Six year ago, I was reeling. Among other things, I was being pushed out of Earthjustice by unhappy board members, who thought they knew better (they didn’t, as it turned out – a topic for another time: there’s a story to be told about the ignorance and arrogance of the wealthy in the history of the American environmental movement).
I needed to not attend an upcoming Earthjustice board meeting, so I headed east that October for fundraising meetings and the bar mitzvah of my cousin’s son in West Hartford, the town where I was born. I decided to stop by the house I’d lived in til I was 8. I hadn’t been back there since my mother moved my brother Al and me to Great Neck, a suburb of New York City, so that she could get away and be closer to my grandfather.
In 1955, Hurricane Connie stalled over the northeast. Our living room filled with water up to my father’s waist. He carried me on his shoulders to our neighbors, the Houlihan’s, whose house stood on a small rise. My brothers Rick and Al walked beside him. We shared hot dogs on white bread with Sara, Johnny, Jimmy, Mary, and Kathy, and waited for the waters to go down. The floodwaters pushed our house several inches off-kilter.
A few months later, my father moved to Iowa. I saw him five or six times after that until he died about ten years ago. When my oldest brother Rick graduated high school in 1960, we drove him down to the Naval Academy. My mother, my brother Al, and I moved away from the West Hartford house to Great Neck.
The house looked small. There were leaves on the front stoop; maybe whoever lived there had decamped to Florida for the winter. It was October – the two maples in the front yard were flooded with rich yellows and ochre. My parents planted one of the trees when I was born; the other one came with the house.
My mother, who had hazel eyes like mine, and deep reddish hair when she was young, was the one who shook hands with the realtor when they bought the house: they’d heard that Jews were being steered away from this neighborhood at the time, and my father, with his slicked-back brown black hair and green eyes, looked more “Jewish.” He showed up to sign the paperwork a few days later.
I took a couple of pictures of the house and the trees, drove through the neighborhood, and then went on with the rest of the day.
I was thinking about this listening to my friend Don, who I’ve known since we were were kids, and to Victor, who I’d just met for the first time since high school. Don and Victor’s parents are Holocaust survivors refugees. Don’s family left Austria in 1939-1940, forced to sell their home in the Vienese suburb of Baden for a fraction of its value. Years later, Don went back and talked to the family living there. They told him they’d bought the house in 1949. They said they had no knowledge of its ownership history. There is a difference between not knowing and choosing not to know, of course.
Victor’s family left Italy in the 30s, too. Their home, in Rome’s Trastevere district was occupied and later ransacked by the Germans, but they never lost their claim to ownership. After the war, his father stayed in the States with his children and his brothers and sisters. He sold the house to other family members who returned to Italy. Victor’s home, and his sense of family, is rich with history, reaching back beyond memory to the early days of Rome. His father’s marriage, he said half jokingly, was mixed: between a Roman Jew and a Sephardic Jew…
We were sitting in Victor’s back yard sipping Jack Daniels after attending an event honoring Howard Bauman, who’d been our scoutmaster back in the mid-1960s. Howard was the antithesis of what you’d expect a Scout leader to be – his focus was on the boys and on getting us out into the Northeast woods as often as we could, not the Scouting paraphernalia. And thanks to Bob and Dave’s organizing (I’d last seen them when they were thirteen; now they’re both successful doctors with families of their own) and to Howard’s own sons Larry and Andy and his daughter Liz, we had a chance to say thanks. Men flew into New York from as far as Korea.
We sat around the table and talked, these men now in their 50s, and discovered that all of us had been shaped by this guy – a fact that we were of course completely oblivious to at the time (nor, I think, was Howard aware of the impact he had on us all). I think it came as a shock to all that somehow or another Howard helped this gangly collection of boys navigate the strange mid-1960s trip from boyhood to adolescence – while wearing a Boy Scout uniform, of all things.
So did my brother Al, who at the time was in his mid-20s and busy getting his own life in gear. Al took the time to do his little brother a lifetime solid by filling the vacant space of no father. It only takes a glance at the black and white pictures from those years to make this sound faintly ridiculous – big-eared kids in t-shirts and knee socks growing up – but the damned thing is, it’s true.
Howard worked hard to dispel the sanctimoniousness that threatened to take over the event – he thanked us very much for delivering his eulogy, but let us know he was quite alive and intended to remain so, thank you very much. Much laughter and applause, and conversation punctuated by 20-minutes-on-the-hour silences while each of us decided: okay, do we go deeper into who we are, what we’ve done, how life has unfolded? Or do we pull back and glide on the surface til the end of the day?
The surfaces sounded placid enough. Jon lives fifteen minutes from me. Larry’s up in Mendocino publishing audio books and is starting a new line featuring progressive voices. His sister Liz and her husband are likewise publishing books out of Ithaca on the natural history of the Finger Lakes region. A lot of the guys had become docs and had been running their own departments or practices for many years.
But there’s always more to the story, always. Excuse me for burying the lede, but maybe that’s the headline for the day.
Maybe we’re all in diaspora. History seems portable. We carry it in our hearts and minds, our pockets. Place seems to matter less.
But: A sideways glance, a goofy grin, exactly the same as forty years ago. Remembering the tune to a long-forgotten camp song. Springtime birds in a suburban backyard. Gold coins stashed away for an emergency. A boy’s face pressed up on a summertime screen door, watching the others play outside. Men who, one way or the other, shaped a life.
These are what seem to matter, but they are complicated, ambiguous, subject to interpretation. And no one really wants to go back, even if we could.
My digital dictionary defines “nostalgia” as:
“a mixed feeling of happiness, sadness, and longing when recalling a person, place or event from the past, or the past in general.”
This is not nostalgia.
Update: Victor wrote in to clarify: his parents (and Don’s) were not survivors (they never had to endure the camps); they were refugees, the fortunate ones who escaped in time. Correction made above.