Archive for the 'Memories' Category

The Hat Makes the Man

My father wore a fedora hat. For those who may not have seen many 1940 gangster movies, yet want to see old time fedoras, I direct you to any movie starring George Raft, Jimmy Cagney or Brian Donlevy. They, and just about every man in their movies, wore a fedora, especially if there was a scene inside a police station or a newspaper office.

My sources tell me that the name “fedora” is derived from the character Fedora  Romanoff , played by Sarah Bernhardt in an 1887 play. Fedora’s etymology stems from the Greek word theodoros, meaning gift of god. Although I can’t quite see the connection, I suppose it’s better than calling it the Gaga hat in honor of the Lady of the same name. In any event, Bernhardt wore the hat in the play and it was soon adopted by other women. It wasn’t seen on men’s heads until the 1920’s, when England’s Prince Edward wore it.

There was no utilitarian reason to wear the Fedora. It did little to keep one’s head warm and provided no shielding in case some bad guy got a bead on your noggin. It was merely a fashion that for several decades found its way onto a man’s head, including that of my father.

More recently, you may have spied a fedora on Professor Henry Jones’ head, aka Indiana Jones, aka Harrison Ford. Without that hat to compliment his whip, Indiana would have looked like a two-bit lion tamer instead of the adventurous hero we all paid good money to see. His attachment to the hat was played out in multiple scenes where the wayward hat very nearly escaped his grasp, only to be snatched back by our hero in the nick of time.

My father’s hat was dark brown with a black swath of cloth, maybe silk, curled around the bottom of the crown. He seemed at ease wearing it and, despite his diminutive stature, often appeared to fit with my idea of what a dashing movie star should look like. When he died, the hat continued to be the living embodiment of him. I tried wearing it but it was late in the fedora life cycle and I felt somewhat foolish parading about with it on my inappropriate head. The hat eventually found its way into my son’s hands where it rests today in some dark corner of his closet, waiting for societal rediscovery of the pleasures of wearing one.

Jackie and I just returned from a whirlwind tour of Croatia, Edinburgh and London. It would take quite some time to explain just how that itinerary evolved. Let’s just say it happened and save the details for another day.

We ended our journey in London, where I was relieved of whatever funds remained unspoken for. We walked constantly, much like those poor survivors of the Bataan death march. Often being led astray by Google Maps and Siri, we occasionally walked in circles thereby turning a one-mile trip into a two-mile adventure. Perhaps driving on the wrong side of the English road confused the usually faithful device.

Aimless wandering brought us to Jermyn Street near the site of the British Parliament. The street was populated with men’s shops. Dozens of them, each with a somewhat narrow focus. Suits but not shoes. Shirts but not underwear. And then there was this hat store.

Bates, Gentlemen’s Hatter since 1898 was emblazoned on the shop window. I scanned the display for a moment too long and, as a consequence, heard Jackie say, “you should get a hat.”

My hat buying experience generally goes something like this. Buy a hat, put it in the closet, let it rot. But we were on vacation and I needed a respite from marching. So we entered the store and met Ralph, a kindly, easy going salesman. Without much prompting, I said “I’d like one of those hats that lay flat on your head.”

Ralph responded, “you mean a flat cap.” Some things are too easy.

The best way of describing a flat cap is to envision the corner newsboy hawking the latest edition of the London Times. With his knickers and flat cap, he looks much like Mickey Rooney who played alongside Spencer Tracy in Boys Town. Or, on a more mature scale, any of the hundreds of coal miners descending to their death in How Green Was My Valley.

Ralph took me to a cabinet that appeared to contain hundreds of flat caps and suggested I just try one on for size. Sure I thought, I know how that goes. He lovingly cradled one in his hands and offered it to me like it had some magical properties. I put it on. It was indeed magical.

