David Hirshberg

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My Mother's Son

Prologue - The yin and yang of my life

When you’re a kid, they don’t always tell you the truth.

They tell others that they don’t want to hurt you or they think you won’t understand. But in reality, it’s just easier if they tell you what makes them feel good, or what gets them out of a jam.

That, as you devotees know, is how I opened each radio show five nights a week for forty-seven years. I write it down now on the anniversary of my last show as I glance at the walls of the studio, where they taped up a photo of me from each year, a mélange of shots that arrested a moment of time, but they appear to be a film strip if you sweep your head from beginning to end, taking in all the pictures, a short reel that exposes customs of dress, grooming habits, and attitudinal stances—the outsides, the two dimensions that others recognized when they saw the me that they thought they knew. I’m all too familiar with these men, some of whom I loved; others, well, let’s just say I’ve taken my leave without rancor but sometimes with embarrassment. No, I don’t  deny the veracity of the glossies, the snippets that captured me with mustache, clean-shaven, long-haired, crew-cut, with wide lapels (thank God, no Nehru jackets), thin ties, aviator glasses, contacts, tie-dyed T-shirts and cashmere sweaters, often wearing the red-and-blue Braves cap, the Boston Braves that is, which meshes nicely now with my speckled beard that still has a wisp of reddish strands, a trick designed to fool me into thinking that I’m younger than I am.

I acknowledge the optimism behind the first one, the 1964 headshot where I’m still in my army uniform, having mustered out only a couple of weeks previously from active duty in West Germany. I’d gone to my first interview wearing it, perhaps to impress thestation boss; he was, after all, a high mucky-muck in the reserves, having won ribbons in Korea, but the real reason I wore it is probably more mundane, given that this was still the era in which it was said that girls liked men in uniform.

He listened to tapes of some of my shows from Armed Forces Radio. Then, suppressing a smirk, I presented documents to him to bolster my case, including an article in the Berliner Morgenpost about my private meeting with the president after he gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech the prior June. Prominently displayed on the page was a photo of him smiling broadly at me. I could tell that the station manager was impressed. He asked me if I had any other things that would support my candidacy for the position. I retrieved an article that came from my college newspaper my senior year, 1961, which featured a picture of me with a famous radio humorist sharing a beer at a local hangout, where I interviewed him about his stories that captivated young and old alike, regarding his time growing up in the Midwest during the Depression and afterward in the War years (when it’s capitalized and used as a standalone word, it always refers to World War II). And finally, I handed him an amusing piece from my high school paper that reported on a discussion I had in 1957 with my dog, a black Lab, who was lamenting the fact that the Russians sent dogs into space and all we sent were mice. It contained a shot of him with a caption underneath that said, “Depressed that he couldn’t be Muttnik.”

I got the job.

I can recall the opening of my first show without resorting to any notes: “On May 10, 1952, when our soldiers were bogged down in a war in Korea, our doctors were battling the polio epidemic, and our elected officials were assaulting each other in a political campaign, my brother Steven and I surreptitiously witnessed a shakedown that enmeshed us in the events of the day in a way that affected us for the rest of our lives. I was twelve and a half and my brother was fourteen.” I’ve spent the intervening time between then and now giving tidbits of what happened that year, intermingled with other observations about actions big and small, parochial and ubiquitous, that’ve occurred since those days.

Most studio visitors take in the pictures on the wall chronologically, peering close, pointing, noting something in the background, muttering to themselves, stepping sideways a few feet, wash, rinse, repeat, engaging me in small talk about some particular thing that catches their attention, usually relating it to an event in their lives. Once a year my brother would take the occasion to bring a new photo; he’d step back, alternating peering between it and me and it and the other shots and give the imperceptible head bob, which intimated that he could differentiate the glint from the prior year, the presentation as opposed to the pose, the body language that only he could interpret.

When the last photo was hung a year ago, Steven’s intense scrutiny of the sags, the creases, the squint, the distractedness that’s unambiguous to a sibling, was a signal as obvious to me as a Morse Code SOS. It’s time, life was tapping out, dot dot dot, to say good-bye, something that he’d just done, having announced to his partners his intention to wind down his appointments with patients by the end of the year.

