Archive for category: Fairly Odd Parents-Past

A Final Gift for My Father

20 Jun 2004
June 20, 2004

I wasn’t impressed with Ronald Reagan’s death. I didn’t remember holding him or his values in high esteem when he was first governor and then President. Yet, why was everyone talking so sweetly about the man’s legacy? Young bloggers with beautiful design skills spoke highly of him –too young to remember Iran-Contra and Central American death squads. Old media salts who had jousted with him during his tenure waxed poetic remembrances of his accomplishments.

Imperceptibly, I started walking hand-in-hand with them. Right to the edge. Just as I was about to admonish myself for forgetting how much I truly loved him, I staggered to a stop. My toes wiggled freely over that precipice. It was so inviting. The warm fatherly adoration encased me. It was a very old feeling. Beyond politics.

Wait, that wasn’t it at all. We were suffering from historical Alzheimer’s.

I waved off the chance to see President Reagan’s coffin. But last Friday night I was mesmerized by his return to California. That’s when I really started to remember.

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Telling a Good Wartime Story

29 May 2004
May 29, 2004

Sailors: vintage and contemporary at the WWII Memorial, Washington, DC

Sailors: vintage and contemporary at the World War II Memorial, Washington, DC

Ten years ago, during my father’s final visit to DC, we were walking towards the Treasury Building to see how money is made. As we passed the Holocaust Museum, without warning, he said to me: “You know Jeffrey, I don’t think I ever told you this but I was one of the first to liberate Dachau.

No, he hadn’t. And he never mentioned it again. He was not one to elaborate. In my earlier years I admonished him for his silence. For a moment I was shocked by his words. What must he have seen –what must he have felt? But at this point in our lives I knew I wouldn’t get much more by asking for details. And I accepted the small gift he had given me.

Dad’s generation didn’t talk much about the past. And he thought ours talked too much. Especially when we demanded answers. He had stories but he was not a storyteller. He was satisfied to keep them to himself.

Yesterday I took this photograph at the new World War II Memorial on the Mall. Thousands are in town for its dedication today. It’s an austere monument. Unlike the Vietnamese Memorial, it doesn’t invite touching. It’s distant, like my father. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of stories.

Over a thousand WW II veterans die every day. I’m glad others of my dad’s generation are finally speaking out.

No Pains, But a Lot of Kisses

02 Nov 2003
November 2, 2003

We’re having Indian Summer in our nation’s capital. Yesterday the temperature rose to 80 degrees (27 C). Today will be the same. It is a day when not riding your bike in padded Lycra® bicycle shorts should be a capital crime. I’m in a warm mood.

This is perfect timing. It coincides with one of my favorite days of the year, El Día de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead. While death is more of a taboo subject in this country, it’s treated much differently in Mexico.

Right after graduate school I took my first job in East Los Angeles as part of the Barrio Mobile Art Studio. BMAS was part of a larger community arts program, Self-Help Graphics. Using a van, four artists went to schools and adult centers in the area where we conducted workshops in painting, sculpture, puppetry and photography. Using the inside of the vehicle as a darkroom I taught children and seniors photography. I was also the only Anglo in the program.

In a way, the community felt very comfortable to me. In the 30s and 40s East LA was a mixture of Jews, Latinos, and African Americans. My mother grew up there. And in the 60s I lived in Pacoima, in the East San Fernando Valley. Home to Ritchie Valens, Latino culture was prominent in Pacoima back then.

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Vacation 2002: At a Standstill on Long Island

24 Aug 2002
August 24, 2002

The overture to our 2002 annual summer vacation conjures up recollections of preparations of years past. As a boy my memories are decidedly child-oriented: the anticipation of getting up before the dawn (what was special then has become a daily occurrence now) and going to unchartered places beyond my normal parent-defined neighborhood boundaries (“Don’t go past the Nichol’s house!”).

Now, it’s off to AAA for maps, arrange for someone to feed the cat, and pack, not just for myself but for the girls as well. To say that I was clueless as a child to all the preparations that went into our vacations is an understatement. So I can relate to my children’s wild and excited states of mind just fine now.

Last year, doing last minute clean up the night before, I stuffed too much down the garbage disposal and the pipes backed up. I should have known better. When multiple dosages of Liquid Plummer accomplished nothing we made a frantic call to our professional. He couldn’t get any one out that night but could come early the next day. “How early?” I pleaded. We had to get on the road. We didn’t think we could leave the pipes full of swill until we returned. I had to endure his reprimand (rightly so) never to put anything caustic down the drain ever again before he (and we) could depart.

We also decided to hired a professional cat sitter for the first time. The second day of our trip we got a call from her: she’d set off the burglar alarm for the second time. She was standing outside talking to me, just as the police arrived, swearing to them she was just, well, feeding the cat.

