Our writing teacher gave us the assignment to write a short piece with at least a few sentences containing only single syllable words. The following piece contains (I hope) ALL single syllable words! Note that some words ending in “ed” are two syllables (like wretched) and others are one syllable (like biked). The sculpture in the picture below now resides in our living room, above the maple credenza.
To look at it now, with all the years that have gone by, I can see that my dad got a lot right. The calm frown. The small nose turned up. The round ears with a back tilt.
In a few ways, though, he was far too kind. I did not have a strong jaw line then. But Dad gave me one in clay. A firm one at that. A tight cheek and a proud chin.
In his clay bust of me, Dad had my eyes wide and large, though when I sat, I had kept them drooped. There’s not one thing wrong with that, of course. His choice. But truth in art is a strange beast. We seek truth, but… um… wait, let me start at the start.
Dad had a lot of skills. He was book smart and folk-wise. He was smooth in sports, strong of song, and could cook trout on the grill with the best of them. He was fine, too, we all found out, at art.
As a break from being a prof, he took an art class to learn to sculpt. Right from the start, he showed a keen eye and firm hand.
Dad asked me if I would pose for him. I was eight or nine years old at the time and thought it would be fun. I also just liked the thought that he would spend time with me.
He drove me to his art school shop. It had drifts of saw dust on the floor, walls filled with reels of twine and slops of paint, and a roof of fir cones left to rot. I thought it quite hip!
Dad let me touch a mound of cold wet clay. To get my hands soiled. To feel the clay as if it were a life to mold. And that’s just what Dad would do! Mold clay to life.
He had me sit on a chair. I was to point my head to the left and as best as I could, not move.
The pose was for an hour or so. We did it for two or three days straight… an hour each day. And as I sat there, from time to time, I would look at Dad and the clay that was to be me, and I came to be filled with pride and awe in his work. Dad’s eyes and hands and those thin steel tools turned the wet brown lump of clay into a brand of me that was hard and strong and would last an age. I felt seen as he cut and rubbed the clay. I felt known. I felt loved.
Dad said that he tried to sculpt me as if I were twelve years old. Not sure why he chose to age me, but I do have a guess. I think he hoped that as I grew, a bold chin would form on my face. Sad to say that that did not come to pass.
Even for the cause of art, we’d both have to take it on the chin.
Our writing teacher assigned us the task of writing about something in our home. Here’s my response.
It is so, is it not, that we can find delight when we bring the inside out and bring the outside in? In our homes, that is. There are treasures in our world to explore and behold, and treasures to possess. And sometimes, we seek to cling to memories of the former, by retaining the latter.
In 2014, during a three-week visit to the Middle East, I traveled with my sister Laurie on a two-day sojourn to the ancient rose-red sandstone city of Petra. Its magnificent – even comically surreal – rock-carved edifices expand out for miles. It is approached and explored through a labyrinth of narrow passages and extensive thoroughfares.
Originally, Petra was the urban center of a far-flung trade route between Africa, Asia and Europe which came into its first flowering of commercial supremacy somewhere between the 2nd and 4th Century BCE. It reigned as the trade center of the ancient Nabatean kingdom, an agglomeration of Arab tribes, with 20,000 souls filling its residential, commercial and religious sites, scraped out of tall rosy-red sandstone cliffs and traversed in broad dusty avenues.
Located in the Asiatic southwestern corner of present-day Jordan, it is just 20 miles as the Nubian nightjar (Caprimulgus nubicus) flies, yet a world away, from the modern and west-dominated state of Israel. Ebbing and flowing over the centuries, Petra was both conquered, expanded, and transformed by Greek, Roman, and Byzantine empires well into the 13th Century. And then, for no clear reason, it was abandoned and lost to the broader world culture until the 19th Century, when British explorers “found” the extraordinary ancient city both vacant and remarkably intact.
It is currently Jordan’s largest tourist attraction, with a pre-pandemic visitation height exceeding one million people in 2019. Listed by UNESCO as a “World Heritage Site” and by a recent poll as one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World,” Petra is stunning.
The prime entrance to Petra is through a narrow passageway flanked by towering cliffs called the Siq. Laurie and I start our Petra journey in a cool and sunny spring morning.
The Siq is the main road, of sorts, for pedestrians, donkey pulled-carts, mounted horses, and Bedouin-guided sheep and goats. On the half-mile Siq walk, one busies oneself by listening to the clanky-clack of the carts, the banter of people speaking the languages of the world, the cruel lashings of the cart drivers, the smells of animal urine and feces, and the increasing evidence of a sophisticated engineered city entrance, filled with drainage controls and water piping stone structures. And the end of the Siq opens up abruptly to the grandest bazaar – and bizarre mixture – of modern and ancient. Proudly presiding over the cacophony of human and animal sounds and smells is The Treasury – Petra’s most famous structure.
As Laurie and I exit the Siq, she gazes up and quiets down. “If you order a dish at an average restaurant in the States,” she explains, “the waitress will reply ‘awesome.’ Well, it’s not. But this; Petra; is.”
“Awesome indeed,” I reply. “Crazy awesome.”
I am accustomed to archaeological sites managed with a certain pristine intent. People are often kept from visitation or even knowledge of the most significant historical artifact-laden sites in the US. Not true with Petra. And rightly so. To understand the nature of this 2000-year-old trading mecca one must see trading. And as I strolled the main boulevard, trading there was. Local Bedouin tribesmen and women selling clothing and food and beauty products.
And the children were selling rocks – the distinguished and famous pink and rose-colored sandstone rocks of Petra. Want a handful of four rocks – pay a dinar (about $1.40). Want a bigger rock the size of an adult male’s hand – a dinar for that too. I bought 10 smaller stones.
Back in the States, those Petra stones were distributed to State Parks archaeological colleagues. To friends and family. And two were kept by me. In our home. In a special place.
About a year before I retired, a colleague gave me the gift of beach-smoothed, variegated-colored pebbles assorted on a matte-tinted circular quartz plate, three inches in diameter. I found it strangely gentle and relaxing and quite lovely to look at. 
Since retirement, that little plateful of Washington Coast tiny smooth stones, sits on the windowsill of my downstairs office. It is joined by my Petra stones. Stones which I look at, if not every day, very close to that. Stones which link two very different parts of our miraculous living globe. Stones which reflect eons of geology and millennia of the extraordinarily diverse set of cultures that humanity has created, nurtured, upset, destroyed, and all too rarely, preserved.
Petra and the Washington Coast
 It was also almost certainly illegally gathered, for as all State Parks employees know – and that was both of us – one must “pick no take no” from any marine shoreline. There are exceptions of course. There’re always exceptions. Shellfish can be taken when in season and under permit. There are driftwood permits too. But really that’s a weird little technical aberration designed for folks on “subsistence” firewood. The important distinction here is between the rule-breaking harvesting of shoreline pebbles and the culturally re-enforcing middle eastern rock trade.
My writing class assignment was to provide a hint in the beginning the piece of a problem to come later. We were also to include at least one very very long sentence. Below is my response, with the subject being a part of a recent RV Trailer trip to America’s Four Corners region.
My wife Jean and I mostly like to travel purposely. In our best experiences we have something to do, something to learn, and something to accomplish.
In searching for an exciting Road Scholar (RS) travel adventure, Jean found a program which offered cultural lectures and discussions about the Navajo people, their history, and their institutions, as well as daily volunteer contributions in a Navajo middle school. Tracy Kee, the RS program director, asked participants ahead of time to fill out a skills and interests application. We were also required to provide fingerprints approved by the State of Arizona. In her email correspondence, Tracy advised us that this school program was just starting up again as we emerge from COVID and it was important to be flexible in our expectations.
Jean’s classroom skills, as a retired public-school teacher, were perfect for the volunteer assignment. While not having similar professional abilities to contribute, I still thought it could be a fun exercise for middle-graders to “design a park.” I could take them through a planning process on a topic that would hopefully be of their interest. But for all the volunteers, we were aware that whatever we could contribute in the classroom would be at the graces of the children’s regular teacher. Whatever we ended up doing, well, we’d need to be “flexible in our expectations.”
Eager to meet requirements, Jean secured a fingerprint application – three months ahead of the program – from Tracy who only had one left. It took several weeks before my fingerprint application materials arrived. I then went to the Washington State Patrol, got the prints made, and mailed them to Arizona. After repeated efforts to track progress of my prints as the date of the program approached, I finally got an email from Arizona four days before its start saying that they couldn’t read my prints and I would need to resubmit. Tracy’s response: “are you prepared to be flexible?”
She quickly went into action, trying to find me alternative volunteer opportunities. Was I willing to split wood with her husband and deliver a few cords to his grandma in the “Deep Rez?”
“Absolutely,” I responded.
“How about volunteering in the senior center in Tuba City?”
“I’m not sure what that would entail, but yes, I’d be willing to do that,” I replied.
“In looking at your background, you say you have been a community development director and parks planner. Would you be interested in volunteering at the Tuba City Community Development Department?”
I said I would, and Tracy said she’d look into it and get back to me. The next day she reported that she could secure me three days with the Tuba City planner, Nelson Cody, and two days splitting and delivering firewood. She didn’t know exactly what I’d be doing each day, but as long as I was flexible, it could work out. And as it turned out, it did.
For five days, I spent most of my time 1 on 1 with a full-blooded Navajo man, intimately engaging in dialog about the life of the Navajo people – The Diné – and the governance of the Navajo Nation.
Tracy’s husband Eric is the minister of a Church of Christ house of worship in Tuba City. He is also a Road Scholar guide, flute maker, and past and future art gallery owner. On my first day with him, I drove to his church, where he immediately set me to work with a mechanical firewood splitter. It was a fast and easy way to cut firewood. We loaded up his truck and prepared to set off for 87-year-old great Aunt Mary’s house, when he got a call from his mother-in-law. She didn’t have keys to a house and could we go 40 miles out of our way to give them to her. The answer, of course, is that one needs to be flexible, and off we went to meet her.
The mechanical firewood splitter in the foreground, the results of my labors immediately beyond, and the “Hogan Church” in Tuba City in the background, where Eric presides as minister, repair specialist, firewood deliverer, flute craftsman and historian.
Four hours later, after the keys drop off; after a visit to a secret concentration of petrified wood; after the deep reservation roads went from paved highway, to broad two-laned well-bladed crushed surface, to single track all-wheel drive challenge course; after spying Mary’s homesite – three miles from the nearest neighbor – where she lives alone, without electricity or running water and has the occasional visitor to greet; after a brief interaction with Mary – in Navajo mind you – to ask about her welfare and hear the latest condition of her sheep flock and garden; after checking into Grandpa’s homesite – which lay at the base of tall, orange, bizarrely twisted spires of Navajo sandstone – to make sure it hadn’t been broken into since his death last month; and after learning about Eric’s formal education background, motivations – and lack thereof – to join the ministry and experiences with relatives and efforts at the church and the evolving and improving relationship with his wife; we arrived back to his ”Hogan Church.” The next day, a few more deliveries.
