Thursday, June 28, 2018

Body and Soul

When I was growing up, I lived in a Reader’s Digest home. We were middle class, literate, and apt to share with each other stories of what we found funny or touching in our everyday lives. We not only fit the Reader's Digest characteristics, we also subscribed. There were always several copies of the magazine lying around on tables in our den and even volumes of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books on our shelves or coffee table. My mother particularly loved the magazine, which came to our house 10 times a year and was a great source of a wide range of informative or helpful articles and short, funny stories from real life, such as this one:

We rushed our four-year-old son, Ben, to the emergency room with a terrible cough, high fever, and vomiting. The doctor did an exam, then asked Ben what bothered him the most. After thinking it over, Ben said hoarsely, "My little sister."

Perhaps my favorite regular feature was the occasional essays from readers submitted under the heading:  “My Most Unforgettable Character.” I even determined whom I would write about if I decided to submit my own Reader’s Digest essay. It was an easy choice—a Savannahian named Jack Berliner. I visited Jack several times a year at his house on 56th Street. He was the best listener and sharer I have ever met.

I don’t remember just how I felt during my first visit with Jack, though I can imagine that I was both nervous and a little frightened. I had been filled in on some of his back story before going with my father or older brother to his house. Here’s what I was told:

When Jack was 18, he was a counselor at the Jewish Educational Alliance Day Camp. He was practicing some tumbling in the exercise room, missed the mat, and suffered a horrific fall, breaking his neck. He lost the use of his legs and torso and went through endless surgeries and rehabilitation to regain the use of his arms and shoulders. Now he lived at home with his older brother Sam, who ran a candy-vending business. Jack made a living by selling magazine subscriptions and stationery supplies on the phone. But he made a life by talking to any visitors who showed up on his doorstep, and there were lots of us. He doled out philosophy and politics and positivity to all comers.

I learned quickly during that first visit and many others that followed that while so much of Jack was broken, what really mattered—his mind, mouth, ears, and heart—were intact and very much alive. He was a voracious reader, and could talk knowledgeably on any subject you might bring up.

Jack’s brother Sam (whom my cousin Richard once described as deserving of sainthood) met us at the door and led us to the bedroom where Jack held court in a large hospital bed. A bar was suspended from the ceiling above Jack’s chest. He would often link his elbows onto the bar to lift himself up and shift his position in the bed in order to get in a more comfortable spot to carry on our conversation. He never stopped talking or listening. A headset lay on his chest to be used for occasional sales calls and a burning cigarette in a holder stuck out from between his teeth. Sam spent almost too much time filling and emptying the cigarette holder, lighting up the cigarettes, or tapping ashes into an ashtray before they fell off by themselves onto the bedsheets. Watching those ashes and wondering if Sam would catch them in time could be hypnotic.

Jack's cigarette ash could have an hypnotic effect.
I can’t recall just what we talked about during our visits, but I know that I always felt better when I left the Berliner house than when I arrived. Jack had opinions, but he didn’t make judgments. Long before Bill O’Reilly came along, Jack Berliner established the original “no-spin zone.” You could share truths with him in confidence. What is so rare as that! I wish that all of us could have had a Jack Berliner in our lives.

I would visit Jack when I came back to Savannah from college into the early 1970s. Then I moved up North and seldom saw him again. In 1979, my mother gave me the sad news that Jack had died while going through another surgery. He was 49 years old, and had spent 30 of those years living outside of his broken body and embracing all of us who entered his sphere.

I had not thought of Jack for many years until I read last week about the impending and eventual death of Charles Krauthammer, who doled out wisdom for more than 40 years while confined to a wheelchair after a freak accident while diving into a pool at college. I have heard Krauthammer’s political pronouncements over the years and have not always (or even usually) agreed with him. But I honor his courage and his spirit, as well as his brilliance. They are so reminiscent of Jack’s. Neither man would let you feel sorry for their impediments. They both strove to make the world a better place, and we were better for having spoken with or listened to them.

Charles Krauthammer was a master of words and chess moves.
Regrettably, I never wrote that unforgettable character essay for Reader’s Digest. This blogpost  and my lasting memory will have to do. 

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Tired Out
I have gotten to the age where I can begin a story with the phrase I can remember when. . .” So, here goes:

I can remember when the way you dealt with a flat tire while driving was to pull off the road, walk around the car to survey the problem, curse a little bit, and then open the trunk, remove enough junk to take out your spare and the jack and lug wrench, and then attack the problem. Your biggest concerns were determining whether your spare had air in it or whether the lugs were too tightly tightened to budge them. How 60s, 70s, or 80s was that?

I am also modern enough to remember when you dealt with a flat tire by following the earlier steps (including the cursing) and then removed a half-sized “donut” from your trunk and used that to replace the flat on a temporary basis.

Don't forget the donut!
I have also reached the age when I can remember when you could call on AAA or another service to handle most of the necessary steps without a lot of strain. You just had to wait long enough for a mechanic to arrive to fix or replace the tire.
But none of these worked for me when we had a blow-out while on a visit in the Berkshires last week. As it turns out, in 2018, many cars, mine included, are no longer equipped with a spare, either donut or full sized. What you have are a repair kit to patch and re-inflate the tire and a phone number to call for assistance if that doesn’t work.

