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Sunday, January 03, 2010

Baruch Dayan Emet

[A guest post by Zahava]

There are some people who are such an integral part of the foundation of your life that you can’t imagine that they won’t always be there. My Grand-Uncle 'Chick' – my maternal grandmother’s (z”l) younger brother – was one of those people. 'Uncle Chick' was a great bear of a man – over 6’2” with a thick crop of bright white hair over dancing eyes.  He passed away last night (he was the last of his siblings to leave us), and his passing marks the end of an era.

My earliest memories of my Uncle Chick are of a flour-dusted man in baker’s white clothes – cigarettes neatly folded under the rolled sleeve of his t-shirt – dropping off piping hot rye bread and fresh flaky Babka in our kitchen as he stopped by on his way home after the night shift at the bakery.

Back then, our whole family lived in Boston, within a stone’s throw of one another. My maternal grandparents lived upstairs, my grandmother’s oldest sister and youngest brother lived across town, and Uncle Chick lived just one town over. 

My grandmother and her siblings were very close, and I remember long informal visits in each of their various homes.  Inevitably, I’d end up on Uncle Chick’s lap, snuggling into his coarsely whiskered face. When my brother came along, Uncle Chick's lap – and his heart – easily expanded to easily accommodate both of us.

His hearty laugh was as big as his powerful frame, and he never tired of good-hearted but relentless teasing. As a small child I didn’t realize that the toughness and the teasing were a cover – a shield of sorts to help him hide the demons of his youth.

Uncle Chick had served in Patton’s Third Army (infantry). He’d seen some horrible fighting and had been one of the young soldiers to liberate the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camps. He’d served alongside his younger brother; a sensitive boy whose mind didn’t survive the horrors the two of them encountered in Europe.

When I was a teenager, and learning about the Holocaust, I asked my uncle about his experiences. It was the only time I ever saw him cry. It was the only time I ever saw his eyes lose their twinkling merriment. I understood then, and deeply appreciate now, the strength it took him to revisit those horrors. My grandmother said she’d never heard him talk about the end of the war, but he knew how important it was to a young American Jewish girl to understand her place in the spectrum of our people’s history, and so he’d granted me that wrenching interview.

When I was in college and my peers were spending their spring breaks soaking up sand, sun, and beer – I spent my spring breaks visiting my grandmother and her siblings in their retirement villas (they lived near each other in the same complex).

More often than not, it was Uncle Chick who met me at the airport. He’d toss me over his shoulder like I was one of those long-ago-delivered loaves of rye, grab my bags and tease me incessantly until we got to my grandmother’s. Just before I’d get out of the car, he’d remind me to be a “good girl” and help my grandmother while I was in for the visit. He knew I didn’t need reminding, but he couldn’t let go of his role as the protective brother.

When David and I met, Uncle Chick and Aunt Sarah were still spending their summers at their vacation cabin in southern Maine. After we got engaged, my uncle asked us up for a weekend in the woods so he could grill my future spouse and determine his worth.

I tried, unsuccessfully, to describe my uncle’s boundless energy. I am still not sure what David expected, but will never forget the surprised expression he wore when my then 75-year old uncle ripped the door open of the still slowing car, grabbed me from the passenger seat, flung me over his shoulder and disappeared into the moonlit woods screaming “she’s my niece, and I’ve got her now!” as my amused aunt apologetically approached David explaining that my uncle had really been looking forward to our visit.

Needless to say, we had a wonderful time with them. They loved David, and the feeling was more than mutual.

The first few years following our wedding were a strange mix of sorrow and joy. After a two-year fight, my mother succumbed to her terrible battle with cancer, leaving her children, her spouse and her elderly relatives with gaping holes in their hearts. Our Ariella, just 2 months old at the time of her Savta’s death, was the welcome distraction everyone needed. Cuddling his great-grand niece in the crook of his arm, Uncle Chick comforted me during the shiva with stories of my mother as a little girl, a teenager, a young mother, and finally as a loving adult niece.

Not surprisingly, Uncle Chick deftly took on the role of Great-grand-uncle to Ari, and upon his arrival Gili. Even less surprisingly, the kids loved him as fiercely as David and I.

Chick 
    [Uncle Chick holds Gilad on his lap during one of our visits before we made aliyah] 

Though he was very sad to say good-bye to us before our Aliyah, he was loving and supportive. We kept in touch – not nearly often enough – by phone. As he aged, Uncle Chick’s hearing loss sapped him of the patience for phone calls. The last time we spoke was last June, when I convinced him to share with Ariella the bits of family lore stored within the sole surviving family member of his generation.

