we did in our own teens and twenties, and throughout our adult lives, his favorite parties were those my parents had thrown when we were kids. That’s not to say there were parties every weekend, only that their parties were a prominent and colorful landmark in the landscape of my childhood.
Mom and Dad were both were interesting people, individually and as a couple, but more importantly they were interested people, and their insatiable interest in very nearly everything ensured that their friends were a mish-mash of humanity. Those friends were also interesting and interested people, and most of them spoke to my sister and me not like other grownups did—as kindly but uninterested adults making chit-chat with a child—but as though we were actual human beings with ideas and opinions of our own who could be fully engaged in conversation. This was especially engaging when they were liquored up at one of my parents’ parties. My recollections of childhood are filled with the towering figures my parents’ friends represented, a Dickensian gallery of the whole crazy spectrum of humanity.
Their social circle in New York had revolved, as best as I can remember, around the neighborhood and the yacht club (our “yacht” was the aforementioned dinghy). In Massachusetts it was more disparate: in their rush to make new friends after moving, they joined all kinds of local clubs and groups: the Newcomers Club for people new to our town; a bridge club; a gourmet club. Eventually a yacht club. There were friends from my father’s company and, in later years, from my mother’s work on the paper and in real estate. There were tennis friends and golf friends and sailing friends; drinking friends and dining friends; and, of course, all the old New York friends, and college friends, and childhood friends. I took it for granted that all grown-ups had dozens or hundreds of friends and were always visiting each other: I’m disappointed that my own children haven’t grown up with such an endless stream of interesting guests passing through our home.
One of the areas in which my parents differed was in the value they invested in what other people thought. Mom cared a great deal: she believed in going along to get along. Dad was iconoclastic to the core. He wasn’t indifferent to social norms, just contemptuous of all authority and snobbery.
In the middle 1980s, while my sister and I were in college (most of the time), he and my mother bought the remains of a massive oceanfront home that had been partially devoured by unforgiving waves of a recent nor’easter. It wasn’t even a “fixer-upper:” it was a disaster, a ruin, a wreck. But the world was just one big DIY project to Dad, so he spent evenings and weekends wearing his paint-spattered work clothes and working his ass off to pull the house together. Not for months, but for years. One sunny Saturday afternoon as he was wheeling a wheelbarrow of gravel across the yard, a dapper elderly gentleman called to him over the hedges from the street.
In Dad’s telling, the guy called him over by saying, “My good man! Excuse me, my good man, a word?” I have a hard time believing anyone in our town under the age of 90 was actually talking like that, but let Dad have his story.
“My good man,” the stranger said, “I walk by here quite often and see you working, and you seem to be doing good work. Might I ask what they’re paying you?”
“Oh,” Dad said with exaggerated humility, “they don’t pay me at all, sir—but I do get to sleep with the lady of the house.”
He loved that story. How much of it was true is anyone’s guess, but puncturing pomposity was his particular pleasure.
When the house was finally (beautifully) finished, he threw a big black-tie party and hired one of greater Boston’s most popular big bands to play. He invited everyone who’d been of any help at all with the house over the years of its repair, including two of my closest friends. True to form, he wore an elegant white dress shirt with cuff-links, a bow tie, and a tuxedo jacket—over his rattiest old work pants and a beat-to-shit pair of work boots.
That was Dad. I think Mom found it charming, but it was never her way. Appearances were important to her. Vital. In our last private conversation I told her something that, to my discredit, I had never told her before: that for my whole childhood I was always so proud that she was my mom because she was always the prettiest mom. Even though it was a little annoying, I added, when I was in my early teens and some of my friends developed crushes on her. Some of them said she was even sexy, and that’s nothing any boy wants to hear about his mother.
Mom just smiled—and ticked off the names of her most ardent admirers, one by one, with perfect accuracy. It had never dawned on me that she’d have noticed their puppyish adoration.
Shortly after her death, one of the neighbors was offering his condolences.
“I just saw her a couple of weeks ago,” he said, “and I knew she’d been having a rough time, but she just looked so fantastic, I mean it, her clothes and her makeup, her hair, everything. She looked so great, and I almost said something, but then… I didn’t think it would sound right. I thought it might sound kind of, you know, weird. But she really looked great. She really did.”
I don’t think it would have sounded weird to her. I think she would have accepted the compliment graciously. She put a lot of effort into her appearance and she appreciated it being acknowledged.
For weeks after Mom’s death, her own sister kept marveling over how she’d looked on her deathbed.
“She was just lovely, wasn’t she? Lying there in a hospital bed, all those tubes and equipment around her, and her makeup and hair are just perfect. Your mother always looked so lovely. Whether they had money or not, she always found a way.”
And that was Mom: she knew how to dress for any and every occasion, even her own death.
Dad was another story. He always looked sharp going into the office, or going out to a fancy event. But left to his own devices, he just couldn’t be bothered. He’d wear whatever crap he felt like and to hell with anyone that had a problem with it. (Unfortunately I think I inherited his style sense.)
