Saturday, April 11, 2009

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?


  1. Hey, you! So glad to have found you again and many, many thanks to Jean for posting your new addy. Finding your blog is like a gift and it's not even my birthday!
    Now I guess I should page up and read.

  2. Having read, from the beginning, I can only express how grateful I am for your thoughtfulness and willingness to share your take on Life.

    I spent 13 professional years trying to soften individual attitudes towards 'other' groups. In our world, any groups can be an 'other' if you are not a member. The trick is to shift your perspective so that as many folk as possible can be seen in at least one group to which you belong.

    You touched more than one of my groups with this piece.

    I'm going to take a moment, when I finish this, to send Love to Yan and to his wife. And then another moment reflecting on all the unknowables. Lastly, I'll send a little Love and warmth your way.

    I lost my true Love to death when I was very young (20) and my experience says that the loss is a rent that may stitch together eventually, but it keloids. It is, therefore, ever present, though hidden under the makeup and soft lights.

    My child has been my real second chance at Love and I am ever in her debt for coming through and sharing my heart.

    Well, I guess it's time for those prayers.


  3. found you! I'll be back when I have more time. Don't go anywhere!

  4. My folks are that way.. they never talk down to each other, or make snide comments, or anything like that. And we always knew, if we talked to mom in anything less that a totally respectful tone, Dad would get us!!LOL They (and I) believe if you loved someone enough to marry/commit yourself to them, you should love and respect them enough to treat them that way. People don't know the damage they do with stupid jokes or belittling comments.. to spouses OR children. I'm sorry Yan lost his wonderful wife.. But I'm glad you are so affected.. We should be affected when our friends are hurt. That's community. I hope you can retire soon. I need more blogs from you!hehe

  5. These things are unspeakable. I am so depressed about these terrible things. A few days prior to this, a man in a nearby town here killed his five children because his wife left him--she feared he'd hurt her but never dreamed he'd hurt the children. And I thought of you when I heard about Binghamton and wondered if it was near you. What to do, what to think, how to help? How to keep your head when all around you are losing theirs?

    But I'm glad to find you here--I think we have things in common. I started collecting Social Security under my deceased husband's account in Jan 08. So I had a very interesting but unfun tax experience this year--I owed a hunk and that never happened to me before. Because of the SS, though, I was able to pay off my very modest house, so if I must retire anytime soon, I will at the very least have a roof over my head although high speed internet I'm sure will be above my income level. You might recall I was also unable to get into my own MSN space a while back--maybe I DIDN'T forget my user ID after all. Anyhoo, welcome to Blogspot!

  6. Gayle - Well, I am glad u found me, too. Now to figure my way around to make it easy to visit all the folkd here escaping from sapces dumbing down (and yet they make it so hard to get TO your space, you have your IQ all revved up - then you find all the bush-league friends-crap - I hate cutesy. I don't refer to the visitors but to the facebooking of the site. I divide the world into two groups - theose who get what i am talking about and those who don't. I try to stick around the former and have had only minimal urges to massacre the latter.

    Flooz - Here I sttill am. And while we're at it "HAVE to retire"? That phrase is unknown to me. "able to retire" is more my cup o' tea, followed by a) ASAP, b)Please, God, and c)Please, please, please! People who will do violence, will do it to anyone - that includes the suicidal. People always think they are 'making a statement'. At times like this I wish I beleived in Hell or Karma. And on the taxes, yes = be sure to have more deducted from your paycheque. I learned that last year - Paid $3000 - this year, 'only' $850 - guess I didn't learn it completely...

    jeankfl - I was kind of glad I felt an impact from Yan's sorrow. I have been afraid I am getting callused to bad events - I have seen so many deaths. Altho, thank goodness, not in the making. And yes, it is only embarrassing to the casual onlooker (me, at least) when someone denigrates his/her partner. Even when they are ex - after all, if they are that bad, you must have been awfully stupid...

  7. David, thank you for these words that go so deep, and cause me to sit very still and witness something close to sacred.....I will surely include Yan in my meditations--dear man. This dreadful act has clear-cut the life these two had; why oh why is life so dastardly? The love you describe that they built and grew sounds like the sort each of us dream about--they DID it. Thank you for showing it to us, for doing Yan this honor, for reminding us this depth still is attainable. This is what I will choose to carry away from this reading.