Thanksgiving

This is my 83rd Thanksgiving.  I don’t remember the first one.  It was probably snowing.  The early years are a blur, but I do recall sitting around the large, otherwise unused dining room table with the crisp, white holiday tablecloth which had been properly stored, washed and ironed for the occasion.  My mother’s special china, brought out for Thanksgiving and the High Holidays, was carefully laid out at each place.  My dad always sat at the head of the table and was served first.  Mom never seemed to sit down.  She was always jumping up to respond to dad’s commands.  She ate while preparing the meal and snacked her way through our dinner.  The menu was a blend of old world and new – the traditional turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie was served alongside beef brisket, matzoh ball soup, gefilte fish and kugel. Everything was kosher. The early holidays were special in that all five of us were together –my parents, me, my brother Marty and sister Ruby.  In later years my sister brought her new husband, but my brother was a no-show after 1951, once he left for college and then his life beyond, dealmaking in New York City.   Thanksgiving holidays for me represent different parts of my life.  Early childhood, brother and sister at home, the years I returned for the holiday from college followed by marriage, and then returning to my childhood home with my late wife and our young children.  After my parents retired to Florida, our family Thanksgivings were on our own in East Hampton. 

                Thanksgiving is one of those holidays that is fixed in the calendar, always the fourth Thursday of November.  These holiday milestone markers remain the same, while the participants and locations change, dictated by where one sets down a home.  Looking back over 83 years of Thanksgivings, reflecting on memorable times with parents, siblings, loved ones past and children, I realize it is a holiday about looking to the past, not the future.  Unlike New Year’s celebrations when we look ahead, Thanksgiving is a time to be thankful for all we have and have had, and for simply sitting at a table to share a meal with those close to us — being in the room where it happens, so to speak.  I look forward to this year’s Thanksgiving, despite the fact that we are not all at the table.  Each Thanksgiving is a short, shining moment in life’s story – enjoy it while you can. 

The Magic of Hurricanes

Hurricanes can be terrifying as Ian recently demonstrated on the west coast of Florida. Last week, a category 1 called Hurricane Nicole threatened the east coast. It was a major disruption coming soon after a minor one — the clock change from daylight savings time. Adjusting to sunup and the hour setback was always distressing when I wintered up north. Yet the threat of a category 1 did not raise my blood pressure. I believe when you live waterside you assume the risk. That is a choice one makes—perhaps it is a lifestyle or even a sense of adventure. I choose to wait out hurricanes. This time I was lucky.

The streets looked like a modern-day ghost town. Restaurants and shops closed early once the alerts started to spike between cell phones and the tv weather reports. An evacuation order was in effect in Palm Beach so roads emptied of cars and trucks as the trade parade started crossing west over the bridges that serve Palm Beach. As the transient working population left together with many of the island residents, many headed for hotels inland in West Palm Beach, everything quieted down except for the wind, which steadily picked up momentum. The periodic rain droplet fell yet many sidewalks and streets remained dry despite the scattered precipitation and wind gusts. The stormy, tropical air was refreshing. The temperature was a steady 75 degrees. It was a Caribbean Island feel. The waves along Ocean Road topped the hard revetment structures. Waves as high as 20 feet crashed onto the waterfront roads, where locals out walking recorded the wave action on their cell phones. It was a dangerous walk since a rogue wave could easily overwhelm anyone in its path.

