It is heartening to note that by switching to Blogger I have reduced my readership from about six to one – I soon may just leave all my entries in Word without posting at all, saving the wear and tear on my psyche that accrues from trying to paste Word stuff into the exacting and ever-changing requirements of the various blogvilles. So, hi there, jeankfl – or as I should call her, “my public”. I suppose I should rejoice, when one is shouting in an empty silo, one has a certain freedom of expression.
Age, too, seems to be increasingly gifting me with a freedom – or perhaps more accurately, a lack of giving a damn – in regard to expressing myself. This week, for the first time in a forty-year career that has been rife with opportunities to do so, I finally cussed at a user. Some years back, I mentioned in passing to a colleague that he was “an arrogant little prick”, but colleagues are one thing and users – i.e. customers – are another. It was the high point in what was a grueling week.
I mentioned last week that Smallville was minutes away from Binghamton, the scene of one of the NRA’s greater recent triumphs. I arrived at work Monday to find that a guy I’ll call Yan, who has been for more than two years my first-coffee-in-the-morning buddy, lost his wife of 37 years in the Binghamton tragedy (or for members of the NRA, I should say “celebration of god-given and Constitutional freedom”). In my entire life, I have met only a handful of men (I can think of three, offhand) who, after years of marriage, openly loved, respected and admired their wives without reservation. Yan was one of these. In two years of almost daily discussion on politics, religion, finances and everything in between, I never once heard him refer to his wife, even jokingly, as a brake on him – other than once saying she “wouldn’t let him” – at age 65+ - climb up and personally install a new roof on their home.
They had decided at the beginning of their marriage, that whatever the cost, he would do the earning and she would be a stay-at-home Mom. This did not mean she moped around, talking baby talk and watching soaps. She had been an immigrant just after World War II, at the age of 1, and she knew first-hand, and from watching her parents, the stresses and difficulties that face the new arrival. So she was determined to help other immigrants, and ultimately this cost her her life. If you have read the names of the fallen in Binghamton, you might have been struck by the diversity – virtually every victim was from a different country – one-syllable names, ten syllable names, names with more Js and Ks and Ws and Xs than anyone would think pronounceable – Hispanics, Asians, Slavs, Africans. These were the students with whom Yan’s wife, their language teacher, died on her day off, on the eve of a planned vacation to visit a married daughter, because she was called in – and went – to a class where the scheduled teacher had been unable to attend.
I did not know Yan’s wife, although from my conversations with Yan, I felt I did know her somewhat. These language classes were not her only community involvement. She was a very active woman, one of those intelligent sensible women that keep communities vibrant. At the funeral home, although the family requested donations to various non-profits in lieu of flowers, there were huge bouquets from every civic organization imaginable – not impersonal expressions of outrage at the tragic event at the Civic Association, but personal symbols of affection and thanks from groups with which she had been involved as her children left home for college and marriage. Although I called shortly after the ‘viewing’ hours began, the line of mourners waiting to enter the already-packed funeral home was already so long that I waited 45 minutes in a freezing wind to get inside; and when I finally got through the door, the line behind me extended an entire block. Next day, the church was so crowded for the funeral that I had to stand packed in the back, for the entire two and a half hour ceremony. The sanctuary, choir loft and staircases were jammed. This was more church time than I have endured in the last decade altogether.
I did know Yan, and frankly, I cannot imagine what he will do alone in his home where he had been so happy with his wife. On the table when I called at his home, and later in mounted collages created by his children at the funeral home , there were slews of photographs from his wife’s life – the ones I was most struck by were those of Yan and his wife together – always smiling or laughing , leaning unconsciously toward each other, poking their heads through those joke cutouts that one finds at carnivals where one appears to be a cowboy or a cartoonish sports figure, dancing, playing. Yan is a little older than I am, and is in the last throes of his career. Since his wife spoke a number of languages and had studied in France in her younger days, they had been talking about finally doing some travelling together after his retirement. He told me that, being several years older than his wife, he had always assumed he’d go first. I know from the experience of losing my youngest brother when I was in my early 20’s, that above and beyond the loss itself, there was this disorienting feeling of a break in the natural order – I am not sure that people realize how much they half-consciously foresee the orderly progression to the grave of the older or infirm before the younger in their family. It adds to the devastation when this order is broken, more than I would have believed before I experienced it. I completely understood what Yan was telling me. I am certain he had no alternate scenarios, and that he is cast, deeply bereft, into waters he had never imagined having to navigate.
