Father’s Day (and a Russian Lullaby)

 

With Father’s Day approaching, I can’t help thinking and writing about my late father, Abe Weisblat. I paid tribute to him this morning on our local public-radio station. You can listen to that brief broadcast here–or read a slightly expanded version of my thoughts below. 

My smart, funny father would have turned 100 this year. He has been dead for 20 years, and sometimes I almost forget what it was like to be around him. Then a sight or a taste or a sound brings him back in full force.

Improbably, one of these triggers is … herring. He and my mother were often separated by their work. My father wasn’t much of a cook. When he was on his own his customary evening meal was a martini with stuffed olives and a jar of pickled herring accompanied by matzo or crackers.

He found this a perfectly balanced meal, pointing out that it provided protein (the herring), fruit (the olives), and a vegetable (the pimientos in the olives). He was proud to note that if he ate the crackers straight out of the box and the herring straight out of the jar, he needed to wash only two things at the end of his repast: a glass and a fork.

Eating—or even just seeing—herring now brings him vividly to mind.

I also think of him when I hear composer Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby.” Like my father, Berlin was brought to this country as a child by immigrant Jewish parents. Both Berlin and my father hurled themselves into American culture.

My father highlighted his Jewish identity. He came of age in an era in which discrimination against Jews was rife in the United States, but he turned his frequent status as a token Jew to his advantage.

His charm and his professional skill at bringing disparate people together came in large part from his status as an outsider. He understood what it meant to be on the edge of society—and helped people celebrate both commonality and difference.

Berlin seems to have been a bit more cautious about his Jewishness, trying to fit into mainstream (a.k.a., WASP) American culture and even composing “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas.” Some scholars and singers theorize that the title “Russian Lullaby” is actually code for “Jewish” or “Yiddish Lullaby.” The voice in the song is that of a mother singing to her baby about the possibility of a better life in a far-off land. The melody is minor and haunting, with a hint of Eastern Europe.

At a party in the 1980s, friends were trying to remember the lyrics. My father suddenly launched into the chorus. I don’t know that I had ever heard him sing all by himself before that. Like his personality, his singing voice was sweet and true.

This year I’m singing the song a lot in his memory. Sometimes I think I hear him singing along.

Rock-a-bye my baby.
Somewhere there may be
A land that’s free, for you and me,
And a Russian lullaby.

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Ashes to Ashes

Michael at Work

We buried my mother’s ashes on Saturday. They are now in the same plot as my father’s casket.

My family doesn’t always do things promptly. Jan/Taffy died in December 2011. We arranged for her name, dates, and epitaph (“Short and Full of Life”) to be added to my father’s stone the following year. The ashes have languished in the house ever since.

We were waiting until all four members of the immediate family could be in Massachusetts together long enough to accomplish the burial. When I learned that my brother David, my sister-in-law Leigh, and my nephew Michael planned to visit me this past weekend, I emailed our neighbor Paul, who coordinates burials for the Pudding Hollow Cemetery Association.

Paul asked me what time we would like the “ceremony” to take place. I laughed a little. We weren’t really envisioning a ceremony; we planned merely to pop the ashes into the ground and say a quick goodbye. We had held plenty of ceremonies in the year following her death.

In the end, the experience of burying the ashes did have a feeling of ceremony. Paul arranged for a hole of appropriate size to be dug at the grave site. He generously left us a shovel and the dirt that had been removed from the grave. The day was appropriately gray and drippy at the cemetery, a lovely serene place where I myself will be buried one day.

It was moving to be responsible for putting our mother into the ground ourselves and then covering her remains with dirt. I go to a lot of funerals and a lot of burials. This was the first I’ve attended at which no official was present at the actual interment. Having just the family there rendered the occasion intimate and sweet.

Placing the ashes in the grave and covering them ourselves felt like a final act of caring for Taffy, six and a half years after her death, an act that brought our family closer together. In tribute to our father’s Jewish roots, we ended our time at the grave by placing a few pebbles on the stone.

