This is the Day of the Dead, and so I’ll think about them, my immediate forebears.
There are four, a father, a mother, a stepfather, and a stepmother, who made their ways in a frequently perilous world. A major Depression and two World Wars occurred in their lifetimes. My father served in both wars — in the Army in the first, in the Navy in the second, “because I was in the Army the last time,” he said when asked why he, then 42, wanted to join the Navy. My stepfather, aboard a battleship, and my stepmother, a member of the French resistance, aboard a bicycle, served in World War II as well.
As you can guess, they were rendered resilient by the times in which they lived. There was iron in their blood. There is not so much in mine, as my father, who mastered a number of careers before retreating to a castle near Spain, once remarked, and yet, somehow, I’ve survived — thrived, really, if you consider it happy to be engaged in your work, work that in my case has been spiritually profitable if not remuneratively so.
Borrowing from Aristotle, my father, a classics instructor at Columbia in one of his lives, told me when I was 13 — though I didn’t really read his letter until years afterward — to practice the qualities I admired, just as I practiced fielding and hitting and catching a baseball. Fortitude wasn’t among them. In short, I’ve been lucky.
Though laggard when it has come to toughening up, as my parents and stepparents all had to do, I have been grateful for the examples they provided when it came to loving, life’s chief joy. They lived the lives they learned with, and in the lives they lived after that they got lucky, as have I.
No doubt my mother — I still think of her when drying between my toes — and stepmother not only brightened their husbands’ lives, but literally saved them, one perhaps from a crise alcoolique, and the other, if not from drink, from a dour, lonely existence.
I drink to the four of them on this day.