Remarks At My Mother’s Memorial

Before I talk about Mom, I want to say a few words about hospice.

In her story “Collective Nouns for Humans in the Wild,” flash fiction author Kathy Fish suggests a group of hospice workers be called a grace. I wholeheartedly agree. They are angels on Earth. For weeks these kind souls came into our home and made Mom’s passing as easy as possible. We will be forever grateful.

***

I am convinced the reason the elderly repeat the same stories over and over is so you’ll get the details right at times like this. We don’t have the time for me to tell you all of Mom’s stories. So this is the Reader’s Digest version.

My mother, Anna Karolina Badum, grew up in Nazi Germany. Her small farming town in Bavaria went largely untouched by the war, save for those sons and fathers who returned wounded, or never returned at all. Mom’s father, my Opa, had been a railroad engineer on the Russian front. He never said more than that about what he did in the war. When the Americans finally came through, they camped in the fields around Mom’s house. She recalled they had plenty of chocolate. When President Roosevelt died, they fired artillery in tribute. The concussion shattered windows in the house.

After the war, Mom was sent to live with her grandmother and maiden aunts in the 14th century stone tower that is Höchstadt’s primary landmark. I know this sounds like the set up for some dark German fairytale. But Mom loved her grandmother and her aunts, and this is where she learned to cook and bake and to make her own clothes. Her grandmother was regularly hired to cook for weddings and other celebrations in town, and her aunts had a thriving cottage business making dresses. They had no phone, so it was Mom’s job to run around town taking orders, delivering finished dresses, and collecting payment. She did very well on tips.

Living with her grandmother also meant she went to church every day and twice on Sunday. Her friends gave her the nickname “Holy Anna.” They always saved her a seat at the movie theater on Saturdays, when she would be the first one out the door at church, running across town and only ever missing the newsreels.

Like most girls in Germany at that time, Mom’s schooling ended with eighth grade. She moved back home and told her mother she wanted to get a job. Mom was told she needed to help out at home and take care of her brothers.

So she ran away from home. She found work and lodging at a small inn outside Nürnberg, cleaning rooms and helping in the kitchen. Her brother Hilmar was the only one who knew where she was, and he kept her secret. By the time she was eighteen, she had saved enough money to come to America by steamship.

She first stayed with an aunt, and worked keeping house for a retired Army colonel and his family. The colonel knew German, and this is where Mom started to learn English. She then went to live with her Uncle John’s family, and went to night school to improve her English. She also put her sewing skills to work in the embroidery shops of West New York.

My father was a bus driver there, and my mother met him while taking his bus to work. Dad was 16 years her senior, and apparently a real smooth talker.

We lived in West New York until I was five, when we moved to a house in Bergenfield which my father – a veteran of WWII – bought with help from the GI Bill. I will always be thankful for that. It’s where I forged cherished friendships, and where music became such a big part of my life.

Dad was the musician in our house, playing guitar and accordion by ear, singing his kids to sleep. But Mom had the best records: Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Tammy Wynette. Her hunk of burning love was Elvis: She had all his records, saw all his movies multiple times, even named her miniature schnauzer after him. Later she succumbed to the boyish charms of Glen Campbell. I have fond memories of the whole family watching Campbell’s TV show together. She bought me my first Beatles album – Meet the Beatles. By the end of high school I was putting together bands with my friends and rehearsing in our back basement, sometimes well after Mom had gone to bed. I once asked her why she put up with that, why she never complained. She said, “Because I knew where you were.”

Dad had a heart attack in 1967 that forced his retirement from bus driving. So Mom went back to work at the embroidery shop that had been asking her to come back for years. Often times she’d put in an 80-hour week, that second 40 being paid as overtime. She belonged to the textile workers union, but she didn’t really need them: she was so good at her job she could cause a slowdown at the factory all on her own. So she generally got what she wanted.