David Places a Stone

I wouldn’t recommend keeping ashes in the house for years as a general rule. Yet waiting did seem to help us. It made the death a little more remote and therefore less sad. We were touched, but we didn’t cry.

Waiting offered us a dividend: labor. Michael was 11 when his grandmother died. Today he is a strong 18 year old, and he did most of the shoveling and lifting.

I’ll be continuing to remember my mother in the next few weeks as we approach what would have been her 100th birthday on September 26. Next week, on Saturday, August 25, I’ll be singing a few of her favorite songs in a concert that salutes songs and people born in 1918.

I also evoked her memory this week on television when I prepared her favorite coffee cake, Blueberry Sally Lunn, and then showed off the recipe and video in a blog post.

I never feel that my mother is far away—but as I practice singing songs she loved, continue to nourish people with her recipes, and contemplate the headstone she shares with my father in the cemetery, I find new ways in which to celebrate her spirit and the gifts she left me.

Mother’s Day Revisited

With Jan/Taffy during her last Christmas season.

A friend recently noted on Facebook that many of us who no longer have our mothers feel as though we are unmoored.

I occasionally have that feeling—but then I remember that my mother is still with me in many ways.

On Friday, I visited my friends at Mass Appeal, the lifestyle program on which I cook from time to time. The young hosts were celebrating Mother’s Day; their mothers were also guests that day and were deservedly feted. (They have raised pretty terrific children.)

For a moment or two I felt a little sorry for myself. I had no mother, I thought, and I was no one’s mother.

Co-host Seth Stutman snapped me right out of that little bout of self-pity. As a tribute to my mother I prepared a salad that featured one of her favorite foods, rhubarb. While Seth and Lauren Zenzie tossed the salad for me I shared the words on my mother’s gravestone.

Her epitaph was inspired by an incident that took place shortly after I graduated from Mount Holyoke. I returned to campus and as an adult (finally!) was invited to the college’s weekly faculty cocktail hour. There I met a retired philosophy professor named Roger Holmes.

“I believe my mother took a course from you many years ago,” I told him. “I don’t know whether you’d remember her: Jan Hallett, Class of 1939.”

My Mother in 1939

The elderly but spry man immediately replied, “Short and full of life!”

Obviously, my mother made an impression. When she died my brother and I decided to inscribe Professor Holmes’s description of our petite, lively mother on her grave.

When Seth heard the epitaph during our cooking segment, he stated, “Well, Tinky, I’d say the same thing about you,” and gave me a big Mother’s Day hug.

He went on to note that he thought of me as one of his “show moms.”

Since I’m officially only 39 and Seth is 31, I replied that I and his other show moms (studio manager Denise and director Deb) thought of ourselves as older sisters rather than mothers.

Nevertheless, I was touched and reassured.

My mother may no longer be walking around the house, but she is present to me—not only in my own small stature, but also in every dish I cook and every song I sing. She will always be with me.

And I may not be a mother, but I am an older woman friend to lots of children (and even a few grownups like Seth!) whom I can nurture and love.

I seldom quote the Bible, but in this case I have to agree with the “Song of Solomon”: “For love is strong as death.” I also concur with lyricist Leo Robin: “Hooray for love!”

Happy Mother’s Day to all.

If you’d like to see the segment (the salad was DELICIOUS!), here it is:

One Step at at Time

leigh-in-hatweb

Leigh with her friend Tara at the March

My sister-in-law Leigh took off early yesterday morning for the Women’s March on Washington. I stayed home.

One reason for my not marching was the state of my knees. I get tired after a few hours of standing at my holiday retail job. I have a feeling walking around Washington for a day would do me in for a week or more.

I also have a fear of crowds!