As I show up for my first day with Tuba City Planner Nelson Cody, he welcomes me with a soft handshake and a quick explanation that he is about to facilitate a Zoom meeting regarding improvements to the community’s sewage treatment facilities. The meeting lasts for 90 minutes, and I listen intently to the proceedings. When it ends he turns to me and asks for my analysis of the meeting. I demur with any major conclusions, risk a few questions, then Nelson asks, “so how long do you think you will volunteer here? Six months? A year?”
“Um… Nelson, I’m only going to be here three days.”
His disappointment was palpable. His misunderstanding of Tracy’s offer is never explained. But as we explored the limited time we did have together, I proposed an approach: he would show me around the community, identifying key planning issues and projects that he was either working on or wanted to start, and I would write up thoughts and recommendations on those projects for his consideration and his supervisor’s. Nelson, it turned out, did not have an annual work program and was constantly discouraged that his initiatives – which I quickly saw as creative but lacking in rigor and collaboration and buy-in from the powers that be – would be ignored or unsupported. Nelson was one frustrated Diné.
The Tuba City Cemetery – burials since 2020. Nelson said that for the most part, the 100+ deaths in the last couple of years have been due to Covid, diabetes and alcoholism. His community planning task was to put a fence around the cemetery, repair damages due to erosion, and somehow stabilize the site with native grasses and other vegetation to limit future erosion.
So, I relayed to him my favorite line from previous employment when working with members of the public. “When people try to work with State Parks, they either become frustrated or give up. It is my job to keep people frustrated.”
Nelson’s response to my attempt at humor was muted. I then suggested that frustration was a reasonable response to his situation, but when at first one doesn’t succeed, it might be advantageous to be flexible in one’s expectations. I was beginning to get the life of a Navajo.
For anyone interested in reading my seven-page “project report” that I left for Nelson, feel free to email me the request at firstname.lastname@example.org. As it happened, Nelson and I never went over it together. He rather chose to tell me stories of the women he’d dated, his philosophy of generational trauma, his hopes for future wealth, and… his frustrations with his fellow Diné. I wonder if he will ever truly read my “volunteer contribution.” That said, I found him to be an intelligent, broadly skilled, ambitious, public-spirited, and inspiring person.
The Music Box Theater in downtown Seattle, where I worked as a 19-year-old usher, had a plush crimson satin curtain that spread open at the beginning of the coming attractions, slightly worn violet carpeting, soft comfy chairs, and ornate chandeliers which hung somewhat menacingly from its auditorium’s curved, painted ceiling. I think those chandeliers were nigh obligatory in pre-war movie houses, though living in earthquake country makes one wonder why theater architects required their patrons to take on such worry. They probably thought while watching Godzilla, any personal concerns for safety would seem petty compared to what Fay Wray was being put through.
A bit of research reveals that “The Box,” as we staff liked to call it, billed itself in its heyday as “The Beauty Theatre.” Sumptuous, abstract and colorful wall decorations throughout. Its warm, sweet, and smallish lobby would fill up quickly before the show with patrons queuing for popcorn and Raisinets.
The screen always seemed huge; disproportionate. And in relation to the 846-person capacity auditorium, it was. But that contributed to an exhilarating mix of intimacy and splendor that demanded claim to heightened significance. One could hear the building insist “This is more important, Bub, than your daily living room TV show. This is a THEATRE you’re attending. Show some respect and awe!”
I worked at The Box in the summer and fall of 1974. At that time, it was one of a half dozen pre-war movie houses within a few block radii. All of them ornate. Some of them truly palace-like. The Paramount sat 3000. The 5th Avenue Theatre, more than 2100. The Coliseum, built in 1915, was called “the first of the world’s movie palaces.” For sheer splendor and might, The Box did not compete well with its neighbors. But there was more to the value of the place than size and glitter. Character and a kind of sweet integrity matters, right?
While not an anachronism quite yet, one could clearly tell, however, that its days of peak prominence were past. By the mid 70’s, movie theater multiplexes were just beginning to sprout in the suburbs, and the structure of film distribution was changing. A first-run flick would initially show at one main downtown theater. The Box was so designated. The run in that theater would continue until attendance began to lag. Then the film would leave for a suburban run that subsequently would end its big screen life.
Some first-run films would run for a week at The Box. Others for many weeks. I worked at the theater for a total of four and half months. During that time, one film ran for all but the last 2 weeks of my tenure – Chinatown.
My sense-memories still linger from The Box 45 years later. The smells of freshly popped popcorn. The taste and feel on my hands and clothes of the greasy non-butter butter we squirted on top of the popcorn at the patron’s request. The unfulfillable lust on a co-worker whom I knew was beyond my league. The happy thunder of 325-lb Wayne Cody, then known as Seattle’s “Mound of Sound” on KTW Talk Radio, who worked next door to The Box, coming in for his regular large Coke and popcorn combo before his show while we’d shoot the shit about the Seattle Sockeyes professional ping pong team and other sports trivia.
I experienced my first union-management negotiations at The Box. The “company union” secured us 15 cents above minimum wage but feted us peons nonetheless to a luxurious lunch in the Cloud Room atop the nearby Camlin Hotel as the obese old Union Secretary in grey suit and tie worked to convince us to sign on to a crappy deal. “Sorry, folks, you just don’t have any bargaining power,” he maintained.
“But why do we even pay union dues?” I ask.
“That’s why your dues are so low!” he replied. We young folks caved.
What I remember most from my four-plus months at The Box was Chinatown. I watched it on breaks. I watched it when guiding folks into the auditorium. I watched it before my shift started and sometimes after I finished. The more I watched it, the more genius I saw in director Roman Polanski’s exquisite attention to detail. The slicing and healing of Jack Nicholson’s nose. The clues revealed by decoding Chinese-accented English. The brilliance of Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of a woman with the impossibly painful and complex task of saving the life and innocence of a child she was condemned to mother. The shameful degradation of public interests at the benefit of private gain in the shaping of land use. Is Chinatown why I became a city planner? And finally, the perfect scene within a scene that found this extraordinarily well-crafted movie, set in the 1930s, to be shown in this splendid little theater, built in the 1920’s. Form follows function indeed! And architecture sets the stage.
The regulation ping pong table in our unfinished and slightly musty basement was the center and source of our family’s shared sporting fun. My sisters and dad became Bellevue city table tennis champions. My mom was pretty good too, but she and I could never claim that title. Yet, table tennis came to be the core of my heroic sports identity.
I went on to sink the dominant portion of adolescent spare time into improving my game. And I got good at it. Not great, but quite good.
My rating peaked above 1600. I was in the top 20 players in Washington State and one of the only non-Asians. In fact, my white and tall guy appearance, somewhat unorthodox playing style, and beyond-clever-moving-toward-devious psychological games would redound to my advantage over traditional – and otherwise better – players. The psychology of ping pong is worth several hundred rating points, and the pure-form, well-trained young Asian players would be tied up in frustration playing me. Like the “Saturday Night Live” line by Jon Lovitz, I could just hear them muttering under their breaths, “I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy.”
I wooed women with my game – unsuccessfully. I traversed the Pacific Northwest in tourneys – with occasional success. And over the years, the many years, I returned to the table for camaraderie, for exercise, for intense competition, and for a certain kind of continuity of identity.
For when I hit the ball just so, I am at one with bliss.
 Table tennis ratings start at 1000. From there, you gain points by beating others and lose points in your defeats. The greater the difference in your scores entering a match, the more a surprise win, or a disappointing loss means in your ratings. Tournaments align people within rating classes. Below 1000 is Novice. Every two hundred points up is a new letter such that 1000 – 1199 is E, 1600 to 1899 is B, etc. 2000 and above is called “Master.” Open events allow entrants of any rating to compete.
The below remembrance of my mother is unlike anything else in this blog. It is long. VERY long. It is broken into three parts. The first part, identifies how I came to write about my mother. The second part is more or less a traditional, chronological summary of her life. The third is a dive into the psychology of our relationship. The final part was written many months after the first two. There is more to write. There always is more. And as you will see if you grind out the entire piece, Mom would have approved continuing the explorations in writing. No doubt in my mind.
Part 1: Introduction – Written in the Spring of 2021
When Mom died – oh my word, has it already been over 15 years?! – sisters Laurie, Ann and I collaborated in all the legal, financial, and logistical necessities of turning the page. Our labors were admirable, nurturing, and healing. Our hardest decisions, distributing Mom’s personal effects, had nothing to do with coveting conflicts between siblings. Rather, our challenges involved decisions deferred. “Well, we can’t throw THAT away,” each of us hoping that the burden of storage would be placed on one of the other two. “You take it, Daniel.” “No, YOU take it, Ann” “But wouldn’t this look better in YOUR living room, Laurie?”
Mom was a prodigious correspondent to a far-flung family, long-nurtured friends, and a wide assortment of colleagues. She never became a published author, at least under her own name, but she was a fluid writer and a better editor. Dad’s professional writing and speeches benefited greatly from her regular review. I kept a healthy sample of our voluminous correspondence, and she kept most of mine to her.
For several years in her 8th decade, Mom also became a dedicated memoirist and keeper of family written history – job applications, Dad’s theses, etc. So we three kids were left with several boxes of Mom’s unpublished oeuvre to distribute.
Ann agreed to handle the finances. Laurie agreed to take most of the personal writings; at least initially. Ann and I swiftly scanned through the stacks of Mom-lit and picked out a few jewels that sparked our egos. But otherwise, the boxes went to Laurie.
A few years ago, Laurie asked whether I wanted to look at Mom’s writings. She had meant to get around to a serious perusal, but it had eluded her, and she was in downsizing mode at home. I agreed to take a box.
And here the box sat unopened. Through yet another Farber move. Through months and years of good intentions. Until just a few days ago, when, after deciding that the next topic for my writing class through the Senior Center would be my mother, I realized that I had a trove of research sources neatly packed in the downstairs closet.
Once opened, the contents of the box were mesmerizing, surprising, hilarious, and emotionally gorgeous. It revealed a person whom I had known only as a fragment of her full self. Yes, I could have asked more about her life when I was younger and when she was alert. Yet, in her writings, posthumous writings that she knew could be read by me, my sisters, her beloved grandchildren, and others, she left a life record rich with variety and conscious, adventurous choices. Through exploring the contents of Mom’s box, hers was a life exposed.
I mentioned exploring Mom’s box to a friend and asked if he – a professional writer – had any similar stash of his parent’s prose. “My parents weren’t writers,” was his reply. And so, with the great privilege that my mom bequeathed to me, I provide you, my gentle readers, a perspective on the life of Ruth Jaffe Farber.
Part 2: A Biography – Written in the Spring of 2021
Rivka Antolept, the eldest child of Beyla Yevslin Antolept and Yacov (Yankl) Antolept, was born August 1, 1919, in the city of Orenburg, Russia near its border with Kazakhstan along the Ural River. Beyla and Yacov had left Latvia/Lithuania a few years earlier to escape The Great War’s Eastern European front. Beyla had previously been betrothed to Yacov’s older brother, Ber-Dov. However, when Ber-Dov went to America – probably around 1917 – to earn enough money to bring Beyla over, he fell in love with another woman in New York named Anna. After hearing about Ber-Dov’s “Dear Beyla” letter, Yacov snapped up the jilted maiden, and a match was made.
