Monday, December 7, 2015
Uncle "I" - Talking a Walk
Somewhere there is a photo taken of Uncle “I” and me in front of 3619 Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn during the fall of 1958 or '59. He was teaching me to box. I was just about 4 years old at the time. The second Sputnik had recently been launched and he’d taken to calling me “Little Sputnik” as a way of showing his affection. I don’t know why; but I loved it from the moment he dubbed me with that strange sobriquet.
Now, fast forward almost exactly 10 years to my Bar Mitzvah in November 1967. That’s Uncle “I” and me in the photo above. I recently acquired the photos from my Bar Mitzvah along with some others, but this is my favorite one of them.
The Bar Mitzvah itself never really meant anything to me at the time. It wasn't until much later in life that I began to realize the richness of my own heritage and beliefs. But there was something which happened on that day which I never really fully grasped until I saw this picture; along with a few others; of my Uncle Irving with me on that special occasion.
Now, if you are at all close to me; or maybe even if you are not; you have heard me speak of Uncle “I”; which is how we addressed him; and know how important he was to me, and still is. I have never been to his grave. I was close to it when I visited my father’s grave in 2002, and it was even strongly suggested that I “pay my respects” while there. I couldn't do it.
You see, if I had seen the grave that day it would have been an affirmation that Uncle “I” had passed away. I’d seen him in the nursing home; a sad sight to be sure. I watched him waste away emotionally after he was betrayed by his sister; who was my grandmother at the time, a position she “lost” after the fact; so I knew he was dying. I was not present for his funeral because I was not told of it until afterward. I was running a bit too “wild” for my family at the time and so I was excluded from it. Inadvertently though, they had done me a favor, since; as a result of that exclusion; to me he has really never died. We still speak; quite often.
Now, let’s get back to the photograph. It was taken on Saturday November 5th, 1967 in the foyer of my family’s apartment at 1310 Avenue R in Brooklyn just prior to my Bar Mitzvah ceremony. The weather was rainy and a bit raw, typical for Brooklyn in November. Everyone was getting ready to leave for the temple, which was located 2 blocks over and 3 blocks up from our place on Avenue R. I was supposed to ride with my parents, my brother and Uncle in the Pontiac Catalina we owned at the time. But, Irving wanted to walk. Moreover, he wanted me to walk with him. I eagerly acquiesced, as there was nothing I enjoyed more than being in his company.
We walked as Uncle “I” always walked; not fast; not slow. It was just the right speed for talking and I have often described these times with him as “talking a walk.” And this one was one of the best ever. Uncle “I” told lots of stories; some true, others not so much. This was the reason behind the slightly derisive Uncle “I”; which sounded just like Uncle “Lie”. He knew we took his stories with a grain of non-truth, but he also knew that I loved them all the more, regardless.
But this “talk a walk” was different. Uncle “I” was very moved that evening of my Bar Mitzvah. He had no children of his own to deposit his memories with, and I was the depository that night, and it was a wonderful treat which I have held close for 46 years. He told me about his own Bar Mitzvah in 1908.
Now Uncle “I” rarely spoke of his childhood. His stories were mostly confined to his “glory days” playing ball on the school team, and various other heroics which could never be verified. But this was different. This was real. And there was no need to even stretch the truth slightly, as I was in rapt attention, struggling to hear every word against the sound of the wind as we walked, bent into it.
I was afraid of losing his words as they were carried away on the stiff breeze, and so I watched him as he formed each sentence, fumbling a bit for the words before he began each sentence. He was reaching back in time to a place only he could see but wanted to share and I was intent on capturing this moment.
His Bar Mitzvah was, as he told me, somewhat different than mine would be. His family; a brother named Nathan and a sister named Dorothy; who was my maternal grandmother; were raised by his parents; Max and Rebecca on the lower East Side, where they had settled early in the 1900’s after having lived in Vineland, New Jersey for a while. Originally they had lived in Philadelphia for a short spell after they arrived from the old country.
By 1907 my great grandfather owned his own livery stable and there was enough money for a modest celebration of my Uncle’s entry into manhood. He was ushered into the faith at the old temple, which I believe was on Rivington Street, and afterward the family repaired; with a few friends; back to their apartment for a “nosh” in celebration. He received a $1 watch and a fountain pen as gifts to mark his transition from childhood. That’s it; a watch and a pen. The watch would keep him punctual, and the pen was the first of the many which would be instrumental in his making a living in the garment industry for the rest of his life.
Arriving at the shul, Uncle “I” turned to me and said, “So now I don’t get to call you Little Sputnik anymore, do I?” And then he did something he never did before; or after; that night. He said, “I love you, Robert” and looked away. I looked directly at him and replied, “I love you, too Uncle “I”. We hugged, and then we entered the shul, where people were already waiting.
The Rabbi did his thing; and I did mine; at which point he pronounced me a “man”. That poor misguided creature. Even with all of his wisdom he could not have known that Uncle “I” had performed that function not 15 minutes earlier; right outside of the shul.