Archive for the 'Family' Category

The Deli Man

This is to remind you that the Yahrzeit of Morris Rothenberg will be observed on March 22, 2019.

The letter startled me as I had forgotten that my father had died in March. The letter went on to say that the annual Yahrzeit commemorates his death and commands me to say the Kaddish prayer, light a twenty-four-hour candle, and make a contribution to a worthy cause.

The Yiddish word Yahrzeit, of German origin, literally means anniversary time. I have no trouble pinpointing the year of my father’s death since it was in the same year that the Chicago Bears last won the Super Bowl. Perhaps their hapless attempts and failures since then are merely god’s little joke that perpetuates my ability to remember his passing. The Bears will, I’m sure, graciously continue their incompetent streak until I’m gone from this earth. Something to root for.

My father escaped the pogroms of the Soviet Union, fled to the promised land and worked hard to provide for his family. Never well-to-do, he did what was needed without complaint. He savored the little pleasures that were to him miraculous, given what he had known back in his Ukrainian shtetl.

His first job in Chicago was as a “puller.” Barely knowing any English, he would stand outside a men’s Maxwell Street clothing store and shout at passersby, “Hey, come in, good deal.” His attempts at “pulling” men into the store were sometimes accompanied by the removal of the unsuspecting man’s hat and tossing it through the open door into the store. My dad was small, and I’m surprised he survived that affront without at least a black eye. I guess he did whatever was needed to make a buck.

By the time I arrived in our crowded Albany Park apartment, Morris was in the deli business. First as a counter man at the Purity Delicatessen on Chicago’s Lawrence Avenue. The Purity was anything but. His stories about its cleanliness and treatment of customers would not survive today’s health department inspections. My favorite anecdotes involved clever ways of freeing up tables from those who had overstayed their welcome. A rat’s demise caused by a fall into the deep fat fryer was no reason to change the already overburdened oil.

By the time I was five or six, he had partnered with two other deli-tested guys, Ben and Morrie. They bought Oberman’s Delicatessen on Howard Street near the “L” and sold corned beef, pastrami, cole slaw and potato salad prepared by my mother, and other Jewish delights that make a deli a deli. They had no employees, regularly enlisted their wives’ help, and worked long hours.

Each of the three partners had one day off every week and every third Sunday. For as long as I can remember, Wednesday was my dad’s day off. Since I was in school on Wednesdays, my only extended time with him occurred every third Sunday. Much of that valuable time was spent lying next to my dad on a day bed in the dining room listening to Sunday afternoon radio programs.

We listened to Nick Carter, Master Detective. Then on to The Adventures of Sam Spade starring Howard Duff and created by Dashiell Hammett for the Maltese Falcon. And, my favorite, The Shadow with its chill provoking opening lines spoken by Frank Readick, Jr. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”

The Shadow may have known many things, but I remember little, other than the warmth of my father’s body and his hand on my shoulder. It was enough to permanently etch the memory of Sunday afternoons in my mind.

Gifts were not big on our agenda. Birthdays often passed with little notice. An exception occurred in my ninth year. My father came home on the first day of Chanukah with a large cardboard box. In it was a potpourri of toys, all used. An electric train took center stage, even though it had but one car and only enough tracks to complete a small circle. I watched the train circumnavigate the circle a thousand times. There were also two toy telegraph sending units that did nothing but click when you depressed the key. Because it had the Morse Code imprinted on the housing, I learned how to send an SOS. No one came to my rescue; but I didn’t need rescuing from anything, especially from my father.

Not schooled in any formal way, he wrote beautifully. He added up columns of numbers with lightning speed on the brown paper bags that Oberman’s customers took home laden with their corned beef, rye bread and dill pickles. He was an accomplished card player who fancied four-handed pinochle and ten-cent poker. He wasn’t a pushover. He never spanked me, and I never heard him fight with my mother who he loved dearly for nearly sixty years. I owe my own generosity, honesty and work ethic to him. Not because of what he said but because of what he did.

He suffered the ravages of old age including macular degeneration. I’d watch him sit sideways at the TV, viewing his beloved White Sox through the corner of his eye. Baseball was the only sport played slowly enough to allow him to reasonably focus on the images on the screen.

I missed my flight back to Los Angeles that day in 1986 when I overstayed my time in his hospital room. I kissed him good-bye. It was the last time I saw him.