I get my love of Star Trek from Mom. When it was first on, when I was nine years old, she let me stay up to watch. I never made it to the end of an episode. But we happily devoured it later in reruns. She loved Captain Kirk. Who didn’t? She loved that women in the 23rd century wore mini skirts. Mostly, she loved its optimistic, inclusive vision of the future. As hard as it is to do sometimes, I still hang on to that vision. Mom did, too, even though it occasionally manifested itself in the phrase, “What the hell is wrong with people?” For Mom, the 23rd century couldn’t get here fast enough.

Mom could knit and crochet like nobody’s business. Sweaters, scarves, bedspreads, pillows, stuffed animals. Truly remarkable work. I believe it was her form of meditation. That her children and grandchildren can wrap themselves in her handmade blankets for all the winters to come brings added meaning to the word “comforter.”

Then there’s the baking. Bread. Cakes. Danish rings. Christmas cookies. Growing up, my favorite time of year was from Thanksgiving until Christmas, when Mom’s kitchen was a feast for the senses. Almost as good as those Christmas cookies was stealing pinches of cookie dough from the fridge and trying to cover up the evidence. A few years back, when Mom said she could no longer make those cookies, it was like a favorite sports hero retiring.

When I let people know Mom had passed, my buddy Andre sent a message of condolence. Shortly after, he sent a second message: Did you get the recipes? Yes. They were in a shoebox under her bed. Of course, they’ll never taste the same. But we’ll give them our best shot.

Lest I paint too rosy a picture, let me say: Mom could be ornery. She could hold a grudge like a champion. And for most of her life, she wasn’t one to verbalize her feelings. I think a lot of the difficulties she and my father had could have been ironed out if they had just talked more with each other, been a bit more vulnerable. My mother didn’t tell me she loved me until I was in my thirties. I never doubted her love for a moment, but it was a joy to finally hear her say it. And it was easier to say from that day forward. That day, she was having radiation treatments. Yes, Mom beat cancer, a disease that had claimed her older daughter. It didn’t stand a chance this time around.

In the last couple of years, when she was done telling the same stories, Mom would reflect and say “I’ve had a good life.” It was good to hear her say that. The last time she was able to come to our house for Thanksgiving, I caught her looking wistfully at a photo of my dad we had hanging in the dining room.

“He was handsome, wasn’t he?” she said.

Yes he was Ma. And you were beautiful.

So Heaven just got a lot more interesting. It certainly tastes better now. Seriously. If you can’t bake in Heaven, the place doesn’t deserve the name.

***

I want to close with a couple of favorite passages.

The first is by Walt Whitman. I read these words at a friend’s memorial some years ago. I tried to find something different for Mom, but it’s tough to top old Walt. I hope someone will read these same words when my time comes:

What do you think has become of the young and old men?

And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what anyone supposed … and luckier.

This last passage comes from Mom’s favorite philosopher. He’s one of mine, too:

Live long and prosper.

[2018]

Unsung Hero

We used to imagine the unsung heroes, the people lost to time who were the first to do something — try a food, form a joke, make a simple tool. Lately I wonder about the first people to sing a major triad, how it might have felt to collectively conjure that magic from within themselves, to behold that new and holy sound and what that must have opened within them.

I remember how it felt to build chords in choir. But I’d heard music all my life and knew what to expect. Still, it was transcendent to be one of the instruments. And then I think about the first person to flat the third, who made the triad minor and knew it wasn’t a mistake, knew it wasn’t evil, and wept just the same.

[2018]

 

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Fine Tuning

At sixteen I declared I would study medicine. The following summer I visited Germany. Even with my poor German, I could tell my grandmother was proud.

While shopping with my cousins, I bought The Beatles’ “White Album.” I’d never heard it, but knew something of its mythic reputation.

I listened that night, alone, with headphones, during a thunderstorm. Though Ringo bade me good night, I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to know what those four guys knew, to make others feel like this.

I went to Germany wanting to be a heart specialist. I came back wanting to be John Lennon.

