Getting to Know One Another Again and Again

The New York Times Magazine

Jan. 10, 1997

Dear Alex,

I woke up this morning wondering whether you and your brother, Dan, ever think about me as being 72. Do you? Does Dan? Because I do and sometimes a lot – when the future suddenly shrinks as a possibility in an especially constricted way, when the average age in the daily obituaries suddenly plunges (often, it seems), when energy goes slack and there are clearly no second breaths or reserves for the moment, when I calculate how old I will be (80!) when your daughter is merely 10, when … as you can see there is always an occasion. And the number itself, 72, has a real heft to it; so does the concept, as everyone knows, whatever they may pretend.
Well, I repeat the question, in slightly different form. (Maybe I’m asking for trouble.) What do you, at 41, and Dan, at 39, think of me, at 72? The question may well be just another fatuous aspect of self-absorption, a hardy weed that seems to grow even hardier with age, but we’ll let that pass. (Some days, almost all I think about is myself.) I mean, we never used to talk this way, did we?

Much love,

Dad

———

Jan. 13, 1997

Dear Dad,

When I shared your letter with Dan, he responded with his usual dry, straight-faced wit – ”72? I thought he was 62.”

There’s some truth in his joking. (Mom, ever the therapist, always liked to remind us of that.) My idea of old age – if I dare call it that – seems, well, so old-fashioned. I grew up with one image of getting older: Grandpa. I remember poking through his bedroom closet to inspect the Playboy magazines he kept stashed there. I remember with some embarrassment his flirtations with younger women – which, given his age, excluded few. I can still envision the marks left in the carpet as he skied through his apartment in house slippers. And I recall the excursions to the bathroom for his daily insulin injection, cringing (but never complaining) at the thought of pushing a needle into his own flesh. Old age seemed so discomfiting – both for Grandpa and for those of us around him. For me, though, the saddest part of it is that I never heard Grandpa, the cantor, do what he loved the most – lead his congregation in song.

You ask me whether Dan and I think of you as 72. Yes, but not in the same way we thought of Grandpa’s 72.

It’s not that I don’t worry about your mortality and ours. How can I not? Mom’s death nearly three years ago jolted me in so many ways, but most specifically and most powerfully it made me ever alert, too alert sometimes, to the fragility of life. So Dan and I nervously fret when you drive the winding, exhausting Taconic from the city to your country place. Maybe, Dan suggests, Dad should take the train and park his car up there permanently. I nod in agreement. Do you think Dad’s putting on a little weight? I ask Dan. We assure each other that come summer you’ll start swimming your daily laps. We talk about cleaning out your refrigerator, removing bottles of olives and salad dressing so grizzled they give old age a bad name. So sure, Dan and I, on occasion, perhaps more frequently than we like to admit, ponder the brittleness of aging. But, Dad, we’re a family of worriers, as you well know.

Truth be known, I view your life with some envy. Maria and I, anchored by a 2-year-old, can only dream about sailing the Caribbean on a sloop as you recently did. We talk longingly of owning a place in the country while you spend summers there. And we marvel at your scores of friends, the fruits of a fully harvested life. Barely an evening passes for you without an invitation to dinner. Barely a week passes without an invitation to join someone somewhere in their travels. (If I exaggerate, it’s only a little.)

But for me, somewhat selfishly I suppose, and as if the rest weren’t enough, what I treasure most is that I’ve had the chance to hear you sing. Here you are at 72 publishing a memoir that kept me so rapt that I finished it in two sittings. It left me in tears. And even before it’s published, you’ve begun yet another book. You’re still singing. And with more vigor than I can muster three decades younger. Now, Dad, if that’s growing old, bring it on.

Love,

Alex

———

Jan. 17

Dear Alex,

Your letter was full of good cheer, and I liked that. It was one thing your mother certainly had, even in life’s direst moments – good cheer and the ability to express it. A natural gift; no amount of working at it or wishing can produce it.