I have tried on dozens of hats. Baseball caps, wool hats, berets, straw hats and fedoras. Each fitting was always accompanied by dozens of random adjustments intended to make the hat feel comfortable on my head. The best I ever achieved was “acceptable.” Perhaps that’s why my closet is stuffed with unworn hats of all shapes and colors. Most have seen the light of day only once.

The Bates flat cap fit perfectly. It was as though I had been designed for it and had been guided from California to Croatia to Edinburgh to London to Jermyn Street to fulfill my destiny. I might never remove that hat. It was me.

I did not ask “how much.” I would have pawned Jackie’s ring to possess that hat. I lusted for it. It had a case. A case for a flat cap. Decadent. I forked over my Visa card and hoped there was enough left in reserve to cover it.

“I’ll wear it, please.” And I silently thought “forever.”

The Moose Lamp

My son Steven would have been fifty-two this month. But his life was cut short at forty-three by his death in 2011.

Memories of him floated to the top today when I attended my bereavement group, an event that takes place every Tuesday from 10:30 until noon. Housed in a small, Ikea style conference room in the west end of Ojai, there are no frills. The lighting is dim and there are no cookies. In addition to an outpouring of feelings, there are tears, extended silences and, blessedly, enough occasional laughter to raise one’s spirits a notch or two.

I’ve become a regular who began participating after my sweet wife Ila passed away almost two years ago. During that time, my attendance has morphed from a focus on Ila to one that includes both she and Steven. I often picture them together, arguing; and I smile. Always looking for a bargain, I also take advantage of this group therapy to talk about my relationships with other loved ones.

The number of Tuesday gatherers varies from as few as three to as many as nine. Mostly women who have lost their husbands, we have others who’ve lost parents and children. Regulars, loosely defined as those who have been coming more than three months, usually predominate. New faces join periodically while some regulars stop coming. Others leave, rest, and then return months later. Some come once and are never seen again. It’s not for everyone.

It’s not clear why some people come every week while others attend less frequently. The reasons they come are clear and fairly consistent, but the frequency with which they appear seems governed by inexplicable, unsaid reasons.

For me, one who disdains being idle, the meeting is a block of time that I don’t have to otherwise fill. It also provides the social exposure that I treasure. My home on the hill, while in a beautiful setting, does not easily offer personal interaction. The quarter-meter plan that once allowed TV watchers to deposit quarters in boxes attached to their sets is not an available option. And, more importantly I can comfortably say things that would remain unsaid in other settings.

I arrived at today’s meeting a few minutes late. Making the non-obligatory excuse for my tardiness, I described my trip from Vons to the vacuum cleaner repair shop in Ventura and back. A trip of fifty-eight minutes that I claimed to be a new world record. Satisfied that I had been forgiven, I took my usual chair at table, sat back and scanned the crowd.

A man who I had not seen before sat opposite me. When newcomers join the group, the rest of us introduce ourselves. I’m Fred. My wife died almost two years ago. I’ve been coming regularly and, yada, yada, yada. Depending on the urgency of the need to get something off one’s chest, an introduction can often take as much time as chanting the first five books of Moses, in Hebrew.

Some people are eloquent and engaging. Others, less so. The man opposite me merely said his name and added succinctly, “My thirty-year old son passed away in December.” Nothing else. Then he shifted in his chair and assumed a slouched position that non-verbally said ‘I don’t know why I came here and I shall remain silent for the next ninety minutes.”

Time rolled on. People told stories and described feelings that might go unheard in confessionals or even in a bed shared by two lovers. Yet the man opposite me seemed unmoved. His lids occasionally hid his eyes and he often furtively glanced at his smart phone. Yet, even with his seeming detachment, he appeared troubled.

Our group leader is a master at drawing people out. Never asking directly, she has the uncanny ability to elicit words from an otherwise reticent participant. “Fred, do you think you could share something about your son Steven that might be of value to our newest member?”

Of course, I thought. The moose lamp. And I told its story.