Life in Orenburg was one of extreme deprivation. Yacov’s resourcefulness supplied nourishment for his wife and baby girl and medicines that saw Rivka through life-threatening diseases. The family had enough food to survive, but as The Great War ended, and the Russian Revolution rolled on, the Antolept family went back to Latvia in hopes of a better future. Still, the deprivations continued. 30 years later, Yacov wrote to his only daughter about that period, humbly stating that without the help of his sister, Frieda, his family would have starved.
Soon after arriving back in Latvia (records show that it was probably the large coastal town of Riga), Beyla gave birth to Leyb, Rivka’s brother. Yacov concluded that if the family were to have a promising future, it would be in America. Though Beyla desperately wanted to stay with her larger Yevslin family, Yacov sailed in 1922 for New York. He joined Ber-Dov in the sign painting business with the goal of earning enough money to reunite with his wife and two children in Die Goldene Medina.
Beyla prepared 4-year-old Rivka for the voyage across the sea by telling her again and again about the beautiful and wealthy land on the other side of the world. Rivka knew she would miss her family and friends in Dvinsk, but she was eager for the trip to start. She remembered that on the days prior to departure her mother would writhe and weep all day long. But Rivka could not wait to depart.
Beyla, Rivka and Leyb Antolept journeyed west from Riga by rail to the port city of Hamburg. From there they were placed in steerage along with a crushing mass of desperate and bedraggled humanity for the ocean voyage west to America. Rivka remembered being packed in like sardines and the smells of people’s vomit. “I crossed the Atlantic,” she later wrote, “and the long, uncomfortable trip, stormy seas, and an on-board vaccination resulted in pain, nausea and a subsequent leery, frightening association with ships and the bounding main.”
But she also remembered the thrill of seeing the Statue of Liberty and the joy of reunification with her father. In this new land she was quick to embrace a new identity, a new language, and a new name. Rivka became Ruth. Yacov became Jacob or Jake or even later, Jack. Beyla became Bessie and little Leyb became Leo. Tired of being mocked as an “antelope,” Jake and Ber-Dov (Bernard or Benny) even changed their families’ last names to Jaffe, their mother’s maiden name.
Jake and Benny’s sign painting business continued through the 1920s and 30s. Never reaching comfortable financial security, the Jake Jaffe family did manage to eke out a living. But home life for Ruth was unstable and tense. Jake and Bessie struggled in their marriage. Ruth remembered her mother’s youthful beauty and her love of singing and music in the home. Yet her housekeeping was haphazard, her cooking boring and tasteless, and her mood often dark. Jake was disappointed in his wife and dismissive of her complaints. Loud arguments were common. While loving both her parents, Ruth became embarrassed that her mom never learned to speak English well, and her father spoke with a strong Yiddish accent. Ruth had no interest in the stories of the old country at that time and later regretted not asking more about her family’s history.
The Jaffe’s economic struggles continued throughout The Great Depression. Ruth remembers the family moving every year or so because landlords would often give tenants the first month free as an incentive.
The stresses of homelife landed more deeply upon little brother Leo. Sickly and meek, Leo failed to meet his father’s expectations for masculine heartiness. Ruth remembers one incident where she had a fight with Leo and hurt him physically and emotionally. Bessie took her aside and told her that Leo is little and frail, and that Ruth must promise to never ever do that again. From then on, Ruth became Leo’s protector.
Ruth’s response to a stressful family life was to grow in her confidence and independence as quickly as possible. Staring at herself in the mirror, exploring her features at the age of six, Ruth concluded that she was beautiful. And that was a good thing. To strengthen emotional resiliency at home, she plowed into reading and studying. Going regularly to the public library to pick up books, she aced her school classwork. As she matured, she was increasingly able to escape the house by playing sports, going to movies, and spending time at her friends’ homes with more stable and pleasant atmospheres. She became the golden immigrant girl in Die Goldene Medina.
Her brother Leo, two years her junior, continued to struggle. His coping mechanism for a tense family life was to withdraw into himself. Leo would have a sorrowful, tragic life of schizophrenia, institutionalization and eventually suicide in his late 60s. Another brother, Joseph, described by Ruth as her parent’s happy accident, entered the family when she was nine. In many ways, Ruth became the third parent for Joe, and a positive, capable influence in his early childhood. She wrote:
“At first, he was a darling child to be pushed in the carriage, then a kid brother who asked deep and sometimes teasing, humorous questions. Then there was the serious, young teenager who approached me for help.”
By the time Ruth was a professional social worker, she recalled Joe coming to her and asking, “I am very unhappy and have few friends. I’m not into sports or girls. What should I do?” Ruth responded as both a sister and a counselor, calming his worries and helping him see his strengths.
Ruth’s family of origin was a motive force toward her future vocation, as she witnessed her intimates cope with mental illness, marital stress, social estrangement, and economic privation. Viewing herself as an increasingly confident and capable child, Ruth recalled,
“a summer trip to a delightful country place, featuring an attractive lake. Oh, how I admired the kids who were swimming and frolicking so easily! Since I was an active ten-year-old girl, a good runner, and games player, I assumed that swimming would come naturally to me. Alas, I had several near-drowning episodes that resulted in genuine fear of this perilous form of play.”
Different escapades beckoned as Ruth turned 13. Her friend Henrietta “introduced me to the reality of teenage sexual adventurism.” Ruth was persuaded to
“… put on lipstick and join her to ‘meet the Navy’…. Somehow the power of our loyalty played a part in my assent, plus my own excitement and curiosity now that I was a real teenager! The upshot was that Henrietta kissed a sailor, and I listened supportively for a long time to a homesick lad from Iowa. (An omen for my future.)”
As the teenage years proceeded, Ruth’s confidence and vivaciousness led to her being called Ginger, a moniker, one would imagine, derived from her obsessive love of dancing and its association with movie star and dancer Ginger Rodgers. There was also an emerging seriousness of purpose and a knack for leadership. Soon after the “meet the Navy” episode, her friendship with Henrietta ceased and she “took on the task of starting a Camp-Fire Girls group” which she chose “for its wholesome values and its own woodsy rituals.”
Ruth talked little and wrote less about her high school years. She described herself as outwardly quiet, but inwardly stewing on “a wide, daring palette of emerging ideas and a moral consciousness about social problems.” At 16, she graduated from high school and passed a rigorous entrance exam to enter Hunter College, a city-funded university. But she chose to defer entrance for a year, wanting to earn some money to defray the financial burden on her parents. She was also “shocked on reading the high-school annual description of me as ‘a volcano, quiet on the surface, but boiling underneath.’” She decided to experience the real world and go on a pre-college “journey of discovery.”
The first job Ruth applied for was as a babysitter. She saw an ad in the paper, took the subway all the way from her Bronx home into the heart of Brooklyn, and discovered to her dismay that the address listed was a tavern. Upon entering the bar all eyes suddenly turned to her as she asked the bartender about the advertised job. “The wife is up the stairs to the right. You’ll find them there.” At the last riser she opened the door to a smelly, disheveled apartment with an overwhelmed mother holding her infant. “Here… take him,” the mother said as she practically threw her baby at Ruth. Both the baby and Ruth were stunned, and the wailing that commenced and the confusion on Ruth’s face was enough evidence for the mother to reach her conclusion. “Yeah… I don’t think this is going to work,” she said as she handed Ruth 25 cents and told her to go catch the subway home.
A slightly more successful gig came next, as Ruth took on the role of bus girl at a Greek restaurant. She ended up talking a bit too much to customers and staff, dropped a glass of water on a customer’s lap, and was fired after one week.
Finally, she accepted a job in a Brooklyn radio condenser factory, owned and operated by a subcontractor to General Electric. She was dexterous and rapid in the detailed hand work necessary to combine the condenser materials and was proud to be a member of the working class. After several months on the line, she felt ready to resume her academic path. It was on to Hunter College, the premier public women’s college in New York City.
Ruth wrote about “growing my voice,” and Hunter College politics was her first big step toward that end. Friends encouraged her to run for Freshman Representative on the Student Council. She claimed to be “surprised, flattered, and scared, but agreed.” It was in that successful run, that Ruth first learned the traits of leadership and influence. “Develop a brief, clear and positive presentation,” she was advised by a friend who was already holding office. “Speak slowly and firmly, for this lessens fumbling.” One must always “look into the eyes of individual students.”
Ruth was re-elected her sophomore, junior and senior years, rising to the level of Sophomore Class Vice President. She served alongside fellow student Bella Abzug (nee Savitzky), who was later elected as Student Council President. Years later still, when Bella was in Congress and visiting Washington State to drum up support for the feminist cause, Ruth went up to greet her after a fiery speech. “Why if it isn’t Ruth Jaffe!” Bella screamed, upon seeing her old college friend. Ruth was so pleased to be remembered.
On the Student Council, Ruth learned to speak up, even during stressful confrontations. She advocated for student interests with faculty and administrators, pressed the city for more free books, and set up meetings to protest the Nazi regime. Ruth found that she had abilities as a peacemaker between warring factions. Her student government position “gave me the chance to be an impresario and a relaxed mistress of ceremonies.” She emceed a presentation about the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, urging women to boycott Japanese silk stockings. Ruth felt “moved by being a special part of action that corresponded with my sense of justice.”
She majored in “Pre-Social Work” at Hunter. During a party at the beginning of her senior year in 1939, Ruth observed a tall and handsome man across the room and said to herself “now he’s the kind of man I want to marry.” She struck up a conversation with the man, Arthur Farber, who was bound for social work studies at the University of Buffalo. Ruth immediately found him to be intelligent and overflowing with similar enthusiasms as her own. They chatted that evening for hours. “This was a romance spiked with much talk, discovering common values, sharing personal and family experiences, and learning more about social work education and work opportunities,” Ruth gushed.
In a 1951 essay about their relationship, Art wrote:
“When I first met Ruth, I was immediately attracted to her, (sounds a bit like the “love at first sight” stereotype, but I truly feel there is something very important in the immediate spontaneous feeling attraction and response, which I have come to regard with deep respect). I was drawn by her prettiness as a woman, the charm of her personality, the sense of wholesome strength and sense of self she carried about her. “
Nevertheless, Art left for Buffalo soon after the party, and spent the next year finishing his undergraduate education. The two didn’t see each other again until Art returned to New York to start his Master’s program at Columbia University.
“When I returned to the city, I was drawn, magnet-like, toward her. I was then filled with a new enthusiasm about life, and my own growth experience, both professionally and personally. It was a new me, a readier me, a very pulsating self, much like the exuberant, burgeoning hero of Thomas Wolf’s “You Can’t Go Home Again”, and I brought this to the relationship I now actively reached out for. I was ripe for a deeper relationship than I had experienced before, and Ruth responded more fully and genuinely than any woman I had known before.“
By the time Ruth graduated from Hunter in June 1941, she and Art had been married for a month. Art had graduated from Columbia and Ruth’s application for Columbia’s Master’s Program in Social Work was approved with enrollment set for the autumn. Sequencing of these college entrance and marriage events was humorous, if not also a bit dubious. Art had given a laudatory reference letter about his “friend” Ruth the month before the university’s acceptance and two months before their wedding day.