More importantly, however, group protest is not my mode of self expression, particularly in this case. I got my first invitation to the march the morning after Donald Trump’s election. It seemed—and seems—to me too soon to be protesting. I would have preferred to wait and protest some specific presidential action or policy rather than the president himself.

Nevertheless, I support the right to free speech of my friends and relatives who chose to march. In fact, I happily lent my BEAUTIFUL new pink hat to Leigh to wear on her march. (See photo above.)

We all speak and protest in our own ways. I deal with things that upset me—and I have to admit that I’m not a fan of our new president—by writing and singing and talking. And staying positive.

Here’s what I want to do in the months ahead: I want to emulate the folks from Broadway’s Concert for America. They will inspire me to do creative things and to support organizations and people who can keep our country strong and wonderful and charitable and generous and (yes!) great.

I want to write passionately about things that matter. In my case, this is usually food and books—but food and books sustain life and give it meaning.

I want to sing whenever I can. In my opinion, there is very little in this world that a show tune or a spiritual can’t make just a little bit better. Music connects us as human beings. It helps us mourn, comfort each other, and then move forward and celebrate.

Above all, I want to be a good neighbor on my road, in my community, and in my world. I want to stay in contact and sympathy with all the people I know, whether they voted for Trump or Clinton or Mickey Mouse. And I want to continue to meet and converse with new people. The one thing I think Donald Trump got right in his inaugural address is the idea that our nation is about all of its citizens.

So I’ll be marching with my fingers and my voice and my smile. Not all at once but one step at a time. I hope to encounter lots of you along the way.

Saying Goodbye

Truffle on Her Final Afternoon

Truffle’s Final Afternoon

This morning I said goodbye to a loyal companion. My dog Truffle was only 13-1/2 years old, and because she was small I hoped to have her for 20 years or so. Fate doesn’t always fulfill our hopes, however.

I wrote here early in 2014 that Truffle had been diagnosed with Doggy Alzheimer’s Disease. I dealt with this challenge using a combination of medication, observation (some techniques worked better than others!), and patience.

Despite her dementia—and despite her eventual total blindness—Truffle had a lot of fun over the past year and a half. Together we walked, cuddled, shared meals, and entertained guests.

The fun had just about come to an end, however. Truffle’s unhappy moments each day increased, and her happy ones dwindled. In the past few weeks her nighttime fear and aggression worsened. And she started having trouble sleeping. She panted and paced on the bed, not certain where she was or what was going on.

Believing that her life was no longer a good one, I made an appointment to take her to the vet today. The prospect was daunting, particularly since I had never had to go through this process alone before. I reminded myself that my mother had managed alone several times with previous pets—in large part to spare the rest of us the pain of having to witness the death of an important family member. I tried to view her courage as a challenge.

I was with Truffle when she died. It wasn’t easy. The blindness and the dementia made her nervous although the vet, his dear assistant Robin, and I did our best to reassure her. It’s a good thing my current nutritional cleanse requires me to drink a gallon of water a day. My tear ducts need replenishing.

My friend Michael Collins accompanied me to my biweekly television appearance on Wednesday; he is a chef and made a dish on the air with me. Michael and his partner Tony recently had to say goodbye to their dog Spotty (a friend of Truffle).

I told Michael that Truffle’s time was coming, and he observed wisely that taking care of our elderly pets—and then saying goodbye to them—is the price we pay for the short but full lifetime of love they share with us. Truffle certainly fulfilled her part of that bargain. I tried to repay her with comfort and love as she left me.

We enjoyed a last outing together yesterday afternoon at the Dam, where Truffle spent many glorious summer afternoons sitting and swimming with my late mother.

With My Mother in Happier Days

With My Mother in Happier Days

Truffle no longer swam, but she waded into the water yesterday afternoon and lifted her nose to smell the grass and feel the breeze. For a minute or two, her blindness and dementia didn’t matter. She found herself in a familiar environment, in what my neighbor Ruth calls a person’s (or a dog’s) “happy place.”