Steven bought a ten-inch high table lamp at a garage sale. Maybe he paid as much as two dollars. It had a tiny bulb and a shade that had the image of a moose on it. When you turned the lamp on, its light shone in a way that accentuated the moose. Tacky at best, Steven kept it on a table in his apartment and switched it on every night. And turned it off when he went to bed. Never very sentimental, he nevertheless loved the moose lamp.

In the last month of his life, I was with him in his home when I stumbled and caught my foot in the lamp’s cord. The lamp fell off the table with a sound that presaged disaster. I picked it up as though it were a baby, flicked the lamp’s switch and was horrified to watch it stay dark. My son David was standing next to me and I said, “I don’t care what it costs, I want that lamp repaired and working before Steven is gone.”

David picked up the lamp, looked at the cord and sarcastically said, “Well we might first try plugging it in.” We did and the light shone through the moose and into my eyes. Laughter replaced tension.

Steven died a few weeks later. Aside from his guitars, the only valuable object in his apartment was the moose lamp. I wanted it and I took it. The two-dollar lamp now sits on an expensive table in my living room. I look at it each time I pass. I light it when the feeling takes me there. Memories flood back of Steven’s stubbornness and ego-centrism. But the lamp also reminds me of the special moments when I loved him most. Memories that assure me that his passing need not always be filled with sadness.

I don’t know if my story of the moose lamp helped the man opposite me. But it made my day.

Coffee, comfort and caring

Legend has it that coffee beans were discovered by the Ethiopian goat herder, Kaldi. Watching his goats eat the berries from the plant, the goats became excited and were unable to sleep. And so, being a Republican, Kaldi started a business that now delivers these very same beans to Java and Joe.

Maybe not, but here are some other facts:

  • Americans drink 400 million cups of coffee every day.
  • Half of us would give up our daily shower rather than give up coffee in the morning.
  • More than half of us would rather gain ten pounds, than give up our coffee for life.

Maybe that’s why many of us coffee addicts are fat and smelly.

Having successfully concluded this morning’s treadmill exercise without falling off the athletic club’s machine, I stopped by Java and Joe for my usual medium dark roast. I look forward to the first hot sip of that full-bodied brew, much like that first sip of a cold beer. Sometimes I have a muffin, complete with high gluten flour and a week’s supply of granulated sugar. Sometimes, it’s just the high caffeine coffee that I crave.

The cherubic faces that greeted me behind the counter today did not include either Joe or Lorraine, the shop owners. That visual clue activated my memory cells and reminded me that Lorraine was undergoing a medical procedure this morning that would probably lay her low for at least a month.

Everyone that’s a regular at the coffee shop has known of Lorraine’s health challenge for months. Invariably, someone ahead of me in the coffee queue would ask Lorraine “How are you today? When are you scheduled for your procedure? I’m sure everything will be fine. How long will you be recuperating? We love you.” If I was alone in the queue, the questions were often posed by me. Balancing my concern for her well-being with a possibly unwelcome intrusion into her life can be difficult.

Lorraine is a mature woman with a motherly attitude. Efficient is an understated description of her prowess. Her welcoming smile brightens my day. Even with a cloud hanging over her, much like the one dogging the Al Capp character Joe Btfsplk, Lorraine manages to keep her sunny smile and upbeat conversation in spite of chemotherapy and the attendant floppy hats. Over the last few months, there was little evidence that contradicted her usual sunny demeanor.

Perhaps it’s the coffee shop itself that plays a supportive role in this great adventure. Open twelve hours every day, it is full of mismatched furniture, and a concrete floor with an unintentional paisley design that defies description. An old sign taped to the wall warns of dire results should the microwave and the toaster be switched on at the same time. Greeting cards are stuffed into racks that require the skill of a contortionist to view them. Muffins and scones, ordinarily displayed with aplomb, are sometimes hidden from prying eyes.

But none of these shortcomings seem to matter to those of us who are regulars. Or maybe it’s because of these imperfections that we come back time after time. We are comfortable with the shop’s eccentricities, since they are also reflective of ourselves. Distastefully, the thought of going somewhere else is anathema. The habitual returning faces are familiar to us and form a comforting tapestry that allows us to slide easily into an otherwise frenetic day.

