Archive for the 'Memories' Category

Coffee with Norm

I hadn’t seen Norm in almost two years. And then on Wednesday I bumped into him in the dairy aisle at Vons.

I had to look twice to be sure it was him. Older and grayer, he carried himself with a bit of a stoop and a little shuffle in his gait. Always kind-hearted and sensitive, his somewhat older persona fit his indelible character.

We had once been very active in the Ojai photography milieu but both of us had mostly abandoned that activity for reasons that could not be clearly enunciated by either of us. Norm had a creative streak that produced some clever and cutting-edge photos. He was one of the first to create photos without the benefit of a camera. This novel idea led to a discussion some ten years ago about whether his artwork was truly a “photo” that met the requirements for submission to the annual Ojai Art Center photo contest. It did, and it won.

Norm was kind enough to send me an email the day after our Von’s tryst that told me how much he enjoyed our brief conversation surrounded by the milk, butter and sour cream. I wrote back and, with some hesitancy, asked him if he’d like to have a cup of coffee. I knew that the death of his wife, Phyllis, nearly three years ago coincided with his withdrawal from the art scene and I wondered if he might not respond to my invitation. But he did, quickly, and we settled on Java and Joe at nine o’clock two days later.

I was already sipping my usual dark roast coffee with Splenda and cream when Norm arrived, right on time. No surprise, since he was always punctual. A lot like me, Norm did not crave the center of attention and tended to cede the podium to those more verbose than he. I hoped we’d have enough to talk about before my coffee cup was empty.

I felt a bit awkward when I told him of my engagement to Jackie. Due to what seemed a reclusive demeanor, I had assumed that Norm had not fully recovered from the death of his wife, dear Phyllis. Also talented, she had been both a prolific artist and an art teacher. Conducting classes at the Art Center, she had a large following. Her illness had gradually robbed Phyllis of her ability to continue in her usual mode. So, she moved the classes to their home. Then, as she became frailer, she employed the computer and on-line instruction. Norm told me about the last year of her life when they would combine trips to Santa Barbara hospitals and doctors with lunch at favorite restaurants, walks on the beach and much conversation. It was a happy second honeymoon for them even though the outcome was ordained.

I need not have worried about Norm’s anticipated discomfort as I talked about “my Jackie.” For he had some time ago taken up with a woman in Camarillo. Introducing her to his family led to serious consideration of their relationship. However, it was not to be and their togetherness ended short of any more formal binding. Currently happy, it was like he had attended my bereavement group when he spoke of feeling guilty while enjoying himself when Phyllis could not.

We had a bit of an organ recital and lamented on those parts of our body that did not respond as quickly as they did years ago. About five years older than me, Norm had some physical setbacks but is able to work in his garden and be entertained by his children who show up regularly to check on him. He commented on my activities with “You seem to have a full schedule.” Funny, since I often don’t feel that way. Maybe it’s my lifelong need, sometimes a curse, to stay busy.

I looked up from our conversation and saw Jackie bounce into the coffee shop. Her appearance, complete with a certain impish demeanor, immediately brightened my day. Introducing her to Norm added to my enjoyment. Her hand lovingly rubbing my shoulder completed the unexpected treat. Jackie shared some words with Norm and, knowing the right time to depart, did so with an infectious smile. When she was gone, Norm looked at me and said, “She’s just like you described her, only more so.”

We spoke of photography and the increasing difficulty of aging muscles to bear the weight of the usual assortment of professional level camera equipment. Smart phones and their increasing ability to emulate the photos taken with traditional cameras occupied the next few minutes. Norm’s visits to hospitals and doctors with Phyllis had generated an interest in watching others as they sat in waiting rooms. Using his smart phone, he shared with me some of the photos he had taken of these kindred spirits. I remarked on both the unique concept and his ability to capture the moment that showed their pain, boredom or exhilaration. I was both enthralled and jealous of his art. But probably not enough to ignite my own juices.

Norm reminisced about the time we had once spent every June, hanging selected photos on the Art Center walls in anticipation of the annual show. He and I sometimes were a team, measuring, nailing, hanging and leveling the submissions. In the midst of our thoughts he said “I remember you and Ila sitting on the couch during a break. You held hands and sang together. The sight was something so warm that I wished we could have hung it on the wall. You seemed so happy.” I couldn’t remember the occasion, but he was so pumped about it that I didn’t want to break the spell. “Yes, we did that a lot.”, I said.