The Dam is my happy place as well. I did swim, and the experience was refreshing. Gliding through the water, I saw birds swoop down to take a drink. Wading to shore, I noted that the tadpoles were getting bigger. And so I was reminded that life goes on.

I have taken final swims at the Dam with beloved dogs in the past, and with luck I will swim there again someday with another dog. Yesterday the experience helped both Truffle and me reconnect with nature and with each other.

I think it helped me get through today’s ordeal, to say goodbye to my old friend as gracefully and generously as I could. Predictably, Truffle was as sweet in dying as she was in living.

Truffle with heartweb

Another Birthday

My Grandmother (right) in her youth, with her older sister Alma

My Grandmother (right) in her Youth, with Her Older Sister Alma

Amid all the (well deserved) hoopla over Shakespeare’s forthcoming 450th birthday I’d like to celebrate another birth anniversary. Today my maternal grandmother, Clara Engel Hallett, would have turned 125.

According to her gravestone in Clyde, New York, she isn’t actually dead. She purchased it at the time of my grandfather’s death in 1966 and had the stone carver inscribe the dates “1889-19__” on it. Somehow or other our family never got around to having those last two numbers filled in after her death in 1988. So she seems to live on, although she is forever trapped in the 20th century.

I have written a lot about my grandmother over the years, mostly focusing on her Horatio-Alger like childhood. She was adopted by a miserly farmer and suffered in his home for years, only to be rescued by a kind, childless couple who gave her love and an education.

She met my grandfather, Hal, in a scene out of a silent film. Spotting her on the steps of the chapel at Middlebury College, he exclaimed to a friend, “That is the woman I am going to marry.”

She was frugal, dignified, beautiful, and loyal to friends and relatives. She was generally subservient to my grandfather. On one notable occasion, however, she stood up to him. One evening Hal was trying to teach his eldest child, my mother, the multiplication tables. My grandfather had many wonderful qualities, but he was often a bully. He yelled when little Janice got one of her answers wrong, and the child panicked and started guessing randomly. Her father shot up out of his chair and advanced on her, apparently thinking that a good spanking would teach her arithmetic once and for all.

Meek Clara swooped across the room, picked up her daughter, and glared at her husband. “Don’t you touch a hair on that child’s head!” she announced fiercely. Neither my grandfather nor my mother ever forgot that moment.

With Baby Janice in 1919

With Baby Janice in 1919

Despite his bouts of temper Clara was devoted to Hal. One of my favorite stories about her demonstrates her loyalty to him—and the romantic streak she sometimes tried to hide. She related it to me one evening when I was in my early 20s and was staying at her home for a few days. She was probably under the influence of the single old-fashioned cocktail she allowed herself at dinnertime.

Early in her marriage, she told me, my grandfather brought a business associate home to dinner. When she shook hands with this mysterious stranger, she felt a palpable electric shock of attraction. She spent most of dinner trying to avoid his gaze. At the end of the evening, as the associate took the train home, she informed my grandfather that she hadn’t liked the man and never wanted him invited to her home again. She valued her marriage far too much to chance another meeting, she told me.

For years she wondered what might have been. And then, at a party about 20 years later, she met her mystery man once more … only to find him old and boring.

She admitted to me that it was possible that he had been boring all along. Maybe the carpet was responsible for the electric shock. In any case, she had enjoyed her little romantic dream but was pragmatic enough to appreciate its demise as well.

Another romantic dream ALMOST came back to her late in life when, after my grandfather’s death, she received a letter from her childhood beau in Rutland, Vermont. In their teenage years she had called him King Arthur. He had called her his Guinevere. Late at night she had daringly lowered homemade fudge down to him from her bedroom window using her corset strings.

Arthur wrote in 1968 or so to tell my grandmother that his wife had died and that he would like to rekindle their relationship, then dormant for about 60 years. She appreciated the note but wasn’t ready to shackle herself to a man again.