Much like that of the athletic club, the coffee shop provides the social contact I treasure. I often sit alone at a table, but I do not feel alone. Like a voyeur, I sometimes mentally participate in the conversations that surround me. Because we are creatures of habit, I can sometimes predict what’s coming next. I watch them as they walk through the door, hoping that I will be blessed with a familiar face. One with which I can share a few sentences or, if I’m very lucky, a seat at my table.

Even in solitude, I can explore my memories of fellow coffee enthusiasts that are etched in my mind. David, whose accounting office is up the stairs and who donates his skills to many of Ojai’s non-profits. Tom, who did Ila’s hair in his adjacent salon and who responded graciously to her repetitive questions and stories as though he’d never heard them before. Right up until the very end. The fireman who shared his stories of the devastating December fires. The strangers who seemed as anxious as I was to have a conversation without boundaries. And, if I was very lucky, watching Jackie glide through the door with her irresistible smile.

The morning was quiet, and my attention was drawn to the greeting cards. I like the ones with the pithy, sometimes predictable sayings. Some are flat out wrong like We only regret what we don’t do in life. I only wish it were so. Or, Why do I feel as stupid now as I did at 20? I certainly know more than I did at 20, I just keep ignoring what I learned. But some are spot on like, My housekeeper judges me. And one of my perennial favorites, Be yourself. Everybody else is taken.

Many years ago while driving the Help of Ojai bus, I transported a wheel chair bound patient to the Ojai hospital. Finished, I was stowing the chair lift when a physician stopped to speak with me. He told me how much he personally valued the service we provided and then said something that has stuck with me. His smile softened and he quietly said, “Remember, we all walk down the same path.”

As I age, his words become more relevant and gain greater importance. I realize that life is fragile and, like Lorraine, could take me down a more difficult path. But it also makes life more precious. Like my other favorite card says, Whatever you are meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.

Be well Lorraine. I love you.

I didn’t sleep well last night

I didn’t sleep well last night.

Maybe it was the chicken thigh that I chewed on at eight pm. I bought it at Westridge after my two- hour library foundation board meeting. The meeting starts at six, and it takes me about twenty minutes to drive down the hill to town. Five o’clock is too early for me to eat before the meeting. So, I eat too late and more often than not regret it. As usual, the chicken had resided far too long in the warm mystery liquid at the bottom of the heated display case. Its skin had taken on the characteristics of an old plastic book cover that protects library books from everything but a nuclear blast.

Downing the chicken without joy, I went to bed around ten, just after watching the latest episode of Bosch, the Amazon Prime series based on Michael Connelly’s character, Harry Bosch.  A hard-bitten police detective, Harry seems to have too much time on his hands and spends much of it getting into trouble while solving cases that have become more complex with each new series.

Played by Titus Welliver, a name that somehow seems inappropriate for the character, Harry lives in one of those Hollywood Hills homes that is unbelievably cantilevered into space through some ingenious architectural engineering. It appears to float dangerously and gives cowards like me every reason to avoid such places. The house, though beautiful, appears ready to crash down the hill into another miraculous, seemingly unsupported, home. The night views of the sparkling city seen from Harry’s outdoor deck are unforgettable. Which is more than I can say for the story plot lines.

This is the fifth season for Harry and other assorted cops and miscreants. The combination of a too late eaten chicken thigh and the the program’s unfathomable twists and turns challenge my mental capacity. I usually find myself nodding off for a few minutes in the middle of an episode, making it nearly impossible to follow the story line. Rewinds are common. I probably shouldn’t watch murder mysteries late at night while gnawing on an aged chicken leg.