Like a lot of things that grow fuzzy with age, we tend to alter their true story in ways that satisfy a need, improve its reception by the listener, or we simply forget. Some stories are told so many times that they become real. I sometimes start them with the preface “I’ve told this story so many times that I’m not sure what’s real and what’s made up.” But it doesn’t matter, so long as I can tell it.

Time passed and the extended silence between our sentences signaled the end of our conversation. I asked Norm to call me if he wanted to do this again. Wondering if we would, we deposited our coffee cups in the trash and walked to our cars. At our age, tomorrow is a lifetime.

More than weeds

I don’t usually take candid photos. I’d rather focus on a project that’s several months in duration.

About ten years ago, Ila and I had the pleasure of producing a book called The Faces of Help of Ojai. With the cooperation of the Help staff, we chose about twenty people who volunteered there. Our objective was to take their photos, interview them and publish a book that had their pictures and their words. We hoped the book would tell the reader why people volunteer and would encourage them to follow in their footsteps.

We set up in a small room at Help and blocked out the light coming through the windows. Each subject seated themselves comfortably in front of artificial lighting. I snapped photos while Ila asked the volunteer a series of predetermined questions. We recorded the conversation and extracted a couple of paragraphs that became part of the volunteer’s book page along with a photo.

We published and distributed about five thousand copies of the thirty-page book. I still get a charge whenever it pops up unexpectedly and I remember how much Ila and I enjoyed working together on the project. I was especially pleased to see it displayed today at my bereavement group session. Sadly, many of the book’s featured volunteers have passed away.

Another project involved photographing oil wells. I used unusual angles and close-ups. I enhanced the faded colors of the rigs and emphasized their graininess. Ila was my sous-chef, carried some of my equipment and was welcome company. The project took about four months. When we finished, I took the portfolio to the Union Oil Museum in Santa Paula thinking they might like to exhibit some of them. The response from the museum administrator was “Why would we display pictures of oil wells?” Scratching my head, I went home, put a couple of photos on the wall and deemed the project completed.

About seven years ago I became fixated on the wild flowers that a perfect rainy season had brought to the area around our home in the Upper Ojai. The vistas were filled with plants whose names were a mystery to me. These plants and their flowers must be photographed and identified, I thought. Arming ourselves with a clipper and a bucket of water, Ila and I spent the next few weeks collecting samples of the best they had to offer. Placed in the bucket, Ila nurtured them as though a bouquet of the finest roses.

Each of the plants was quite small, about a foot high. Its blossoms no larger than a quarter. I used a very small vise to stand the plant erect. A black background was placed behind the plant. Using a macro lens, I photographed about thirty of the tiny plants from about eighteen inches away. The plants in the photos could have easily been assumed to be much larger than reality.

We printed the photos as large as my printer would allow. The resulting fourteen by twenty-one-inch prints revealed the intricacies of the stalk, the leaves and, most of all, the flowers. Veins in the leaves were easily distinguishable, much like the avenues though which our blood flows. Tiny hairs on the stalks reminded me of the hair on the back of my neck. Flowers revealed the uniform structures that supported them. Lacy filaments cascaded throughout. The colors were vibrant.

And all the while I thought of these little beauties as weeds. Interlopers that would normally be viewed as pests in an otherwise manicured landscape or garden. So that’s what we called our collection…Weeds. I posted them on my website, produced brochures that we sent to friends and framed a few.

Years passed and the Weed collection remained dormant. I went on to other things, but continued to wonder what would happen to Weeds. Just another project that absorbed part of my life seemed too little. Yet I did little to promote its resurrection. Ila passed away. So, it seemed, had Weeds.

My friend, Barbara, had been working on developing a collection of art for the new Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura. Devoting over six years to the project, she and her committee had accumulated more than six hundred pieces that would grace the rooms and corridors of the new facility. Barbara had seen Weeds and asked if I wanted to see them on the hospital walls. Would I? It was the opportunity I had been looking for.

The new emergency department has twenty-five examining rooms. I had twenty-five weed photos. A match made in heaven. I printed the photos and Barbara had them framed. They were hung.

A week ago, the new hospital opened its arms and invited the public to see the six hundred pieces now housed permanently on its walls. Jackie and I got there an hour after the affair began. We listened to some speeches and, when the formalities were completed, we went directly to the emergency department. Greeted by a security officer, we were told that the department was closed for the evening.