The social life of this new Caribbean-like island continued on, with a few storm-influenced modifications. As restaurants were closed, friends took to each other’s homes and apartments for cocktails and quickly thrown together dinners planned in anticipation of the storm touching down later on. Locals are always prepared for a hurricane party. Extra umbrellas and flip flops are always on hand. Even the recent memory of Hurricane Ian didn’t scare off everyone from enjoying the evening. With storm shutters fastened down, candles and flashlights were standard hardware should the power go out. In preparation of full electric failure, ice was stacked in buckets and cold food was the fare on offer. The phrase “house buttoned up” was heard frequently. Cars were parked in covered areas to avoid falling trees. Patio furniture was brought indoors. “Why not” was the common response to an invite from the neighbor downstairs whom one never met in five years of residency in the same apartment building. We all watched the weather reports on tv, with its repetitive charts and projections. After nothing but midterms news the change was a relief. The counterclockwise spin of the hurricane drove the action northeast. On the tv screen, the white swirling mass moved two inches to the left and up. Those two little inches meant our Category 1 hurricane was just downgraded. The next morning, I awoke and thought I was still dreaming. Just like that a category 1 hurricane became a tropical rainstorm. That relief felt something like magic.

Showing Up

           Recently one of Patti’s tennis teammates was heard complaining about the fact that she was not selected for a particular match simply because she had not been present at the beginning of league play. Notwithstanding a valid excuse, the players that showed up ready and fit to play at the start of the season competed for slots in the lineup. Those that drifted in after several weeks found all the competition slots filled. Good reasons aside, showing up on time is Rule One on the competitive playgrounds of life. 

The incident brought to mind my experience with the Kodak Park Athletic League during the summer of 1951; I was 11 years old.   After tryouts for the softball team, I was selected for second base. I felt up to the task of defending my piece of the field.  My confidence was further boosted because our neighbor, the wealthy owner of the local Ford Dealership, had gifted me my own softball bat for the season.  Before the first game, there I was, bike ready to travel to the field off the Memorial Bridge and inside Kodak Park, the largest employer and possibly landowner in all of Rochester. The ten of us from diverse parts of Rochester all showed up well in advance of the opening pitch.  That game was the highlight of my summer.  However, the stars were not all in alignment. My softball career was interrupted abruptly and with very little warning and I had the uncomfortable task of telling my coach I was going to miss the next game.  The trouble started because my older brother, Marty, a senior in high school, graduated a semester early and headed to Alfred College to enter midterm in December–he was fearful of being drafted into the Korean War conflict and had hedged his bets by applying early for college. This would be the last summer my dad could count on Marty to run the parking lot in his absence.   For some reason my parents decided to take their one and only vacation of their lifetimes in the summer of 1951. Marty did not want to babysit me. He planned to work the parking lot during business hours and then party in the evenings with the cash he made during the day. How did Marty get away with this?  Well he was the oldest son and the prince.  I had no option but to join my folks, my sister and her husband on the vacation trip to Atlantic City. I am certain my sister did not want to go either, but without her my dad could not read the maps provided by Triple A.  So there I was, crunched between my sister and her husband for the non-stop drive from upstate New York to southern New Jersey. I should have stayed when I got there– in l958 I went back for college at Rutgers in nearby New Brunswick.  But that’s another story.  At the missed game, the coach handed out t-shirts printed with our team’s name in bold lettering: RUBY (coincidentally that was also my sister’s name).  Because I missed that game, I never got my t-shirt.  All for not showing up.

No matter the excuse there no substitute for being prompt and in place when your name is called. I learned a good lesson and it has stayed with me. Kodak is gone and I no longer play softball, and these days, as an attorney, it is usually others showing up to meet with me. On time.

“Billy – yu wanna go fishin’?”

…I texted my grandson.  I am always asking him, but never get the response I want.   I would like Billy to come down to Florida by himself, for some freshwater fishing on a river I discovered off Jupiter inlet.  During the summers, I have coaxed him to fish with me in Maine at our camp, but only if his father or mother were in the canoe with him.   I can understand that at age 12 he may be too young to travel by himself from New York to Florida or Maine, but I keep asking and hoping for at least a “maybe.”   Instead, I get a definitive “no.”  I know Billy enjoys our Maine excursions with Andy our fishing guide.  Andy always puts Billy into small mouth bass (that’s fisherman talk) and in fact, Billy boasts to friends and family about how much he catches.  Last summer with his mom, he caught more fish than I did.  But my dream of having my grandson fish and hike in the woods with me, just the two of us, won’t be a reality until Billy is a little older. 