Dad saw himself as the Brooklyn kid who’d grown up and done well enough for himself not to give a damn what anyone thought of him. Mom, I think, saw herself as the Westchester girl who married well and wanted everyone to know it, especially when her own father had warned her against marrying Dad. (The family legend is that after Mom had consented to Dad’s proposal, he took the old-fashioned step of seeking her father’s blessing. “I like you,” her father told him, “and I know my daughter loves you, but what kind of life can you provide her? There’s just no future in computers.”)
At some point in my 40s I asked Dad why they’d never shipped me off to private school: they’d made me apply to dozens, and I’d been accepted to a few, but they’d never sent me off.
“You’d have become an insufferable snob,” he said.
His anti-snobbery also played a role in the kinds of jobs he arranged for me: the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, he worked his network of business executives to get me… a third-shift job loading watermelons at the Chelsea Produce Center. A summer or two later he used the same network to get me… a third-shift job as a janitor, with side work waxing the marbled floors of Boston’s finest hotels and restaurants. A couple of years later, when I was finally finishing up college in Boston, he helped me land a job at his own bank… driving a van for their Malden office.
Mom was always happy to see me working, but I think she was sometimes disappointed with Dad’s peculiar ideas about appropriate work for a college student. You don’t have to be a snob to think your son could do better than unloading and packing 40-pound watermelons in the middle of the night alongside illiterates and drug rehabbers. I always imagined she told her friends I had an important job in agricultural distribution.
Dad was right, though. I learned more about people and business and life from that watermelon job then I did from any course I ever took from any school, and the lessons have served me well in every job I’ve ever held. Being partnered in manual labor with an alcoholic who can’t count above eight provides more guidance than you might think in navigating the politics of a modern office.
But Mom’s lessons on the importance of respectability were never lost on me, either. We all have to get along in this world because there’s no other world to get along in.
All this aside, I never really understood what it was precisely that kept them together, and during some tumultuous years in the late 70s I often wondered why they didn’t just go their separate ways. My sister would often interrupt one of their all-out, bare-knuckle shouting matches by screaming: “Why can’t you just get a divorce like everyone else?”
It wasn’t a silly question: all our friends’ parents were getting divorced; why didn’t they? Dad was doggedly logical and scientific in his approach to the world; Mom was more intuitive and emotional. Dad was a provocateur, Mom was a conciliator. Dad was all head, Mom was all heart. Those are broad and only partly accurate generalizations: Dad could weep at sappy television commercials and Mom could be ruthlessly clinical about deeply personal things; Dad was the one that told me life was not a problem to be solved but an experience to be savored and Mom was the one that drilled into me the importance of financial stability. Whenever I announced a new career change, it was Dad that would cheer me on in my adventure and Mom that would drill me about all the practicalities she was afraid I hadn’t thought through. Neither of them was a one-trick pony; none of us are. But by and large you could count on Dad to pick a problem apart logically, and you could count on Mom to know just the right way to react to your emotions (which in one case was to hurl a bowl of spaghetti at me so hard it left a permanent ring in the wall).
My parents’ approval and guidance always meant a great deal to me not because they were my parents, but because I genuinely valued their judgment. They weren’t oracles: there were things I knew not to ask them. I knew their limits, just as they surely knew mine. And their approval was never the sine qua non of how I lived my life: on the contrary, they gave me the strength and confidence to pursue my passions even when they themselves counseled against it. Sometimes they were right, sometimes they were not.
Shortly after I began writing for Garrison Keillor he’d asked me to come up to St. Paul for a weekend so we could meet in person and I could see “how the sausage got made.” I’d told him I didn’t know if my ancient and ailing car could survive the trip. He’d laughed at the very idea of driving from Chicago to St. Paul and told me to fly: Minnesota Public Radio would reimburse the airfare, and they’d put me and my wife up at a nice hotel. My finances were a wreck at the time: I didn’t have the cash or credit required for the airfare and was too ashamed to tell Keillor or his producer how poor I was. So I begged my mother for a loan.
To my astonishment, she demurred. “You’re just like your father,” she said, “you trust everyone. How do you know they’re gonna pay you back? Did you get it in writing?”
“It’s Garrison Keillor and Minnesota Public Radio,” I said, “Why would they try to scam me? As a practical joke?”
“I don’t know,” she said, “but you can’t just believe everything people tell you, not about money!”
Up to that point I’d thought Dad was the staid and stable one, the cautious conservative, always thinking things through three moves ahead. I’d thought Mom was the free spirit. From a child’s perspective that may have been about right. It was only at about this point in my life that I realized I’d had it exactly backwards: Dad was the expansive risk taker, the adventurer, and Mom was the one always trying to reel him in. He was the gas in their relationship, and she the brakes. You need both if you want to get anywhere.
It worked out well for most of their life together. They lived well. They traveled the world, they had wonderful adventures, and they raised a family. They had good friends all over the world. They lived in beautiful homes and threw fantastic parties. Then one of Dad’s big business adventures didn’t pan out. He went all-in on a business bet and lost. The last ten years of their life were very different from the years that had come before.