I wondered if what my brother noticed was caused or exacerbated by my recent finding of a trove of handwritten papers that’d been nestled within the inside pocket of a valise, stashed in my house for almost 30 years, the keepsake that reminded me of a trip my aunt had made more than 70 years earlier, now exposed as the chintzy vessel that housed the real treasure.

I initially misinterpreted my brother’s advice as a call to retire, when in fact he was simply urging me to walk away from a daily grind, a two hour radio show five nights a week, Sunday through Thursday from eight to ten. From your letters and emails you marveled at my ability to riff for 120 minutes, seemingly off the cuff, a stream of consciousness about my life, starting when I was a kid, right after the War with my friends Noodge Mauer, Myandrew, Frankie, my brother, our respective love interests Zippo and Susie, a Guy on the Radio and my dog -- adults making guest appearances, certainly never getting star billing. I take pride in your encomiums, thank you, but it wasn’t as if I made it all up extemporaneously. I’d get up early, come into the studio before anyone else -- solitude in moderation can be an ally if you get along famously with your conscience -- and establish an endpoint from which I’d work backwards, a deductively logical reverse process that served me well, a way in which to come up with an outline, the sinew that was all that was necessary to begin construction of the body scaffolding for my soliloquy.

A few months ago, Steven accepted a dollar-a-year position at the university hospital, coordinating efforts to better understand and treat post-polio syndrome, the legacy of the epidemic that we thought we’d conquered, only to be fooled years later in the same way the balloon of our unbridled optimism following the surrender of Germany and Japan in 1945 had been pierced by the Korean War in 1950. Witnessing him make the smooth transition into a new role eased the process for me to do the same, and that shouldn’t have surprised me. He’d led the way for me throughout my childhood and while I was grateful, it wasn’t until I was an adult that my admiration for him was further enhanced as I recognized that no older sibling had been there for him, the curse of the first-born.

Yes, the last picture on the wall was the trigger for Steven to offer that I, too, move on, which I did halfway through 2011. At first, my agent suggested that I go through the station’s archives and pull out my favorite shows from each year, have them transcribed and edited, a sure-fire way to deliver a product to members of my audience, a built-in group numbering about 250,000, the result of national syndication that brought my show far beyond the Boston metro area. While this might’ve made sense financially, it was something I could’ve done while still at the station showing up five nights a week and didn’t reflect the change that my brother and I both felt was necessary.

After my last broadcast, they were kind enough to allow me to come by the studio to write, at dawn, when it was uncannily quiet, a perfect setting, the only sound coming from the occasional whoosh of the air conditioning kicking in, generating an autonomous shudder, my body anticipating the cool blast that would remind me it’s summer, a necessary cue to a person who’s in a space with no windows and no other stimuli other than what he conjures up on his own. With each shiver, I’d get up and pace, much as I did when the green light went on and the young woman in the control room provided the nod smile that indicated the lavaliere mike pinned to my lapel or collar was live, a silent admonition to remind me not to clear my throat, crinkle paper or talk back to her when she’d occasionally contact me through the earpiece.

Many times, in the middle of a program, I’d glance over to the wall opposite the photos, where I’d hung my Braves baseball cap and a souvenir bat, the former highlighting fond memories of going to the park with my friends while the latter being the proximate cause of a relative’s death and another man’s murder, these two objects together bringing forth a sobering juxtaposition of the yin and yang of my life.

But there’ll be no more control room signals, no more hushed voices in my ear, no more green lights, no more writing the outline for a two hour show. No, that’s all behind me. Now it’s about act two, a bit of unchartered territory. I feel like Marco Polo, whose mission was clear but who couldn’t tell you much about the outcome until he finished his journey.

So I take my first steps by staring at a mirror that I’ve hung next to the most recent picture on the wall. Reflected in it is a story with a tale both personal and universal that I’d skirted around gingerly for all these years, a memoir about betrayal, disease, gambling, death, bribery, persecution, kidnapping, war, politics, escape, loyalty, forgery, unconditional love, depression, Marines, theft, girls and a dog. In it you’ll find extraordinary revelations about members of my family and the world we lived in, beginning at a time when I caught a glimpse into adulthood, or, as I think about it now, perhaps this was simply the first peep into the rearview mirror of childhood.