But why write about bringing on old age, even facetiously? You know that age arrives under its own full steam, often at a too-fast pace, with terrific sudden bumps here and there that turn life upside down and sound out urgent warnings. Slow down. Pull back. Watch out. Watch out for pretty much everything: health, personal safety, diet, wastefulness. I pay attention to all that, probably too much. I try to protect myself against trouble, sometimes ruthlessly. (And I’m haranguing you; apologies.)

Am I really less for all this? I must think about it. Despite the warnings, I do care about the world, but not always passionately. I care a lot, but not always with love. I like to live more quietly than I used to – who doesn’t? – and pretend to think, as still at moments as a still life. I read and listen to music, but never at the same time. I also seem to be less prepared to make mistakes; there seems so little time to correct them.

Another question: Can I still love someone else – one other – in the old, endearing romantic sense? Maybe six months or so after your mother died, I told myself that all I wanted was to be able to love someone and to have someone love me. That seemed right to me at the moment, on the mark, but it seems that I hesitate, at 72. Now I wonder whether I wasn’t kidding myself. I hope not.

I began this letter feeling the good cheer of yours, enjoying Dan’s joke about my being 62, not 72, and all the rest, but I seem to have turned grouchy in the writing. That’s one thing that doesn’t diminish with the years, I’m sorry to say. Irritability and wrath. Nevertheless, your letter made me feel like a million bucks. Or close enough. (And I was touched by your words about my book.)

Much love,

Dad

P.S. I am not getting fat. I am four pounds lighter than I was this time last year. And I drive the Taconic pretty well, no matter how much I may complain about it, just as long as it’s daylight and I don’t have to make the return trip the next day.

Also, before I forget: Near the heart of things, I’m afraid, vanity remains the slug, the worm of emotions. How well I know it and how strong it still is, the inner preening, the ongoing self-congratulations, the continuing sidelong love affair with the mirror, men maybe more intense about it than women. Along with flattery, it still brings me a lot of pleasure. Too much.

———

Jan. 22

Dear Dad,

As always (well, almost always), you’re right. I shouldn’t be too flippant or impatient about time. Otherwise, it will turn on me, pitching me forward faster than I’d like. I should hold on to the fact that I still relish an afternoon of pickup basketball – and that I’ll be able to take my daughter, Madeleine, canoeing, though the river trips make Maria nervous. But I wonder: Why do you think of yourself as crabby?

You used to be at times, but how did I know you were having money or job problems? And how could you know the turbulence I rode as an adolescent? (Talk about crabby.) Now, you seem … well, mellower.

Now I can keep you on the phone for as much as 10 minutes – and often two or three times a week. Dan and I used to laughingly compete for how long we could engage you: 30 seconds, a minute, maybe two if we had a new girlfriend to describe. Now you embrace the entourage of friends and family who inevitably accompany Dan and me to the farm each July 4th weekend. Now you’re thinking about buying a fax machine so you can correspond quickly and regularly with Dan and me. (At least I think that’s why you want one.) And yet you still use a typewriter (thankfully, no longer a manual), intimidated by these newfangled computers. Whatever happened to curmudgeonly?

During my canoe trips, I realize such grandiose pleasure in the most mundane of things: an evening bath in the river, a stroll deep into the woods, getting caught in a downpour. I sometimes think to myself that that’s what growing older is like: learning to appreciate, even the unexpected. Is it?

Love,

Alex

P.S. You’re asking the wrong person for advice on romance. After all, it took me until I was 38 to marry. I will tell you, though, that a few days before Mom died, when her breathing required such fixed concentration, she beckoned Dan and me to come close. We kneeled at her side as she yanked at her oxygen mask. ”I hope your father remarries,” she whispered between breaths. ”And I hope she’s rich.” You’re right (yet again). Good humor never deserted Mom, not even in those last days.

———

Jan. 25

Dear Alex,

Forget canoe trips. We haven’t spoken yet of politics, or sports, or social issues, or even art. (I mean Art.) Should we try? Maybe not, is my opinion. Let’s leave all that for other times, when we’re all sitting around a living room, trying to keep our voices low and civilized as we discuss the really important questions. I mean, who is the greater artist, Picasso or Matisse? Are you in the minority about ”The English Patient”? Do you think it’s just a beautiful crock, as I do? Will Mr. Steinbrenner manage to destroy the team we all suddenly came to love last spring, or has he already succeeded? Questions, questions.