In the fall of 1941, Ruth dove into her Columbia studies with passion and energy. “Almost immediately after entering school, I felt positively challenged and reassured that this was what I had been basically wanting.” She loved the breadth of the curriculum “from critical study of welfare systems to the theories of human development.” She was stimulated by “the diversity of the students with respect to age, home base, nationality, race, and variety of experience.” She was one of the youngest students, “fresh from college,” but she connected easily with classmates.
Then came Pearl Harbor. Quickly, Art was drafted into the Army and became a “90-Day Wonder” Second Lieutenant, assigned as a Military Psychologist to the home front. Over the first two years of his service, he was stationed on multiple bases around the country, eventually completing his service in Florida. Over the next five years, Ruth combined stints at graduate school, where she would return to her parents’ home, with extended periods around the country with Art.
In what would be a preview of her coming career, at Columbia “much of the heart and development of (my) social work skills took place outside the classroom” in field work placements. In Spanish Harlem “I was assigned my first case,” a young Puerto Rican mother living alone with her 8-year-old daughter:
“My supervisor stressed the importance of getting more information and establishing a relationship. I was to write a detailed process of the interview. I felt as if I was being shot into space, with no knowledge of the technology. That interview was my first immersion in professional casework. I recall that the woman and child continued to come for the balance of my placement. The mother became a bit more assured and gave me recipes for rice and bean dishes. The little girl lost some shyness with me and did not skip school as much.“
Ruth graduated from Columbia with her Master’s in Social Work in 1944. She immediately joined the Red Cross as a Psychiatric Social Worker and settled into married life with Art in Florida during the remainder of the war. They were stationed at Camp Blanding, near the city of Starke. It functioned as an army training center and for a while also held German prisoners of war.
It would be difficult to over-emphasize the challenging crucible that the war years placed on the relationship between Art and Ruth. The marriage commenced in the Spring of 1941 with a joint determination and expectation for equality and mutual support. The war years separated the two physically right from its start and changed the power dynamics profoundly. Ruth soared in her confidence and academic progress, while Art struggled with his identity. Ten years later, Art reflected on this period, in a 15-page paper he wrote titled “Relationship” for his Advanced Curriculum program in Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania:
“In our relationship, we both wanted to achieve a promotion and enrichment of our individual lives. This was not to be a patriarchal family with the underlying assumption of male superiority, no matter how subtly disguised. We regarded each other as peers, even with our differences, embarking upon a voyage of shared responsibility and mutual self-development. I, consequently, put out a great deal towards making possible my wife’s professional training soon after we were married.“
Yet soon, Art’s military obligations and status would challenge his commitment to equality:
“Then, a shift began to take place in our relationship. I was in my first real job in social work and was very uncomfortably trying to find my way in the wake of being drafted into the army. My wife was doing very well at school, and in all of her absorption with the exciting newness of training, I felt a detachment…. our separateness came to a head as my wife very capably took part in the leadership of a student-sponsored social work conference, in which outstanding people in the field participated. I was both threatened and anxious about her chairmanship of a panel discussion and compared her sense of poise and adequacy with my own felt inadequacy in this area.… I think I was also finding … both of us becoming caseworkers, too difficult to bear. Now, I think that if we had to do it all over again, I might have helped her, if she had chosen, to become the nursery school teacher she had seemed to want to be when I first met her. In any case, I do not think I would have sold her so hard on social work, which was my own strong interest.“
Even with these transformations of power and roles, the couple persevered. After the war, both Ruth and Art worked in the social services field in New York City. Art in a refugee resettlement program with the Long Island Jewish Family and Child Service, and Ruth as a family caseworker and therapist. Ruth also put her collegiate leadership skills and connections into political advocacy. In one of the women’s organizations she led, Ruth recruited former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to speak. Bringing her mother-in-law Ida to the event won her many chits from that huge Eleanor fan!
Meanwhile, less than a year after Ruth and Art’s post-war return to New York, Ruth became pregnant with their first child, Ann Helen. By January 1950, their second child, Laura Jane, arrived. Though the marriage was intended to be based on equality, and both parents had identical master’s degrees from Columbia, it was Ruth who shouldered full-time child-rearing and homemaking responsibilities. Later, when asked by her son why she assumed her husband’s last name and total responsibility for domestic duties, Ruth replied that at the time “there simply wasn’t any thought that an alternative existed.”
However, these traditional gendered roles took their toll on Ruth. She endured post-partum depression and bouts of anger. Deep emotional connections with her children did not come automatically. There were tensions with Art, leading to episodic marriage counseling sessions. Much later, Ruth would reveal that the conflicts were in part due to Art’s insistence on creating task lists and asking Ruth to be more organized. Art’s view was that Ruth was better at receiving love than giving and he felt periodic separateness. But being a stay-at-home mom was not satisfying for the activist, intellectually stimulated Ruth.
Five years after Laurie’s birth, Ruth became pregnant with her third and last child, Daniel Ben. It was an unintended event – a mishap with a diaphragm in the shower – that Ruth later revealed for the first time to her middle-aged son, proclaiming it “a happy accident.” Nonetheless, the timing of this latest family expansion probably played a role in activating Ruth’s wanderlust and craving for adventure. Art and Ruth also expressed a keen desire to get away from less-than-ideal family influences in New York. One day, while watching Arlene Francis on television, Ruth viewed a visually rich report on life in the Pacific Northwest with all the usual stars on display – Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, old-growth forests, rhododendron gardens, and the Olympics. That evening Ruth sat Art down and explained with an insistent tone, “I want to move to Seattle!”
Six months later, Art got the job of Director at the Carolyn Klein Galland Home, a Jewish home for the aged in Seattle. Until Danny was old enough for pre-school, Ruth continued to be a stay-at-home mother and homemaker. Early on after the move West, the Farber’s purchased a ¼-acre tract in Lake Hills, a large suburban development east of Seattle, and had a five-bedroom home constructed. They hired a professional landscape architect to create a “low-maintenance” garden, and for the first time, Ruth was living the middle-class idyll.
She loved to get her hands into gloves, pulling out weeds and planting annuals. She loved weekend family day trips to Mt. Rainier, Hood Canal and various state parks. And she began to get active in the local PTA.
Meanwhile Art’s career bloomed. In 1961 he became Director of Seattle’s Jewish Family and Child Service and in 1964, moved to an academic career as professor at the University of Washington School of Social Work. Art’s intellectual explorations complemented Ruth’s strong interest in research and professional development. The marriage partnership expanded even more into a professional one, as each relied on the other to critique and support their explorations of innovative ideas and complete academic publications.
Ruth and Art filled their home with abstract sculptures and paintings; with Danish modern furniture in addition to the Pennsylvania Dutch dining room pieces they brought from the East. Their house pulsated with the sounds of folk, blues, jazz, klezmer, and classical music emanating from their mono LP player; with family games of Cribbage, Yahtzee, Charades, and Ping Pong; with children’s practices and performances on the upright piano, banjo, flute, clarinet, trombone and guitar; with dinner parties of friends and colleagues; with birthday parties for kids; with Thanksgiving feasts and Passover seders of friends and family; and with larger gatherings of activists dedicated to advancing one sort of social cause or another that Ruth or Art felt passionately committed to advance and thus host at their lovely home.
As her youngest entered kindergarten, Ruth was able to incrementally re-establish her professional social work bona fides. First working part-time and then eventually full-time, she had a 25+ year career as a marriage and family counselor at the non-profit United Way-sponsored Family Counseling Service of King County. During this period, she also served for many years as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Washington School of Social Work, providing practicum instruction to students in the counseling track. Upon retirement from the agency, Ruth continued as a therapist in private practice, led workshops on mother-daughter relationships and other family systems topics, and stayed active in national social work organizations.
Ruth’s analytical, intentional life direction was forcefully jolted upon the shocking, but not surprising, death of her husband. Art died of heart failure in the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv, Israel, while he and Ruth were traveling internationally for his academic sabbatical. Ruth was only 61.
Family and friends observing Ruth at that critical time, all had the same impression of a woman who, while honoring marriage and the partnership she had with a life-long love, nevertheless was analytical and systematic in pushing through a productive grieving process. Ten years after the event, Ruth wrote about her determined approach upon Art’s death under the title “Myself as an Aging Woman Therapist:”
“My reactions to my husband’s death were complex: numbing loss of a close, loved partner; inability to function around practical tasks, and other natural symptoms of grief and mourning. I was fortunate to have great, mutual support with my children and close friends. Utilizing my knowledge about the value of behavioral change, I set tasks and affirmations for myself: such as brush your teeth, call a friend, congratulate yourself for spontaneous crying at hearing our favorite music. When I returned to work on a part-time basis, I was different – a calmer, deeper person, more sensitive to the issues of clients who were facing the death of family members.“
She established an Arthur S Farber Wellness Educational Fund at the University of Washington School of Social Work and put together a workshop on her husband’s core academic pursuits.
“After the workshop, I sensed a powerful change within me. I moved from my identification as A’s wife and sought for separateness in personal relationships. No longer was I accepting of the customary couple relationships we had enjoyed; perhaps there was too much reminder of our mutual loss and some of my questions of how I was individually regarded.“
Ruth felt both Art’s loss and her individual freedom. Freedom from men in general and freedom from Art’s “shadow” as she put it.
“No man was truly appealing, nor did I truly seek such possibilities. However, I was free (as I can see was my perception of A’s wish) for my individual development. In overt ways I removed myself from A, the sabbatical experience, any thoughts and possible reaction to an open examination. Of course, that was reinforced by my blockings and fears about public writing.
Movement towards agency retirement was an autonomous, planned and gratifying step. The earlier establishment of a small private practice helped grease my confidence. And yippee, it brought me closer to my personal reality, to my singlehood and individual future.“
So, Ruth sought out friendships with women and women’s groups. She joined and became very active in the Older Women’s League (OWL), where, among other activities, she helped establish a “Life Review” writings group. She co-founded the Women’s Therapist Network in the Seattle Area. She also faced head-on the “necessity to assume greater responsibility in my professional and financial/administrative affairs.” This led to “my choosing an active rather than a victim-resenter stance.”
Ruth filled her retirement – and post-marriage – years with productive and adventuresome experiences. And with continued and expanded connections with people.
She traveled extensively with friends and with tour groups; using these opportunities to both eclectically learn more about science, literature and the arts, and rejoin parts of her life experiences and ancestry. Elder Hostel programs brought her to Glacier and Grand Canyon National Parks. To rafting the Colorado and theater with geology lectures in Ashland. To Hawaii and Alaska and Mexico. For almost two decades, Ruth participated in such travels at least once a year.
