Randy's Corner Deli Library

26 May 2009

Memorial Day, 2009

While the rest of the world was barbequing, beaching, and, I am sure, remembering those who fought to preserve the liberty we possess in this country, I couldn't help also remembering the values that those who fought and died for.

I know that my uncles Maurice, Willy and Jack would be turning in their graves if they could see what has become of this country, dominated as it has been by people who felt that government was, and is, the enemy and that the marketplace would be self-correcting. I am sure that the Cohen and Diamond boys who fought Germans and Japanese to preserve our freedom, who came home to welcoming arms and proceeded to build this country into a superpower would be glad to have seen me, in 1980, marching in protest against what we were all certain then would be the end of the world as we knew it with Reagan's "voodoo economics" programs which left, as we knew he would, rabid foxes foaming at the mouth in charge of the poorly guarded chicken coops. But what is there to do now besides make the best of the situation?

Instead of dwelling on the past this Memorial Day, I dwelt on memories and feelings that I knew would present themselves when I had the chance to start to sift through a collection of old documents, letters and photos that had belonged to my mother and which I began to scan into my portable hard-drive so that they would be preserved forever.

I discovered letter upon letter. About mundane topics like money, the weather and love. It's interesting that people put pencil to paper just to say hello to faraway relatives, in a time period when to make a "long distance" call was the acme of technological achievement. As I write these words, I hear Barbara Streisand in the background singing "The Way We Were" so I will relent and here insert a YouTube video of Streisand singing it in 1975. I was 14. Life was indeed so much simpler then.

As I waded my way through the dusty wrappers on the documents, I ran across the Congregation Kneseth Israel (Hammond, Indiana) building dedication book. I spent almost 5 hours carefully scanning each page, looking closely at the advertising and the pictures of the men, women and children who comprised that group. Many of them were immigrants from Europe. The Cantor, Lipschitz (whom my Uncle Jimmy used to call "ShitLips"), I found out, was delivered from the Dachau Concentration Camp and made his way eventually to the outskirts of Southeast Chicago, over the state line in Hammond. The Rabbi was likewise a refugee from Hitler's Germany in 1938. If that isn't good and lucky timing, I don't know what is.

The sense of common purpose, to have a place where Jewish people in Hammond and surrounding communities could come and have a place to socialize, pray and gripe together was palpable, jumping off each page.

As it happens, my great-grandfather, I.L. (Israel Louis) Cohen had donated the land on which the Jewish cemetery sits and where I want to be buried when the time comes, assuming there is room there. My connection to my own past was brought front and center to me by looking at that book. I vow that if I ever get the chance to name a building, it'll be the "I.L. Cohen Center" as a fitting tribute to a man who sold paint and wallpaper from his Sibley Avenue store in Hammond, Indiana and whose picture I look at every day as he mixes paint by hand sitting out in front of the store on an upside-down paint can, complete with his fedora, white shirt and slacks and a great big smile.

I discovered my grandfather and grandmother's (Milton Diamond and Jean Cohen) ketubah from 1929. It is yellowed with age, the folds in the page reinforced with scotch tape, but the Hebrew script was just as beautiful if as unintelligible to me as it is today. Fortunately, they had the foresight and smarts to translate the Hebrew into English. It was a reminder not only of my Jewishness, but also of my grandma Jean, who was such a beautiful person, but who admitted on more than one occasion that she'd really died April 23, 1964 when Milt did at 57 and his fourth and final heart attack. My Grandma Jean was a beautiful person if not the best businesswoman in the world. My mother used to say that she had the "reverse Midas touch" -- everything that Grandma Jean touched turned to shit. And so went so much property down the toilet, back to the city, because she didn't know how to run a business, nor apparently how to pay property taxes before they took the properties back.

If I told you that my Grandparents had a 22-room mansion complete with circular driveway on 4 acres, you wouldn't probably believe me. But it's very true. She held it for so long that by the time she was ready to sell it, the home had deteriorated to such an extent as to be nearly worthless. I think my mother got $150,000 for it when she had to eliminate all signs of wealth so that she could go on Medicaid when she went into -- and did not come out of -- the Northwest Home for the Aged on Devon and California back in Rogers Park, Chicago.

If there's one thing that I can't stand it's old-folks homes of the sort that both my mother and my grandmother went into. Warehouses. Smells of urine mixed with shit and puke and bleach. Please, before I get that bad, I hope that somebody will have the guts to load me up on sleeping pills and let me go out peacefully, without the cost or headache to Mitchell. The last thing I want for him is to stick me in one of those places. Shoot me first, willya?

The other bit of interesting information I ran across was a certificate given to my grandpa Milt Diamond who was chairman of the Jewish Welfare Board during WWII. He was quite the history buff, and I remember as a kid listening to old 78rpm shellac records that he'd made when FDR came on the radio or there was some other event taking place that deserved to be recorded for posterity. (Question: how different is the meaning and intent behind blogs and arts and letters in general today, with the obvious exception of the technology we have at our disposal? People like my grandfather knew they'd be of some value someday to someone. Sadly at the end of my mother's life, she sold e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g in order to live out her life, my grandfather's record and film collection as well as my baseball card collection whom some lucky buyer now has in his or her possession. You might say that she was wrong in selling those things without asking first, but you luckily did not know my mother. She asked permission from no-one.)

There was one particularly great shot of the Cohen sisters (my grandma Jean, Aunt Norine and Aunt Sarah (whom everyone called "Sallie") and their husbands, all in a row. Milt, Jean, Norine, Kal (Waller), Sarah and Charlie (Kohen)...in a photographic style redolent with late 50s elegance, charm and class. They all had such a way about them that few people today can replicate, especially my grandmother and my Aunt Sallie, whom I adored. Her husband, Charles Kohen, ran a stamp and coin shop in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. until he died sometime in the late 1970s or early 80s. He was a great guy, friends with Admiral Hyman Rickover and pen pals with Harry Truman. I have a letter of his that I'll dig up and scan and post here at some point, along with an official invitation to the 1972 Presidential inauguration of Richard Nixon. I missed that soiree, but the invitation itself is an amazing piece of history to be in my possession.

This Memorial Day was a very special one, because instead of my usual marathon of WWII moves like "Saving Private Ryan" or the "Band of Brothers" series, all of which I have on DVD, I felt like getting next to those who brought me memories for good or for ill. I've decided that memories are what they are - things, events that happened in the past about which we can do nothing but learn. I'm still struggling with the lessons I was presented with yesterday, though I have to say that it was a comforting feeling getting to see names and places I hadn't seen in years -- since the last time I was in Hammond was to bury my mother five years ago this October. A desolate, run down spot in the rust belt, still there, but nowhere near the vibrant community that once thrived there. Memories. They shouldn't be relegated for study to one day out of the year.

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