Whether deeply or not, I still seem to care about these things. (That phrase again – ”care about.”) The state of the Yankees. Opinions about movies and books. The lives of old people – oh, yes – and their deaths. About that I care a lot, even as I watch my own formerly clearheaded, clear-spoken 92-year-old mother struggle hopelessly with dementia, within whose blathering boundaries she finds, I’m sure, an occasional 20- or 30-second moment of merciless clarity in which she perceives exactly how she appears to the world now. Those moments are my idea of purgatory.

Did I say I was crabby? Sorry, I probably meant impatient. As you suggest, I’ve always been pretty much like that, although it’s nice to hear that I’m mellowing. As for solitude, I still seem to cherish it, or at least that part of it that is chosen by me and not enforced by circumstances. Yes, I want a fax machine in order to stay closer to you and Dan. I have even come to minimal terms with the telephone. As you say, I can sometimes stay on the phone these days for 10 minutes at a stretch, feeling reduced, of course, to a mere electronic signal the whole time, but at least I’m there.

As for canoe trips, Maria is absolutely right. You cannot take a 2-year-old white-watering. In fact, if I had any authority left in regard to family discipline, I would forbid it. I do forbid it. Listen to your wife and father.

With much love,

Dad

———

Jan. 28

Dear Dad,

This back-and-forth has made me realize something, or at least acknowledge it. We – you, me and Dan – have entered an interval in our respective lives in which there’s a certain quality of living in harmony with each other. Our lives have become braided. Part of it comes from the fact that the family’s center of gravity shifted after Mom’s death. But it also has to do with age. Yours and ours. We share friends. We share work. We share our everyday worries. What’s more, you’re young enough to revel in the simple pleasures delivered by family and friends. And Dan and I are old enough to appreciate that.

Think about it. Now we trade manuscripts, proferring and receiving advice, and without even a smidgeon of payback for some unrelated, unresolved dispute. There was a time we couldn’t do that. I remember once, nearly 20 years ago, I was home visiting for a few days and had with me notes for a magazine piece I was finishing. You lent me your office and clunky Royal typewriter, and so there I remained all day and night, until I fell asleep fully clothed on the carpeted floor. You found me the next morning, and were you ever testy. You chastened me. You need to take care of yourself, you told me. It’s childish to stay up all night – and then to not even make it to your bed. And I remember feeling angry right back. Who were you to tell me how to live my life? Who were you to instruct me about writing habits? I mean, you used to kick Dan and me out of the house every weekend morning so that you’d have some quiet for your work. But, of course, it was about a lot more than just that. It encompassed the inevitably knotty connections between father and son.

It’s not that we’re beyond such petty scrapes, but almost. And that feels pretty darn good.

Love,

Alex

P.S. Just for the record, I’m not paddling with Madeleine down some frothy river. Not until she’s mastered swimming – and her draw stroke.

———

Jan. 30

Dear Alex,

Living in harmony: as ancient a dream as there is and worth the effort, always. Harmony comes from tonal values and is defined by tonal values, in music as in life, whatever the age. And I believe in tonality.

Much love,

Dad

P.S. I have absolutely no memory of the episode of you on the floor overnight. Funny. You must have been really sore at me, and I must have chosen to instantly forget it.

———

Feb. 9

Dear Dad,

I guess I’m not all that surprised you wouldn’t remember that episode in your office. It was after all just a moment, neither momentous or life-changing. I’m not even certain why I remember that exchange. Our lives together – yours, Dan’s and mine – are filled with those moments, many more good than bad, and it’s something I look forward to in the coming years, sharing those remembrances. Perhaps over dinner on the porch of your farm. It’s our fireless campfire. I relish those evenings, the laughter and the stories. I’m thankful we have the place – and the time.

While I’m at it, I’ve always wanted to ask you about when you were 18, on the Front in France. I wanted to know the details. The image I’ve held onto over the years is of bodies sprawled along a ridge, those still alive groaning in pain, and you, uninjured, lying quietly, terrified, waiting for death. Now I have your memoir.