When the Soviet Union began to open up due to Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika initiatives, Ruth flew to Moscow where she miraculously met up with first cousin Sarah Goldman. A cousin who – with spectacular luck leading to ease of communication – had been an English Teacher! Until USSR’s last days before its 1991 collapse, Ruth was not even aware that that part of her father’s family had survived the Holocaust.
Ruth embraced her Jewish identity in retirement more than she ever had in her working years. She served on the Board of the North End Jewish Community Center in Seattle. She attended High Holy Days services with her son. She joined a Yiddish club, reviving her childhood mamaloshen (mother tongue) skills. With the help of a beloved family rabbi, she translated her father’s Yiddish poems into English and shared them with her reconnecting world-wide family.
Her favorite “Pappa poem” was titled “Marriage,” as it summoned the sweetness of her parents’ early life together:
No need for rabbi to unite us Nit keyn rov zohl undz farbindn
Lips together sing the blessing Lipn oyf lipn veln di brokhes opzingn
Hearts together light the candle Hartz oyf hartz veln di khupe-likht tsindn
Hands together solder the rings Hant in hant veln shmidn di ringn
The free heavens are the canopy Der frayer himl vet di khupe shpreytn
Stars: the witnesses and guests Di shtern veln zayn di eydes un gest
The Green Grass prepares the table Der griner groz vet dem tish tsu greytn
Love is the food we eat Undzer libe vet zayn di gerichtn vos men est
The morning dew sets the wine Der morgn toy vet dem vayn tsushteln
The rising sun greets us Di oyf geyende zun vet undz bagrisn
Friendship and trust are with us Frayntshaft un tsutroy zohl gor nit fein
Pure as well water our conscience Vi Kval-vasser reyn zohl zeyn der gevisn
Even as she maintained a full schedule of independent activities and passions, Ruth was proud of and engaged in her roles of mother, grandmother and family elder. The marriages of her children and births and development of her grandchildren often brought her great joy. Family events also brought worries and sorrow when divorce or other challenges occurred. As a professional family therapist, Ruth could look at her own family’s dynamics with an analytical eye. Yet also feel profound emotions.
The last years of her life were for the most part poignant, even in their occasional sweetness. Ruth was stricken with Alzheimer’s Disease. A woman who could blaze through the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle, was left unable to read. A woman whose profession required verbal precision, was unable to speak. And the lost capacities extended incrementally and tragically for close to 10 years.
At first, she could not finish sentences. Sometimes the words would just trail off. Driving, never her strong suit (she infamously failed the state driving test three times before finally passing), became a greater and greater risk. When she started getting into accidents, claiming, “the other car came out of nowhere,” her children finally convinced her to stop driving. Hardest on everyone still was a core symptom of the disease: to deny that one has it. Her loved ones had to gingerly work through the process of keeping Ruth safe.
But in an extraordinary fashion, the dreaded disease also brought opportunities, fleeting though they were, for joy and tenderness. For decades, Ruth would not open herself up to the possibility of romantic love and companionship. Alzheimer’s brought with it a touch of humility, perhaps even vulnerability, as she let herself enjoy the companionship of a wonderful man, Max Applebaum, from her Yiddish group. They even moved in with each other for a while, prior to Ruth’s continuing deterioration which required 24-7 care in a nursing home. In a wondrous piece of life’s circularity, the nursing home Ruth entered, Kline Galland, was the very same one that her husband had been hired to direct 43 years earlier. The former “grand dame” of the home had become one of its patients in need of blessed care.
Even as the ravages of dementia overtook her reason and communication faculties, two stories of true sweetness reveal the essence of Ruth. When she first arrived at Kline Galland, Ruth somehow perceived herself as functioning as the nursing home’s social worker, and could be found sitting with other residents, holding their hands and providing them a compassionate ear. She went to the actual social worker on staff and managed to get across with a few words her interest in understanding how much she would be paid for her labors. The social worker told Ruth that she would investigate it and get back to her. After a few efforts at this, Ruth forgot to ask again.
Later, at a stage when Ruth could no longer speak, her son and soon to be new wife Jean, visited her at the nursing home. They told her of their decision to get married. Ruth reached out her hands to both, and broke into a grand, loving smile of recognition and blessing.
Born Rivka Antolept in Orenburg, Russia on August 1, 1919, Ruth Jaffe Farber died December 6, 2005.
Part 3: A Son’s Perspective – Written in the Winter of 2022
Soon after completion of Unboxing Rifka – Part 2, I got an email from sister Laurie. “I’ve found more boxes with Mom’s writings,” she pronounced. I also knew that years previously I had stashed many personal letters from family and friends in my attic, having made a habit of never throwing such intimate mementos away.
The sheer volume of these additional materials proved staggering. Sorting and organizing Mom’s papers and mine was a task onto itself. Then there was the time-consuming and inexact challenge of deciphering her penmanship!
From my childhood up to her senility, I received – and kept – over 125 personal letters and cards from Mom. These were missives that contained substantive feelings and thoughts – enough substance that made them for me, apparently, worthwhile keeping. She wrote in over 20 journals about her travels, feelings about daily life, philosophical musings, and professional observations. She wrote what appears to be a 29-page opening portion of a larger manuscript that attempted to summarize and contextualize the intellectual explorations of her and Dad’s sabbatical journey. A journey that ended in his death. So far, the remainder of that paper is either yet to be found or was never written.
In her Older Women’s League (OWL) life-review writing class – that she founded – she developed more than 150 short essays. In the Women’s Therapist Network that she also founded; she wrote a 14-page history of the organization. And in a complete surprise, one that contradicts Part 1 of “Unboxing Rifka,” it turns out that yes indeed, she was a published author. Mom was a contributor of book reviews to the national professional periodical “Social Casework” from the mid-70s to the early 90’s.
Hers was a life in words. Thousands of pages of words.
As I digested, often with stunned surprise, the volumes of prose and poetry that her hand and mind churned out, the trove of revelations caused me to reevaluate my assumptions and predilections and judgments about Mom. About who she was, about the complex and multi-faceted nature of our relationship, and about who I was and am as a person. These revelations weren’t always pretty. But sometimes they really were.
Let’s say it bluntly and launch from there. Before diving into “Mom lit,” my feelings about our relationship could be summarized thus: I loved my mother because she was my mother and one has to love one’s mother, but in substantial ways I didn’t like her. In memory, I found her affected. Arrogant. Insensitive to my feelings and the feelings of others. I found her intrusive. Overly analytical. Her own self-criticism held back with a detached superiority.
“Don’t social work me!” I would say to her when the situation warranted. My sisters and I shared this resistance to her perceived invasiveness. This led all of us to keep our emotional distance from Mom, but perhaps mine was the most extreme reaction.
In memory, I withheld information from her. Not letting her “in” because it would come across as a strategic psychological victory for her over me. I experienced her interest as sucking me emotionally dry. If I let her in just a bit, Mom would want more and more details about my “feelings.” So, out of a sense of competition, I didn’t give in to her probes. In sum, before “Unboxing Rifka,” memories of my relationship with Mom were fundamentally distant and rather negative.
With the latest explorations of her journals, the fullness of our correspondence, and research into her professional writings, my appraisal has not just become more nuanced. I have concluded that those memories were fundamentally and grimly distorted. The written record, which can never be the whole story but must be trusted far more than undocumented memory, is that Mom and I had a deeply positive, warm, loving, sharing, mutually respectful and highly valuable relationship. The written record is replete with examples of her tenderly and with great wisdom supporting my maturation. And of equal surprise, my writing featured regular and gushing praise and open and effusive gratitude. We gave each other credit for a deep friendship.
So why the profound disconnects between memory and evidence?
I decided to probe the written record for clues, exploring moments of crisis or near crisis in each of our lives as flashpoints for discovery and insight. These times of risk and fulcrums for change were not only trials for one or both of us, they also produced the greatest volume of correspondence as evidence.
Due to her extensive studies in the psychology of human growth and development and her keen – even obsessive – interest in writing about the “process” of life – Mom made special effort to communicate in her letters at a level she perceived was developmentally appropriate.
In my first remembered personal crisis – as a 9-year-old, I had run away from overnight camp due to constant teasing about my foot cast – Mom wrote:
We guess you’re having more fun, now. It may have been hard at first because of your foot. We know how well you try, and what fun you do have with kids.
Lady got a bath today – My, how good she smells!
Mom & Pop“
Communication between us became quite different, of course, as I became a teen. During Dad’s sabbatical year in London, when I was 17, Mom, Dad and I lived in a Belsize Park flat. It was an exciting time of growth for me, but also a time of maximal stress and pain in my relationship with Mom. At one point, the three of us sat down and negotiated an agreement. Mom would ask nothing of me, and if I was not adequately carrying out the household tasks, Dad would be the designated parent to make an approach. Mom had become an intolerable, irritating presence in my world.
Yet, letters that flowed between us after I alone departed for the States to finish my senior year of high school, completely belied the previous emotional distancing. A month after our separation I received this missive from Mom:
“Dear Dan: Your letter was received in high style – Pop whooped up the stairs and we’ve enjoyed and savored several readings. We are impressed with all you’re pulling together for yourself, and how you struggled (with your friend’s help) to achieve a new stage in self-respect. That’s really great!”
At the time, I was living with a friend’s family until June. Not until then had I seen a different way of daily living. While my host family was generous and kind to me, I was shocked into true appreciation of both my parents that only separation can provide.
Mom and I carried out an extensive correspondence when I went off to various colleges during the 1970’s. I expressed to both my parents, various struggles I was having in school and with relationships. Sometimes my letters would go just to one parent. Sometimes responses would come – and be signed – by one parent. It was important for both to develop “bilateral relations” with each of their children. With Mom, there was constant change and meshing of identities in the terms used for our relationship. She usually signed off correspondence with a “Mom/Ruth.” Sometimes it would switch to Momma and sometimes the word Friend would be added. A typical, encouraging note from her was:
“Dear Daniel (Son, Friend, Person),
So you are off on another journey! I hope and believe it will be exciting, sometimes boring or perplexing, challenging, and growing above all. And always remember, (like Shelley Berman) in Seattle/Bellevue, you have a home – one of many – for your “family” is wide and far-sprung.
Love, respect and caring,
For my part, during this 1970’s period, much of my correspondence was of praise and thankfulness:
“August 27, 1978
I’ve just been listening to Bikel. No tears but a lot of warmth inside.
I thought of you. And I thought of myself. This Jewish thing is something, isn’t it?
This is a time of consolidation for me. I’ve made so many changes in so many directions that I’ve lost the old foundation. It’s there, I know it is. I’ve just misplaced it.
But I’ll tell you something. Part of that foundation is my Jewishness. More than I’ve allowed myself lately. I need that Jewishness now and I’ll need it in the future.
Why am I just writing to you? Not Dad too?
Because I feel, to a great extent, you are my Jewishness. The emotions (sometimes misplaced emotions), the search for knowledge, the vision of a better world – it’s all there.
I guess I’m feeling the you in me beginning to assert itself, express its needs.
I welcome it with open arms – and you too.
“May 13, 1979
Dear Mom and Dad,
I’ve been doing some thinking lately. This anniversary – birthday – Mother’s Day time might just have a bit to do with it.