[2016]

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My Sister, Her Daughter, and the Kindness of Nanci Griffith

In the autumn of 1989 we had tickets to see Nanci Griffith at The Bottom Line in New York City. When the day of the show arrived, my sister Barbara was feeling too poorly to go. She had given birth to her daughter Emily that May, and had been undergoing treatment for cancer since then. So she wrote a letter to Nanci and asked if we would deliver it.

Three of us were going — me, my brother Joe and our friend Bob. (Another friend, John, was supposed to go but had to back out at the last minute. Our sister Cindi was still too young to come along.) We figured one of us had a better chance of delivering the letter than three of us, so the mission fell to me.

I don’t remember who I approached or what I said. All I know is I found myself backstage with Nanci Griffith and her band. She was very sweet and gracious. I remember marveling at how such a big singing voice could come from such a petite woman. I delivered the letter and she autographed an album for me.

As I started to leave, I was introduced to Julie Gold, the composer of “From A Distance,” a song that Nanci had recorded and that would become a huge hit for Bette Mildler a few years later. I told Julie how much I had enjoyed her original demo of the song, which I had heard on Vic Scelsa’s radio program. She then turned and introduced me to Vin Scelsa, and I marveled at how such a sonorous radio voice could come from such a compact man. Someone remarked that things seemed to have come full circle for me at that moment. I laughed in agreement and excused myself to take my seat out front.

Nanci and the band were in fine form that evening. About half way through her set, as she played the intro to the next song, she said, “This song is for Barbara Merklee, her daughter Emily, her brothers Bill and Joe, and their friends Bob and John.” We were floored. With everything else she must have had going on before hitting the stage, Nanci Griffith had actually read my sister’s letter, committed the names to memory, and carried out her request. The song was “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods.” I was a sobbing mess by the time the song was finished. I become that sobbing mess anytime I hear it now.

Bob and I went back to The Bottom Line the next night to see if we could get Nanci to sign an album for Barbara. After the show we waited near the end of the stage as the rest of the crowd filed out the exits. Clearly exhausted, Nanci came out and signed my sister’s album with this: “Safe passage through the storms.” My sister passed away a few months later.

Yesterday her daughter Emily got married. I wanted her to have something from her mother on her wedding day, so I put together a small gift package. It included a Polaroid of Emily in her mother’s arms when she was just a few days old, a lock of her mother’s hair (taken from a lock my father had clipped when Barbara was six years old), two of her mother’s books (a play by Dylan Thomas and This Is It by Alan Watts), a CD of “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods,” and a note telling the story of how Nanci Griffith had helped her mother tell us something all those years ago. It’s something I’m sure she would want Emily and James to know as they start their life together: In difficult or uncertain times, there is a light that beckons and never dims.

[2015]

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9-11

We were at our desks in the Marketing Department of The Record newspaper in Hackensack, New Jersey, when my co-worker Wendy started to panic. She had just heard about an airliner crashing into the World Trade Center. Her husband Kevin was due to fly out of New York that morning. Desperate for information, she needed my help turning on the TV in our conference room. She could barely hold it together, and I did my lame best to reassure even though I didn’t know anymore than she did about what had happened.

She finally heard from Kevin, whose plane was still on the ground. Our relief and jubilation was short-lived as it became apparent that what had happened at the World Trade Center was no accident.

The South Tower. The Pentagon. Pennsylvania.

Before the towers collapsed, I was able to see them burning from the third floor of our building. A manager came through and admonished us for looking. I understood his respect for the victims and the first responders, but I also felt like I needed to bear witness.

I only ventured into the Editorial Department on the fourth floor a couple of times that day. I witnessed — I felt — the hum of solemn purpose that marks a newsroom at its finest. It spread to the rest of building; newspapers have a sacred duty to the public, especially in times of crisis. We all had a job to do.