In the past, my girls would not want to go on my fishing trips, whether in the U.S. or abroad. Even the promise of international travel was not enough to tempt them.  They were teenagers, more comfortable at home with their mother and their peers, none of whom were of learning how to flyfish.  I always imagined that someday I would have a grandson to accompany me, and that’s why I am a little impatient waiting for Billy to grow up enough to wave goodbye to his parents and go along with Grandpa’s plans.  I know he will eventually – Billy is a terrific, adventuresome kid.  Of late, I suspect there may be another factor making him hesitant about leaving home, even for a short time:  his sister is away at her first year of college.   Billy may be enjoying all the undivided attention from his mom and dad, and at the same time, may not want them to feel lonely without any of their children around.  I am no substitute for his parents, whom he adores. 

As a child I had no qualms about taking adventurous trips without my parents.  I joined my friends and their parents on trips to the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River and I attended Camp Seneca, which was sleepaway, every summer growing up.  I went to basketball games with my Uncle Sam, getting home long after dark, and went on weekend excursions to the farm of one of our neighbors.  I was always up for getting out of the house and being somewhat on my own at Billy’s age.  When I received an Indian Racer bicycle I was off every day after school, exploring. During the summers I was out on my bike from after breakfast until sundown.  Back then, being at home just wasn’t as entertaining as it is for kids these days with television and computers and video chatting with friends.  I didn’t even have books at home –I had to go to the library for those and read them there, my bike parked outside.    When Billy hits his teen years, I won’t take “no” for an answer.  And my wifi is working just fine for video games, computer, all of it–AFTER we get back from a day on the lake. 

Bagel Shop

I was up from Florida this past week for a brief stay in East Hampton and then into New York for a rainy weekend.  OMG do I miss Florida on a cold rainy day.  On Saturday the skies cleared enough to go ahead with the usual routine – haircut and shave at York barbershop, breakfast at Neil’s on the corner of Lexington and 70th Street, and finally “happy hour” at Shakespeare & Co. bookstore to browse for works by Elizabeth Hardwick.  I have been reading Robert Lowell, the poet, and now have expanded to the other writers in his circle; Hardwick was his second wife and an acclaimed novelist and essayist.  Lunch with my pal Jay was scheduled for early afternoon at The Mansion diner on the corner of 86th and York Avenue, near to Jay’s apartment.  We arrived to find the restaurant closed, the front entrance obstructed with equipment for a movie being filmed on the block.  Only in New York!  Jay recommended we go across the street to Tal Bagels.  A traditional New York bagel shop is a unique restaurant experience.  If you’ve never been to one, basically it is an “appetizing” takeout with all kinds of fish—smoked salmon (“nova” or “lox”), whitefish, gefilte fish (not really a fish), smoked herring, pickled herring and pickled herring in cream sauce.  There are all kinds of salads, such as tuna salad, whitefish salad, egg salad, fruit salad. Then the cream cheeses: plain, or with vegetable, or with nova, or cinnamon raisin and even tofu non-dairy. And deli galore, from corned beef to roast beef to tongue.  Everything to go on a bagel.  Aside from the bagels there are flagels – flattened bagels, and bialys, a type of roll with onion or poppy seed, and rugelach – a sweet roll with nuts and chocolate.

                The line to the counter at Tal’s ran out to the sidewalk but it was moving quickly.  There were a few tables inside for those like us who came to “dine.” Jay took a seat to hold a table while I took to the line.  You must be fast and ready to respond to “Whata ya want mista?” I was studying the menu and lost my place in line.  Quick to recover I ordered, paid, and awaited the omelet with a toasted sesame bagel on the side for me and the lox and bagel for Jay.   Back in my seat, I felt someone brush past me.  It was an older man walking carefully toward the counter. He held a long white stick with a red tip.  At first glance I did not realize that he was blind because he was wearing reading glasses. He turned to face me and said, “Pardon me.”  “No problem,” I responded.  I watched as the man behind the counter handed the blind fellow his order and took two five-dollar bills for payment, no change.  Apparently, he was a regular.  As he managed to make his way out of the deli I got up from my seat and touched his elbow.  “Can I help you to the door?” I asked him.  He nodded and I gently held his elbow, guiding him.  We walked together to the exit, and I offer to assist him down the stairs to the street.  “No thank you, young man,” he said. My youthful voice obviously misled him into thinking I was not an 83-year-old bagel eater.  I took it as a compliment.  I went back in to finish lunch with Jay as it started to rain again. 