Yan and his wife were deeply immersed in their unique culture – both had been immigrants as children after World War II. I remember as a teenager, when there were only about six radio stations in the area, how there would be a Polish Hour, a Lithuanian Hour, a Ukrainian Hour, and so forth, with all this music that meant nothing to me broadcast in languages that seemed odd and impenetrable and, to be honest, kind of pointless in this country. I supposed, subconsciously, that the listeners were all these matronly women in flowered dresses with peasant-type hairdos whose only thought was cooking native dishes, or men in grey ill-fitting suits who had no real life. It had nothing to do with me, and was both quaint and dull in my imagination. I never thought about this mental picture really, but I realize it has remained in my memory all these years; it is not unlike the feeling I have when I happen on the rebroadcasts of Lawrence Welk on our local PBS station - who listens to this stuff?
It is astonishing how many mental images we form as children and as young people (or maybe even later); unintentional rules, caricatures, beliefs, that we rarely have cause to re-examine. I suspect most people have a very fixed picture of people’s lives before their own birth, where nobody has quite real emotions. How often do we hear that Chinese, or Africans, or people living before 1800 did not feel the loss of a child so deeply, “because they expect to lose half their children” or some similar idea? What Muslims are like, or Jews, or Indians – if we don’t know anyone from a group, it is almost impossible to endow them with feelings as deep or as valid or as comprehensible as our own. Or with the kind of doubts we have; with dreams as real and brightly colored as our own; with uncertainties and jealousies and all the fabric or realness that we seem to feel that “our kind” experience. Or because people make different choices, see different options, they can’t care as much; I got to see this thinking from the other end in Saudi – a man told me that Americans didn’t have the same feelings for their parents as those of his culture did; “they put them in nursing homes”. Being in this position now, I feel that a good nursing home can and does bring my mother more security and happiness than any of my brothers or my sister could possibly give; before Mom went to Desolation Pines, she was frightened and worried and upset much of the time despite our best efforts, now she is serene, smiling and social. One sees caring from one’s own experience. One is trapped by one’s experience; because one did this, one can’t really completely on a gut level see why someone else would do that.
So after all these years, this week I got to see a vibrant, often young, caring, diverse culture that just happened to stem entirely from the same small part of Europe. I saw none of the mamas I envisioned, no hair in buns, none of the stoicism or quaintness or whatever else went into that old mental image.
What probably surprised me most was how much I was impacted by Yan’s loss. He and I were polar opposites on almost every issue. I never doubted his basic humanity or his instinct to kindness, but I just didn’t realize I’d feel his loss so personally. I feel immense sorrow for him; it makes me sad that he must face the long period of mourning which, I have heard and believe, lasts in some degree for as long as one year for every two years one was together. Yan lived a life of service and order – he was in the service in Korea, he planned carefully, and he always, always, put his family first, and then in a real wash-dishes-and sweep-up kind of way, his church and cultural institutions. I am not sure he has time enough left to him to get over the worst of the mourning. He just did not in any way deserve this. Only recently have I realized how much a sense of mourning for Tumwell’s death, not always recognized as such, has contributed to my sense of malaise for the past thirteen or fourteen years. It has been, on some level, brutal. Deep feeling – sad or happy – tends to make me snappish, I’m afraid. Hence my little outburst this week when the Witch of Endor pushed me past my breaking point.
I have GOT to retire, whether I can live comfortably or not. Something will turn up; it always has. I have lately been thinking about reverse mortgages; I think with my mortgage payments off my back, I can afford to retire if I am careful. I have never been careful, but as Maude told Harold, “Always go for the new experience!” Careful is not my style; rightly or wrongly, acting on impulse is, and it has worked so far.
And anyway, who cares what happens to old people – they don’t feel as much as you do; right, Youngsters?