Posts Tagged 'Parents'

I am my brother

My brother would have been ninety-three today.

Irv was born in 1927, two years before the Great Depression. I waited another twelve years for the economy to improve before emerging from my mother’s womb.

A twelve-year age difference was a bridge too far. We never played baseball together, developed sibling rivalry or did mischief that one would expect of brothers living in a Jewish ghetto on Chicago’s north side. I don’t know what he looked like as a teenager, nor do I remember hearing his voice echoing down the long wallpaper covered hallway in my parent’s second floor, two-bedroom apartment. I might as well have been an only child.

Lying about his age, Irv joined the army in 1944, never saw action but managed to develop a life-long relationship with tinnitus, one of several genetic dysfunctions that I shared with him. His army service was brief, some of it spent in Japan and Korea. He learned photography, took those skills home after the war and relied on them for years by chronicling life cycle events for others. I remember a picture of him in his army uniform and jauntily positioned cap. He was this handsome, bright-eyed guy who wore a natural smile as though it was ingrained in his DNA. He was better looking than me. People constantly mistook me for the older brother. He never corrected them.

He disdained the free college education offered to veterans, instead opting to get married, have children, divorce twice and finally land Jeri, the love of his life. In the early years, my parents were uncomfortable with Irv’s lifestyle, lent him money, but never offered advice that would have been immediately forgotten. Comparing me to him often led them to believe that I must be the older one.

At twelve, I baby sat for his daughter, Sharon. At seventeen, I regularly borrowed Irv’s Studebaker, that quirky looking, bullet nosed, dimly remembered two-door coupe with a stick shift. Four years later, he was in the bridal party that joined me with Ila. I still hardly knew him. Meaningful conversations were non-existent, and togetherness was largely a function left to family events to which he was usually late.

Irv’s second marriage was done on the rebound. Like the Studebaker, Anna-Marie was quirky. If he had asked me, I would have said don’t do it. But he didn’t ask, and life went on until the quirkiness lost its glamour.

Irv was a salesman who was honest and compelling. He sold mirrors, a process that was dependent on being invited into the customer’s home to measure walls and select styles. It was during one such adventure that he met Jeri, promised her unbounded love and did so for the rest of his life.

Ila and I moved to California and visited our Chicago relatives two or three times a year. My father became ill and was hospitalized. Irv was there to help our parents. It was as though he had turned a corner in his life, met his elder brother responsibilities, and took them on without looking back or complaining.

I was in California and of little help. My father died and our mother was alone. Irv visited her daily. He ran errands and delivered groceries for years until dementia took its toll on her. She entered a succession of facilities that included independent living, assisted living and fully assisted housing. Irv continued to watch over her while I made limited appearances. Her death finally freed him from responsibilities that he had willingly endured, while I continued to feel guilty by my self-limited role.

He aged and, like our father, developed macular degeneration. He gave up golf, driving, reading and other daily activities that we take for granted before they are taken from us. He needed assistance walking. His trips with Jeri to visit us in California became more difficult. During those trips he gradually displayed a loss of memory and an inability to perform certain functions. Sitting with him while he tried to add a column of numbers proved too much for him. He cried and I saw my brother in what had once been the role played by our mother.

The years he spent caring for our parents had also developed a closer bond between us. Our age difference now meant nothing. Conversations became more meaningful. Aging and illness were freely discussed. We looked at each other and knew what the other was thinking just by the expressions on our face, the tilt of our heads or the rolling of our eyes. We liked the same foods. We both lost our hair. Our laughs were identical. People still thought he was the younger one.

Luckily, I had chances to pay back the kindnesses that he had heaped on our parents. And I took them. I also aged alongside my brother and caught glimpses of what our parents must have suffered.

I look in the morning mirror and see Irv. I see his handsome, smiling face. But like Dicken’s Scrooge visiting the future, I also see what may yet come. I am concerned about my eyesight and daily test my ability to read road signs. I lay in bed in the early morning and silently count backwards from one hundred by seven; I dread making a mistake. I add columns of numbers without a calculator. I have more difficulty completing the New York Times crossword puzzle and wonder if maybe Will Shortz just made it tougher without telling me. I stupidly transform minor irritations into complicated medical cases that can only be treated at the Mayo Clinic.

I am becoming my brother… and I love him even though he will always look younger than me.

Happy birthday, Irv.

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.


Pages

Recent Comments