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To Joey


You know her only as a black-and-white photograph in your mom’s album, an old lady from a bygone era. But Rose was my grandma, your great-great grandmother on your mother’s side, and she lives in my mind, as your own grandma will live in yours, until the end.

It is right for us elderly to remember our own elders, as life ebbs and the past assumes greater prominence than the dreary, stinking present. I think about people all the time—people now dead, in the formal roll call of the living, but whose presence is as alive in me as my own coursing blood. Grandma Rose was the first person of my babyhood who loved me, maybe the only one who truly loved me. My parents, who were not ready for me and were never sure they quite welcomed me into their lives, were unable to give love except in fragments interspersed with indifference at best, violence at its nadir. Grandma Rose had nothing but love to give, in the manner of grandparents everywhere. My earliest memory is of laying in my crib while Grandma stroked my bare back with her fingers and sang Russian lullabies. The sense of physical comfort and human warmth—of love—showed the baby what is possible, although so rare, in this life; and I have sought it ever since, mainly in vain. But it lives, nascently, immanently, in my memory.

Today is the nineteenth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and the T.V. just showed firemen here in San Francisco holding a memory ceremony in their firehouse out in The Avenues. A woman read the names of dead FDNY firefighters, the ones who rushed into World Trade Center Two before it collapsed on top of them. The great-great grandchildren of those fallen heroes will know them only from photographs (digital, I suppose), just as you know your great-great grandmother Rose only from a photograph.

You weren’t even alive on Sept. 11, 2001. To you, I guess, Sept. 11 is as distant in History as D-Day. Sadly, you’re living through your own incarnation of national tragedy: the pandemic. You’re a freshman at Cal, your classes are only online, you’re eating your meals in your dorm room brought in boxes by sanitized staff, there are no T.V. rooms or organized sports, they take your temperature all the time, and Berkeley is as shut down as any American city. It must be shocking and depressing for you to be experiencing your first semester in college in such a stultified way; you didn’t even have a senior prom last June. And yet, as real as these events are for you, someday in the future, for generations now unborn, the pandemic will be just a date, or an era, like the Spanish Flu in 1919, or the Plague in the 14th century.

My grandma Rose was born in a shtetl somewhere in Ukraine in the 1880s; she is said to have been a midwife before making her way, with her husband Max, to America via Ellis Island, in 1913, with their baby daughter, Ruth. Their sons Leonard and Jackie were to arrive later; Jackie was your great-grandfather, whom you never knew. You knew his wife, my mother and your great-grandmother, Gertrude, but you might not have any memories of her, because you were only two years old when she died, in 2005. But I can tell you she loved you with the same ferocity with which Grandma Rose loved me.

If you sense that you live in a nation filled with sadness, alas, it is so. The sadness predated the pandemic; it predated Sept. 11, although that catastrophe made it worse. America, I think, has always had, buried beneath the ebullience, a sadness. The Founding Fathers had a deep sense of melancholy; Jefferson was given to depressions, Adams to utter despair. Even Washington, “the father of his country,” recorded his “distress, embarrassments and perplexities,” while Lincoln’s depressions sometimes paralyzed him. Was this America’s legacy of slavery? Something built into the human condition? And yet the Founders labored to overcome their limitations to build something good and lasting. So must we all.

I pray that these years of yours now, your mid- and late teens, will bring you fun, comfort, joy and achievement, despite the profound sadness all around you, and around all of us. I pray that the resilience of youth will protect you from despair. I can picture you now, playing frisbee on the lawn by the Campanile, with new friends. Maybe your mask slips a little; maybe social distance isn’t always rigorously maintained. It’s hard when you’re playing. Play on, young Joey. You will always remember your freshman year in college. Someday, you’ll tell your own grandchildren about it. And maybe they’ll listen.

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