I never have trouble falling asleep. Staying asleep is my problem. Three am brings a startling mental wake-up call. Since I’m now up, a trip to the bathroom seems like a good idea even if I don’t feel the urge. A sip of water that has resided a bit too long in my aging plumbing adds to the festivities. Then it’s back to bed feeling half awake and ready for more sleep. Sometimes sleep arrives. But not last night. Instead, my mind wanders aimlessly in semi-sleep mode. I bounce from thought to thought. I exhaust the comfort of lying on my left side and switch to my less preferred right side. Then onto my back. Never on my stomach. Adjust the covers. Fluff the pillow. Repeat again at ten minute intervals.

My muddled thoughts often border on the ridiculous. Thoughts that would be laughable when fully awake are now cause for sleeplessness. Minor infractions during the day are replayed in my mind. I make mountains out of molehills. Some particularly onerous thoughts cause my heart to beat faster and pulsate in my right ear. I employ thought control to rid myself of the offending thoughts. Miraculously, I calm my thumping heart and trash the misguided belief that I am about to have a heart attack in my bed where I will lie lifeless until the cleaning lady arrives next Tuesday.

On my left side I can, with some effort, focus on the eerie glow of the alarm clock. And I am surprised at how quickly time has passed. It’s almost four. I calculate the number of hours until it’s time to get up. I’m sometimes pleased that there is time left. Sometimes not. Sometimes sleep comes. Sometimes not.

Desperate for blessed sleep, I’ve developed a few routines to get me off the moody thinking and onto something more upbeat. I tried counting sheep (doesn’t everyone?) and found myself covered with sheep shit. I employed a yoga like breathing routine that, while forcing me to concentrate on my breath, reduced my stress but made me more alert and even less sleepy. I tried reading but, like a bad book, it did not produce the desired result.

One cure for my sleeplessness evolved from a fishing trip to northern California. Marching with my son David along a meandering stream, we happened upon a beautiful cold-water pool. Stepping into it even with warm underwear and neoprene waders, it was chilling. We cast our fly lines as quietly as possible. And then it struck. A five-pound wild Rainbow Trout. The animal would not be easily landed. Jump after jump he struggled to spit out the barbless fly. I was lucky. He tired and I landed him. People had gathered near the pool to watch the contest. They murmured their admiration when my son netted the prize, removed the tiny fly from the fish’s gaping mouth and released the creature to once more offer a memorable challenge to a worthy angler.

I think about that adventure when I can’t sleep, and it often brings welcome relief from my muddled thoughts. Much like the fish, I’m thankful that I am set free. Until next time.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom

I just got home from a pre-Mothers’ Day brunch with Jackie, Dianne, Judy, Cathy and Edie. It’s become an annual ritual where we share stories about our mothers, complain about their faults and, less frequently, extol their virtues. I am somewhat of an anomaly in the group and am occasionally referred to as a Normy, or someone who is out of step with the other group members.

Today’s brunch topic was “nurturing.” Defined as caring for and encouraging the growth or development of someone, we all shared stories about our mothers that fit that definition. My story may have stretched it a bit, but it was the first thing that popped into my head.

When I was fifty, I lived in Los Angeles with Ila and our three kids. My mother, Celia, having years before rejected our suggestion to move to Southern California, still lived in her two-flat brownstone in West Rogers Park, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood on Chicago’s north side.

My father had, some time before, passed way in the same year that the Bears won the Super Bowl. The end of more than sixty years of marriage had left my mother alone in her home. My brother watched over her, but most of her day, and all of her nights, were spent by herself.

In addition to family life cycle events that brought me and my family back to Chicago, I would occasionally come to town on business. I’d often stay with my mother and sleep in the spare bedroom, the same room that, as a teenager, I had shared with my grandmother.

On this particular visit, my plane was an hour late. Our now ubiquitous cell phones had not yet been invented and making a pay phone call from O’Hare Airport seemed like too much of a stretch. So I hustled a cab and I arrived at my mother’s doorstep around eight that evening.

The brownstone’s entry door had a glass panel that allowed a visual inspection of her visitors before buzzing them into the hallway. I pressed the buzzer and waited. The door opened and my eighty-year-old, five-foot two mother appeared.

