May 25, 2024
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May 25, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

 Amid the dejection experienced in the wake of my father’s recent passing from COVID, I pause to acknowledge my good fortune: because I seized the opportunity to unearth new and timeless details about his life before it was too late. The numerous conversations we had via Zoom bridged the geographical divide (London-NJ), replenished and enriched us. They brought us laughter, emotional closeness and joy, and created fresh memories coupled with a deeper, richer understanding of our family’s shared past.

They reinforced the value of transmitting family legacy. Because telling stories about our world, our relationships and our lives is a fundamental way in which we create meaning – for ourselves and future generations. They simultaneously shed light on the importance of gleaning wisdom and resilience from our elders, especially in our unsettled, chaotic world.

From these meaningful hours of talk, I was able to create a book, The Man We Love, now leather bound and residing on our coffee table. Leafing through its colorful, glossy pages, air-kissing my favorite pictures of my father, and recalling his delight with the finished product now serve as significant sources of comfort. This is matched by the solace experienced in re-reading the touching Thank You letter he wrote me for this labor of love.

I continue to replay our interview sessions; he, comfortably installed on the chair in his study in London, me on mine in New Jersey. These memories are now sacred ground.

Yet, as I looked around my childhood home during the days my father spent in the hospital and then the days of his shiva, I was overwhelmed by his conspicuous absence all over the house.

However, it was his chairs – those in the living room, dining room, kitchen and his office – which were the most powerful triggers of grief, tears and reflection. I began to contemplate the significance of chairs; they are inanimate objects which hold people when they are at rest and when interacting with others. They act as supportive, cozy nests which allow individuals to protect and snuggle others. If we anthropomorphize, we might state that, when occupied, a chair may feel complete, fulfilled or even part of a couple. And the chair’s occupant can feel comfortable knowing that he is in his familiar place. All in all, chairs can create a sense of order, comfort and wellbeing.

I had visited my parents for the first time since COVID on October 18th 2021, accompanied by my 27-year old son, Joel, whose presence had been specially requested by my father. I had surmised that my father wanted to see him and interact with him face-to-face after all that time as he had been Zooming with him every week for about a year and a half on Sundays. During these sessions, they had studied Jewish History and discussed a variety of different topics including music and history which were shared interests. Then again, possibly he just felt the urge to see him as he was the oldest grandchild whose intellectual curiosity matched his own. The Welcome to London signage that hung – as usual – on the panel at the bottom of the stairs featured an additional line:

What a joy after such a long absence.

Particularly poignant then, even more so now that we have entered a lifetime of tomorrows without my cherished father. And I thank G-d that I took a picture of that sign as it will be the last one he will ever prepare for family visitors residing abroad.

The week spent in London was especially enjoyable; not only because absence had made our hearts grow even fonder, but because my father was particularly vibrant and on form as he proudly escorted my son and me around his beloved London, and visited local parks which had been our favorite childhood haunts. As he strolled around with Joel on the day of our arrival, he noted that his excessive loquaciousness was attributable to the fact that he was so excited to finally be able to converse in-person with a family member (other than his wife) after so many months of solitude!!

Unfortunately, two days after our return to the U.S, he fell sick with COVID which he seemed to have caught in a shul. Although he had been rigorous about COVID protocols (vaccination, booster, masks, social distancing), he was immuno-cormpromised. This meant that his fellow shul attendees’ refusal to wear masks had exposed him to COVID. This had been our not-so-secret family fear since COVID’s onset. Horrific and ironic that this should have been our punishment for nearly 2 years of extreme caution.

During his weeks on the ventilator and in the immediate aftermath of his passing, I recognized that the chairs in his house (my childhood home) had suddenly assumed a life of their own. He had occupied four chairs: the dining room table chair; his kitchen chair; his study chair upstairs next to my bedroom; and the armchair in the living room. Each chair triggered an abundance of memories and associations of moments shared and life lived. Each one provoked its own heartache.