No one—not AAA, not the service department of the nearest car dealership, not the insurance company that touts its 24-hour roadside assistance—is willing to bring a replacement tire to your car if you lack a working spare or donut. The best you can hope for is a tow to the nearest garage or car dealership. And then a long wait. Which is what happened to us.
It seems that most garages and even car dealerships do not stock even those tires that are standard on many of their models. Everyone gets their tires from the same suppliers. And no one can promise delivery from that supplier in less than 24 hours. In our case, the wait was nearly 48 hours. Luckily, we had a place to stay and no place to get to fast.

But I am not whining—much. What I am doing is reminiscing about a father-son moment that involved replacing a flat tire.

I can remember when my parents came north to New York for Audrey’s and my wedding 45 years ago. It was mid-February, snow was in the air and on the ground, and I was driving my parents and my Charleston-based friends Charles and Robyne from the airport to the motel in which they would be staying in Yonkers, of all places. And we had a blow-out. Miraculously, I maneuvered the car safely across three lanes to the shoulder and stopped. My father, Charles, and I got out of the car and surveyed the damage. I think I cursed. My father didn’t. He never did.
Then we got to work. We unloaded suitcases from the trunk and unearthed a full-size spare and jack. (This was 1973, after all.) Then my father gave me a true teaching moment. He searched on the side of the road for large stones to put behind the tires to keep the car from slipping back when we jacked up the car and removed the flat. Is that advice in any manual, or do you just have to have a father with worldly wisdom? Then we completed the tire change and got back on the road. No long wait, and no big deal!

This guy must have learned about the stone from my father. 
I called Charles today to find out if he remembered the incident. He did and added something I had conveniently forgotten. He says that my father demanded that we go the next day to the nearest Sears (can you remember that store brand?) to buy four new tires for the car. “You didn’t have the money for the tires then," Charles said, "so we put them on my credit card, and you paid me back after your next pay day.” He added he is still waiting to receive an interest payment he has been owed for 45 years. Somehow, that part of the story doesn't come to my mind at all.
A late, lamented Sears tire store, Most have shut down in our area.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Becoming Our Parents

In a new television commercial, a series of adult men and women lament that they are turning into their parents.

The examples they cite relate to frugality (“Why is the door open? Are we trying to air condition the whole neighborhood?”) and to being behind the times (“I find myself texting in whole sentences”).

I don’t relate directly to most of the examples in the commercial, but I still find myself becoming more like my parents each year. I look so much like my dad did in his 50s and 60s (though he was a lot thinner and not quite as bald), I use some of his Deep South expressions (“I’m waiting on you,” rather than “waiting for you”) and I sometimes adopt the sarcastic undertone my mother might convey when you didn’t agree with her. Audrey has developed the same tendency that her mother had to worry about things large or small. Our kids know the importance of texting as soon as they arrive some place whenever they travel either a short or long distance. She is on “pins and needles” until the text arrives.

It seems inevitable that we just can’t escape the hold our parents have on us even after they are no longer physically in our lives. For Audrey and me, cooking, especially for holidays, is one definite way that we imitate our parents. And I don’t think we’re unique.

How do I know? For Exhibit 1, just look at the meal Audrey and I put together last Sunday when our kids joined us for Mother’s Day.

Here was the "historically-correct" menu:

1) Barbecued short ribs marinated in the special sauce my mother used to concoct (a mixture of sautéed onions, ketchup, chili sauce, Heinz 57 sauce, spicy mustard, and just a touch of sugar—with none of the ingredients actually measured, just added “to taste”); parboiled to remove most of the fat and assure quicker cooking on the grill; and then grilled as my father would do them so they were moist but still properly charred. Since I gave up eating red meat or chicken more than 10 years ago, these ribs were recreated from memory, not from taste. But they were well received by the rest of the family—and admired longingly but forlornly for by our dog.

Barbecued short ribs were a staple of the meal my parents would often cook for my entire family in Savannah on Father’s Day each year. They are also the meal that Brett would usually request to be served when he returned from sleepaway camp each summer.

2) A salad of marinated cucumbers and string beans, made the way Audrey’s grandmother used to do it. Slice the cucumbers and rings of red onion thinly; combine them with white vinegar, vegetable oil, mustard, and a little sugar; then let them sit for as many hours as possible to build the flavor. Once again, this recipe has no set measurements. That would defy tradition.

3) A special dessert—a German shortcake called muerbeteig, that is part of our family lore and humor. Following my mother-in-law’s rules, the dough was made with Crisco rather than butter for flakiness and included a touch of vinegar (“That’s what creates the muerb,” or fragility, my mother-in-law would say.) After the dough was baked, Audrey spooned on top a compote made of frozen rhubarb cooked with a half-cup of sugar. Then she covered the cake and rhubarb with a layer of melted semi-sweet chocolate bits that was allowed to harden in the refrigerator before serving.

Brett and Amanda and the famous muerbeteig.

For most of our married life, Audrey refused to take on making a muerbeteig herself despite her mother’s cajoling. “It’s so simple,” my mother-in-law would say. “Why won’t you make it?” In later years, our children picked up on the cajoling, in part to tease Audrey and in part to get a rise out of their grandmother. Brett even took on the task of baking a muerbeteig for a family holiday meal several years before Audrey did. The cake we served this Mother’s Day helped bring my mother-in-law back into all of our memories again and made us all smile

So, this Mother’s Day, we became our parents and grandparents, if only for a little while and mostly at the stove and dinner table. I am wondering just how our children will become us in the future.