You know, you’ve been awful nice to me – really. I mean, first you go and get me born, then you raise me – and lower me a little as well when it’s good and necessary – and then you continuously support, encourage, love me through my 23rd year. And you don’t show the littlest sign of giving that up. DO YOU KNOW HOW THAT FEELS? Do you know what that means to me?
I’ll tell you what that means to me. You’ve given me life and then you’ve given me the tools to make that life a grand one. For that I love you, thank you, and say the following:
I Pledge to Arthur and Ruth Farber:
To love both of you for the rest of my life, and
If you’re (either or both) ever in need, to help you in any way I possibly can.
Happy Anniversary and happy Mother’s Day with love and thanks from
Daniel (your only son – you know, the tall one)“
With the death of my father Arthur, in 1980, our mother-son relationship was instantly on a new footing. We shared in the reality of being two single adults, though each at very different stages of life expectations. But Mom’s discipline, drive, vision and emotional maturity was extraordinary. On October 16, 1980, one day after her husband died, Mom wrote to a professional colleague, whom I believe she and Dad had intended to visit in the UK after Israel:
“Dear Allan (Pepper),
Your letter was transferred to a friend’s home in Israel, and I have the painful experience to inform you that Arthur died yesterday, of what I assume was a quick, devastating heart attack. We had been traveling since September 1 on sabbatical leave (Japan, Hong Kong, Mainland China and India) when we arrived in Israel (for Art’s study of health and Kibbutz living). He had already picked up a nasty, debilitating virus in the last period of a demanding Indian tour. He was slowly recovering in Israel, and we were looking ahead to an abridged plan of professional appointments, and then on to U.K.
I’m at a point when I need to be organized and planful, along with periods of deep sorrow and loss, as well as remarkable memories of a thoughtful, loving man with whom I was fortunate to share many (but not enough) years.
He would have wanted me to let you know that he carried the Peckham message everywhere, including some remarkable health-oriented people in a Japanese village; a surprisingly open-minded tour guide in China; some fascinating people at the Sri Aurobindo ashram in Pondichary, India, and a health “moshav” (cooperative community) in Israel. Also, we had the warming experience of learning that several Peckamite.(sic) or its principles were utilized in an experience in Madras, (you likely know that). Just the other day, Dr. Gample, head of the preventive health community project in Jerusalem said that a Dr. Kark had been involved and positively influenced by Peckham.
Alas, Art would not be here to continue and to work. Yet, I feel his presence and his enthusiasm, and so will others Best wishes on your plans, and do keep me informed (if you wish), for I intend to be involved on some level with Art’s interests, which I share. I am leaving for the US in a few days but may not be home for several days.
Just hours after her husband’s death she was already summarizing for a colleague the sabbatical’s journey and purpose, openly acknowledging the terrible emotional toll of the event, and respectfully staking out a professional legacy.
In the short months that followed, Mom and I wrote frequently to each other. I decided to relocate for the month of December away from my university in California to her home in Bellevue, where I took a temporary planning job just to be near her. I wrote to her soon after returning to school:
(The letter starts with descriptions of the classes I was taking in school and other minutia.)
Mom, it was so good to be with you this past break. It was a tremendous strengthening process for me and I hope for you as well. Yes, my father, your husband, is dead. We miss him so much. But our love for him can be such a source of pure joy. We can think of him, see him running nimbly in the woods, see him hit the dance floor with lightness and grace, see him get excited by an idea; we can think of him and be very very happy.
And yet, strangely, we live on. Time is still at the grand controls. We need to make decisions, do work, live on without him. I have felt sadness at his loss in the past and will feel more in the future. But right now, I just sense the curious and queer fact that time has separated me from Dad not because we wanted it but because time wouldn’t allow Dad to keep traveling along with it. Time filed for a permanent divorce with Arthur and won….
Write and tell me how you’re doing, kiddo. I think about you every day and when people ask me how you’re doing I say, “My mother is amazing. She’s a very strong capable person who’s treating herself right.”
You are, and I love you mucho,
It was really the closeness to my mother, not just need for closeness, but genuine emotional connection, that caused me to choose to return “home” after completing coursework in California.
Sitting down in the living room and listening to a Woody Guthrie record and letting my hair dry from the last shower, and thinking of you….. (I go on to explain my failure in job search efforts.)
I think I should move up to the great northwest. I think it soon will be time to move up there and do some work. Mom, I’m beginning to feel like an adult.
I also want to be with you and let you cry and talk and be together. It is time for that as well.
My best wishes and energy to you, Ruth. Enjoy and be enjoyed. Do a mitzvah for someone and have one done for you.
In 1981, homeward bound it would be. I very briefly moved in with Mom until I got a part-time job to support living in a shared house in Seattle.
“May 10, 1982
Dear Daniel –
Birthday greetings from me – your mother, friend, person (see, I have my own stationary!). Today was a significant day – wedding anniversary – and I had and encouraged wonderful memories; Singing old songs, smelling flowers and shrubs, and working four hours in garden – finishing one fence section!
And then there are memories of how “we” felt about you these last years. Yes, we said, Dan is a man, and we felt basic confidence and love. A man is not a finished “male machine” but a growing adult – tender and tough – vulnerable and vigorous – caring and competent – Knowing and always learning – and that’s how I feel about you – now –
It’s a tough time but “we shall overcome” and also have some good living.
Enough of “philosophy” –
Thanks for your loving, fun Mother’s Day baseball game – And the beautiful breakfast.
Daniel – I liked our talk about our relationship, and your resentments – I’ve let it sink in – and can understand your feelings – I accept you as adult – person – son – and rejoice in who you are
Mom was continuously sending me positive messages. Praise. In looking at the above letter of 1982 some context helps.
There was little argument that in many ways I was at a low point in my life. Much self-doubt. I was one massive incomplete paper away from graduating from my master’s program in city planning. It would be more than a year away from when I went to a therapist to help me finish that. I had no wife, partner or even the glimmers of a girlfriend. And hadn’t for years. I was a part-time bus driver and part time volunteer for the city of Seattle in a dead-end position. So, her letter is reviewed by me now – and probably then – as “over the top” praise.
What happens when one gets such praise? In part, one may think it’s undeserved. But since it comes so consistently, it also reflects suspicion upon the praiser.
Was Mom being honest with herself? Honest with me? And if full honesty is not apparent, what then the motivations? Was she manipulating me? Or, as I often thought, was she “social working” me? Identifying through her professional research the optimum parenting model? Analyzing the best approach? And in so doing, not being “real.”
I saw, in the writing she did on the day of Dad’s death, a concern about her role as a mother. She described each of her children and what resultant role she would need to play in helping them through the grieving process. She described me as intensively admiring of Dad and needy of his support and encouragement. She wrote in her October 15,1980 journal:
“How dreadful that will be – I almost felt I could stand to bear it alone – but how to deal with other’s pain – Dan who adored Arthur & so needy of him – Ann who was always fleeing death in the family – How will she meet this (I think with more maturity) And Laurie – the glory – whose strong feelings are sometimes squished by her need to be unsentimental – and Edith, the Yegermans – and the friends.“
SO… this is a thing. As a parent, as a human, how does one “help” another? For Mom/Ruth, this was important. Not just important professionally. It was defining of all her relationships. As a son/person I was both blessed to have a caring parent and put off by the “inaccuracy” of praise. I mistakenly – in retrospect – did not honor her intention. For her behavior and communication was real for HER. Honest for HER. And what would I otherwise have wanted? Her not to give me love and support?
Strange too, how my ancient memories of our interactions dwelt on the negative. For in reading the letters that I sent to Mom over the years, they were predominantly effusive. Thankful for all that she had given me. Appreciative of the “fullness of her being” as Mom and Dad would put it. I thought that I hadn’t recognized that fullness, but at least in my writings I had. And those writings – no psychological surprise to come – mimicked the very over-the-top praise that I had been questioning from her. I was writing like Mom. Giving her abundant encouragement and praise.
That May 1982 letter also references, briefly, a challenging verbal conversation, where I had been highly critical of her. And her response to that criticism? Praise again for my directness and a willingness to look at herself. Wow! What else would one want from another? From a mother? I was a constant challenge, and yet she kept pouring out expressions of love to me.
For Mom, and for me, there were two additional life tragedies that we were to go through together that would test our relationship. The first, very much of my doing. The second, of providence.
I met my future wife, Karen, at the end of 1982. She had just graduated from the University of School of Social Work, having entered the quarter that Dad died in Israel. As our relationship bloomed, a deep connection occurred between my mother and Karen. As the song went “I want a girl, just like the girl who married dear old Dad.” Our marriage and subsequent siring of our child, Zachary, were major events in Mom’s life, and she placed high value, and received much nakhes from our marriage.
From the date of our marriage in 1984, Mom often wrote to both Karen and I, and was over the moon happy in her perception of our family. She shared openly her feelings with us both:
Dear Daniel and Karen,
I’m writing to share some thoughts about Arthur and, of course, the meanings are different for all the family. I want to look beyond my oft-expressed regret that he is not here to see Daniel’s life strides, to enjoy the warmth and insight of Karen, and the breath-taking charm and aliveness of his namesake.
What seems important to me is to take the time to reflect upon him, and how I am still living and learning with the memory of his specialness. In many ways, I have grown more independent and yet more involved with people on an honest, intimate basis which Arthur and I learned for ourselves.
Let me “make it perfectly clear” that the three of you provide great joy for me, and, in fact, I feel fortunate that “all my children” and their loved ones are very dear to me. Daniel, do you remember when I shared my anxiety that Poppa’s loss was so enormous for you, that you might have wished that he had been the surviving parent!
Shocking thought, and yet understandable. You were so reassuring about this, and I now feel myself as being a whole parent-person, not just a fraction of the “real” thing. I’m so glad to think about him, and to capture his spirit and make it my own in my way. So I’ll light a candle in his memory.
See you soon (Friday 1-/21)
A few months after sending the above letter, I informed her that there was in fact trouble in the marriage. Karen and I would separate in the spring of 1989, try to reconcile through the remainder of that year, and eventually divorce in 1991. During that period, Mom had a tightrope of emotional communications to negotiate. I was certainly in a frayed and vulnerable state, and Mom sought to both support me and encourage whatever possibilities of reconciliation existed.
“September 13, 1989
… What can I say? Well, this must be an intense, challenging time for you around your decision to try to work out issues with Karen – along with your work work – and father-son stuff – and family/friends – Of course, as you know, that could be seen as good stress – but also that requires some self-care. Right?
At the risk of sounding like a mother, I respond – yes! – And here’s a point I want to make. I love you – Daniel – Dan – Danny not only because you’re my son in a formal way but because of who you are as a person – and our former and ongoing relationships. I value you not primarily because you’re Zac’s father (although I’m thrilled that you helped create him and that you are a great, loving father), but again for yourself. I was pleased and still am that you married Karen (who I experience as a caring, fun, warm, growing person) but because I saw her as being – and potentially developing ever more, as a loving accepting partner to you.