There are different kinds of smiles. Some are welcoming while others express irritation. Some are contrived while others are sincere. Some are hidden while others are expansive.

As I looked at my mother’s face through that glass panel, her smile showed relief, welcoming and love. I had seen that smile a thousand times and had always felt warm in its embrace. She buzzed me in, we hugged, and I was home.

My mother came to this country in 1925 as a teenage refugee from Zhytomyr, a town in Ukraine that then boasted of a population of about seventy-five thousand people. Beset by pogroms, my mother’s Jewish family suffered the usual set of indignities and, more to the point, state-sponsored murder.

Arriving in Chicago and speaking little English, Celia went to work at the Brach Candy Company where she was proud to often remind us that she had risen to the exalted position of “fore-lady.” Although she learned to speak English, her eastern European accent was etched into our conversations. I was never quite convinced of her reading skills even as she turned the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times. Her handwriting was shaky and her signature nearly illegible. But she excelled at adding up columns of figures entered on the paper bags that customers took home, stocked with the food purchased at my father’s grocery and deli.

She made many of the items at the deli including chopped liver and coleslaw. I’d watch her make potato salad as she peeled the Idaho spuds that were still boiling hot. Any thought of health department rules were cast aside as she dipped her arms into the huge pot up to her elbows to mix the mayo and other tasty ingredients into the soon to be savored, high calorie delight.

When I was a kid, our home, a three bedroom flat in an Albany Park ghetto, was everyone’s home. Seeming strangers stayed with us for a day, then a week, then a month. When Celia wasn’t working at the deli, she was cooking at home. Without complaint, she fed all who came, washed their underwear and made them feel at home.

Parties, both planned and unplanned, were more often than not held at our place. Complete with food and drink, they went on late into the night. I often found my ten-year old body at rest on the cot in the dining room while a penny-ante card game went on at the table next to my bed.

People came and I watched. I saw my mother welcome all who entered through her door. I heard her greet them with genuine happiness and a smile on her face. I heard her laugh and I watched as she made sure everyone had what they needed. And only when everyone else had their share did she take hers.

I don’t remember much of what she said to me as I matured. Perhaps because she didn’t often tell me what to do or how to act. But I learned from watching how she treated others. How she never complained about having too little or working too much. How, even on the toughest days, she had a genuine smile for her husband and for me.

My mother would not have known the meaning of the word “nurturing” but she practiced it every hour of the day, every day of her life. And I am who I am because of her.

Happy Mother’s Day mom. I love you.

Because of you

I flew Contour Airlines from Santa Barbara to the Bay area this weekend to celebrate my buddy Harry’s 80th birthday. Two months older than me, Harry and I have been the closest of friends for more than sixty years.

I highly recommend the Santa Barbara airport and Contour Airlines. Arriving mid-afternoon on Friday after a forty-five-minute easy drive from Ojai, I parked in the half-empty long-term parking lot, took a five-minute walk to the Spanish influenced terminal building and found the airport nearly deserted. I thought that perhaps I had missed an Ebola evacuation announcement.

I got my boarding pass from a very friendly Contour employee and made my way to the dreaded TSA security gauntlet. I was one of two people in line. The super-friendly supervisor asked if I would mind being a guinea pig for the new TSA employee at the screening monitor. With time to spare, I did my civic duty and opened my toiletries bag, watched it being hand searched, worried about what illegal or embarrassing item I might have forgotten about, zipped it back up without incident, and was thanked for my participation.

With little to do in the cavernous terminal, I casually sauntered over to the customer-less Peet’s Coffee kiosk, grabbed a cup of dark roast, sat in a very comfortable chair, played with my Spell Tower game and waited for boarding to begin. Boarding started when promised, and the plane departed and landed on time in Oakland. It was nirvana.

