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.


School’s Out!

From the family albums:
Jan and Abe bring my older brother David home from the hospital.

I went to my last writing workshop last week. As I wrote a few weeks back, this writing group was sponsored by the local hospice organization and was designed to help the bereaved deal with their grief. I decided to attend because I had always wanted to see what a writing group would be like.

In general the experience was fascinating. I enjoyed listening to the other participants’ essays about their lost loved ones and their loss. In the end, however, I am glad the thing is over. As the weeks went by, I continued to feel out of synch with my fellow grievers, who seemed, in their writing, to be stuck in the past.

When I write about the past–and those of you who read my blogs regularly will know that I certainly do–I do so to analyze things that happened, people whom I knew, in the hope that those things and people can inform me in my path forward through life.

I write to construct my life, not to deconstruct it. And I felt that the group was mainly deconstructing, that it was pulling me into the past when I wanted to move into the future.

I knew that my fellow writers found the workshop more useful than I did so I didn’t mention my feelings to them. Everyone grieves differently, and I’m sure that the workshop helped the others a lot.

And I couldn’t ever forget that I was in a fortunate position relative to my fellow writers. They came to the workshop in order to write, to give voice to their feelings. I write and give voice to my feelings every day.

Nevertheless, I did write a few rather sweet essays. I’m sharing a brief one below as a farewell to the group. It’s apropos since right now my brother, my sister-in-law, and I are going through my parents’ old albums and diaries. The writing cue was a poem called “What the Living Do.”

What the Living Do (Tinky’s version)

The living hurry. We get annoyed. The dead don’t seem to be in much of a hurry—and if they’re annoyed they certainly haven’t told ME about it.

The dead don’t make lists.

And I don’t think they worry about the weather, although we were careful to send my parents’ bodies off in warm, cozy clothes just in case.

Their only work now is to rest … and to inspire us with biographies and memories.

We, the living,

… feed the pets and cook supper,
… do housework (not a lot of it in my case, but more than the dead in any case),
… take casseroles to the sick and the newly bereaved,
… try to make a living,
… exercise when we can,
… talk on the phone and read the paper and watch TV and send emails.

We also feed the only hunger left in the dead: to have their lives, now seen in full narrative arc, remembered and examined.

We laugh or at least smile at the jokes we thought we had heard too many times when they still lived.

We turn the decaying pages of old albums and review—relive—moments of their lives: the first words they uttered, their fresh faces at graduations, the huge grins that greeted babies and grandchildren.

All the moments of their lives merge in memory … so that we, and they, can finally say that we love each other as whole people.

Father’s Day

My father, probably in the mid to late 1970s. I think EVERYONE should have a black and white portrait taken by Bachrach. It’s definitely posed–but it definitely looks like him!

I promise not to meditate on every single holiday we come across. I’m sure my readers are busy feting fathers today and may not have time to read or comment! But … after church today–in which we celebrated fathers past, present, and future; biological and spiritual–our minister Cara said to me, “You had a pretty special father yourself, didn’t you?” And I had to agree that I did.

My father Abe came from a family that didn’t speak English at home when he was small; he, his parents, and his brother and sister came to the United States from Poland when he was 22 months old.

Abe grew up feeling like an outsider in American culture. He wasn’t a bitter outsider, however; he was a curious outsider. That curiosity garnered him many friends and nurtured his greatest professional strength: his ability to make often unexpected connections between disparate people and ideas.

His family was matriarchal, headed first by his maternal grandmother and upon her death by his mother. So he grew up expecting women to be smart and to run things, an expectation that made him a joy to deal with both at home and in the workplace.

He was fun and funny and gentle and told whimsical stories that delighted adults and children alike. I wish I could say I have figured out how to emulate his charm. It combined humor (which I have) and an ability to talk off the cuff (which heaven knows I have) with something I simply can’t definite or identify or replicate.