As you know, I was not privy to the great conflicts – and the issues that arose – and my hope is for greater understanding, and honest coming together with the facing of pain and hopeful healing. But – and – in all this process – You are important to me in our special way – even as I am deeply bonded to Zac – and warmly related to Karen – and you all as a family….
My memory was that any positive statement by Mom about Karen at that critical juncture felt almost like a betrayal or denial of reality. Yet the above letter now reads as supportive primarily of me, while also wisely and hopefully allowing for – even encouraging – the possibility of reconciliation. The tension between Mom and I was real, and our verbal exchanges were no doubt less balanced, but in the reading, the above letter, and several others, displayed Mom’s brilliant and strategic and loving prose.
After the reality of the divorce sunk in, Mom was not only a wonderful support to me as a single father, but developed a strong, loving relationship with my son Zac. I dated a few women, who I introduced to Mom, and Mom and I had many positive connections over the coming years.
There was a consistency in our family relationships from the early to late 1990s. Mom had three grandchildren, one from each of her three children. Passovers and Thanksgivings were traditional gatherings for us all, and grandchildren-focused conversations, events, and programs were frequent.
That consistency led to a certain regularity in our correspondence. Logistical arrangements, summaries of recent experiences and planned events were interspersed with philosophical musings and references to current events. Mom was an ardent political liberal. She was a member of numerous civil rights and social justice groups. With hilarious inefficiency, she would fund a plethora of organizations with $5 donations, practically assuring that the net value of her contributions was close to zero. Nevertheless, her letters to me were spiced with encouragement to support one cause or another, and entreaties to join her “in the streets.”
By the mid-1990’s however, I was convinced that something was seriously wrong with Mom’s memory. And it was getting worse. In a trip to Israel in 1995, she lost luggage – including her passport – at the airport. My own visit to Israel was overlapping hers, and I was able to assist in securing luggage and identity documents. But she seemed overwhelmed by events.
Getting back to the States, and over the next few years, her condition slowly worsened until she was faced with the inevitable Alzheimer’s diagnosis. This must have been a terrifying time for Mom. She denied, but failed to hide, her mental deterioration.
Throughout her adulthood, as it was revealed to me through this “unboxing,” she had episodic depression. She talked openly about it occurring early in her marriage, but then I discovered a letter from Dad to her on the occasion of her 55th birthday:
“Sooo how can it be that Monday and Tuesday were so flat & low & tasteless & dull – after the good entertainment of the Bellevue Films Festival …. Yes, you did struggle and how much I was affected by your efforts at writing and getting that “thing” to say what you wanted. The circles, and my mostly futile attempts to help – other than that you must have known how much on your side I felt and prayed you well….
Well, what shall the rest of to-day bring???? We’ll just let it flow you said, and so we will.
Mostly it’ll be you, and me w/you as a – horrors – that word – dread – terrible, COUPLE. – But we shall somehow bear it – for we’ll soon be off in our separate ways – acting & being our individual selves. [With apologies to Bergman’s new film.]
I hope your to-day pleases, delights, satisfied, entertains, enriches you/ and in some unforeseen sense touches, too, your talent to give, nurture others & help make this a better world. – I wish this wish for your to-morrows, too. And my third wish is that I may be a part of your dreams for more time to come……….“
Left unknown from that letter was the frequency of her “flat” times and the relationship challenges implied by her rebellion from the word “couple.” The closeness and pervasively positive correspondence about their relationship, however, could only reinforce the outward appearance of its loving and respectful strength.
But Mom had her demons, and Alzheimer’s must have been the ultimate challenge. In an undated writing, though by its penmanship it must have been in the late 1990’s, Mom writes (with some illegible words):
“The weave of my thought is not pretty tonight
The mirror on my wall looks twisted
I look into my heart – my way among all
Not nice, I say, but see, it’s me
There I am stumbling and caught in chatter,
Not hearing or heeding others, but grinning
empty – smug-like – scared
Whirling, dishonest words, trying to be a self, not me,
but see it’s me
I am tired of acting, of being ???? someone
Of drenching myself in self-pity – concocted
There is a righteousness, self-absorption
???? people – the new each day
And the old we must destroy –
To it! – and perhaps through calm and love
A different me will be and ????“
It saddens me now to read of her torment. A torment which stretched on, in cascading intensity, for years.
A different kind of torment was experienced by her loved ones. Experienced by me. I lost my father in a blink of a moment at the height of his intellectual and professional influence and the peak of our interpersonal relationship. I lost my mother slowly, incrementally, connection by connection. Which was worse?
In Part 2 of “Unboxing Rivka,” you the reader have already been introduced to Mom’s fate. The unraveling of her mind. In our relationship, too, there was an unraveling, with a clear change in roles. Mom became Momela, a sweet soul. But not the person whom I had known for 50 years. I became at first a devoted son, and then just another person to observe.
For years, each visit to Mom in her various congregate care centers was painful. I did not visit every day, or even every week. More and more, the person I would spend time with wasn’t really my mother. The frequencies of those visits corresponded to my level of guilt, even shame. What propelled me into the car for the long drive north was my struggle with a key question: what do we owe our parents?
I asked that of myself. I asked the same question of others, getting varied responses. Nothing ever landed as an absolute formulation. Should I come this weekend? How could I live with myself if I didn’t come this weekend? So that’s when I came.
As you enter the front doors of the Caroline Kline Galland Home for the Aged – the institution which brought the Farber family to Seattle for Dad’s directorship and the institution that cared for Mom in her demented state – you are greeted in large bronze letters with the biblical injunction: “Honor Thy Father and Mother.”
It was during these nursing home days that I truly saw Mom’s Jewish soul emerge as a core of her being. When Alzheimer’s took away her last words, she could still sing. And her melodies… Yiddish and Russian. These were her roots. Hurrah, she was back home!
I do not now think the distortions of my memories from our earlier time together were caused by the last 10 years of Mom’s discombobulation. Mostly I chock it up to my undesirable tendency to remember the negative more easily than the positive. Can it be as simple as that? Yes, dear reader, I know your answer to that: Mom would have written pages on the topic!
The fact that I kept all this documentation and that Mom kept all of hers, is a great treasure for my old age. And before Alzheimer’s took it away, her old age as well. It has allowed me to rehabilitate our relationship, and through that process, more fully grasp what a wonderful person and mother Ruth was, and how lucky I am to have shared such time on this earth as we had. Her preserved documentation has felt like an ultimate gift of a mother to a son. And with this writing, my attempt, indeed, to honor her and her blessed memory.
 See “Unboxing Rivka Part 3” which was written almost a year after Part 2, for a surprising amendment to this statement.
 The exact location that each of Rivka’s parents lived immediately prior to Orenburg is uncertain, but it is likely somewhere around the towns of Dvinsk, Latvia and Zarasai (aka Novoalexandrovsk when it was in Russia), Lithuania. Rivka’s family name, Antolept, almost certainly was derived from the nearby small town of Antaliepte, Lithuania. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish people would travel and settle peripatetically in various communities within the Pale of Settlement.
 The same writings that contribute so much to this piece’s historical substance.
 A first cousin that Ruth learned, fascinatingly enough, was from BOTH sides of her family. An uncle on her father’s side married an aunt on her mother’s side. When Sarah and Ruth met, Ruth remarked, “So that’s why we look so much alike!”
After graduating high school in June 1973 and prior to settling into a college start in the fall, I went to work as a nurse’s aide at the Interlake Manor Nursing Home in my hometown of Bellevue, Washington. It was my first full-time job, and I got paid precisely the minimum wage – $1.60/hour.
The value of those 10 weeks far exceeded any financial gain. My nurse’s aide summer came to define my adult character more than any subsequent college learning. It was the time of my coming of age, both morally and politically.
My father, Arthur, had been a director of a nursing home in the 1950’s and early 60’s. His institution was exclusively for geriatric residents. Interlake Manor had a geriatric wing and a non-geriatric wing. I worked in the latter area with younger people struggling from muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and other neurological, developmental and physical disabilities. Some of the residents were faced with progressive diseases. Others had longer, more stable futures.
As I was making beds, cleaning bedpans, and assisting with feeding and other essentials of daily life, I was also developing deeply and mutually caring relationships with residents. Their lives, their personas, filled my days. A few folks – first names only here – became life-long memories:
Billy had muscular dystrophy, a progressive disorder. He was described to me as also being developmentally disabled. But the latter wasn’t so! Even as his body failed him more and more, he maintained a delicious sense of humor, an extraordinarily positive outlook on life, and a kindness to others that inspired many.
Norm was Billy’s roommate. He had cerebral palsy – which was not progressive. He was a thoughtful and gentle man who was supportive of Billy. Seven years later, I happened to see Norm in downtown Seattle. Technology had allowed him to escape nursing home life, and he was in a wheelchair, being lifted onto a Metro bus. He remembered me with a great smile and a warm handshake. He proudly told me he was living independently, with some assistance, in a family home.
Marty was developmentally disabled, moved incredibly slowly along the corridors, talked in a slow, hushed tone, and seemed withdrawn from life at the nursing home. But then, all of a sudden, he would straighten his back, break out into the most expansive smile of all time, and yell out at the top of his voice, “I love you Mrs. Mitness, ya cow!” Marty, who was talking about the head nurse at the home, proceeded to let out a flourish of guffaws. And then, just as quickly, his back humped down again, his smile turned to catatonia, and he slowly shuffled quietly away. I loved Marty… ya cow!
Sheryl was the most severely stricken person at the home with cerebral palsy. She could not walk or talk. But she could type letter by letter with her head hitting a keyboard attached to her wheelchair. She was a beautiful young woman, and while I was there, she announced that she was getting married to a well-bodied man who had been her caregiver at the nursing home. He was a sweet and caring soul, and their vows were pure beauty.
Patricia was blind, and developmentally at a one-year-old level, I was told. Yet she had a dignity about her which was unmistakable.
As I was caring for people, throughout the home, the television was tuned to the greatest political show on earth – the Senate Watergate Hearings. I would sit glued to those hearings during breaks, before my shift, and after my shift. Committee Chairman Sam Ervin – just a poor country lawyer with twitching eyebrows. Howard Baker – what did the President know and when did he know it? Daniel Inouye, with the world’s most resonant voice (and doppelganger for my dad’s colleague Professor Cal Takaki). Lowell Weiker, the “liberal” Republican from Connecticut who turned out to be on Nixon’s “enemies list”. And yes, of course John Dean, his wife Mo sitting behind and to the left, and his even-tempered description of the cancer growing on the presidency. It was all mesmerizing.
But so were the whole cast of characters we came to understand as intimates in a morality play put into real life. Haldeman and Ehrlichman, Nixon’s high-level henchmen. Egil “Bud” Krogh, who headed the “Plumbers” unit. He later recanted his role in the administration, moved to Seattle, and was a seen as a “nice guy” years later by my legal assistant female roommate. He may have been a nice guy, but he also directed the bugging of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office (I later worked for Ellsberg, but that is a different story).