What was my job? I had to design a rack card, a seventeen-by-eleven inch cardboard sign that is mounted on the front of newspaper coin boxes. They usually scream some special offer or section or something else to entice you to buy the paper. Obviously this would be different. I simply couldn’t bear the thought of another sales piece with color bursts and heavy type hyping our coverage — the paper equivalent of those obnoxious tragedy teasers for which cable news has become infamous. My manager and VP agreed. I needed to find a way to acknowledge what had happened, to express solidarity with our community. And I had to have it done that day.

I found a stock image of the World Trade Center, gleaming in late afternoon light. I photoshopped and image of the American flag over this. In my mind, it was like a parent pulling a cover up around a frightened child. It was the country putting its arms around New York City. There was no need for words. In the lower margin, I placed the small logos of our two daily newspapers, The Record and the Herald News. In the top margin: September 11, 2001.

As soon as those signs were placed in the coin boxes throughout the Bergen and Passaic counties, they began to disappear. I started seeing them in people’s windows, even in offices I visited in the weeks that followed. I was glad to have made that connection.

It was but a small prelude to what came next.

When The Record published Tom Franklin’s photo of three firemen raising the American flag at Ground Zero, it became the defining image of that tragic day. Everyone knows that photo; there’s nothing else to say about it. I will never understand how it failed to win a Pulitzer. The gifted photographer is now a professor at Montclair State University. Lucky students!

The Record was inundated with requests for that photo. It became my department’s job to help manage those requests. We heard from fire departments, police departments, and EMTs from all over the country and even overseas. We heard from celebrities and politicians. Then the thank you letters started coming, and our collection of fire and police uniform patches began to grow. I have two mementos from that time that I cherish. One is my copy of the famous photo autographed by Tom. The other in an NYPD baseball cap.

The most moving requests came from people who had lost a relative or a friend. Sometimes these requests were made by phone, and sometimes those conversations seemed as important as the thing they were requesting. Many others, myself included, did not personally lose a loved one that day, but they wanted a copy of the photo to help them process their shock and grief; it was a symbol of hope and resolve. The most sobering phone call I received was from a forensic specialist whose job it was to identify victims from bone fragments.

Every year on the anniversary, Wendy and I exchange single word messages on Facebook. I can never forget how scared she was that morning, and it makes me so happy to see how happy she is now, to see her family pictures and how her boys have grown. It’s the sort of thing to be celebrated as we remember what we lost.

Like so many of us, I will always remember where I was on 9-11: Working at a newspaper in Hackensack, New Jersey. On that day and the days that followed, it was the best possible place for me to be.

[2015]

9-11

The Civil War Is Always With Us

At the beginning of Ken Burns’ remarkable Civil War documentary series, author Shelby Foote says, “Any understanding of this nation has to be based — and I mean really based — on an understanding of the Civil War. It defined us as what we are, and it opened us up to what we became, both good and bad. It was the crossroads of our being.”

It should be required viewing in every high school in the nation. How can we hope to address race in this country when so many of us know more about the Kardashians than we do about Frederick Douglass?

The horrific killings in Charleston, South Carolina, and the ensuing disagreements over symbols of the Confederacy are reminders of how the ripples of the Civil War still reach us.

Those who would continue to fly the Confederate battle flag — or some permutation of it — on government property insist the flag is about “heritage, not hate.” Their cries ring hollow. It is, among other things, a heritage of racism and white supremacy. When they argue states’ rights, they mean the right to uphold a racist and white supremacist system. This is explicitly clear in documents and books from all the Confederate states and from the designer of the Confederate flag. Flying that flag on public/government property is a petulant “fuck off” to the side that won that war, especially when you consider the battle flag went up in the early 1960s as a response to desegregation.

Anything good about Southern culture also existed under the stars and stripes. And, as some are quick to point out, so did slavery, and a good many other atrocities that some would leave out of the history books.

True. So why not remove the American flag as well?

Because the American flag also represents our attempts, however imperfect, to confront our wrongs and to rectify them. The same cannot be said of any Confederate flag.

If only we could finally find closure in those attempts.