I told my brother that unlike my radio shows, here the adults take stage, front and center, exiting only when they depart, leaving behind their legacies, forever in the penumbra of my imagination and displayed through my actions, behaviors and wants.

            “You are your mother’s son,” he said definitively and presciently, “so despite the fact that I’ve been there all along, I don’t know what you’ll reveal or withhold or how you’ll interpret your life.”

            “My mother’s son,” I said in a way to hear the phrase myself. “Is that a double entendre?”

            He smiled as he cupped his hand around my neck, a wordless gesture that conveyed both affection and recognition that it was the perfect time to take his leave.

 

Chapter 1 - A couple of drunks clinging to each other for support

 

Our aunt and uncle lived nearby in a garden apartment close to the Fens, a fancy word for the swamp that was what remained of the Back Bay. To get there, we’d ride our bikes through the grasses that sprouted next to the remnants of the tidal pools which were more than twice an adult’s height and swayed in the winds that blew off the Charles. We were always careful to hurry out while there was still sunlight, before they’d gang up with the thistles on the flowering bushes, bending down to us, begging us with eerie rustles to stay at night with the ducks, geese, rabbits, raccoons and bats that countered our reign during the day.

Steven and I’d usually time our arrival to when Uncle Jake got back from the track, our welcome enhanced by the aromas of the German-style bittersweet pastries and strong coffee Auntie Rose would prepare for her husband, a prelude to a much later meal. He’d sit in an overstuffed chair with a large pillow behind his head and his feet on a hassock, eating his snack, drinking his coffee and going through the mail, tossing the obvious bills onto the side table and using a letter opener to gracefully pry the glue from the back of the personal envelopes, almost reverently sliding the insides out, then lowering his glasses to swiftly read the contents, the German, French and Yiddish ones aloud, knowing we couldn’t understand and lip-reading the ones in English.

Mein Gott im himmel,” he shouted frequently (we didn’t know why he was talking about his God in heaven, was it different from ours, this was something that we wondered about later back in our room), then would shake his head, reverence replaced by disdain, rummage through a file cabinet, select a copy of a note he wrote and carefully staple the letter he received that day to it, then place it back in the folder within the cabinet. We noted that the letters he received were typewritten and usually embossed with an emblem or some other mark, while the ones he pulled out of the file were handwritten, in his own script, which we could tell, as we’d received letters from Uncle Jake when we were away in Maine. His intensity when reading the letters would only abate after he’d file them away; we could see the red recede from his face, like the ebb of a tide, which was the signal we could ask our customary question.

 “What is it, Uncle Jake?” one or the other of us would inquire, the patterns of our conversations having been established years earlier, it was as if we were in a play, knowing we’d utter these lines day after day, yet despite the repetition, we knew to stick to the script, not to throw anyone else on the stage off kilter by an extemporaneous remark.

“News but no news,” Auntie Rose would reply and Steven and I’d pivot to look at her and then back to Uncle Jake to see if he’d elaborate or simply take a sip of the coffee or a bite of the cake, leaving us to wonder what she meant. It was always the same: sip and bite.

To whom he wrote, we didn’t know and agreed that it would be intrusive to ask, and anyway, he wasn’t going to reveal anything to us, so we let it go and didn’t bring it up to Auntie Rose or anyone else in the family. Instinctively we understood that this ritual was even more important to him than his job because he never complained when there was a snowstorm and he couldn’t get to the track but the fact that the mail couldn’t be delivered made him anxious and irritable.

He’d come back to us after he’d settle down; he’d start up with a comment on the stamp, which he’d carefully peel off and place in a folder on the end table next to his chair.

“Take a look at this,” he’d say, holding the light blue four pence British stamp with the picture of the beautiful young queen. “You know what ER means?” he’d inquire, then explain before we had a chance to respond, “Elizabeth Regina, which means queen, in Latin of all things.”