As an 18-year-old man-child all this was mind spinning stuff. Working intimately with vulnerable people and dedicated, caring professionals in the nursing home. And at the same time, seeing the machinations of the powerful and unethical. The combination of events and observations of that time dug deep predilections into my moral universe.
Why I fixated on the date of the Watergate break-in, June 17, 1972, I’ll never remember. But it was during that extraordinary summer of 73’ I committed to telling someone, anyone, on June 17 of every year for the rest of my life, that “this is the xxx anniversary of the Watergate Break-in.” And with nary a miss, I have kept that promise.
Most younger liberal/progressives now see Watergate as a distant event, and Nixon, while an evil man, as causing less damage to the United State polity, than the sinister consequences of Trump’s particular combination of psychoses and phenomenally successful “cultification” of a political party. Yet, as I watch the January 6 Hearings, it all feels like a re-enforcement, not a new set of insights.
And it IS June 17, 2022, after all. What’s that? Why it’s the 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in.
Soon after I published a recent blog entry entitled Bad Buskering, I heard from a friend that she wanted to talk with me. The post was intended as a humor piece mixing nonsense about public musicians playing poorly with a critique of the legal system and a dig at the Supreme Court. It wasn’t that funny, but that turned out to be the least of its problems.
My friend and I talked, and she said that I had made light of a horrific experience in her life and the lives of many other women. The blog piece had prompted an emotionally traumatic response that hurt her deeply. Upon hearing that, I apologized to her and have deleted the blog entry.
Humor can be cutting. It can exacerbate trauma. It can, when done effectively, also bring comfort to those – and that is all of us – who have experienced the cruelties and craziness of life. It can help us cope with loss.
My piece on buskering, in retrospect, failed to deliver the comforts of humor not only for my friend, but for me.
When my son was about 6 years old, I remember a discussion we had about humor. We had been acting silly but then I needed him to do something important. He kept joking around even after I said that the time for humor was over. Finally, I said to him, “What we need to do now is serious and you must listen to me. It might be that you can’t tell the difference between when I’m joking with you and when I’m serious. Do you want me to stop joking with you?”
“No, Dad. I don’t want you to stop joking.”
So, we worked out an agreement about what I would say when I needed him to take me seriously. We put some boundaries on humor.
I won’t stop reaching for humor when it stares me in the face. And I’ll probably step over some lines. But Bad Buskering was another lesson in the dangerous consequences of insensitivity. The recognition that indeed, there are hazards in humor.
“What do you notice about her face?” our cousin Rachel Kalnicki asks, pointing to the Degas sculpture of a young ballerina with tattered tutu and grim countenance. Jean and I are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with cousins Shirley, Dan and Andrea. Rachel, born in Brazil, who has been a volunteer docent at the museum for over 15 years, is giving us a personal tour.
It is a famous sculpture. One that Shirley knows well. But the back story Rachel tells of the piece’s originally controversial and poor reception, of its social commentary on the exploitation and injustice borne by the impoverished girls in the Paris ballet’s back rows, is not obvious.
Slow down. Examine. Consider. Reflect. Reflect some more.
As a regular part of our writing class sessions, our instructor, Keith Eisner, has each of the students read a portion of a writing prior to our collective discussion of the piece. He believes that slowing down and hearing the writing is essential to its understanding.
Last week, prior to his first-year student’s public readings, Keith read a poem by Tennessee Williams. With the war in Ukraine about to enter its second month, with over three million refugees – 90% of whom are women and children – fleeing death and destruction, he asked people to consider the purpose of art:
The world is violent and mercurial—it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love—love for each other and the love that we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.
Last night, joined by our cousins Shirley and Dan again, Jean and I went to a performance by the Paul Taylor Dance Company, part of the New York City Center Dance Festival. Jean had secured the tickets and as we were led to nearly the front of the auditorium, I remarked to her at how close we were to the action. “Well, we can see the orchestra,” she replied, “but for dance, we might be a bit too close to get the wide view.”
A young woman of slight build, wearing a mid-length black dress and black mask, sat next to me on my left. To the left of her, a solidly framed man in black shirt and pants, chatted purposefully with her. As we waited for the performance to begin, I listened as the young woman started talking softly with an older matron in the row ahead. At a break in their conversation, I asked my neighbor if she was a dance performer.
“Yes, I am a dancer,” she replied.
During the subsequent 90 minutes, prior to the start of the dance and during its intermissions, I learn more about my neighbor. I learn still more after returning to our apartment and searching for web references.
Her name is Lauren Lovette and the man seated to her left, Michael Novak. Novak, it turns out, was hand-picked by Paul Taylor to take over the reins of the dance troupe after Taylor died in 2018. Lovette had just been named by Novak last month as the company’s resident choreographer.
I knew none of that, of course, when our conversation began. “You’re a dancer. Oh, that’s wonderful,” I respond innocently. “Do you ever perform professionally?” And away we went.
Lauren had grown up in a deeply religious North Carolina household. And she had a gift. At the age of 14, she got a full scholarship to attend a prestigious New York City ballet school. It was a hard decision for her parents, but they released her to follow God’s plan. She never returned home to stay.
After understanding, if only vaguely at the time, that Lauren was not only a performer, but also a choreographer of some note with a Taylor-produced world premiere (“Pentimento”) performed only the night before, I dove right in. “May I ask you a challenging question.”
“Well, yes, but I may not be able to answer it,” she replied. I could see her smile beneath the black mask.
“The obvious physical differences between men and women seem to play out consistently in dance. The men are powerful and lift the women. They display acts of strength while women are placed in a trusting role of being moved around by the men. What if anything has happened in modern 21st century dance to reflect the changing roles of men and women in society?”
Lauren thought about it for a moment. “You know, I’m not really political in my choreography. I look at the abilities of my dancers and explore from there. There are women who are amazingly strong and able to do things that, frankly, I can’t do. I’m trained in formal ballet. It involves a certain verticality – movement up and down – while modern dance is more horizontal.”
She described movements that require a greater understanding of the body than I can describe, yet I did follow her at the time.
“Recently, I was working with two men. One of the men, very strong, had always functioned as the lifter of women. But in a piece I was choreographing, he was being lifted by the other man. He simply broke down and cried for the joy of the experience. People are different. With different passions and yearnings to fulfill. I love to work with that.”
I asked Lauren, in addition to her new choreography position, if she still performed. “Yes, I’m going to Southern California next week to dance at a maximum-security prison.”
She showed me a picture of a colleague of hers who was in Poland, assisting Ukrainian refugees. They were collaborating on an arts-in-the-prisons project. Then she showed me a picture of a grizzled prisoner she was working with on the LA project. “He has a swastika tattoo which he says he will remove when he is released next week after serving a 15-year felony sentence.”
The Paul Taylor Dance performance was a spectacular tour de force. In parts silly and humorous. In parts tragic. Always an overwhelming expression of the depths of feelings possible from movement of the human body.
Slow down. Slow down. Take in the essence of the moments unfolding.
My son Zac is marrying Vicky in May. Vicky is an art curator. Zac an editor… kind of a curatorial role in journalism. As I have gotten to know Vicky, and am continuing to know my son more as well, I have thought more about art. About the work of curating. About the importance of contextualizing works of art. Be they cat narrations of the apocalypse (https://artreview.com/candice-lin-cat-demons-will-heal-you/) that Vicky is working on), the history of musical instruments at The Met (another Rachel specialty), or Lauren’s work to advance freedom for people by expressing our body’s wonderous capacity for movement.
Slow down. Observe. Do a bit of research. Take it in. Be changed.
In the summer of 2017 – feels like antiquity – my mother’s side of the family tree held a reunion in New York City. This Antolept gathering of the flock brought together the descendants of a Lithuanian-based Jewry who had dispersed to four continents due to war, anti-Semitism and hopes for a better life.
For a couple of days during the reunion, Jean and I stayed with sister Laurie and brother Robie in an Airbnb-rented brownstone walk-up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. We ate brisket, walked the Eastern Parkway border abutting the Chassid-dominated Crown Heights neighborhood, and strolled Prospect Park with our newly discovered cousin Rhona.
Rhona, a bright, professionally accomplished, energetic, and delightful early retiree, loved telling jokes. Not always great jokes… but jokes delivered with a joyousness that prompted smiles.
We just instantly felt close to Rhona and as we departed, she said with the utmost seriousness, “You know, I have a lovely apartment in Brooklyn Heights. I’m rarely there, as I spend most of my time in my home in Pennsylvania. You are welcome to stay at my apartment anytime you are in the city. Stay a night, a week, a month… whatever you want.”
“Are you serious?” I responded.
“Absolutely!” she quickly replied. “But I have only two conditions.”
“OK,” I said out loud, but thought, “here comes the catch.”
“Two conditions: First, is that you water the plants once a week. Second, is that you have fun.”
Rhona let out a big laugh and a bigger smile as I said, “we might just take you up on that.”
“You do that. But remember, you must have fun.”
Fast forward four years. Last summer I visited NYC and on the last night of my trip I stayed with Rhona in her 3rd floor apartment in the exquisitely precious and historic Brooklyn Heights neighborhood. Upon our parting, Rhona reissued her offer and restated the same conditions.
And here we are now, March 2022, in the middle of one month in Brooklyn Heights. For Jean and I took Rhona up on her extraordinary offer and are endeavoring to meet our obligations. Jean is handling the plant watering duties. And we are both chasing bliss.
Having fun… this is always a sword tinged with guilt for me. My affluence, relative to the peoples of the world, allows for indulgences. Any problem with that? “Of course, there is!” says the ever-present gnarly little ethicist dangling from a live oak tree in my amygdala. But then my rational hippocampus counters with the reality that one’s joy does not need to reduce others, and in fact, can induce positive effects more broadly. You know. Fun breeds fun. Which is my guess as to Rhona’s view for her guests.
So, fun it is and fun it will be on the trip.
Our good friend Brian joined us for a few days. One afternoon we all took in the Whitney Art Museum then attended a taping of “Late Night with Seth Meyers.” Hilarity ensued, but no pictures were permitted.
The next day, we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge…
Across to downtown New York…
Down into the financial district…
Where we rubbed horns with Wall Street’s brass bull.
For the last couple of weeks, we have chowed down on delicacies from local delis and specialty ethnic restaurants.
Terrific baba ghanoush, hummus and tzatziki. Et cetera!
Our cousins Shirley and Dan will be joining us soon. The pace will pick up immediately. Museums to visit. Broadway shows to be wowed by. Coney Island demands a Nathan’s visit. Dan is looking into a train ride out to Montauk.
There is a pace to travels, when you have one or two weeks and you want to see stuff. Shirley and Dan are on that ride. Up to now, that hasn’t been our pace. We are reveling in doing nothing in the apartment. Maybe a short walk to take in the extraordinary skyline views from the Brooklyn Promenade first thing in the morning.
Or rounding the corner for a hot bagel. Or going no further than the living room and settling down for a long read with one of Rhona’s books.
One can, of course, enjoy a good book at home. But doing so in an historic and gracious apartment in Brooklyn Heights is just plain fun. And after all, that is our obligation.