In ways great and small, the Civil War is always with us.

When my wife and I were considering names for our daughter back in 1996, we didn’t want to name her after someone else in our families. We wanted her to be her own person. We chose Amanda.

The history of that name within the family was unknown to us at the time.

My daughter’s birth rekindled my interest in genealogy. I soon discovered she had two great-great-great grandmothers named Amanda on my side of the family.

Both these women were married to Union veterans of the Civil War. Amanda Worden (who I had only known as Minnie; it’s even the name on her headstone) married Edward Root, who served in the 2nd New York Cavalry. He saw action in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. His handwritten family history became the foundation of my genealogical research. I also have his diary, his medals, and his Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) pin. My brother’s middle name is Edward in his honor.

Amanda Lewis married Edward Tremper, who served in the Union navy, fought in the Battle of Mobile Bay, and was a prisoner of war. He escaped from Libby Prison in Virginia. Ed Tremper died in 1888 when a disgruntled drunk who had been tossed out of a tavern returned and threw a rock at the bartender, hitting Ed instead.

My biggest surprise was learning that my daughter was not the first Amanda Merklee in the family tree.

The first Amanda Merklee was a half-cousin who lived in Philadelphia her entire life, from 1832 to 1919. Her father was a veteran of the War of 1812. She kept journals, which are now held by the Pennsylvania Historical Society. They offer a glimpse into her life and times that I don’t have for the other Amandas.

About half of the pages are taken up with recording the day-to-day events in her life. She and three of her sisters always lived together and never married. They were all deeply religious, and deeply involved with their extended families in Philadelphia and New York.

The remaining pages record news and her thoughts about the War of the Rebellion. Clearly an abolitionist, she writes that slavery has “long been agitating our land” and how the Union is the side of “justice and right.” The passages about Abraham Lincoln’s assassination are very moving, and conclude with this: “A. Lincoln died an honorable death. J. Davis will fill a traitor’s grave.”

Amanda also writes about the volunteer work she and her sisters performed at Philadelphia’s Cherry Street Hospital, where they cared for wounded soldiers, Confederate and Union alike.

The first Amanda Merklee knew her cause was just. It included the end of slavery, the preservation of the Union, and compassion for anyone and everyone who needed her help, regardless of the uniform they wore. I couldn’t ask for a better legacy for my daughter.

Where some find in the Civil War a reason to stay divided, they can also find those “better angels of our nature” that President Lincoln spoke about. It should not take tragedies and government decrees to relegate the Confederate flag to museums and text books. It should finally come down because we finally listen to those angels. The racial wounds of this country, wounds that have been there from its birth, cannot heal otherwise.

Incidentally, the name Amanda means “worthy of being loved.” It would cause an awful lot of confusion, but by that definition, everyone should be named Amanda.

[2015]

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The Ballad of Young Bill Merklee

My paternal grandfather, William Earl Merklee Sr., died six years before I was born. I only “know” him via stories and some recently acquired photographs. I am not named after him. I am named after his son, William Earl Merklee, Jr. My father had his reasons.

William Earl Merklee was born in 1891 in what was then West Englewood, New Jersey. He was the oldest of the six children of William Henry Merklee and the former Susan Hoyt Tremper. His father was a news agent whose family had been in New York City for less than a hundred years, having come over from Germany via Holland. His mother’s family was largely Dutch, and had roots that reached up and down the Hudson valley and back several centuries. Mount Tremper, New York, is named for one of her ancestors.

This is the earliest story I know about my grandfather, an event that I believe colored everything that came after: When he was six years old, he shot and killed his younger brother Harry with a pistol they found while playing in their parents’ bedroom.

A small newspaper article about the incident says more about the sorry state of journalism at the time than is does about what happened. Somehow, the writer was magically present in the bedroom, so he could quote my grandfather as having said, “Harry, I am going to shoot you.” I do know the family moved to Dumont shortly thereafter. In a time before the telephone and the widespread ownership of cars, one could conceivably make a fresh start just moving across the county. I also know my grandfather’s parents eventually divorced. It’s not difficult to imagine the pressures that this kind of tragedy produced, and how ill-equipped they were — by today’s standards — to deal with them.