This year I wasn’t allowed near the kitchen for the final pre-trip cleanup and we put our cat’s fate in the hands of the 12 year old across the street. Both were excellent choices. I don’t recall our exits of my youth being this frenetic, but as I said, back then I was in my own vacation-induced excited little world.

I can imagine my parents discussing the itinerary months in advance. It was always a car trip. And it was never to visit relatives. Plane rides and relatives were saved for very special occasions like weddings and bar mitzvahs. And, luckily, they never seemed to occur during the summer.

My father outfitted the rear of the car with a plywood platform that fit perfectly over the axel hump in the leg area. Since our trips always began at 4 am I got to sleep there while my sister took the back seat. Very cosy but not too safe. With booster seats we’ve evolved. With backseat DVD players we taken a giant leap backwards. We were tempted to buy one this year but quality won out over the quiet. This time.

Five minutes after we left our driveway my eldest queried how long before we got “there.” “Hours” is too abstract for a five year old. But, I must admit, I love when my youngest asks “Are we here yet?” My children have turned out to be very good travelers. Yes, we have a few sibling arguments every 50 miles or so. But, for the most part, they are troopers. I wonder, though, as our future car trips become longer and longer if we will be able to resist that DVD.

My childhood trips started so early in part to beat the morning traffic but more importantly to beat the summer heat. Our ’53 Pontiac didn’t have air conditioning and if we headed east, towards Phoenix, the only way to survive was to make sure at least half the trip was spent in the relative coolness of the dawn.

My father’s job was to determine the best way to get to where we were going and how far we’d travel each day. I have inherited his map-reading prowess. My wife, who thought she had a good sense of direction until she met me (her words), bows to my abilities at following the Auto Club’s green lined Triptiks.

Since our trip to New Zealand in the mid 90s, we have developed an excellent navigator-driver working relationship. Driving on the other side of the road requires each member of the team to be in top form. A simple “At the next light you will make a left” turned out to be dangerous, for in our minds we equated a left turn with a cross-traffic turn. In New Zealand, their left turn is like our simple right turn. It was too confusing. Our survival required directions be very, very simple. “At the next light you will make a BIG turn.”

And so, unlike our daily marital conversations, which are filled with subtly and innuendo, our auto dialogue is clear and concise. We have no time for “what did you mean by that?!” We might miss the next rest stop for 48 miles and that could be disastrous.

This year we were returning to the beaches of Wildwood, New Jersey, but not before heading first for Syosset, Long Island to visit friends for a few days. We had met Rick and Peggy on a trip to China and have been friends ever since. Friends are not relatives. And we looked forward to spending a few days with iconoclasts similar to ourselves. They have made multiple trips to DC but this was our first sojourn their way.

The thought of getting up before the sun to start my vacation was too much to bear. We set a 9 am departure and I secretly hoped we’d get out of the house by 10. We pulled out of our driveway right on time: 10. Peggy warned us to get an early start. Friday afternoon traffic heading to the Hamptons can be brutal. We were clueless.

We forgot how long road trips can be with kids. By ourselves, my wife and I could have made it up there probably in 4 1/2 hours tops. But there are multiple bathroom breaks and we had to stop for a sitdown lunch at Bob’s Big Boy (Delaware House Service Area #5). We didn’t exit the New Jersey Turnpike until 3:30 and by that time we were doomed.

Crossing over Staten Island and inching onto the Verrazano Bridge to Brooklyn we had to make a critical decision: go north on 495 to the Long Island Expressway or take the southern route on the Belt Parkway past JFK Airport. We employed our 21st century tracking device: we called Peggy on the cell. “Your best bet is the Belt,” she replied without hesitation. “Tune your radio to 1010 AM for further updates.” Peggy was a seasoned NYC metro area driver and we put our trust in her. And she was decidedly more accurate than the electronic signs over the parkway.

But, in retrospect, it really wouldn’t have mattered. We were done for either way. A born Angeleno, I am a veteran of the LA freeways. And DC’s traffic is purported to be the second most congested in the nation. But, neither my wife nor I had ever seen so much “stop and go” and for so long as we did that fateful day. As we passed JFK, I secretly lusted to be on one of those planes taking off to anywhere but where I sat. It took us 2 1/2 hours to go the 50 miles remaining on our outbound ride.

But unless you are intimate with the terrain, you might as well be blindfolded. In LA I could drive across town on side streets if I had to when the main arteries backed up. But without constant calls to Peggy who offered up-to-the-minute alternate routes we would have been there for another additional hour for sure.

We started our trip at 10 and arrived at 6. Luckily, we also used our cell to place our bar order at Chez Peggy and Rick. Gin and Tonics were waiting as we pulled up. The extra time had allowed them to clean the house so we were duly impressed. Our vacation had begun! But next year, I see a dark, early morning departure wherever we’re headed.