“Keep the Thorn to Keep the Rose”

My smart watch showed “snow showers in Danforth.”  It is the time of year when Greg and Katie scramble to open the storage garage and sort out where all the “stuff” accumulated over the summer and summers before will be stacked away for the next year’s adventures.  This year not only do we need a bed for the canoe and my old power boat, but I recently shipped up to camp my complete library of books accumulated since the mid-1970s. Greg is to build, over the winter, a new set of shelves to house my beloved, mostly-read books in my man cave-office-studio.  I always feel comforted surrounded by books, as I am by the small fireplace in the studio.  Next spring, I will organize the books, and figure out where my fly-tying apparatus goes, as well as my painting easel and other assorted tchotchkes. But now things are winding down.  The closing up of camp in the fall coincides with my birthday in October and is always a time of reflection for me.

A recent article in the New York Times, “Fall Can Be a Season for Building Resilience” by Erick Vance, describes the melancholy one feels at the loss of sunlight and greenery at the end of summer.  Yet those who “lean in” to the discomfort can gain from it, as it enables them to build up a tolerance to other fears and uncertainties in life. “Mindfulness” is another way to simply observe and accept life as it is rather than thinking about change as a source of distress.  Useful advice, as this autumn is a bit scarier than most given what is happening in the world:  important mid-term elections at a time when our democratic system is at risk, an escalating war in Ukraine and the threat of nuclear confrontation, plus the economic turmoil of inflation—and we cannot forget about the damage caused by Hurricane Ian on the west coast of Florida.  It is getting harder for me to read and accept the front-page news.  I know I must keep abreast of what is happening in the world, but it is becoming burdensome.  I find the obituaries and wedding announcements more enjoyable than the current events being reported.  Personally, I am fortunate to be healthy, to have a life filled with adventure, love and career success.  Yet there is an unsettling feeling of uncontrollable events on the horizon.  My form of mindfulness is to delve into a good book to take me to another place. Mysteries, biography, classics, as well as a new project—research on a historical novel I plan to write about my father’s escape from Ukraine during the First World War in 1918, and his journey across Europe to Argentina and eventually to upstate New York. Now there was someone with resilience. 

Vance also talks about autumn as a time of year for “harvesting” memories, looking back and collecting the moments, good and bad, without judgment: “Keep the thorn to keep the rose.”  At my age, I have plenty of thorns, but even more roses, for which I am grateful.  The months ahead will be filled with various adventures and other ways to cope with the blues the changing seasons can bring, and of course my professional work is always a constant source of fresh challenges and excitement.  And camp opening in May is only eight months away. In the meantime, stay warm, Katie and Greg.

How About a Podcast?

I have been thinking about technology in the digital age and how it has affected the way I work, as well as its impact on communication – newspapers specifically–compared to what things were like just a few years ago.   Today I have the means to practice law from anywhere.  Not only from Maine but this year so far I have worked remotely from Florida, Dallas, Downieville, Reno, Wyoming and New York City. I have been video conferencing with my office for years using Skype and GoTo meetings, but Covid was the catalyst to a new and revolutionary workspace environment.  The advent of Zoom, an enhanced version of the video conference technology, combined with the years-long isolation period, has had a lasting impact on how business is conducted now in these post Covid times.  I do not necessarily need the in-person setting to do my job and can make a legal case through Zoom as if I were in the courtroom.  Of course, I am not able to make the direct one-on-one eye contact I usually try to do but I make up for it with other powers of persuasion.  Our local hearings have been held remotely since 2020 and are just now returning to in-person events as well as hybrid proceedings, allowing for both in-person and Zoom for those unable to attend, particularly the disabled.  For our office meetings with outside experts and clients, I prefer zoom to conference calls so that I can make certain I have everyone’s attention.  It also enables me to share drawings, plans and surveys on the screen. The pressure to have everyone physically in the same room no longer exists. 