Thinking about him also leads me to recall other father figures in my life. There are fewer of these than there were mother figures to conjure up on Mother’s Day; like my father, I grew up in a matriarchy. I was lucky enough to have several wonderful men in my life when I was young, however.

I love to spend time with my mother’s brother Bruce, who just celebrated his 91st birthday with great fanfare. Uncle Bruce loves to play the patriarch, a tendency that occasionally gave me inappropriate giggles when I was younger. Nevertheless, he is a patriarch with an enormous heart. When my mother and I met him for lunch almost exactly a year ago I noticed that she couldn’t help smiling when she looked at him. I know exactly how she felt.

The Siblings enjoying each other’s company in July 2011

Today I also remember my friend Buddy, who made New York City even more exciting and who honored me by treating me like a second daughter both in the city and in the country. Buddy embodied so much joy and spirit that if my family was stuck entertaining one of my father’s more staid colleagues we’d invite him and his wife Bobbie over as well. With Buddy sitting at the table and at the piano, a boring dinner party was transformed into a festive night to remember.

I think about my neighbor Harrison, who never had any children of his own but who sheltered, informed, and praised all his nieces and nephews (including honorary nieces and nephews like my brother and me). Harry was the only person I have ever known who could whumsle (simultaneous whistling and humming—in harmony!). It was an honor to hear him launch into a chorus of “Happy Birthday” or “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow” on special occasions.

And I smile whenever I think of my Uncle Jack, another honorary uncle. He and my mother decided when they were in their 20s that they must have been siblings separated at a very young age since they were both loud and funny and smart (and both WASPs, unlike their spouses).

Most of all, I think about my grandfathers. My paternal grandfather was a sweet but mysterious figure who unlike my father felt overwhelmed by the matriarchy in which they lived; I can only recall him speaking more than a word or two at Passover, when he read from the Haggadah. Despite his silence we knew he loved us deeply.

My mother’s father was a much louder presence in my life. He was quite elderly by the time I came along and had little patience for small children. He often made the tiny Tinky furious by silencing her with a glance or a few choice words. Nevertheless, he was a warm man at heart.

One day at my grandmother’s house in Vermont the impatience and the warmth intersected.

Some imagined infraction on the part of my brother David, my cousin Tommy, and me launched our grandfather into a tirade. We youngsters retreated from the house into the yard, smoldering with resentment.

We decided that the time had come to assassinate the old man. The boys formulated a plan by which I was to distract Grandpa and lure him to an open area in which they could shoot him with their bow-and-arrow set.

(In retrospect I think I should probably have nixed this plan since as the distracter I was probably in danger from the bows and arrows as well, but my peril wasn’t obvious to me then. In retrospect I also realize that it’s pretty difficult to kill someone with rubber-tipped arrows. But I was only five at the time.)

Before we could put our plan into place, our grandfather called us into the house, gave us big hugs, and reinstated himself in our good graces. We decided to let him live. His rages (and ours) were happily short lived.

This week I once again rejoiced that we spared him. By chance I came across the letter he wrote my mother, his eldest child, on her 21st birthday in 1939. Here is a bit of the advice he shared with his “Punkins”:

Sir Isaac Newton was a dreamer. If he hadn’t been the falling apple wouldn’t have inspired him to think. The trick is to dream and be practical too. The great lawyers, doctors, musicians, teachers, philosophers, for the most part have been great because of their ability to translate their dreams to practical application.

I hope that like my mother I can take these words to heart and combine a romantic spirit with a core of common sense. I’m grateful for the wisdom of my grandfather, my father, and all the nurturing men in my life.

If you have a chance, please remember someone special in the comments below. Happy Father’s Day!

My Grandparents in the early 1960s. We were always happy to see my grandfather smile!

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A Letter from My Father

I couldn't find any photographs of my father in 1941, but the ones in this post come pretty close: my mother took them in 1942, when the two were first dating.

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.

My father certainly never smoked a pipe when I knew him--so either he smoked the things only briefly or this is a pose. (I lean toward the latter!)