“I was there once,” Auntie Rose chimed in, then sought her way back into the kitchen to get some hot chocolate for us, as if to choke off any questions we may have had about a trip to England that surprised us, as Maine was as far away as we thought anyone in the family had gone, with the exception of Papa, who’d go to the furniture factory in North Carolina once a year.

Stamps were a means for Uncle Jake to re-connect to his old world and to establish his identity in the new one, but we never thought of them as a device. On rainy days, we’d strap our albums underneath our yellow slickers and we’d spend hours with Uncle Jake listening to him tell us stories about the countries from the stamps he’d peeled off letters while we sat on the floor, combing through approvals that came in the mail for twenty five cents in clear cellophane packages, using magnifying glasses to make sure we could make a distinction between flat plated prints and rotary press prints, counting perforations, looking for missed cancellation marks, checking single line watermarks, hoping against hope to find the one in a million mistake, the next upside down airplane that’d be worth all the money in the world that we’d then give to them, a bribe for Auntie Rose to tell us what she meant when she’d say ‘news but no news’.

Uncle Jake’s passion for reading the letters was matched by his obsessiveness when it came time to get up early in the morning and listen to the shortwave radio. On those school vacation days when we got to stay overnight with them, we’d pretend to be asleep, nestled in between the radiator and the sofa in our fort in the living room when we’d hear the alarm in his bedroom at 6 AM, which would be followed by the sound of his slippers scuffling on the wooden floor, then at precisely 6:10, the announcer would intone somberly in a foreign language. It would go on for ten minutes, stop abruptly at 6:20 and be turned off with Uncle Jake not uttering any words, occasionally making grunting or hissing sounds. We secretly turned the radio on twice, once after Uncle Jake went to work on a weekday and the second time on a Saturday, when the station wouldn’t come in. Because we didn’t know if this was something he kept from Auntie Rose, we asked neither of them about it, just chalked it up to one of his peculiarities, a harmless eccentricity probably having something to do with his not being born in the U.S.

When we’d leave, Auntie Rose would make us promise not to tell Mother that we’d gorged on her homemade cakes and cookies, which were always laid out on the kitchen countertop, the scents from the cinnamon, raisins, chocolate and warm jams as visible to us as the sweet smoke from Uncle Jake’s pipe.  We had to be careful, though, since she also made special snacks for animals that were arranged side-by-side with our treats.  Occasionally, we’d see her in the Fens, taking nuggets out of a bag that hung around her neck, feeding the ducks and geese that lined up more orderly than we did at Hebrew School.  On the block, neighborhood dogs and alley cats would traipse behind her, abandoning their natural animosities for a few moments to receive the succor and gentle words from our aunt.  When we were ready to say goodbye, she’d tussle our hair or pinch our cheeks and give us a kiss that became more of a nuzzle as the years went by.

At the end of October, we knew not to visit for a month, Mother having told us simply it was that time.  So we stopped going until we got permission, which we’d receive in the beginning of December.  This was just the way it was.  We’d overheard snippets of conversations between Mother and Dad about that time of year and for the longest stretch, we thought that Auntie Rose and Uncle Jake just didn’t like the onset of the cold, the overcast skies and the shorter days. 

Steven and I talked about our aunt and uncle’s November hibernation.

“It’s as if they’re humanized bears living like the ones in the storybook,” Steven said. 

“Yeah, but in this case, they don’t have any baby bears,” I added.

To head off a conversation Mother didn’t want us to initiate, she said, “Uncle Jake and Auntie Rose’s reclusive month of November is due to the troubles.” 

At first, Steven and I thought this must be related to The Troubles we’d read about in The Weekly Reader, something to do with the Irish fighting the Irish, although that still didn’t make any sense to us either.  This was one of those times when it looked like we were going to get into a discussion that was clearly uncomfortable for Mother, so she’d pull out an Ace of Spades, her special way of having the last say, her words spilling out with no pause, to emphasize that it was futile to come back with a rejoinder: ‘Your Aunt And Uncle Need Their Rest’. 