The digital age has brought about improvements in the office, but it has impacted the newspaper industry dramatically.  So many local print newspapers have folded and the larger ones face cuts and struggle on.  I have thought about how the Mountain Messenger can survive and grow in this environment.  Carl Butz and I met in Downieville in June and discussed ways to add digital subscribers as well as increase circulation to areas around Downieville that are no longer served by a local paper.  We have many ideas but would like to hear from you, the readers of the Mountain Messenger – those of you who subscribe, or pick it up at the local newsstand, or find it online.  We would like to do a podcast discussing some ideas and ask those of you who are willing, to join in with your suggestions and comments.   There will be plenty of advance notice of the podcast date in the paper as well as on the website.  Carl and I trust many of you will respond and we thank you in advance for helping to grow the Mountain Messenger. 

Last Sunday in New York

I was up late this last Sunday of September on the eve of Rosh Hashana. New York is quiet during the Jewish holidays. The walk west along 68th street to the newsstand on the corner of Lexington Ave was not the usual upstream push against the crowd of hospital workers on their way from the exit of the subway to New York Hospital on First Avenue. The stands that line 68th street were robust with days-old fruit and vegetables, the salespeople on their cell phones speaking in Middle East languages. The stack of New York Times Sunday papers was unusually high as was the New York Post. New Yorkers were not in town that was obvious. I decided to take my morning coffee at the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore on the corner of 68th and Lexington-my usual haunt whenever I am in the city. A stack of books awaiting author signature were at the cash register-Ian McEwan’s “Lessons.” I was quick to buy a copy. The young woman behind the counter was pleasant. We were alone in the store. I felt like I had just dropped into a sacred land of books, virtually alone with all these authors in the early morning when I could touch any book and feel inspired. There is something special to me about bookstores. My early years upstate at Scranton’s on Main Street, I would walk the aisles unable to buy anything for lack of spendable money. More importantly I didn’t have the knowledge I have today of authors and topics of interest. It took three years of reading American literature and history at Rutgers to finally accept that I could read and more importantly grasp what was written notwithstanding my dyslexia.  Here I was in this sacred place able to buy any book and able to be selective. With coffee in hand I sat down in a corner of the book store and delved into the Times only to see on the front page an article on a newly discovered trove of Hemingway stories, documents, unpublished works and photos on display at Penn State University. I was immediately taken by the article and read it through in the quiet room. I walked over to the shelves with Hemingway and scanned his many works. It was personal like I was able to talk to the author. I was transfixed. Some say bookstores like local newspapers are of the past. Carl and I talked last night after watching the film about a day in the life of The Mountain Messenger.  I felt relieved that I am alive in a time when both bookstores and newspapers are still in existence despite the preponderance of technology. It was great to be in New York this Sunday before I travel south for the winter. All is good with me.

The Cygnet

I had a short stay at camp with my high school friends this past week, all of us class of 1958, Benjamin Franklin High School, Rochester, New York.  The camaraderie and closeness with the guys and the warmth of us all being around the fire pit, the shifting smoke notwithstanding, made for a strong sense of wellbeing.  We were together from early morning coffee to late night story sessions of times past and memories relived. But the good feeling, which I hoped would last, was overshadowed by a disappointing discovery on my return to New York.  My house is situated on a cove that is home to a longstanding flock of swans that have co-existed with us since the 1970s.  Before I left to go to Maine, I noticed a bevy of young cygnets trailing a mother and father in the water.   Now I found that the entire family had dwindled down to one lone cygnet survivor.  Sadly, the female swan was found floating in the water and there was no trace of the others, aside from the last offspring swimming alone in Jones Cove, fluttering about among the phragmites, looking for its family.  Coming off a trip with my oldest and dearest friends from upstate, the missing swans seemed a metaphor somehow, to those longstanding relationships we have, to illness and aging and the inevitable loss we face. The surviving cygnet represents our own children and the future. 

