May 8, 2016 6 Comments
It was a dark and stormy night.
Pulling into Slip 3 Manhattan, aboard the Staten Island Ferry, I cast my eyes north towards the Brooklyn Bridge. I have worked these waters as a Dockbuilder for almost 30 years, always aware that even as new projects are going up, there is always some small part that is being washed out to sea.
Just upriver of the Ferry is the Battery Maritime Building, home of the Governors Island Ferry. On the offshore end of the Governors Island Ferry slip, stenciled in large red block letters are the words:
“At The Same Moment”
Visitors often ask me what those words mean:
“At The Same Moment”
and I equally often think to myself that I must look like someone with an answer. Maybe it’s the hard weather squint of my eyes that gives me the look of a man with purpose and certain knowledge, when in fact it is the look of a man who needs glasses.
But the fact is, I do feel as though I have an answer, not only because I have given this question some thought but also because I am one of those people who always has an answer regardless of my familiarity with, or even an opinion on, the subject at hand.
Now the answer, as I see it, is that “At The Same Moment”, is simply an invitation to make a comparison. To look for that tingly romantic attraction between two seemingly unrelated events; unrelated except that they share a moment which, on second thought, may be among the most intimate of all relationships.
The call came that Aunt Clare’s time was drawing to a close. This would be the Aunt Clare who tried to enroll me in Hebrew School, allegedly as a gift; the same Aunt Clare who gave me The Joys of Yiddish (hardcover), again apparently as a gift; and the same Aunt Clare who, in a last attempt at converting a young Jew to Judaism and evidently as a gift, gave me the Encyclopedia of Jewish Humor (trade paperback).
I think she was trying to tell me something. Something about being a Jew, with all of the imaginary advantages that confers and the big head-start I already had if only………. if only……………… if only.
I of course was noncompliant and she of course was misguided.
Regarding the Hebrew school incident I recall the question being put to me as follows:
My Dad: Hey Art, would you like to go to Hebrew school? Aunt Clare said she would pay for it.
Me: What does it mean? (No!)
My Dad: Well Art, it means going to school an extra day a week
Me: Why would I want to do that? (No!)
My Dad: Well you see Art, yak yak yak yak heritage, yackety-yak yak yak.
Me: No thanks. (Hell no!)
I don’t think Aunt Clare was pleased by my colossal lack of interest, to say nothing of my father’s startling lack of salesmanship, yet paradoxically I count this as an endearing Aunt Clare moment.
So now it’s after work; it has already been a long day. I am driving down the NJ turnpike in the driving rain, switching lanes and changing radio stations on my way to a room full of anxious Jews; as if there were some other kind.
My mind is in Staten Island thinking about the job. My mind is in Brooklyn thinking about my wife and younger sons; in Manhattan thinking about my eldest son; in Philadelphia thinking about my father and on my final destination, Jenkintown, PA.
I stop at the Molly Pitcher rest area for coffee. Molly, who fought in the Revolutionary war, would doubtless be pleased that her service to the country has paid off in the unrivaled selection of fast food joints at her rest area, beating out her rival rest areas that are named after famous writers and presidents and lesser knowns like Thomas Edison who invented something or other and Vince Lombardi who was famous for his gap-toothed smile and was apparently involved in sports.
Inside at the Starbucks the exhausted “Barista”, who looks less like an Italian coffee wizard and more like an outcast from a Bayonne asbestos factory points his finger skyward and asks “What kind?”, as if to remind me that God hears all and judges all. The chalkboard menu over his head has forty choices in sizes akin to small, medium, large, grande and obese. My blank expression somehow conveys large coffee, black. I turn to go and find myself in a chaotic, afterwork crowd of tired zombies. They recognize me as one of their own as they head towards the fast food flesh.
Back on the turnpike, the hum and monotony of the road has my mind wandering like Ulysses. My thoughts return to Brooklyn and settle for a moment on the family dog Jozey; an animal adored beyond words on one side of our front door and universally reviled on the other side. Logic dictates some cause and effect relationship. I can only account for it by concluding that something is dreadfully wrong with the front door and determine to have it replaced as soon as suitable door and contractor can be obtained.
Exit 6 seamlessly merges the NJ Turnpike with the PA Turnpike. I must have paid ten thousand dollars in tolls going back and forth over these roads to birthdays, weddings, holidays and funerals.