The dining room table chair was the same one he had been sitting on since 1964 – when he and my mother married and moved into this house. The original fabric cover had been replaced several times over the years, and the wooden legs were now chipping. But, according to my mother, he was comfortable with that as he was not a materialistic guy, and planned to sell the house and its contents anyway some time in the next year!! The chair’s placement at the head of the table evoked memories of Shabbat and Yom Tov meals with friends and family; lively conversations about diverse topics ranging from food to computers, thoughts on the Parsha, music and ancestors’ funny aphorisms and stories including my Opa’s “You get used to anything in life, even your own wife.”  The chair was the one on which my father had perched, patiently, on multiple unpleasant Sunday mornings during my adolescence as he creatively employed an orange and a ruler to try to illustrate exceedingly unappealing spatial and mathematical concepts to me. (Most of these still remain beyond my powers of comprehension!!)

His kitchen chair occupied a spot near the kitchen door. I surmise he had selected this location as it enabled him to bound out of it even more quickly if he had to run to open the door to some Shaliach collecting Tzedaka, provide someone with some much-needed advice, or accept a box of chocolates from a Shabbat guest. It was also the chair he had sat in three times a day just a couple of months ago when Joel and I had visited; the one in which he had sipped his morning coffee, consumed his breakfast cereal and orange and plum segments. It is also the chair in which I recall him sitting on Friday nights when we were young; he would slice up the marzipan block (a special Shabbat treat!) for his salivating family with mathematical exactitude and precision. I recall his knife poised in the air followed by his cutting through the block to ensure that no recipient could possibly feel short-changed. Given his unselfish nature, he always made sure to provide everyone else with a generous slice, carving extra skinny ones for himself.

This was also the chair from which he sang the Friday night Zemirot with verve. One of his favorites – Tzama Nafshi – is one which now reduces me to tears as I still hear his rich, smooth voice singing it.

As for his precious, forty-year old, threadbare study chair upstairs next to my bedroom….well, it now seems worthy of a spot in the British Museum, accompanied by signage which reads: Best-preserved 40+ year old HMI office chair! (HMI – Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools — was his title in the Department of Education.) It is so worn-out that even he had covered up its bald spots with a pillow! That chair has special status because it is the one in which he sat when conducting deep and meaningful conversations with me over the years. Subjects during my adolescence and early adulthood ranged from discussions about college choices, boyfriends, how to resolve disagreements with my mother, wedding plans, and, of course, complaints about the world of Golders Green. And then, of course, it was the chair from which he emitted a hearty guffaw when we were in the middle of an especially juicy conversation and were subjected to my mother’s tendency to call up “Gabi, are you coming down soon? It’s late.”

This was also the chair in which he installed himself during our frequent Zoom meetings in 2020 when I interviewed him about his life story; the chair from which he answered my probing questions about his life, narrated important, milestone events, giggled as he reminisced and proudly shared photos of much-loved family members and friends. It is the chair which had the good fortune to listen in and learn about his unusual life trajectory as his life story book took shape. The chair which validated the research which indicates that reflecting on and recounting one’s life story can allow an individual to enhance perceptions of the quality of one’s life, provide perspective about the roads traveled and feel heard, recognized and valued.

And this study chair was also the one in which he sat as he worked late at night, mulling over the day’s school inspections, writing up reports – even in the early 1980s — about the role of computing and technology in British education; the chair from which he crafted actionable recommendations to enhance it. Perhaps, most significant for me… this was the chair from which, every night, he opened his slightly squeaky right-hand draw, gently tearing off two or three chocolate bar squares from his dark chocolate stash to help fuel his thought process. Those two sounds – in quick succession – of the draw being pulled open followed by the rustling of the silver chocolate bar wrapper were reassuring cues that he was close by… right next door to my room where I also sat burning the midnight oil. A reliable presence who was always willing to share a giggle, an opinion, a Good Night bear hug or a chocolate break.

But now…. he will never sit in this study chair again. He will never touch that final, half-eaten chocolate bar in his draw. And the chair will never sense his eagerness as he reaches for it, or delight as he savors it.

However, in the aftermath of his death, it was his empty armchair in the living room which felt particularly, unbearably empty.

This was the one which, for some reason, instinctively felt most beloved to me and infused with his persona. Maybe because it had most visual appeal; it looked more colorful, spacious, comfortable and better preserved than the others. Maybe its softer material led me to think it might retain some of his unique scent. (I did manage to detect it during the shiva.. or, at least, hoped I did.) Maybe its headrest and arms reminded me of exactly where his head and arms had always rested. Stroking each of these was meaningful and comforting to me – especially on the first night of Chanukah (my Hebrew birthday) when I lit his Menorah; I still felt the warmth of his arms on the armrests and his brilliant, kind head and twinkling blue eyes smiling from the headrest….