Closed? After seven years was I to be denied entry? Would I need to be injured or ill to visit the emergency department to see Weeds? Mercifully, my guardian angel appeared in the form of Haady Lashkari, the administrator of the Ojai Valley Community Hospital. With just a little bit of sugar delivered by Jackie, he graciously interceded with security and we were admitted to the emergency department for a guided tour. The framed photos were there, reminding me of the winding path we had taken to get here. I thought of all the patients who might be comforted by the photos.

Ila would have been pleased.

The Temptations

It was Sunday and I was on my way to Nancy’s house. My daughter and I bought tickets to a series of plays at the Ahmanson Theater in downtown Los Angeles. Enjoying each other’s company as much or more than the plays, we had just ponied up for a second season of six performances. It’s become a father-daughter thing, where conversation often outshines the entertainment at the theater.

The Sunday matinees start at one and are generally populated with a sea of gray-haired attendees.  The early start time lets us get back to Nancy’s Calabasas home, where we can have dinner at a nearby restaurant before I get back on the road for the seventy-five-minute drive to Ojai. Kevin, my faux son-in-law, partners up with us for dinner, sometimes at my favorite Jewish deli, Brent’s in Westlake.

I left home around nine that morning and, as has become my custom, stopped to visit Ila’s grave at Conejo Mountain Memorial Park. It was going to be a beautiful day. The early morning fog had cleared to a bright low hanging sun that challenged my eyes with its high beams. I bought a pretty bouquet of multi-colored flowers at the park office and brought them to the grave site. After placing them in the holder, I stood over her memorial tablet and read what was etched into its simple surface…I love you up to the sky…and beyond. Words that Ila and I had spoken to each other hundreds of times, often part of our bedtime ritual. Sometimes I’d begin the phrase and she would end it. Other times, Ila would start and I’d finish. Simple and loving.

I told Ila about the events of the past month, how much I missed her, and about those life altering events that were slowly changing me. Sometimes uncomfortable for me to say, and maybe for her to hear. I finished and placed a stone on the memorial tablet, a custom used by Jews to announce that someone had visited and remembered her.

Back on the 101, it took about thirty minutes to get to Nancy’s. She and Kevin live in a hillside home that has great views. Grandson Morey, out on his own now, grew up there. Until a few months ago, his voice was on the answering machine with a message that included the home phone number. When he was about six, we went on a family outing where we helped him memorize that phone number. It also became forever etched in my brain. Almost twenty years later, whenever I’d leave a message, Morey’s voice reminded me of that trip.

After an omelet fashioned by Nancy, we got in her car and she drove to the Ahmanson. The theater is in a complex that includes the Ahmanson, the Disney Concert Hall, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Mark Taper Forum. A formidable group of venues that attracts thousands of visitors to downtown Los Angeles. It also creates mind numbing traffic jams, frayed nerves, much honking and the occasional son of a bitch.

It took forty-five minutes to get to the theater and another forty minutes to get into the parking structure. You’d think that the great minds who built the complex would have made access to it more than just a contest between frustrated drivers; all looking for a way that improves their chances relative to their competition. Parking the car without damage to it or our sanity, we had about five minutes to escalate up six levels in the garage, present our tickets, pee, and get to our seats.

The main seating area seems designed to take full advantage of the mass hysteria that would be caused by a fire or natural disaster. Each row has about fifty seats and there is no center aisle. Getting to our centrally located seats 24 and 25 meant carefully side-stepping down the aisle to avoid crushing the toes, purses and other paraphernalia of those already seated. Excuse me, ooops, sorry, my bad. Thoughts of potentially repeating the process at intermission made my blood run cold.

The play began. I was mightily impressed by the set and, more importantly, the performers. It was as though dancing and singing came as naturally to them as breathing does to me…but with less effort. My god, I thought, there must be thousands of men and women as talented as the ones set before us. Just not as lucky.

At 76, Otis Williams, who formed the Temptations, is the only living member of the original quintet. There have been twenty-three reincarnations of the group since its 1960 origin in Detroit. Its blues music set the gold standard for this genre. The Ahamnson performance featured short clips of songs that included Baby Love, Gloria, My Girl, You Can’t Hurry Love, You’re My Everything, and twenty more.