He told us stories of his immigrant parents Raphael and Zlata (my namesake). How they met when my Romanian Great-grandfather was on leave from the Czar’s army in my Great-grandmother’s hometown on the Russian/Belarus border. He told Ari of her Great-great-grandparents decision to leave for the goldeneh medina; and of their 5 year separation while my great-grandfather worked to save for the passage of his wife and the young daughter born after he’d left.

He told my daughter about her Great-grandmother – about how much he enjoyed growing up the next sibling to the giggling tomboy twins. He shared the romantic courtship of her great-grandparents, and reminded us of how much he missed not only his dear sister, but the brother-in-law who had become his best friend, and my daughter’s own namesake.

He told Ariella of his delight when he became an Uncle to his second niece in 5 days after his twin sisters shared their special bond by having daughters 5-days apart, practically ensuring that the cousins would grow to be as close as their mothers had been.

At that point in the conversation, my uncle’s voice grew husky with grief. He explained to Ariella how very much he missed his sisters and brother, his first and second wives, and his own son who’d passed away a few years ago. Children, he said, were not supposed to die before their parents. He suddenly sounded so old… so far away… so frail.

After he finished up on the phone with Ari, he told me that my brother often downloaded pictures of my kids and brought them to him. He couldn’t believe how big everyone was – couldn’t believe that his sabra great-grand-nephew would be starting kindergarten at the end of the summer. He told me that my mother would have been proud.

Before he hung up, he told me he was tired. Tired and old.  I didn’t want to hear it.

“You’ll never be old, Uncle Chick!” I tried to reassure him.

“Kid,“ he said gently, “you can’t stop the grains of sands from running through the hour-glass. You happy?” I told him I was. “Good.” He replied. “You were always a good girl. I gotta go now honey, I gotta rest. It’s hard for me to talk on the phone, but I am real glad you called.  Ariella sounds like a beautiful young lady. Your grandmother and your mother would have enjoyed her very much. Make sure you enjoy her too.”

“Of course I will,” I mumbled through tumbling tears. “You’re right, she is a beautiful young lady. She misses you. We all miss you very much.” “I miss you too, honey,” came the soft reply. “Well…. Give David and the boys my love, honey… I’ll ask your brother to bring me more pictures when he brings his kids for a visit…. Love you.”

“I love you too.” I whispered into the receiver knowing it was too late, that he’d already hung up.

I love you Uncle Chick. You were a GREAT Great-Uncle – the best a girl could have. I miss you so very, very much.

Posted by David Bogner on January 3, 2010 | Permalink

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Baruch Dayan Emet. He sounds like a wonderful uncle, and how special that you obviously appreciated that relationship. Thank you for sharing your memories of him - and bringing back some wonderful memories of my own older relatives. May your memories bring you and your family strength.

Posted by: Alissa | Jan 3, 2010 4:09:16 PM

that you for sharing memories of your great uncle. it sounds like he was a wonderful person. i had alot of older relatives who have now passed on and miss them very much. this post brings back good memories. its good that you appreciated your times with him. the older generation contributes and have contributed so much to our lives.

Posted by: frum single female | Jan 3, 2010 4:32:35 PM

Ha-Makom yenachem etchem b'tokh sha'ar aveilei Tzion viy'rushalayim.

Your great-uncle Chick sounds like a Great Uncle, indeed. A lovely epitaph for what must have been a wonderful, sweet man... thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and your love for him with us.

Posted by: Elisson | Jan 3, 2010 5:07:47 PM

thanks for sharing.

Posted by: Lurker | Jan 3, 2010 5:17:58 PM

Thanks for sharing such personal and moving thoughts.

Posted by: RivkA | Jan 3, 2010 5:20:06 PM

Baruch Dayan Emet.

Posted by: Jack | Jan 3, 2010 6:36:59 PM

Alissa; FSF; Elisson; Lurker, RivkA and Jack: Thank you all so much for your kind words and support. Being a minimum of 7 hours ahead of my Stateside extended family had me teary-eyed and feeling very sorry for myself. Writing this, and pawing through treasured family photo albums, kept me sane until I could reasonably call some of my family to share in condolences and memories.

My brother was with him when he passed away. Knowing he wasn't alone is a huge comfort. He was a few months shy of his 94th birthday, and for a man of his age had enjoyed relatively good health for most of it. My cousin and I had a rare and lovely chat and got to exchange lots of good memories of him and our other aunts, uncle, and grandparents.

I am especially delighted to know that my sharing helped some of you enjoy your own memories... B'sorot tovot! May we all have the opportunity to share in smachot!