As I got older, I could tell when Mother was going to give one of her pronouncements. I got the ‘I’m Telling You This For Your Own Good, So You Could At Least Pretend That You’re Listening’ speech when she thought I wasn’t paying attention. I was the recipient of the ‘Your Father Worked Day And Night So You Could Have A Nice Life’ speech to make sure I didn’t take things for granted. And each time I left the house, she’d wrap her arms around me, squeeze me hard and murmur, ‘I Miss You Already And You’ll Always Be My Baby Boy.’

Our friends thought Auntie Rose was entertaining.  Once, when Noodge Mauer and Myandrew came with me for after-school snacks, she bolted for her bedroom and paged through the Name Your Baby book that she kept by her night table, looked under the Ns and Ms and came back tsk, tsk, tsking.

“Something’s amiss, boys, see here, there’s Norman and Mychal but neither Noodge nor Myandrew.”

Once, she let the phone ring until it stopped, saying No one’s home, feeling no necessity to answer despite our urgings and anxieties.  “More cake?” She offered us through an additional dozen rings. She was paying attention to us and was not going to be interrupted by someone who’d divert her focus.

Steven and I adored her even when we were invisible to her, which occurred more and more as we approached the beginning of November.  Occasionally we’d find her alone in a darkened kitchen, not acknowledging our presence, while we’d scarf down one of her confections, then give her a peck on the cheek and bolt for the door.  We were never sure she knew we were even there.

Yet her attentiveness (she listened to the rat-a-tat effluvia that erupted from us about sports or bikes or school as if it were the most important thing spewing from the depths of our souls) and kindness (“Here, boys, it’s cold, take my scarf”, “Remember to go to the drugstore to call your mother if you’re going to be late”, “I’ll walk behind you with a flashlight so you’ll stay on the path in the Fens”) more than offset her oddities and we were drawn to her as if we were planets that were kept in an orbit around her by the grip of an invisible force.

She was a bit taller than Mother and although they looked a lot alike, you could see where a fraction of an inch more between the eyes or less on the slope of the nose could affect an appearance in a disproportionate way.  She was, in a word, pretty, and when she was standing next to Uncle Jake, both arms entwined in one of his, he became the envy of every guy they passed on the sidewalk.  Little did anyone know that my aunt and uncle’s pose was akin to a couple of drunks, clinging to each other for support, more noticeable when Uncle Jake’s legs got weaker, which caused him to stumble along.

Uncle Jake had darkroom eyes, which drew you into his world, slowly, as it took a while for people to adjust to his personality. Blinking and straining were common until the outline of his nature would begin to emerge, initially in blurry blacks that would add lighter and more vibrant colors only when a mutual acclimation process had taken place.

He had what I can only describe as a War look:  someone who hadn’t been able to get an umbrella in time to ward off the storm clouds.  He would be forever drenched by a deluge of grief and loss, which showed up in a downcast expression and an inability to talk about the future.  He could be short with people he didn’t know and would answer questions he had asked others before they had the chance to respond.  He was an authority on almost any subject, a position that generated resentment from those who couldn’t possibly understand that he had accumulated such vast knowledge. 

Yet when he was around us, his gruffness had a playful element to it and we wouldn’t shrink from his offers to take us with him on errands. On car rides with Uncle Jake, he’d sing Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen, “By Me You Are Beautiful,” which, by the way, could’ve only meant he was daydreaming about Auntie Rose. We’d listen to this Yiddish tune, originally popularized by the Andrews Sisters, good Lutheran girls, that most folks probably thought was a Bavarian folksong sung by kids in lederhosen when they went off to school hopping and skipping, accompanied by their German shepherd or schnauzer.

Every half hour he’d pull over so he could stretch his legs, a necessity for him to avoid cramping; these repeated exercises were helpful to reduce the pain caused by his limp even if only for a short period of time.

I can’t tell you how much we loved Uncle Jake.  He was the first adult who’d look us squarely in the eyes, not dismissing us merely because of our ages, which is what most grownups would do. He’d listen and we knew it wasn’t the kind of listening that you could tell was phony as when someone would mumble an ‘okay’ or ‘uh huh,’ ostensibly acknowledging your comments or presence but really, you could’ve been prattling on about your bathroom habits, they had no idea what you were really saying. It was clear that Uncle Jake cared about us and showed us the deference that, in truth, we really hadn’t earned, but now it’s apparent that it was part of his teaching process, a technique that he’d hope we’d absorb and pass down to the kids we’d come in contact with when we got older.