The original Temptations suffered the usual indignities of too much fame, too little family time, and too much temptation. Blues is an understatement of their sad, lonely and loving music. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the performance came when super talented Ephraim Sykes, playing the role of the bespectacled, ego-driven David Ruffin, sang I Wish It Would Rain. A song that chronicles the emotions of a man who has lost his woman…

Sunshine, blue skies, please go away
A girl has found another and gone away
With her went my future, my life is filled with gloom
So day after day I stay locked up in my room
I know to you it might sound strange
But I wish it would rain, oh yeah…

The first act was long, prompting an intermission trip to the men’s room. Men are lucky, at least when it comes to peeing in public places. Pee, zip, flush. Wrestle with the decision to wash or not to wash, and we’re done. Women either biologically or due to the fashion of the day, or both, require more time and more space; neither of which is in abundance at the Ahmanson. However, in contrast to the farce at the parking lot, the coming and going of women through the restroom is wonderfully choreographed. Attendants are stationed along the line, monitoring the availability of toilets and preventing overzealous she-devils from crashing the line…no exceptions. Bob Fosse would be impressed.

Fearful that we might do an encore of our earlier feet stomping performance, we returned to our seats quickly. More songs poured forth from the stage adding to our delight. When the show ended, no one needed prompting to stand and applaud.

Exiting the parking lot proved uneventful as did the ride home. We talked about the show and its ability to chronicle life’s happiness and sorrows. With music that makes you smile, relate to and cry. Music that makes you remember what was. And what can be when you’re lucky enough to say You’re My Everything.

When my way was dark, and troubles were near
Your love provided the light so I could see, girl
Just knowing your love was near when times were bad
Kept the world from closing in on me…

Home for sale

My home has been for sale for almost four months.

I had an offer two days after it was listed. But it fell through and left me disappointed. Then someone from Los Angeles made a sight-unseen offer that was contingent on getting a County permit to keep a rhinoceros on the property. I should have known right then that selling this house was going to be long,  tough and occasionally crazy.

I have mixed emotions about selling. Ila and I built the house almost twenty years ago. The grandkids grew up loving it.  Granddaughter Bella, now twenty and statuesque, was four when she swam in the decorative fountain. A mean feat considering it’s only eighteen inches deep and four feet in diameter. Grandson Isaac, now completing his senior year in college, became a champion bocce ball player on what was once an expanse of cool, green lawn. Grandson Morey, born prematurely around the time of the Northridge earthquake, became a capable photographer using the surrounding mountains as a majestic backdrop.

Holidays were celebrated at the house. Our friends and relatives made full use of the spare bedrooms. The kids, in turn, began inviting their friends to spend long weekends. We became de facto bed and breakfast providers, enjoying every minute of it. Smiles on the faces of our guests were payment in full. Navigating the winding, narrow road up the mountain to a place of natural beauty was never a problem for young hearts and bodies.

When we built the house, some eight miles from the center of Ojai, we thought that our trips to town would be limited to once a week. We thought that the seclusion and serenity of the house would more than compensate for the loss of daily exposure to people and city sounds. But we soon found that we missed the hustle bustle, and our visits to town turned from weekly to daily. We enjoyed the trips, filled with companionship and the beauty of what nature had set before us as we traveled through the Upper Ojai, down the winding Dennison Grade, through the East End and, finally, Ojai itself.

Aging was inevitable and limiting. The kids had busy lives to lead. The grandkids grew into young men and women. Our friends found it increasingly difficult to make the long trip from distant points. Painfully, Ila became ill and entertaining became a thing of the past.

Then Ila died and I was alone. What once had been a home with living sounds was now a place where my companions were the intermittent gardeners and housekeepers. The UPS man was a welcome visitor. Any human face was a welcome sight. Music streamed as my constant companion. I invented reasons to drive to town, sometimes two or three times a day. Even though I had exercise equipment in the house, I joined the athletic club where my 7am visits to the treadmill became a daily event; no exceptions for weekends. Familiar faces and bodies brightened my day. I was loath to drive home and confront the sounds of silence.

I met Jackie who lived in a pretty, oak shaded home in the Arbolada, not three minutes from Java and Joe, Rainbow Bridge and the other sights that make a town what it is. Her home, like her, was petite and well organized. Instead of three bathrooms, it had but one that we somehow managed to navigate without bumping into each other. My time there was in sharp, welcome contrast to what I had known during the last twenty years.

Jackie’s visits to my home increased. She loved the house with its spacious surroundings. Her face beamed from the pillow on the king size bed. Her smallness under the covers was beautiful and she was immersed in the pleasures of the big room and the views of the grand Topa Topas.

