Tuesday, March 3, 2015

800 Words: Why Schmuck - Part 3

Last week, I was sitting with my Bubbie and Sarah, my new girlfriend, and at Sarah's insistence, we looked at an old photo album. For the first time in my life, I was struck by the fact that we're all a generation older than we once were. I'm thirty-two, and for the first time, I felt truly close in age to my parents' generation. It's probably been five years since I'd looked at these albums, and suddenly, the people in those albums who used to look to me as they always looked now looked a generation older. Bubbie looked Mom's age, and Mom looked like a contemporary of mine. The older generation from when I was a kid now has seventy-five year old children. My uncle Nochem looked like he could be a younger friend of mine. My always ancient looking Tante (Great-Great-Aunt) Edna, who lived until I was two, but I only knew from pictures, died when she was roughly ten years younger than Bubbie currently is. And in a picture taken in roughly the year I was born, my 88-year-old cousin Harry Lerman looked barely middle aged - looking almost exactly like a healthier version of his younger son.

Late last night, my girlfriend and I were cuddling in my apartment when my dad called to tell me that Harry Lerman died. Hearing the news was surprisingly devastating to me. Perhaps there were warning signs to closer relatives, but to me it was quite sudden and without warning. Harry always seemed to me like a very healthy older man, and in my mind, he always looked to the end almost exactly the same as he did when he was ten years younger than my father is now. Which is why it was such a shock to see him in that picture, looking at least a full generation younger.

We've lost a number of older relatives recently. Three years ago, we lost the first of the Paramus relatives: Harry's brother-in-law, Joe Fried. I remember seeing him at my grandmother's ninetieth birthday party in 2010, and thinking as he slept on the couch in my parents' den that he looked not long for this earth. As far as I know, it was the last time anyone in my immediate family ever saw him. I wish I had gotten to know Joe better, like me he had an interest bordering on the obsessive in family lore, and I wish I could have plumbed his brain for the 150 years of memory he must have had - some of which no doubt is lost forever.

Last year, we lost Aaron Gordon, my Bubbie's almost exact contemporary (six weeks younger than her) and my favorite elderly relative, whom I only grew close to around the time he turned ninety.  He seemed to delight in hearing stories of my latest musical adventures and plumbing through at least a bit of my musical knowledge's minutia, and I delighted in hearing stories about the old New York and the Brooklyn in which he lived in until the late 90's. I apparently reminded him of his long-dead twin brother, who was also obsessed by music. David Gordon was a regular and seemingly fanatical audience member at the old Metropolitan Opera, a program director at a radio station that programmed every musical genre in conjunction with one another, and a singer who sang in the chorus of none other than Edgar Varese. Unfortunately, David was run over in a New York street sometime around 1960 - even Aaron's children barely knew him. For my whole life, I savored hearing details about this family of whom I always seemed to be an aberration, a bohemian black sheep lost among a sea of Jewish Yuppies. And yet, here was a long dead somewhat distant relative who seemed almost exactly like me. A few weeks before he died, Aaron awoke one morning in his Arizona home to find his second, much younger, wife dead in their kitchen. Shortly thereafter he had a heart attack, and we knew it was not long. A few months later, he was dead from cancer at the age of 93.

It's weird to say that the loss of an 88-year-old cousin whom you see once a year feels devastating, but in a sense, this one feels that way, simply because Harry seemed like he might live forever. The last time I saw him, he looked in much better health than his younger brother, who is 11 years younger than him. Harry always reminded me so much of Dad, who's now nearing seventy and older than his father-in-law was when he died. Both Harry and Dad always had the same inexhaustibly manic energy, which blithely railroaded through everybody's sensitivities and at times could seem like arrogance. But in both cases, it made them all the more charming (to anyone who isn't their son...), and all the more entertaining company so long as you weren't the one at the receiving end of their roasts. In the last years, Bubbie and Harry had a falling out because of the not quite sycophantic, and extremely entertaining, speech Harry made at Bubbie's ninetieth birthday. Bubbie, like her grandson, has always been a bit oversensitive, but it's a horrible reminder that Bubbie could also go at any moment, and there's no way I'll ever be prepared for the enormity of the loss of one of my best friends.

The family as I've always known it is living on borrowed time. The next generation is beginning to take shape, and one harvest gives way to the next. This side of the family, which somehow stayed in close touch for nearly a hundred years after its arrival in America, with enough time in between for all manner of feuds and reconciliations, is never going to be the same again.  The feuds which used to seem so important now seem ridiculous, eventually many of them seem hilarious, and then will simply be lore about people nobody ever met, and in a while, all these stories will evaporate in the way of all flesh. All these relatives whom I remember as being a little older than me will now appear old to the kids just as their parents appeared to me, and their parents to my parents.

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