In my experience the only real difference between the four is that at a funeral, the one being celebrated doesn’t expect a gift. Oh and of course the one being celebrated also isn’t present. And in its own way, that’s great. You get to make crass comments and tell embarrassing stories about the deceased without the usual consequences. There’s always plenty to eat and drink and there are lots of laughs but maybe all of this says more about my relatives than it does about the actual occasion.
I exit the PA Turnpike onto Route 611, a four lane road with that meandering, non-grid directionality that marks it as a likely animal track, becoming a Native American path called the Naraticong trail, becoming a section of a colonial road known as the King’s Highway, a section of that becoming York Road in the early 18th century, the section of which I am now driving becoming Old York Road, later on becoming a route on the Swift Sure Stagecoach Line for those in a hurry to get out of Philadelphia.
It’s disconcerting how much becoming is involved in getting to a final destination which, in any event, never turns out to be final at all.
I’m driving through the long rolling hills of this local highway but secretly, simultaneously, I am driving through two landscapes. There is the scene in front of me and the one behind my eyes; past and present occupying my mind in place of nervous anticipation and a pressing need to take a leak.
Everything has changed since I was a kid but in a way everything is the same. My eyes see the full color of the moment but my memory sees in the washed out, nostalgic hues of old Life Magazine photographs; umbers, ochers and grays.
That shopping center used to be a farm. Fifty acres of corn; now fifty acres of parking. There used to be a Hot Shoppes restaurant over there but people stopped eating like that. Then it became a Barnes & Noble bookstore but people stopped reading like that. Now it’s a CVS pharmacy. That sprawling mixed use building used to be a single gigantic department store, Strawbridge & Clothier. That thrift shop was a slot car track and before that it was an appliance store; I guess it’s a bad location. Target used to be Sears. The stores are different but the buildings are mostly the same; the signs and surfaces are flashier but beneath it all basic commerce endures.
Willow Grove Park Mall, there off to the right, used to be Willow Grove Park (“Life is a lark, at Willow Grove Park”), an ancient amusement park with a roller coaster, amusements and kiddy rides; the kind of thing that belongs at the shore or out in the countryside to be discovered while out on a Sunday drive, popular music squeezing out of the AM radio, your dad wearing a hat and your mom a dress, every boy sporting a crew cut and every girl a ponytail. For years after Willow Grove Park closed it sat there idle behind a locked chain link fence, as if waiting, the roller coaster like some long-tailed caged dinosaur, too dumb to know that it was already extinct.
I have been looking through some census data because …..well… I don’t actually have an answer as to why I have been looking through census data. In fact, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know why because it’s likely to have my wife giving me that worried look or that other look she gives me which says “You are going on medication at the first sign of dementia or it’s off to the home with you mister!”
But what is clear from the census is that this suburban town has been losing population every decade since the 1970’s. I left in the 70’s. I’m pretty sure that my leaving didn’t ignite a white flight wave of migration away from suburbs and back to cities by the very children of those young families that migrated in a white flight wave of migration away from the cities to the suburbs but there is nothing like a big old serving of raw data to make you ruminate over the shifting patterns of life and for myself, the impending loss of one more local resident in the person of Aunt Clare.
I arrive in the dark, in this town of my youth, a northern suburb of Philadelphia, where I used to ride my bike, break into abandoned houses, bowl and play pinball at Thunderbird Lanes, see matinees at the Art Deco, Hiway Theater, eat at the sandwich counter at the Rexall drugs and shoplift from the Woolworths. It only now occurs to me that all of these places were old even when I was young.
I pull into the lot of Aunt Clare’s apartment building. The building is the sole residential structure in what some developer must have imagined was the first of many, surrounding a parking lot so expansive that it seems to have been paved in giddy anticipation of a coming boom that never materialized. Her building stands alone at one end of this asphalt carpet.
I park away from the building and sit for a few moments collecting my thoughts and consciously slowing down from 70 mph to 35 mph to motionless in this lamp lit landscape that is utterly still; inertia still pulling me forward. The present folds in, trying to catch up to the past.