When my grandfather was about twelve years old, he took a rifle from the house for some shooting practice. This was not unusual; at the turn of the last century, you could hunt rabbits and squirrels in the wilds of Haworth, Harrington Park and Closter. On this day, however, he decided he would try and hit the weather vane atop the steeple of Dumont’s Old North Church. The story goes he hit it on the first shot, sending it spinning wildly, and he soon caught hell from his father, who had become a prominent member of that church as well as a member of the school board.

In the summer of 1969, the Old North Church was having its steeple restored. The weather vane, shaped like a multi-pointed shooting star, was taken down and displayed in the lobby of the bank across the street. My dad took me to see it. One of the star’s lower points was splayed open; my grandfathers’ shot had not been a bull’s eye. Onlookers wondered what had happened, saying it must have been a lightning strike. Dad knew exactly what had happened, but no one seemed particularly interested in the truth.

William Earl Merklee married Adele Fox of Dumont in 1910. They were both nineteen years old. They named their first child, a son, Harry Root Merklee, after the brother William had accidentally killed and after Adele’s maternal grandfather, Edward Root, a veteran of the Civil War with whom she and her mother had been living in a house on Niagara Street since Adele’s father had walked out on them.

Another son, William Earl Merklee, Jr., arrived in 1917. My dad, Norman Harold Merklee, was born on August 19, 1919. His middle name comes from one of his uncles. No one knows where his first name came from. He never liked it. A fourth son, Warren Fox Merklee, was born the next day. It was a surprise to everyone when Adele, who had just given birth to Norman, went into labor again just after midnight. They named this son after the physician in attendance, Dr. Warren, who would later become mayor of Bergenfield. The twins were born in a house on Quackenbush Avenue in Dumont.

It’s not clear when my grandfather’s drinking became a problem. According to my dad, it was a problem for as long as he could remember. The pastor of the Old North Church was apparently criticized by his congregation for socializing and playing checkers with my grandfather. The pastor explained he was simply taking the battle to the devil, when really he just enjoyed my grandfather’s company. I was told he could be quite charming.

That charm enabled him to find work during the Great Depression. He could find work, but he couldn’t hang on to it. His alcoholism would always make him unreliable. And he would squander much of his earnings on drink. In the early 1930s he landed a job as the superintendent of an apartment building in Weehawken. It was an ideal situation: A paid position plus a rent-free apartment for his family. He was also put in charge of collecting the rent from the other tenants. When it was discovered my grandfather was using some of the collected rent money to buy booze, he had to pack up his family and move out in the middle of the night.

It fell to his oldest son, Harry, to provide for the family. Even then, they sometimes could only afford to eat cornflakes three times a day. My grandmother made her boys’ shoes last longer by using the cardboard from the cornflakes boxes to line the worn-through soles. She even turned burlap flour bags into underwear for them. When there was a little extra money, my grandmother would buy supplies to bake extra loaves of bread. She would wrap them in wax paper and then have her sons sell them around the neighborhood. They could occasionally feast on fish, rabbit or squirrel when the boys were able to go hunting or fishing.

When my grandfather was desperate for booze money, he was not above pawning some of Harry’s fishing or hunting gear.

Home life became unbearable for my father. When my grandfather wasn’t out getting bombed, he was home listening to baseball on the radio. The shouting, over-the-top announcers grated on my father’s nerves so much that he completely soured on the sport. (When I was growing up, no one watched or listened to baseball in my house until 1969, when it seemed everybody in the neighborhood was a Mets fan. Everybody except my father.) And when my grandfather wasn’t doing that, he was having dish-throwing brawls with his wife. It’s one of the main reasons my dad joined the Navy in the summer of 1941 — just to get the hell away from it all.