But perhaps the chair was so imbued with meaning for me because it was the one on which he sat on special occasions and days — Shabbatot and Yamim Noraim – and when beloved family and friends visited. Or because it was the one on which he listened to my husband and me inform him that we had fallen in love – in 7 short weeks in 1991 — and wished to get married; the one from which he suggested that we possibly take a little longer to make this enormous decision, and then immediately caved in to his beloved wife, Mimi’s, response to his hesitation with: “Gabi, let them just go ahead and get engaged! It’s OK!” And perhaps it was because this chair featured in my wedding photos — those taken at our house before the ceremony. This was the chair that marked two milestone moments in my life.

It was the one in which he sat when he sang Shalom Aleichem and Eyshet Chayil every Friday night for decades with his deep, mellifluous voice; I can hear his voice and see his long legs perched on the seat and floor, his fists gently massaging the armchair’s arms to the beat of the words. His musical side was revealed to the chair via the Jewish tunes he sang here as well as the much-loved operas he listened to. Doubtless, it also recalled his renditions – in Italian — of dramatic lines from operatic masterpieces including his favorite Verdi’s La traviata.

It was the chair on which he held his children and grandchildren in their early years, bouncing them up and down, making them laugh and shriek with delight. The chair from which he rose to give his children and grandchildren a Friday night bracha whenever they visited, carefully posing his hands above the heads of his daughters and granddaughters to avoid causing a hair situation, and clearly and devoutly enunciating every word of the bracha.

This was the chair from which he made his guests feel welcome, sometimes by asking them gently probing questions, listening in carefully to their answers and engaging them; and, at other times, employing his raconteur skills to entertain them. And it was his book chair – the one in which he would peruse secular tomes. Increasingly, in more recent years, it had become his Torah-learning chair – the one he sat in on Friday night with one of his Sefarim, reading the Pesukim of a Parsha or a commentary… frequently warding off sleep after a demanding week. His eyes would close and then quickly flutter open once he realized that he had dared to snooze. One of the fondest moments I have is of his eyes closing, then swiftly re-opening and his body simultaneously jerking to an upwards position as he heard his Mimi call out from upstairs: “Gab, are you coming up soon?” To this he always replied, “Coming in a few minutes!” He would then open his eyes wide, grab his Sefer with renewed vigor for a few minutes before nodding off, once again, into a light sleep shortly thereafter.

So, of all the chairs, this armchair appeared to have been the one to experience the multiple sides of my father most fully. His nurturing father and husband side; his interviewer of a prospective son-in-law side; his vibrant, playful father/grandfather/uncle/cousin side; his inviting/entertaining host side; his witty side; his intellectual, secular side; his Torah-centric scholar side; his musical side. And, perhaps most recent and thus poignant for me, his Family Historian side. Because on Friday night, October 22nd 2021 – the last Friday night he spent in that chair, happy and healthy, before having to battle COVID – he sat with me and my son looking over family photographs, meandering down Memory Lane with family members and friends from yesteryear. We sifted through the photos contentedly as he regaled us with snippets and stories about the characters featured.

A veritable treasure trove of faces, values and memories.

His armchair also heard those priceless stories and the ensuing laughter that evening.

Although it now sits lonely and empty, I choose to believe that it recalls that happy, fulfilling Friday night as clearly as we do. The last Friday night with its other half, my father. Like us, it knew my father so well, for so long and enjoyed embracing its precious occupant tightly. I am sure that it now also misses his warmth, kindness, humility, sparkle, intellect and the sound of his beautiful, strong voice.

Tanya Krim is the Co-founder of Timeless, ( a bespoke Legacy Storytelling consultancy which enables individuals from all walks of life to share and preserve their legacy. The company’s tagline is Reminisce. Revive. Relive.

Telling stories about our world, our relationships and our lives is a fundamental way in which human beings create meaning. She believes that the way you shape your story affects not just you, but future generations.’

By Tanya Krim

 Tanya can be reached at [email protected].

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