I’m thinking to myself that this is a somewhat unfamiliar situation with somewhat unfamiliar people. I know them and I’m very fond of them but after all, I left town 30 years ago. I’ve been back but things are changing and the older I get the more accelerated those changes have become. I don’t know exactly where I stand or even what I’m expected to do. My caffeinated reptilian brain is sending messages and all I can think is that this just doesn’t seem like the kind of situation you want to walk into with a full bladder.
I step out of the car, into the dim light of the parking lot, into the rain and I pee on the asphalt. I wish I could say that in Yiddish. And though I’ve heard it said that Aunt Clare spoke Yiddish like it was French it’s too late to ask her for a translation. It’s also too late to ask her who all those people in all those sepia family photographs are. It is, altogether, just too late.
Between the blacktop below and the black sky above; between the spring rain outside and the deathwatch inside, I close the distance between my car and the lobby. I look up and note the sign; this place is called The Plaza. The name suggests to me that the developers were maybe a little less like giddy and a little more like inebriated.
Lobby, elevator, hallway, door, open, enter.
Sure enough, I arrive at what appears to be Aunt Clare taking her last breath. This wouldn’t be the Aunt Clare I know. The Aunt Clare I know is always late. Always. If you want Aunt Clare to come to dinner, you’d better invite her to lunch.
I know a lot of dead people but I know little about death and dying so when I am assured Aunt Clare has only hours to live I assume that we’re all on the same page about it. Everyone present, nurses, hospice care, relatives and friends are all in agreement with the notable exception of Aunt Clare, but we don’t know that yet and we take up positions.
A pod of whales protectively circles the vulnerable cows and pups and likewise we start ambling in and out of the bedroom where Aunt Clare, unconscious in the arms of her daughters, is toying with infinity.
Everyone is on edge. Aunt Clare is extremely frail; intervals of 30 seconds or more between clusters of heavy breathing has everyone holding their breath along with her. Like the breathing, our waiting is a state of hyperbolic anticipation but that’s not a state that can be maintained for long. Small talk breaks out, escalates into conversation with forays into nervous laughter and finally the all out assault of genuine laughter. Laughter makes everyone hungry; it’s time to feed the troops and as if on cue the food arrives. Since this is America it arrives in the form of high quality take-out. Reinforcements arrive in the persons of cousins and kids and spouses and significant others.
Normalcy breaks out for a time but Aunt Clare, as the hostess, needs attending to and the cycle begins anew. Hours wear on and then days. My father, Aunt Clare’s 89 year old baby brother, is suffering greatly. He hates sad movies, scary movies, suspense, romance and dystopian movies and anything epic. He just doesn’t have the patience for epic and everything else is upsetting. Clearly this isn’t playing to his strengths which at this point are few and dwindling by the hour.
His anxiety is on the rise along with everyone else’s and as exhaustion sets in it invades the room; a poison gas that displaces oxygen and restraint which is not a great metaphor for a Jew. Too much fact, too little simile.
There is a question hovering in the stale air.
My father blurts out “What are we learning from this?” which is a close approximation of what he is trying to say. And then, “Isn’t there something we can do for her?” Loaded with pain meds and cradled in the loving arms of her daughters, caressed by friends, it’s hard to think of what more can be done except the obvious. It’s the obvious he’s talking about.
There. It’s been said. And in a way, it’s best that he said it. At 89 and soon to be the last of his generation, he’s the only one in the room that can say it. It absolves the rest of us of our own thoughts. Unfortunately the answer is no. Short of applying a pillow this is going to take as much time as it is going to take.
As remarkable, and I suppose as inevitable, as is my father’s plea for mercy is the response from my cousin, one of Aunt Clare’s daughters.
In an amazing show of grace, using only a few words but with excellent articulation, so there should be no misunderstanding, she gently but firmly explains that everything that can be done, is being done.
It’s the articulation that settles the matter and only a crazy person could misunderstand the message. I look to the old man and he is old, but he understands and now I understand too…..
My cousin and my dad are each the baby of the family. Aunt Clare and I are each the middle child. Aunt Clare is the middle child mother, being mothered by her daughter, the baby of her family. My father is the baby of the family being mothered by his son who is the middle child of his family.
In my meager way I am supporting my cousin who is supporting Aunt Clare who had supported my father as a child, who had supported me as a child, by taking the burden of support off of my cousin so she doesn’t have to mother her uncle.
This is making me queazy.