Ten years later, William Earl Merklee Sr. was dead, in a sanitarium in Newark, New Jersey. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Brooklyn, with his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. Just Dad and my grandmother attended. Dad told me he was simply providing transportation for his mom and that he never shed a tear.

Only twice did I hear my father speak of his father with anything close to admiration. The first instance was when sixteen-year-old William Earl Merklee Jr. lay dying in a hospital. He was suffering the complications of bronchiectasis, a fatal lung infection in the time just before antibiotics. One of the complications was the swelling of his face from an accumulation of fluid under the skin. My grandfather was at that hospital every day, massaging and pushing fluid out through small incisions to relieve the pressure, and doing whatever else he could to make his son comfortable. My Uncle Billy, my namesake, was laid to rest near his grandmother at the Old South Church in Bergenfield in 1933.

The other instance involved the family dog. My grandfather was sitting on the front porch of his house, letting the dog roam around the yard and the immediate vicinity. It was a common practice; there were no leash laws. The dog wandered across the street to do some of his business in a neighbor’s yard. The neighbor, a strapping Polish fellow, took exception to this and gave the dog a swift kick in the groin. The dog howled and collapsed in agony. My grandfather flew off the porch and laid the guy out with one punch.

***

In the late 1970s I was working as a driver for Betty Lee Pharmacy in Bergenfield. I made a delivery to an elderly gentleman named John Holmes. He was in a wheelchair. While a woman who was also there (she could have been a home health aid or perhaps his daughter) was taking care of the payment, Mr. Holmes starting telling me how he had lived in Bergenfield all his life and once owned a construction company that had built most of the houses in the northwest corner of town. Then he asked me my name.

“Bill Merklee,” I said. His face brightened.

“Young Bill Merklee’s boy?” he said. I immediately knew who he meant.

“I’m his grandson,” I said, and told him how young Bill Merklee had married Adele Fox and had four sons. Mr. Holmes was happy to hear this; Adele was “quite a looker” he said.

“Your grandfather was some ball player,” he said, and he proceeded to tell me all about it, how all the towns had baseball teams and how they traveled by train to play other towns and about the crowds that always turned out to watch. Here I was, listening to a guy who knew nothing of my grandfather’s early tragedy and nothing of what was to come. For him, Bill Merklee was a good-looking kid who could play any position and almost always got a hit. Mr. Holmes couldn’t know he was providing a warm, sepia-toned coda to what was the otherwise sad song of my grandfather’s life. And of course, I got in trouble with the boss for getting back to the store so late.

***

Flash forward to 2014. A kind stranger tracked me down via the Internet and told me he had a photo album that might belong to me. It turned out to be my father’s. I don’t know how this gentleman came across it, but I’m grateful he did.

It’s the photographic companion to all the stories my dad ever told me. Except that they don’t tell the whole story. Nobody was photographing the fights, or sneaking shots of my grandfather passed out drunk, or recording the sadness. Everyone was on their best behavior, usually smiling, and they generally seemed to be enjoying themselves.

There are pictures of my grandfather in his declining years, fishing in Harrington Park and down the shore. Even with everything that had happened, family bonds, however strained, were still there. For all the pain and misery my father talked about, he still kept the pictures.

[2015]

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Dreams So Real

Good night Irene, good night Irene / I’ll see you in my dreams

This has troubled me from time to time: Why haven’t I had any dreams about some of the people closest to me who have died?

Some say the dream state is a way to contact the departed. There are traditions that maintain that the world of our dreams is another aspect of reality, even a separate reality. Others say it’s nothing more than a manifestation of our brains doing filing, sorting, and even problem solving during our physical downtime. I can tell you from experience there really is value in “sleeping on it.”

I’m not going to discuss any of that here. Anyone who has ever awoken in a cold sweat from a heart-pounding nightmare, or awoken laughing (my favorite), or seen a dog whimper and move it’s legs while sleeping — knows that dreams produce real reactions in the waking world. No, my main question was always “Why dream of some people and not others?”