Those of you who’ve got relatives like this know what it’s like to have someone invade your heart who, unlike an unwelcome intruder, stakes out a claim for territory that you’re never willing to cede even with princely recompense.

And although I wouldn’t have expressed it this way out loud back then, I had the same admiration and affection for my brother, so close in age, so much more knowledgeable and sophisticated, a bit intimidating truthfully and a tough act to follow, but I never felt as if I got the hand me downs or the short end of the stick. Sure, I was ‘dickhead’ sometimes but it wasn’t uttered in a nasty way, no different from when he called one of the Braves a moron for making an error.

As we got older, the difference between our ages seemed to diminish proportionately to the similarity of our exaggerated height and oftentimes we’d get stares from people who didn’t know us, assuming we were twins. Today, of course, the vernacular would be expressed in terms of cloning but a couple of generations ago it was all about carbon copies, and despite the inferiority of the blue-inked yellow paper compared to the crisp white chip-created printouts, it was a more accurate reflection of how we were presented to the world, as smudges and erasures would more naturally display the fact that we were not duplicates. We both had dark hair but Steven’s ringlets were curlier than mine and his smile was more vertical compared to my more horizontal orientation. Perhaps what added to the double-takes were two sets of opaque brown eyes that seemed to dart or alight simultaneously without overt signals emanating from either one of us.

Uncle Jake was born in Germany, or East Prussia, or Austria, or Hungary, or Poland, or that slice of Poland, Galicia, that nobody remembers anymore, or maybe it was in Prague or somewhere in the Pale of Settlement, supposedly a pretty big place but nowhere does it appear on a map and no one at school or the library had ever heard of it.  He spoke German, that much I can tell you, because we’d hear him at the pastry shop near Sears Roebuck on Park Drive, where there were maps on the walls of Germany and pictures of a large guy on a horse wearing a uniform with something that looked like a pointy-topped ice bucket on his head and newspapers with stories from Frankfurt and Hamburg, which cracked us up.  He spoke Polish when he talked to the ladies who’d cross and re-cross themselves a hundred times when he’d run into them at the laundry down the street from Noodge Mauer’s parents’ store. And he spoke Yiddish with Old Uncle A when he didn’t want us to know what he was talking about.

Uncle Jake had a beard as a young man in Europe.  He showed us pictures of himself that he’d taken out of a shoebox, yellowed pictures of people we didn’t know in front of signs we couldn’t read, next to cars we didn’t recognize. 

“I shaved for the first time when I was twenty-three,” he announced proudly, which made us laugh, we couldn’t imagine him with a beard. 

“It just doesn’t look like you, Uncle Jake,” Steven said.

“Yeah, more like Jingles,” I chimed in, convulsed about how he looked like Andy Devine on The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok show.

“Who? What?” he responded, not connecting with my TV reference, then, added a “Ha!” when he understood he was the butt of the joke. “Mister Smarty Pants thinks he knows a lot,” he offered to Steven, making sure I caught the side of his smile.

“We didn’t know of such things when I went to school in Berlin,” he added, diverting attention back to the shoebox of photos. “My school was a gymnasium,” he continued, which faked me out, because I thought that meant he was always playing sports indoors, like basketball or volleyball or wrestling, yet we never saw a picture of him in athletic clothes.

Sensing a continental divide, he quickly added, “Gymnasium, boys, with the g sound like in get is the German word for school.”

So I, Mister Wiseguy, asked, “Then is school, with the sch sound like in shoulder the German word for gym?” 

“No,” he said, “schul means synagogue,” and with that, he trumped my remark without making me feel embarrassed at my attempt at humor.

Uncle Jake was born in 1900 and came to America in 1938 but how he got here was something that we weren’t supposed to know.

“When you’re older,” he’d say each year on our birthdays when we’d ask.

“Older than what?” I’d ask, since we knew he wasn’t going to tell us.

Copyright 2020 David Hirshberg