But support is popping up all over the room in opposition to the polar void of our bleak prospects. There is no hope but there is the matter of comfort to balance the antimatter of despair.
Support is a funny thing; if it’s there it will get used and it will be there so long as it is used, pretty much following the laws of supply and demand. And with so many people in the apartment there is plenty of supply to go around. So much so that in the ebb and flow of things, the supply of support in the room has, for the moment, so far exceeded demand that it has erupted into random acts of affection. I have just come from the kitchen and magnetically hugged my cousin’s adult daughter. It was wordless and mutually consented to. It may be the first time that I’ve hugged this person with such affection or even been able to properly acknowledge our attachment and I couldn’t be happier to be in this place at this moment. Furthermore, it is the first time I’ve really seen this person interacting with her loved one and I now see that while Aunt Clare is dying in the bedroom, there is something blossoming in the living room right in front of me
My other young cousin’s girlfriend is there. We’ve met before but I haven’t a clue who she is. Sometimes I feel like an outsider in this family but then I suppose she feels the same way. Something about this web of support where everyone is both holding up and being held up. Somehow the ice is broken and it turns out she’s totally great and now we’re fast friends. Fast friends but true friends.
The whole thing is like the food pyramid of emotional support. I better bring up a picture of that thing because I know for a fact that it’s changed a couple of times in the last 50 years and let’s face it I, like the rest of the world, never paid any attention to it anyway.
I’m a low level player so I should probably be on the ground floor with breakfast cereal; sweet but not especially nourishing. And I’m not disputing it but I do feel that, with a little effort, I could step up to fresh produce though that’s probably just my pride at work. Don’t get me wrong, I’m okay being grouped in with tag lines like “Magically Delicious” or “Breakfast of Champions” and waffle is one of my favorite words; just so long as I’m not in with the kosher dills and gherkins or any of the health foods like dried fruit or cashews. I just don’t relish the idea of being thought of as pickled, shriveled or nuts.
What isn’t in dispute is that Aunt Clare is at the apex, the pointy end of the pyramid, the one being supported. Let’s see, potato chips, cookies, candy, soda and mayonnaise. That’s a food group? I mean, I kind of get the first four but doesn’t mayo belong in the condiment group or whatever group tuna salad and coleslaw belong to?
And what’s with chocolate being in with the candy? Sure candy is candy but chocolate is food.
Below Aunt Clare must be her daughters. They are the ones who are really doing the heavy lifting so it’s only proper that they should be in with the Surf n’ Turf. Then come spouse and adult children and the various significant others. The third generation, the adult grandchildren should probably be in with the salad or stir-fry. Everyone has a place and everyone has a food group. Okay, so far so good. But wait, that isn’t right because one of the kids is a medical person administering Aunt Clare’s meds and explaining what’s going on and why Aunt Clare’s breath holding is up over 50 seconds. In my mind he should be promoted to the smoked fish platter at the very least.
So we’ve covered a lot of food and a lot of people in their food group / supportive roles but ……. Hey!! Wait a second!! Where the hell is pizza? Or should I be saying, Who the hell is pizza? Now I’m getting confused. And not for nothing but why isn’t beer on this list? And the raw bar assortment. Where is the bourbon, fried chicken and John Coltrane? Doesn’t anyone over at Consolidated Food Pyramids LLC understand how dinner works? I can’t eat like this!! And I’ll bet you can’t either but that’s not the point. The point is that the food pyramid metaphor has completely fallen apart and I don’t have a plan B.
Okay so we’re nothing like the food pyramid. I can accept that but we are like something and the longer we mill around the more that something becomes apparent. Whether she is unwilling or unable to leave just yet, Aunt Clare has created this scene wherein all manner of people are hangin’ around and getting to know each other better.
I think we need some kind of Link Diagram (a phrase I may have just now coined) that will incorporate the system structure, pattern of behavior and events, to understand what’s going on here but I think it can be adequately defined by the shorthand term – Family.
And as a family we are relying on the basic tools that any Jews worth their schmaltz possess; We may not know where we are and we may not know where we are going but we know how to keep moving forward. We may be surrounded by tragedy and we may be in the midst of heartbreak, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a laugh to be had. And just because we’re not hungry doesn’t mean we’re not going to eat.
All in all, I think Aunt Clare would have been well pleased with that.