Some days I just love the internet. Thanks to that magical web—and to the research and kindness of a woman named Joan Weissman—I recently caught a glimpse of my father in his youth.
Joan is a textile artist who lives in New Mexico. Last week she emailed me out of the blue to ask whether my father had lived on West 108th Street in New York in the early 1940s. She had discovered a letter from an Abe Weisblat living there addressed to her mother and had found my contact information on the internet.
My brother did a little quick research and established that the Abe Weisblat in question was indeed our father. Joan supplied more information.
Her mother, Mata Rubin, was born in Poland but lived in Romania until she was 16. At that point Mata and her family moved to various locations before settling in New York, where she went to high school in the early 1940s.
Joanie (you can tell we’re already friends since I’m calling her Joanie!) told us that her mother hadn’t talked much about her past and had died of cancer in 1970, when her children were teenagers. Their father had kept souvenirs of Mata’s past in a box but had found looking at it painful. Now, after his death, Joan and her two siblings are going through the box and digging up details of their mother’s youth.
“Obviously, there was a lot of trauma,” Joanie wrote, “but from the letters I’m now discovering, she also had wonderful friends during the war years, and many meaningful relationships we knew nothing about.”
Apparently, my father was one of those friends. The letter from Abe to Mata was postmarked in 1941, when Mata was just 18 and Abe was 21. Joan mailed us a copy.
I had a feeling the letter was going to be pretty special when I read Joanie’s original note about it. She wrote that “the most surprising thing [was] that his heartfelt letter from 1941 seems to predict exactly the kind of person he would become, and the work he did. So, when I read his bio, I was sure it was the same Abe Weisblat.”
Here is a segment of the letter. In it my father is describing a trip he has taken to the Mid-Atlantic and New England states (with a brief stopover in Canada). I have corrected Abe’s spelling and punctuation just a little, something he frequently asked my mother or me to do. (He was a wonderful talker but not a polished writer.)
This country, especially in Vermont and New Hampshire, seems to be just as it might have been a hundred years ago. All you see for miles is mountains, green fields, more mountains, more green fields. Imagine going to a place where, when you want to wash in the morning, you have to go down to the lake with some soap—or in the better places, you have a bowl and a pitcher of cold water to wash yourself—a place where there are more cows than people (that’s true in the state of Vermont), where the kids go to the movies in their bare feet—and places where they don’t think at all about the war! They argue they have more important things to think of—their cows and their crops.
I could go on and on, but the point is that here are people that I have been looking for, people not interested in just going further economically, or becoming powerful. They’re poor, but they have enough to eat from their crops, and so they are satisfied with life. They don’t have to worry about hating people. Above all they are real people—people that could not be false. Maybe it’s because they live so near to the soil, and so haven’t been too much affected by our industrial life.
Ye Gads! I’d better stop this raving, before you think I have become completely mad. The point I wish to make is that in your letter you’re afraid that you won’t meet the real people, because they don’t exist. But believe me, Mata, they do. And when you meet them you will realize how wonderful they are, and how we who think we are the smart ones are but empty shells.
In some ways Mata’s letter was written by the man I knew in later years. It foreshadows my father’s career in agricultural economics, a field that wasn’t at all “natural” for a Jewish boy from New York City but that fascinated him all his life. It also demonstrates the enthusiasm and heart he always showed to his family, colleagues, and friends.
And yet … this document is also the letter of a stranger to me, an idealistic youth (with perhaps a slight bent toward socialism?) who displays a touching naivety.
The combination of old and Abe young Abe moved me. We seldom get to see the trajectory of our parents’ lives with clarity. I only knew Abe in his maturity; my parents waited a long time to have children!
It shocked me a little but pleased me greatly to get a glimpse of young Abe … looking out into the landscape of the country and his life with happy expectancy.
I am grateful to Mata for keeping the letter and to Joanie for getting in touch with me. Most of all, I’m grateful to my father for being such a rich role model. I plan to keep on cultivating the traits he exhibited in his letter to Mata—curiosity, optimism, warm heartedness, and enthusiasm.