But I’ve also wanted to understand its aftershocks. Were you a different person before that day? (I know the person who emerged.) Did it make you fear having children, knowing that given life’s vagaries someday they, too, might have to endure their own cruel experiences? And more than all that, how, over half a century, were you able to clutch that memory so tightly that it was inaccessible to the closest of friends, as well to Dan and me?

I remember in high school that it was clear, though never said, that we weren’t to ask you of that time. So we didn’t. But whenever your foot would swell – the lingering effect of trench foot, you told us – I would fleetingly wonder what it must have been like. Sometimes when you seemed particularly irritable, I’d wonder if it wasn’t also a consequence of that time on the ridge.

Why now, Dad? Why at 72, more than 50 years after the fact, were you finally able to let go and write what happened? Does it get easier with age? I hope so.

Love,

Alex

———

Feb. 11

Dear Alex,

Was I a different person before I lost my platoon in France? I hope so, although it’s impossible really to tell. I was probably more naive than I should have been at 18: full of ideals, full of unfulfillable expectations about life. So be it. A lot of that, not all, got knocked out of me during the war. That’s a common experience. But afterward? Well, I got greedy about life. I wanted it all. So no, I didn’t question having children. I was eager for children. We all were. In any case, by that time – the late 50’s – we were worried about being nuked, a horrible new day-by-day fear that left its mark on everyone, children and adults alike. You and Dan, I believe, started each school day by hiding under your desks as a defense exercise. Remember that?

As for ”clutching” the memory of what happened in France, I would say that it clutched me. God knows I bored your mother half to death when I was trying to get her to marry me by telling that story over and over again. Part of its power over me simply drifted off with all those repeated recitations, I think. Then, finally, I thought it was time to write about it. It didn’t matter that I was then 69. I was just ready. Maybe some things do get easier with age.

Anyway, I’ve always lived in a powerful whirlpool of memories. I think that you and Dan are beginning to discover that you are going through that, too. Pay attention. Memories can mean renewal; sometimes they offer a second chance at life.

Love,

Dad

———

Feb. 12

Dear Dad,

Renewal. That’s right up there with harmony. It probably explains my love (some might call it a fixation) for rivers. They’re sources of constant replenishment – especially when shared with others. We’ve got time. Plenty of it. The strange thing, Dad, is that I don’t feel rushed. Not at all. Hey, I’m getting sentimental, and when we started this correspondence, it was the one thing we promised each other we’d avoid.

Love, as always,

Alex

———

Feb. 13

Dear Alex,

Shouldn’t we, at some point, sit down and discuss family finances? I guess so. But only 10 minutes at a time, please, and each time infrequently spaced.

And listen to this: After 19 phone calls, lengthy visits to the local Social Security office and additional calls to my Congressman’s office, I’m still without my September ‘96 check. Social Security sent it to a bank in Dayton, Ohio, without explanation. And there, I fear, it sits. But the exchanges with the bureaucracy! They turn my bones to dust. They make me grind my teeth. (If I am having this problem, I imagine thousands of others must be having it, too.)

As for getting sentimental, for God’s sake, if you feel like getting sentimental, go ahead. Just don’t feed on it.

Much love,

Dad

Books

Chicago is one of America’s most iconic, historic, and fascinating cities. For Alex Kotlowitz, an accidental Chicagoan, it is the perfect perch from which to peer into America’s heart.

Separated by a river, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor are two Michigan towns that are geographically close, yet worlds apart. St. Joseph is a prosperous, predominately white lakeshore community while Benton Harbor is impoverished and predominately black. When the body of Eric McGinnis, a black teenage boy from Benton Harbor, is found in the river that separates the towns, relations between the two communities grow increasingly strained as longheld misperceptions and attitudes surface. 

There Are No Children Here chronicles two years in the lives of two boys, Lafeyette and Pharoah, struggling to survive in Chicago’s Henry Horner Homes, a public housing complex disfigured by crime and neglect. 

© 2017, Alex Kotlowitz. All rights reserved