They’d both started running in the 1970s. Dad had gotten very big—Falstaffian, let’s say. He quit smoking, started running, lost all the weight, and completed the New York Marathon in 1978.
Mom never did a marathon, but ran a lot of 10Ks. I remember being dragged around to all their races. They subscribed to Runner’s World. Dad eventually stopped running (but got plenty of exercise with all his house- and yardwork); Mom kept at it. She was running five miles a day into her sixties. Then one day she tripped over a curb while walking in Manhattan and broke her hip. It was a bad break, and the various surgeries to fix it seemed to make things worse instead of better. She made the best of the hand she’d been dealt: she was less annoyed by the hit to her own health than by fears that her grandchildren (who had by then begun to be born) would think of her as some frail and helpless old lady rather than the fireball of energy she’d always been.
By this point they lived Connecticut. They had moved to a very nice apartment in midtown Manhattan while my sister and I were finishing up college, and then to an even nicer apartment on Beekman Place, just a few doors down from Henry Kissinger. They’d bought a place in Connecticut for weekends and summers, probably looking ahead to a time when they’d have grandchildren who could run around the big yard. (A time that did indeed come.) Eventually Dad had had enough of the rat race: he decided to start his own business. He thought central Connecticut was a better location than midtown Manhattan: office space was cheaper, and he’d be equidistant from New York and Boston, the two cities supplying his client base. So they sold the place in New York and settled down in what had until then been their country retreat.
Mom’s health problems started accumulating seriously just as Dad’s business woes began, not long after Herself and I moved to Denmark. Their lives began to shrink: gradually, as the man says, and then suddenly. Four years ago necessity compelled them to move into a little condo in southwest Florida, just one more old retired couple in a whole community of them. Traveling became more difficult as Mom’s health got worse. I didn’t like thinking of them cooped up in that condo. It didn’t seem right. They’d lived such big, glittering lives: how could they be happy in such straitened circumstances?
That’s how shallow I am.
A few days after Dad’s death I paid a visit to a couple of my parents’ friends. Friends who’d known them longer than I had—who’d actually been at their wedding. Call them Tony and Nora.
In talking to them it turned out I wasn’t the only one who’d been worried about their happiness.
“You know, we had lunch just a few months ago,” Tony said, “and I couldn’t help myself, I had to ask. I’ve known your parents since we were practically kids. I wanted to know if they were happy. If they felt at home down here, like they had a life. I asked your mother. And she said, ‘Oh my god, Tony, I just love it down here. I’ve made so many friends, and there’s always so much going on. I’ve got my book club, and my exercise clubs, and I see my friends out in the pool every day, even in winter, I love it, it’s absolutely a home to me!’ And your dad—well, you know, the reason I asked your mother is that all your dad ever wanted was for her to be happy. So I knew he was happy.”
And they were. Because they had each other. Right up until Mom died on August 12.
Dad only made it 18 days without her. I still sometimes struggle with feelings of guilt: I’d been the only one around at the end. Had I fought hard enough to get him to a doctor in time? To get him the mononuclear antibody infusion he ought to have had right away? Should I have brought him to the ER sooner? Had I done enough to ensure the hospital was throwing the whole damn kitchen sink at him, medically speaking? In the dark of night, alone in my thoughts, I torture myself over every opportunity I might have missed to help him.
But I also think of Tony’s words, which were true: All your dad ever wanted was for her to be happy. And he’d done that, from their disastrous first date until the moment she slipped away from us in her hospital bed. Looking fabulous.
I think of all the condolence cards that had come pouring in from all over the world when Mom died, and the sentiments expressed in all of them. I think of all the conversations I had with all my parents’ friends and acquaintances in Florida. A lot of them were people I’d never met. All of them had stories of how much Mom had meant to them.
And I think of all the letters I found when sorting through their stuff after Dad died. How many expressions of gratitude for my parents’ generosity, and help, and support. I always loved my parents, but I never knew the depth of their compassion until I saw all those letters. I’d always been their problem child: I was under no illusion about that. But I was far from the only troubled soul they’d steered to safety. The massive difference they’d made in so many lives, through deeds I never even knew they’d done, was a revelation to me.
True enough that all Dad wanted was to make Mom happy, but throughout their lives the two of them as a team had made so many other people happy, had helped so many friends and relatives through so many storms, without ever talking about it. It was all news to me.
So in those dark moments of self-doubt I try to remind myself of a phrase that so many of the people who knew my parents used when I told them about Dad’s death just 2½ weeks after having had to tell them about Mom’s:
“Sad but understandable.”
That exact phrase came up, unbidden, unsolicited, over and over. Not just to the people I was talking to, but the people my sister was talking to. Sad that he’s gone, of course. But understandable. All he’d ever wanted was to make my mother happy for her whole life.
And he’d done that. She was smiling as she slipped off to her final rest, her hand in Dad’s.
So what was left?
Rest in peace, Mom and Dad.