My wife to be, Ila, and Harry’s intended, Judy, were girlfriends at Chicago’s Boone grade school in the late forties. I started dating Ila during her high school senior year and, coincidentally, fell in love with Harry. The four of us remained inseparable until sweet Ila died in 2017.

I was Harry’s roommate at the University of Illinois. Studying metallurgy, Harry endured long hours of study, late nights, and early morning risings. He had this annoying habit of setting the alarm clock well in advance of his required wake up time, and then employing the snooze feature of our clock in order to bag several ten-minute naps. Even though I could have slept later than Harry, I suffered through his chronic, snooze habit in deference to his extended study nights.

Never lazy, Harry had several temporary jobs during summer vacations. Working in the Café Brauer snack-bar at the beach, he honed his not inconsiderable people skills, now in daily evidence at Noah’s bagels in Livermore, by ogling the girls who made the mistake of thinking that he was not a letch. Another summer vacation job tested Harry’s skills as a house painter. Unwilling to take the time to laboriously mask the crevices between the window and its frame, he simply made them un-openable by painting them shut at the home of my future in-laws. His follow-up job was unsealing the windows.

Graduating college and tearfully forsaking the life of a house painter while pocketing his newly minted PhD in material science, Harry began working at Argonne National Laboratories in Chicago’s southern suburbs while Ila and I set up shop in the northern suburbs. The distance between us, although minor by today’s freeway standards, tended to limit our time together.

In 1967 I accepted a job in San Francisco and we resigned ourselves to maybe seeing each other once a year. However, six months later, Harry called me and excitedly announced that he had taken a position with GE and was moving to the Bay Area. Now we could be, as nature intended, together once again. Unfortunately, I had just accepted a position in Southern California. And that’s how things have remained for over fifty years.

Though three hundred and fifty miles apart, we celebrated holidays, vacations, bar mitzvahs and other life cycle events together. Ila’s difficult illness limited those events and our time together lessened considerably. When Ila died, Harry stayed with me for days while I tried to cope with the emptiness. As always, being together was enough. Conversation to fill the vacuum was unnecessary. We had, years before, developed an alert system whenever we had something to say. Harry would reach over and touch my wrist announcing he was about to speak. I would stop whatever I was doing, straighten up and look alert. And I would listen.

Many years ago when the number of our face to face meetings was diminishing, Harry began to call me every Monday night at 7:30. A call to assure himself that everything was ok. A call to announce that he cared about me. We usually don’t have much to say during these calls. A “How are you” and “What’s new” followed by “I’m fine” and “Nothing much” often ends the call almost before it begins. But the warm feeling of reaching out lasts for the rest of the evening.

Harry’s eightieth was held in a Chinese restaurant near his Livermore home. His continuing concern for me was in evidence when we were blind-sided by the traffic and were fifteen minutes late. As we pulled into the parking lot, my cellphone rang and Harry said “Where are you? Everyone else is here.” I had been missed.

About forty people were there. Mostly old friends and close family. Many faces were familiar, but they seemed to have aged faster than I had. Harry, contrary to his preferred seat of the pants approach, had prepared some detailed remarks about the event and the people there who had touched his life. I blushed when he seemed to spend an inordinately significant portion of his presentation reminiscing about our time together.

One at a time, about half of the guests rose to say a few words. Harry’s wit and sarcasm took center stage in their remarks, and all offered anecdotes that highlighted his lasting friendship and his uniqueness. When it was my turn, I found myself stretching to say something important. Yet I found that what seemed important to me may have sounded trivial to those at the tables.

I recalled an evening in our senior year when, as a rite of passage, and surrounded by a horde of onlookers, Harry had to serenade Judy while standing outside her dorm. He had memorized and practiced that Arthur Hammerstein song for weeks on end in our small room; I could have delivered it in his stead. When his time came, he couldn’t remember the beginning of the song he had labored on as though it was his doctoral thesis. He had asked me to be his best man and I was standing beside him. He frantically leaned over to me and said, “What’s the words?”

I touched his wrist and whispered in his ear, “Because of You.”

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.


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