Thursday, November 21, 2019

Larry

I wonder if I knew how rich I was when I had three brothers. 

Here we are; me, Robby, MomMom, Alan, and Larry, at Alan's wedding. Donna, the bride, thought Alan's hair was too short.


How could we have lost Larry, in so many ways, and we all acknowledged, the best of us?   He was full of grace. Larry watched me and Alan and Rob, his big sister and brothers, and figured out that if he gave Mom and Dad what they wanted;  nice manners  and good grades, they’d leave him alone to do as he pleased.

  Once when I was feeling overwhelmed with new motherhood and I wasn’t getting enough understanding from Arthur--he was all, “ Okay, so you just had a baby, but where’s my dinner?”   Larry listened to me sob out my story, patting my knee, and said, “From what I have observed, living with another human being has got to be the most difficult thing in the world to do.”   And that got me thruogh the next few days.

And when he and Arthur went running around the Central Park Reservoir and Arthur was bushed after two laps, Larry said that he was tired too.   I picked Arthur up in the car and as we drove away we saw Larry running like a gazelle, not in the least bit ttred, but too kind to tell that to Arthur.  

He had a sharp side as well.  His birthday was November 27, which sometimes fell on Thanksgiving Day.   One year Larry came down to breakfast and said, “dId anyone remember it’s my birthday?”  Mom, busy for days with the big meal had totally forgotten Larry. He had not reminded her or any of us.  For the rest of the weekend he had Mom at his mercy and she couldn’t do enough for him, she felt so guilty.   

He once said at dinner, “You know how if there are six people at a table there are six slots for the conversation?   Well, Barbara’s always considered my slot to be her slot.” Later the same evening he said, “You’ve been awfully quiet tonight, Barbara.”  
That was Larry, biding his time until he had a point and then making it with maximum effect.

He was a gifted athlete—not a bug guy, but wiry and wily.  Look at this picture of a game of catch with Robby.


                       Robby thinks he has a lock on that Frisbee but look at Larry’s left hand.

I think about Larry every day, and I miss him.  I miss not only Larry but all the times we could have had;  all things that were never meant to be.

How do I express that loss?  This poem by Yehuda HaLevi,  a 12th Century Spanish Jewish physician, poet and philosopher says it for me.


“Tis a Fearful Thing"

‘Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.

A fearful thing
to love, to hope, to dream, to be –

to be,
And oh, to lose.

A thing for fools, this,

And a holy thing,

a holy thing
to love.

For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.

To remember this brings painful joy.

‘Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.” 


Thursday, November 14, 2019

Little Moments


This poem was in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago.


I've been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say "bless you"
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the bubonic Plague. "Don't die," we are saying.  
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up.  Mostly, we don't want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it.  to smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder, 
and for the driver of the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire.  Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, Here, 
have my seat," "Go ahead--you  first," "I like your hat."


This poem reminds me of my  collection of brief  moments.

Years ago Arthur and I had breakfast in a diner.  At the next table was a man with, I think, his daughter and grandson.  He finished his meal and said,
“That was very good.” 
The way he shared his enjoyment has stayed with me for thirty years.

Then, more recently, I saw a man with two little girls, about nine and six, crossing West 12th Street at Hudson.  The big girl ran ahead and the Dad said,
“Ashley, I’ve told you and told you, don’t run ahead of me across the street.”  But she saw the school bus ahead and ignored him, barely calling good bye over her shoulder.  The little one followed her sister but as she put her foot on the bottom step of the bus she turned around, ran back to Dad, gave him a kiss and said, 
“Bye, Daddy, I love you,” and ran to the bus.
I wonder if he remembers that moment as I do.

Then there was the young woman I overheard saying, 
“Well, it was a living Hell, but it could have been worse.”
What could be worse?  Maybe if it doesn’t end.  Maybe she was celebrating that she’d survived.
Again, a tiny moment I’ve held on to.  
I bring these stories out once in a while and they always give me a lift.  Do you have stories like that?





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Thursday, November 7, 2019

PopPop Brown

Harry Lewis Brown started working at the Bank of Smithtown in 1928 according to his obituary. He served continuously--first as cashier and then executive vice president, then as chief operating officer.  In 1956 he was named the bank’s fourth president. You don’t hear a lot of nice things about bankers these days, but Harry Brown, my PopPop, taught me that banking is an art and a banker can be the heart of a community.
He loved to tell stories about his adventures in banking. One lady who applied for a loan invited him to her home.  She showed him the cold cellar where she had put up shelf after shelf of food from her garden.  He looked at the array of shining jars and said, “Anyone who works that hard and is that thrifty will pay back our loan.”  And she did.
And then there was the lady who said, 
“Harry, I want a new mink and the sales are on but I’m not liquid at the moment.  Will you float me a loan?”  
“Well, what do you have for collateral?” he asked.  She put her hands on her hips a la Mae West, ogled him and said,  “Harry, do you really have to ask?” She later came in and modeled the new coat for him.   He loved telling that story; I think it made him feel kind of roguish.
He could be tough, too; he repossessed a man’s car on Christmas Eve.   When we said that seemed pretty cruel he answered, “I was the making of that young man!”  Apparently having his car repossessed was the wake-up call the young man needed to turn his life around.
     To PopPop, honoring one’s commitments was the cornerstone of an honorable life and financial responsibility was inextricably tied to one's character.  He believed that, he lived it, and was able through his work and his position to teach it.  I learned it too.  
     When I dropped out of college at twenty I ran up big debts--phone bills, parking tickets, a charge account at a clothing store.  I had to work all summer as a waitress to pay off those debts.  By September I was back up to zero.  My father lent me one hundred dollars—and I left Vermont for New York City.  Later my mother said, “You know, I was proud of you for working so hard to pay off your debts; not everyone would have done that.”  I said, “Huh?”  It never occurred to me that I could walk away from my debt.  I was even surprised that Mom said that.  I thought it was a given that you pay your debts.

The bank gave a party for his eightieth birthday.  Here he is with Mom and her sister, Pricilla.

One Sunday morning in New York City, I said to Arthur, “What do you want to do today?  Let’s not just sit around like we always do.”  And he said, “Let’s go see PopPop.”  He was only about an hour’s drive away. I called and said, “PopPop, we’re coming to take you out to dinner wherever you want to go.”  We brought our baby, Jessie,  his great-granddaughter, my parents drove in from West Hampton where they were living, and we went to the restaurant of his choice, not the most elegant in town but the one where he was most likely to run into people he knew.  We had a wonderful time sitting at a big round table, Jessie in a high chair, throwing breadsticks on the floor.  Several of his friends and neighbors came over and he proudly introduced us all.  When we took him home afterward he said, “This has been an enchanted evening!”   And it was.  


There was something about PopPop that doesn’t quite come across in these stories.  I visited him once when I was in a black mood--furious at my boyfriend, thinking that my life was going nowhere and everything was awful.  He didn’t say anything special to me but as I waved goodbye to him after our lunch I realized that all that darkness was gone and I had forgotten my anger.  Something about being with him made me feel happy.  What was it?  How did he find peace after suffering the loss of his beloved son and living with his wife’s chronic illness?  He carried grief with him all his days, but he found room for joy as well.  As my mother tells it, courage is the will to get up every morning, brush your teeth and live your life.


Here he's sitting in his garden.  My brother, Alan, is named for Alan Brown, killed in action in Germany, April 1945.   If I could read PopPop's mind at that moment he might have been saying, “Here I am in my garden on a sunny day, with my grandson on my lap.No matter what else has happened I can savor this moment.”  He probably didn’t say those words, but I think he lived them.



His baby picture

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