At camp, we focused on the past and its impact on our respective lives.  After a meal of comfort food and several glasses of Sancerre, the stories flowed like the wonderful wines my friends brought to camp.  A predominant theme was the importance of our mothers on our lives growing up.  Our fathers were the vegetable broker, the electrician, the garment worker and in my case the parking lot manager.  We all survived like my lone cove swan to create our legacies for the future.  As the swan matures, the brown cygnet colors dissolve into white and it will, like some of us humans, find a mate for life and reproduce.  Unlike the cove swans, whose domain is our pond, my friends and I have “cygnets” of our own, who are well into maturity with established families and careers. They include entrepreneurs, a travel consultant, a teacher of autistic children, an attorney, and a museum director. My daughter Kara is a jewelry designer and my daughter Brooke an interior decorator.  Our children have “spread their wings and flown” and we are proud of them. The sole cygnet will, hopefully, fly out of the cove to thrive with a new flock on the pond.  

To my buddies, Harv, Arnie, Jer and Bobbie and their beautiful gals, thank you for coming together at camp this past week.  Enjoy the upcoming season as if it were that last break after graduation, before we started our new lives in the fall of 1958.   

The Cemetery

I haven’t made my usual cemetery visit to upstate in several years due to Covid. Now there is no longer an excuse not to pay my respects to my folks, as my mother educated me to do as a youngster by having me drive her to the cemetery once I earned my driver’s license at age 17, to visit her mother, Lena Ressel, at the cemetery on Britton Road.  A few weeks ago, I had some time in my schedule, so I decided to make the trip to Rochester.  

On the morning planned for the cemetery visit, the weather was appropriate –rain.  I parked outside the grounds and searched along the residential street for some stones to place on the headstone, as an act of remembrance and as evidence to all those who succeeded me that I was a good son.  Once inside the cemetery grounds, I was surprised how long it took my to find my parents.  The grass surrounding the graves was wet and my shoes were soggy before I saw “Ackerman” in the middle row of plots.  After paying respect to my mother and father, I looked for relatives of my father, in an area of the cemetery called Kupel Volochisk, after the village in eastern Ukraine from which the people, long since laid to rest there, once emigrated during their lifetimes.  My father’s parents perished in the Holocaust so there was no individual headstone for Hershel and Ida Ackerman.   When I visited in 2019 with my daughter Brooke and granddaughter Lilly, we found a monument in the center the Kupel Volochisk section, honoring those from the village who died in the Holocaust.  I added a stone to the several atop the monument. Not much had changed since my youth, except there were more graves crammed in the old cemetery of past congregants of the Koppel Shul on Joseph Avenue. 

Afterward, the next stopover of course, was Don and Bob’s, the original hamburger stand on Lake Ontario, where I had spent a good number of evenings dining out in my youth. I found my way from Britton Road over the Stillson Bridge to Beach Road and Don’s stand.  I had prepared myself with an antacid, so I was ready to indulge.  I savored the one-pound ground round with everything.  Reading the New York Times at the counter, I recalled memories of the 1950s in the northern part of Rochester and felt a little sad.  The neighborhood was once a thriving mecca for families with fish and kosher meat stands, bakeries and the like.  Now the area is in decline, with project houses and abandoned buildings.  Little remains except for a few churches and my old synagogue in form only.  The life of the city as the occupants of the Kupel cemetery knew it, like them, is gone.  Only monuments remain for those who are still here to visit and remember our loved ones who have passed on.