She often spoke of her comfort in the larger home. How she felt relaxed, unhurried, without a care in the world. How we might have yoga retreats in the great room and entertain in the oversized kitchen. We would open the home to those who might need a bit of help as they looked for more permanent space. Others would come just to see the place, stay overnight, and bond in the atmosphere created by the mountain views, hundreds of oak trees and the sounds unavailable in town.

During these musings I often considered cancelling the sale of the property. Make it a home again, with a lovely, vibrant woman as my partner. Creating a new purpose for the home and for us. And then, sadly, reality would end these fanciful dreams. The attraction of in-town living, her own home that she loved so much, and a distance too far were too strong. We repeated this stage play often, with the same results. And perhaps it was meant to be. An episode of my life coming to an end. A new beginning. And a treasure named Jackie.

My home is for sale. Come see it. It’s perfect for you…if you have a poodle instead of a rhino.

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.

Carbon Paper

Carbon Paper is not the name of a rock group.

It was Monday morning, and I was headed down the hill for my workout at the Ojai Athletic Club. I’ve been anal about working out since I met Jackie and decided that I needed to do something to narrow the sixteen years between us.

When I first met her, I could only make it half-way up the Shelf Road trail. Now I can do the round trip without having my chest seek refuge in another body. Loss of a good slice of my belly fat, and the discovery that I actually had ribs, were additional perks that came with burning an extra four hundred calories each morning.

I like NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She has interesting guests and knows enough to ask brief questions while letting her guests grab the spotlight. Jonathan Banks was Terry’s guest this Monday morning. I had no idea who he was until he began musing about his roles in the award-winning Netflix series Breaking Bad and its current series, Better Call Saul.

Jonathan usually plays an understated bad guy. At seventy-one and five foot nine, he looks a little like me with his bald head, big nose and all-knowing squinty eyes. During the Fresh Air interview, he said “When you look like me, you better know something about acting, cause you ain’t no leading man.”

At one point in the conversation, Jonathan was talking about the evolution of the art of making multiple copies of scripts; he recollected how carbon paper was once a mainstay in that process. As interviewers often will, Terry interrupted and told the listeners what carbon paper was. I laughed out loud at the notion that some people had never heard of carbon paper and, a moment later, felt a bit older than I did ten seconds earlier.

I then found myself dragging old memories from my storage device, each of which had aging at its core. For example, I was reminded of a conversation I had many years ago with a woman, a good deal younger than me, about whistling. I said, “Speaking of whistling, do you remember Lauren Bacall and the famous line in the movie To Have and Have Not?”  Bacall said “If you want something, just whistle…you know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow.” And my lady friend said, “No I don’t know Lauren Bacall…who was he?”

Or my old Rabbi who said “Whenever I look in the mirror, I see a young man.”

Or when I was the youngest guy at the business staff meeting, then average, then the oldest.

Or my mother and brother, both victims of the ravages of aging, that cause me to occasionally count backwards by nine as I try to assure myself that I still can.

When I was thirty, I figured I hadn’t yet lived half of my life. At forty, I thought I thought I was beyond the half-way mark. At sixty, I hoped I would have half again to look forward to. At nearly eighty, I don’t do that anymore.

I sometimes read about improvements planned to the state water system, the bullet train and the long-term impacts of climate change. And I wonder if I’ll live long enough.

I think about multi-year projects that I might not start, because I might not finish.

But I’m a quick learner.  So aided by example, I’ve decided to forget about running out of time and, instead, run a bit faster in the time that’s left.

Yesterday, my daughter Nancy sent me a video of her Rabbi, Paul Kipnes, as he was crossing a suspension bridge in Costa Rica. Walking backwards with some uncertainty on the swaying structure, he compared the whole world to a very narrow bridge. A scary one that puts fear into our lives. But the important thing, he said, is not to be afraid to cross that bridge. Staying on one side and failing to move ahead is not a viable alternative.

And I remembered Chuck Peterson. A pleasant, unassuming man, successful and seemingly satisfied with what he had accomplished. At age 92 and living in Montecito, he and his wife decided to leave there, build a home in Ojai, plant two thousand olive trees and split their time between Ojai and the management of their resort business in Costa Rica. They did just that. And Chuck died two years later at 94.

I remember thinking, why would a guy do that at 92? I didn’t realize it then, but Chuck was a risk taker. It didn’t matter how much time he had left. It only mattered that he did what he wanted to do. Doing things that made him happy, without worrying about his ability to complete them. He had learned a lesson that made sense to him and he was intent on repeating it.

Or as Karl Wallenda said…Life is being on the wire, everything else is just waiting.

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.


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