Posted by: zahava | Jan 3, 2010 8:17:10 PM

Zahava, could you send me a warning before you post something like this again? Something like.."Marsha, take out your contacts before you read this"....Beautiful tribute to someone who was no doubt a beautiful soul. You, David, and your children, growing up in our homeland, are a tribute to those who came before you but didn't have the z'chut to do what you're doing...May his memory be for a blessing.

Posted by: marsha | Jan 3, 2010 8:17:19 PM

Baruch Dayan HaEmet. SO sorry for your loss. What a gift to have had him in your life for so long.

Posted by: Hadassah | Jan 3, 2010 8:59:13 PM

Uncle Chick was a member of what is now coined as "The Greatest Generation", and deservedly so. You have a beautiful family, Zehava, in all ways. May your memories bring you comfort.

Posted by: Baila | Jan 3, 2010 10:48:01 PM

Marsha: Sorry.... and thank you. You probably don't remember meeting him, but he was at our wedding....

Hadassah: Thank you so much! And I agree -- it really was a gift!

Posted by: zahava | Jan 3, 2010 10:56:50 PM

Yehi zichro baruch.

Posted by: Mrs. S.. | Jan 3, 2010 11:05:10 PM

Baila: Sorry... I was responding to earlier comments and didn't see yours come up... Thank you so much for your kind words! Uncle Chick would have blushed beet red at the suggestion that he was a member of the "The Greatest Generation" -- but it wouldn't have stopped him from loving the expression! He marveled at the technological wonders he lived to experience -- as a boy, he and his sisters ran deliveries for the family grocery with their horse and buggy and as a nonagenerian viewed pictures of his family from overseas on this very blog!

BTW -- tried to leave a comment expressing my condolences on your loss over at your place. Am certain given the way my day has gone that the problem exists between the user and keyboard....

Posted by: zahava | Jan 3, 2010 11:10:55 PM

Zahava,

It sounds like he was a truly wonderful man and a real blessing to many. My condolences.

Posted by: Karl Newman | Jan 4, 2010 3:29:10 AM

Baruch Dayan HaEmet.
Zahava I am sorry for your loss. You have written a beautiful tribute. Your uncle was obviously a great loving man and you and your family were lucky that he was part of your family.

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | Jan 4, 2010 9:08:30 AM

Zahava, what a blessing to have had such a wonderful uncle. I'm so sorry for your loss. Barukh dayyan ha-emet.

Posted by: Rahel | Jan 4, 2010 11:48:06 AM

Mrs. S; Karl; Ilana-Davita; & Rahel: Thank you for all your kind sentiments!

Posted by: zahava | Jan 4, 2010 3:59:52 PM

I am very sorry for your loss. The generation of your great uncle was truly "Great". I had a much beloved Great Uncle too, who was in the Italy campaigns during WWII. That generation saw things that no young man should have ever been exposed to. But they then managed to come home and live. Sounds like your Great Uncle Chick passed on a whole lot of life to his family. May his memory be blessed.

Posted by: Noa | Jan 4, 2010 8:03:45 PM

I can't believe I am sitting here again in tears, reading all these emotional posts. So sorry for your loss...the ending of life is hard, for us--who remain among the living; I am certain, however, that those who leave us go on to a special, miraculous place, and their souls live on.

Posted by: Lady-Light | Jan 4, 2010 9:42:52 PM

Zahava, you did the old man right. May he rest in peace.

Posted by: Wry Mouth | Jan 5, 2010 1:22:21 AM

Baruch dayan emes. Your words were quite moving. There was a nobility and a simplicity about your uncle's generation that seems to no longer exist in ours. May his memory be a both a blessing and a lesson.

Posted by: psachya | Jan 5, 2010 6:30:17 PM

Thank you for sharing that beautiful post. You were blessed by having him in your life, and he was clearly blessed by having you in his life! Really, beautiful post - our condolences on your loss.

Posted by: Leah Weiss Caruso | Jan 8, 2010 4:49:25 AM

Noa: I wholeheartedly agree!

Lady-Light: Sorry to make you cry -- but yes, it is hard on us....

Wry-Mouth: The way you phrased your comment -- YOU'RE CHANNELING HIM! LOL! :-)

Psachya: Thank you so much. They were a stoic lot, no?!

LWC: Thank you. Though he wasn't much of a kibbitzer, and didn't discuss feelings, he was very good at letting everyone in the family know that they were cherished and loved. I hope he knew how deeply returned that love was....

Posted by: zahava | Jan 11, 2010 9:51:06 AM

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