I will celebrate his Yahrzeit next week by remembering what he did for me and for others. And by remembering how much I loved him. He was truly a mensch for all ages.

She’s been gone a year…

My sweetheart of nearly sixty years died a year ago today, August 23, 2017.

I’m not sure if it seems like a long time ago or just a blip in the universal clock. I do know that I have been counting the months since she died. And the weeks. This has been a particularly tough week for me, grouchy, snippy and all too ready to argue about meaningless slights. My temper, usually under control, has exhibited itself in ways that do not please me. I look at my face in the mirror and wonder where the smile has gone. I sleep less and eat the wrong things. I often skip meals and find food tasteless.

I look at the collage of Ila’s photos on the wall. They span the time between her grade school graduation and an older, wiser person sitting on the couch in the living room. She’s ill, but still smiling at the camera with that honest, loving face. The face that always left me smiling too.

In Costa Rica last month we were without her. A family incomplete because of her absence. A family that felt just a little bit guilty while laughing and playing together. We posted photos of the trip on a website we created to memorialize the adventure. We posted too many photos, I thought. Until my random clicking landed me on a photo of the kids…Isaac, Bella, Morey and Sammy. Smiling with honest faces. Casual in their posing. Full of young life and brimming with happiness. I smiled, then I cried. Not tears of sorrow but ones of joy.

I sent the photo to Jackie. I knew she would like it because Sammy was glowing and being a kid, free from any artificial constraints and loving every minute of it. Happy to pose, not because we asked her to, but because it was the most natural thing to do.

I sent an e-mail to son David thanking him for posting the Zip-lining and river rafting photos. I told him that I hoped Mom was looking over my shoulder and getting high from it all. That she could enjoy her family and get pleasure from the happiness of others.

And then I cried again, by myself. Like my heart was going to break. It’s been awhile since I did that. Without constraint. Without embarrassment. Remembering. And it felt good.

Ila died one day after her sweet daughter’s fifty-sixth birthday. Nancy always tells me that she will easily remember Mom’s passing since it was the day after her own birthday. But I know she will remember it regardless of when Ila died. She’s that way. Loving, focused, serious and a crier. She seems tough but she’s really a closet pussy cat.

I bought Ila’s diamond engagement ring when I was twenty. I really should say my father bought Ila’s engagement ring when I was twenty. It must have been important to him since he was not a man who could, nor would, throw money around.

Ila accumulated other jewelry during our sixty years together, including a treasure chest of pieces given to her when her mother Marge died. Marge was a collector of fine clothes and jewelry. Ila was the opposite. The engagement ring was very special to Ila. She didn’t wear it much because she thought it too valuable to lose. But I really think it was because she felt it was too showy. It lay in the dark for the last twenty-five years in a safe deposit box.

Over time , Ila gave most of the other jewelry to the kids, but she held onto the ring. I was never quite sure what she intended to do with it. It’s quite beautiful, like its owner was. It sparkles in the sunlight like Ila did whenever she appeared. It’s hard as a rock, which Ila could be when it was necessary. And it’s sharp as a tack, like Ila was when confronting me or the kids with some misdeed. But most of all, it is a testament to my love for her over the last sixty years.

And I will pass it on to the someone who most reminds me of Ila’s quality, her honesty, her never-give-up attitude and her unbounded love for family. Someone I’ve loved since she was a baby in my arms. Someone who misses her mother as much as I do. I’m sure Ila will be pleased.

Hello, is Ila there?

Hello, is Ila there?

Ever since the Ojai fire in early December and the mass slaughter of old wooden telephone poles, nearly all of my calls come through my cell phone. My landline returned after four months. But by then I had weaned myself from a wired connection. I still do get landline calls and nearly one hundred percent of them are from people who want my money.

So, through necessity, I’ve developed a keen ear for determining whether the incoming call has been placed by some insensitive machine. You’ve probably learned the same trick of identifying robo-calls. It’s that slight hesitation as though no one is there, coupled with a tell-tale bleep, warning you that you are about to be connected to a real person. Like a well-trained gunslinger, I can usually press the end-call button before the connection is completed.

But sometimes the call is placed directly and so I’m required to listen to someone speak a few words before consigning the call to a far-away place. And that’s what happened around two o’clock Monday, about thirty-six hours after my return from Costa Rica. Maybe it was the jet lag that made me slow on the draw…or maybe it was something else.