After my grandfather’s death she had discovered a new sense of freedom and self-reliance, redecorating the house and trading in my grandfather’s big white Cadillac (he had purchased a new Cadillac religiously every two years) for a big white Oldsmobile. Personally, I found the two cars almost identical, but to her that Oldsmobile symbolized her new position in the driver’s seat of her life.

So she wrote to King Arthur and said that although she would always treasure his memory, she preferred that he remain just that, a memory. And she got on with her life.

Thinking of her combined romanticism and pragmatism always makes me smile, particularly on her birthday.

My Grandparents in the 1960s

My Grandparents in the 1960s

I Get Along Without You Very Well

Jan Hallett Web

My Mother in 1939

A colleague asked me to send her a short essay about a song from the 1930s or 1940s that meant something to me. I HATE to waste essays, so I’m letting it do double duty on this blog. (I realize I have been absent for a while.) I hope to post something original to the blog soon. Meanwhile, please enjoy this little memory of my mother.

My mother, Jan Hallett Weisblat, grew up in a house in which singing was part of daily life. Her mother, Clara, thought of becoming an opera singer. (Father Bruce called Clara “the little girl with the big voice”), and everyone in the family loved to gather around the piano and sing music from Stephen Foster to the current songs on “Your Hit Parade.”

I associate many songs with my mother, from silly ditties and radio jingles to dramatic operetta numbers. One song that always reminds me of her is “I Get Along Without You Very Well.”

The song was published late in 1938 by Hoagy Carmichael, a composer who knew his way around a meandering melody. Its full title is “I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes).” The lyrics were based on a poem by a woman named Jane Brown; that poem was titled simply “Except Sometimes.”

Those lyrics are clever, wringing the singer’s (and the listener’s) heart through understatement. The singer says that he—my mother and I would prefer “she,” of course—is doing just fine, getting along very well without a departed lover. The important part of the song comes in the exceptions to this rule.

I get along without you very well. Of course I do.
Except when soft rains fall and drip through leaves, then I recall
The thrill of being sheltered in your arms. Of course I do.
But I get along without you very well.

The contrast between the exceptions and the statement of getting along give the song a gentle pathos.

“I Get Along Without You” became popular in 1939. In that year (or perhaps in 1940, I never heard the full story!) my little mother was dumped by one of her boyfriends, Dean Woodruff.

I never gathered that Dean was necessarily her favorite beau ever. Nevertheless, Jan was used to being the dumper, not the dumpee. And she was a huge ham; she performed frequently in amateur theatricals and liked to think of her life as a play.

After she received Dean’s “Dear Jill” letter, she always told me, she spent a month or so singing “I Get Along Without You Very Well” around the house. She would pose dramatically in the stairwell and sing a few lines. Sometimes for effect she changed the line “Of course I do” to “You bet I do.” It was sung with just a hint of bitterness.

By the time I came along, of course, Dean Woodruff was a distant memory, and my mother was enjoying life with my father. Nevertheless, she would pause from time to time to sing “I Get Along Without You Very Well.”

When she performed it, she was a young girl again, living at her parents’ house before work and the war and life helped her grow up (although to tell you the truth she never completely grew up; she had a childlike qualities in 2011 when she died at 93!).

She could enjoy the pathos of the song without having to feel the pathos of her broken relationship with Dean. And she could share with me her love of music as an expressive form, as a way to unlock personal and cultural memory.

I sang it at her memorial party last summer. I took it just a bit higher than she ever did; she was an alto, and I’m a soprano. I tried to mimic her phrasing as much as possible, however. To tell you the truth, Hoagy Carmichael pretty much lays out the phrasing for the singer.

I find the song charming—lightly dramatic and whimsical yet heartfelt. Just like my mother. I get along without her very well … except sometimes.

To hear me sing “I Get Along Without You Very Well” imperfectly but with feeling, click on the “play” button below……