On Becoming a Man Again

04 Aug 2002
August 4, 2002

Forty years ago I became a man. In the Jewish sense. August 4th, 1962 I was bar mitzvahed. It was actually the 4th of Av, 5722 on the Jewish calendar. And that day actually fell on July 13 this year. But I, being the assimilated Jew that I am, decided to commemorate this event by going to temple yesterday, a place not normally a part of my Saturday schedule.

Since I live far from where I grew up I went in search of a synagogue. A coworker recommended a couple shuls nearby, one Reform and one Conservative. I grew up in a Conservative temple so that was my first choice. Of course, Judaism being what it is, Conservative doesn’t mean “conservative” as the word generally implies. It’s actually middle-of-the-road within the continuum of Jewish practice.

There are at least three denominations within Judaism. Orthodox adheres most strictly to the tenets of traditional Jewish practice. While Reform temples are more liberal in their interpretations. Conservative falls in the middle. There is also a fourth movement Reconstructionist, which is relatively new.

I am a modern man. I embrace change and progress. So it was surprising how at home I felt with my past as I entered B’nai Israel Synagogue. The service had started before I arrived. But people are always coming in throughout the ceremony.

As I entered, a woman at the door greeted me with the traditional sabbath salutation, Shabbat Shalom. “Are you new here?” she asked. I introduced myself and told her why I was there. “You’re 53!” she replied. Yes, I admitted to myself; if you’re going to celebrate this 40th anniversary, you have to admit how old you really are. “I’m going to my 40th high school reunion this year,” she continued. “Please have a seat.”

The sanctuary and the people within felt so familiar to me: the old, hunched over man, in his tallis, a Jewish prayer shawl, davining (bending forward and backwards slightly as one prays), women with their children on their laps, and men shaking hands and talking.

Years ago, while traveling in Europe I came upon a synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of Venice. A bar miztvah was taking place the next day so I made plans to return. A German guy I met at the youth hostel I was staying at asked if he could tag along. It was a huge Moorish interior, illuminated mainly by the light streaming in from huge windows. All the women were in the balcony, while the men sat down below (separating men and women is tradition in an Orthodox synagogue).

When we got there the bar mitzvah boy was reading his haftorah. We sat down and my fellow traveler was shocked that so many people were talking while the service was taking place. In his church, he said, everyone was silent. There is a low level murmur that accompanies any Jewish service and I simply felt at home.

As I took my seat yesterday, I felt this same comfort. I took out my own tallis, the one I had been given for my own bar mitzvah, and put it on. Suddenly I noticed how old it appeared. As I looked over to the old man, I noticed he was wearing earphones. It took me a minute to realize the temple had audio enhancements for the hard-of-hearing. I laughed to myself. This was not 1962.

• • •

1962. It was a tough time for my family as I look back now. My mother had had a major brain operation the year before that had left her paralyzed on her right side. We were all trying to adjust to our new reality. Dad tried his best to keep some semblance of continuity to our lives and my bar mitzvah was part of that.

We had a professional photographer, of course. There was no video back then. And 8 mm home movies weren’t allowed. However, my father had won a new reel-to-reel audio tape player the year before (in a church raffle of all things) and he slipped the rather large machine inside the beama (the podium) to record me reciting my halftorah.

Until I received this tape from my stepmother after my father’s death two years ago, I didn’t realize how important that audio was to me. Hearing my 13 year old voice immediately brought back memories long forgotten: memories that had nothing to do with this event.

The most important part of the tape, however, was the very beginning, before the ceremony even began. It was my father documenting (Quicktime 187 k): “This is the bar mitzvah of Jeffrey Stuart Gates, August 4, 1962, with Rabbi Kazan and Cantor Solomon,” he said slowly. This is the only recording I have of his voice. I have none of my mother’s. And while I have many visual memories of her, and can remember many things she said to me, I can’t remember what she sounded like.

Today, of course, our videocams record sound as much as the visual reality of the moment. But there was no sound with home movies. So, while my youth had been recorded on film, it was a silent version.

What Dad didn’t know at the time was this would be his bar mitzvah day too. Since he had never been bar mitzvahed, when he came to the pulpit to say the blessing, the Rabbi informed the congregation that this made it official for him as well. While he had only to recite a blessing, I had studied for months, learning the chants and tones from an LP recording of my particular haftorah.

After the ceremony we had the traditional temple reception of sandwiches and Manischewitz wine (grape juice for us newly anointed “men”). Often there is also a larger reception that takes place at a hotel or restaurant that night or the next day. Dad and Mom decided a small version of this celebration with close relatives and some of my friends worked best for them. But, they decided to have it at the Cocoanut Grove in Hollywood.