Hello, is Ila there?  For what seemed like an eternity, I sat there, phone in hand, and didn’t know how to respond.  A series of possible answers flowed through my brain at warp speed.

Sorry. Ila passed away 

She doesn’t live here any more

No one here by that name

Please don’t call me again, my wife died nearly a year ago

After what seemed like eons of silence, I finally settled on No, she’s not here.  And I hung up before the caller could respond with obligatory condolences.

But that’s a lie. Ila is in fact here. Little bits of her have touched many people and she continues to influence their lives. Her DNA is deposited in her children and her grandchildren. Her honesty, generosity and morality have cascaded to her offspring. And will someday reside in her great-grandchildren.

I was sharply reminded of this by my daughter, Nancy, at dinner in Costa Rica last Friday. On a Friday that marked eleven months since Ila’s death. On a Friday that would normally have found me in the synagogue where I would stand and say the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer for those who have passed out of our lives.

Instead, we were in a celebratory mood, having spent the last week enjoying all that Costa Rica has to offer including its abundant scenery, local food and wonderful people. It was our last night and ten of us were feeling no pain.

And then Nancy stood and said with great difficulty “Before this all ends, we need to remember those who are not here with us.” As tears filled her eyes, I looked around the table and saw all the people, now silent, who had been touched by Ila.

Her DNA, morals and peculiarities can be easily found in her two children. Her three grandchildren are fortunate offspring sharing in the gifts presented by Ila. In turn, her influence has helped lead her children in their selection of their partners.

And I am the principal beneficiary of her love and largess, freely given to me during nearly sixty years of knowing and loving her. She, who was a partner in all we did. She, who probably engineered the Chicago snowstorm that convinced us to move to California. She, who insisted that I start a business and stick with it despite the all too frequent times that found me questioning my judgment. She, who always stood by me as we weathered the periodic storms that nearly engulfed us.

And it goes on today to affect others. People ask me “Do you think that Ila is happy that you are not alone?” I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do think she would be happy with the new woman in my life. I know that my choice of a loving soul mate has been influenced by the woman who came before her.

So, the next time some caller asks Is Ila there? I’ll say Yes, but she’s busy now.

Trifecta

Saturday Night

A narrow, off-white dining room, with an arched opening to a carpeted hallway. Another smaller swinging door that empties from the larger room into a sparse kitchen just big enough to seat four.

Smelling the acrid cigarettes and the cigar smoke steeped in its own brown juice, I lay my ten-year-old head on the thinning pillow of my day bed. A bed so close to the long dining room table that I can both hear and feel the card players. They laugh and make the most of a nickel and dime poker game played on a spotless white table-cloth covering the marred wood surface infused with fading memories.

Check? You can check in the bank, jokes my father as he raises the ante. Uncle Max, needing to get up at 4:30 for his job in the scrap metal yard, struggles to keep up with the banter. My mother, smoking but not inhaling one of her rare cigarettes, pops up and down from the table. Pouring glasses of cold seltzer water and filling up the nut bowls, she is in her element. Caring for others before herself.

It’s Saturday night.

 

Relatives Found

We take a Baltic cruise during which we stop in St. Petersburg. Within shouting distance of my immigrant parents’ long-ago shtetl, the old city’s historical features are dingy and marred by years of neglect and a lack of funds that might help it recover. Cracked walls, unkempt streets, and art objects that tilt offensively mar the scene.

That evening, our tour attends the ballet in the Mariinsky Theater. Built in 1860, it offers a glimpse of Russian art history before it crashes in the wake of Communism. We queue up to the ticket booth and I look at the ticket taker, feeling like I am staring into my own face. The lobby usher reminds me of my uncle Al.  And I want to hug the old lady who, reminding me of my maternal grandmother, shows us to our aging velour seats. I am no longer 6,000 miles from home.

I cry happily during Swan Lake.

 

 

Skin

I feel her skin. The small, sea-salty strip that runs from the heel of her left hand up along her petite forearm. Small, bird-like, smoother than velvet, that small piece of skin offers me a sensuous insight into her womanhood.

I find myself softly stroking it as we lie there. I tell her how it feels. How it makes me want to never leave the bed. We need not go further to experience delight, ecstasy and deep satisfaction. It’s as though that precious, well-hidden area has remained unchanged since her beginning and will stay that way until I am no longer capable of feeling. Until then I will touch and love.

 


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