In it’s heyday, the Grove was the Hollywood nightclub. It’s opened in 1921 as part of the Ambassador Hotel. The first Oscars were awarded there. Judy Garland made her comeback there, the jury of the Charles Manson trial was sequestered at the Ambassador and, of course, six years after my reception, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in the pantry of the hotel’s kitchen.

1962 was nearing the tail end of it’s golden period. Freddy Martin was playing there that night as was a performance of The Can Can. I remember going backstage afterwards to get everyone’s signature on my program.

• • •

Interwoven between prayers and the Torah reading yesterday I thought about my family. I thought about my parents, both gone now, and reflected on their wishes for me that day. I considered what it really means to be a man: lessons learned and relearned over the years. Inevitably, I came back to my present, my thoughts more focused on my wife and children and my wishes for them.

Related Story: April 7, 2001

May Day: The Family Memory Project

01 May 2002
May 1, 2002

My name was Chaim Shmuel Guyetsky. My friends call me Jeff. My father calls me Chaim Shmo when he teases me and Jeffrey when he’s about to invoke his fatherly rights of advice. I’m a Jewish boy in a gentile’s body (well, almost). Like a family heirloom, the original importance of which is now lost, my spirit has been handed down from the shtetls of the Ukraine. Yet, like the game of Telephone, where a string of people quickly whisper messages from ear to ear, by the time it’s gotten to me I can’t understand a word of it. I have Jewish memories in a gentle mind (well, almost).

From A Series of One Acts…

It’s May Day! My Aunt Selma’s birthday. Well, it’s both really. And that’s where this story begins.

Aunt Selma is my father’s sister. Our two families were never close as I was growing up but that’s another tale for another time. However, that didn’t mean my father and his sister were distant. It did mean, however, I never really got to know my aunt and her family very well as I was growing up.

Two years ago, when my father got sick, Aunt Selma and I reconnected during vigils in and around his hospital bed. She and I spoke of their childhoods and of my grandparents lives. It was an opportunity to connect to my family in a way my father would never have allowed.

All stories are filtered but even filters eventually become old anchors in our lives. Over time their effect is indistinguishable from reality. My father chose to filter out most of his childhood. And, for years, that was the family history I believed and accepted without question. Most of what I now know has been a gift from others in my family. I learned a lot from these hospital conversations. My aunt was one of my father’s most trusted relationships. Whether they spoke openly of their lives together or not, they shared that common history and that meant a great deal to both of them.

Two weeks after the onset of my father’s illness he died. I picked up Aunt Selma from her hotel to take her to his funeral. We were the first to arrive and we sat down on a bench to wait for others. As we sat Aunt Selma began to tell me about my grandmother’s brothers and sisters.

I knew Uncle Louie, “Unkie,” as he was called. After my grandparents’ divorce, he and my grandmother owned The Breakers Motel in Crescent City, California in the 1940s. He was her protector when a divorced woman had few resources. It was a different time. My grandparents had married and divorced twice, once when my father and Aunt Selma were children and later after they were old enough to take care of themselves. Uncle Louie made sure Grandma could survive on her own and would never be beholden to anyone. I have come to see this as one of the deepest acts of love I’ve encountered. It is a familial piece of history I am proud of.

I never knew my grandmother’s sister Margaret (only that they had had a “falling out” many years ago). But again, most of the story had been filtered by the time it came down to me. This was the first time I’d heard of their brothers, my Uncles Yuri, Grisha, and Albert and one other sister, Fira. Last year Aunt Margaret’s granddaughter, Nina, contacted me after she saw an ancient posting I had made on a geneology web site. Through her I have been able to fill in a few more pages of our family album, just before they fade completely away.

Albert was the suspected “pinko” of the family. An anarchist was more like it. A reputed lover of Emma Goldman (another family filter), he was imprisoned in Leavenworth for his alleged crimes. Depending on who you talk to, he either died soon after his release from tuberculosis or sleeping sickness.

When my Aunt was born he was ecstatic. He saw her May 1st birthday as a wonderful socialist sign. He sent my grandmother a present for his new niece: something lost in history but told to be far greater a gift than my immediate family could ever afford.

“When your father was born,” my Aunt continued, “Uncle Albert was even more excited. As you know, Mother named your father Eugene. Albert assumed she’d named him after Eugene Debs, a leading socialist. This time he sent an even more extravagant gift!” Of course, my Uncle Albert had his own filters. Grandma Gates never marched to L’Internationale.

So, on this May Day, while I remember my own early celebrations (1950s, Cold War America chose to filter this day mainly as a children’s springtime celebration with dancing around the Maypole), I pause to think of another time, an intermingling of blood and history. Happy birthday, Aunt Selma!

© 2001-2015 Jeff Gates ISSN 1544-4074