After more than 24 years, I finally dreamt about my late sister Barbara.

I don’t know why this should have taken so long. Only a few days after a friend of mine died from injuries he suffered in a car accident, I dreamt he was in the kitchen of the apartment I was living in at the time. In the dream, I awoke in the late morning to the sound of someone in the kitchen. I got up to see if it was my roommate. To my surprise, it was my deceased friend Rick, leaning back against the stove. I said, “Rick, aren’t you dead?” He just smiled, and I woke up.

Some time later, a co-worker died after a long struggle with cancer. A number of us had donated blood during his treatment. In this dream, I was wearing a business suit. I had fallen asleep on a toilet in an ornate Art Deco public restroom that had marble sinks and counters and small, black and white floor tile. But there were no stalls to speak of, so there I was out in the open, half asleep on the throne with my plants down around my ankles. Other men in business suits came and went without disturbing me. When I fully awoke in the dream I noticed one of the guys standing at a urinal looked like the recently departed co-worker.

“Nick?” I said. He zipped up and turned around. It was him. “I thought you were dead.”

He also just smiled, put his finger to his lips as if to say “Shh,” and slowly nodded his head side to side.

In my dream about Barbara, I found myself in front of the house in Bergenfield where I grew up. It was a mix of the way it looks now (I sometimes drive past it when I go to visit my brother in the next town) and the way it looked then: the pine tree my father planted was still in the front yard, but the fence and hedges that ran between us and the neighbor’s house were gone. I walked into the front yard, and there was Derek, one of the cats we have now. He’s an indoor cat and never even tries to venture outside, so this was unusual. I told him to get in the house (a house he’s never lived in) and held the side door open for him. As I did this, I noticed out the corner of my eye that Ben, a guy I used to work with at the local newspaper, was in the neighbor’s yard measuring a post for a split-rail fence. In the dream, this seemed perfectly normal. He didn’t notice me and I said nothing as I entered the house behind Derek.

The kitchen looked pretty much the same as the last time I saw it, which was 13 years ago as we were clearing out the house to be sold. I also felt like I was 30 again. No one else was in the house. I walked to the back where our childhood bedrooms had been, and there was Barbara, wearing what might have been a hospital gown since it was open enough in the back to see she was thin and frail, like when she was going through chemo. Her hair was up and she was sorting though a bunch of things in the room that she once shared with our sister Cindi, putting things in scrapbooks.

“Hey you,” I said, “What are ya doin’?” In the dream, at least, it seemed perfectly normal to see her — no dramatics or tearful histrionics. I was just happy. She looked at me and smiled. “We’re going to get something to eat,” I continued. “Want to join us?”

“Thank God,” she said, “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t eat my one meal a day.”

“Oh good,” I said, “cancer humor.” And I hugged her and noticed how short and bony she was. “It’s so good to hug you.”

I awoke gently, not in tears but with a sense of wonder. I immediately started replaying the dream in my head, over and over so I would not forget the details, and then wrote them down. I finally had a dream about her, and I was happy. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world.

My wife and I sometimes try to interpret the symbolism in our dreams. Of course it’s a completely amateur endeavor. At the very least, we’ve gotten pretty good at identifying what real-life experiences probably informed what was happening in dreamland.

In the one about Nick, the ornate restroom was likely based on a similar one I’d used at the New York City archives when I was doing some genealogy research (though it did have privacy stalls). I imagine this became the setting of the dream because it resembled how busy the restroom would get at the newspaper where I worked, after the morning sales meeting as everyone prepared to hit the road.

Rick’s dream was very realistic because it took place in the house I was currently living in, and nothing seemed out of place or unusual except for Rick being in the kitchen.

So I set about identifying the elements of the dream about my sister. The outside of the house was a combination of the way it had been when we lived there and the way it looks today. I can construe that to represent a bridge between past and present. The former coworker measuring fence posts next door makes sense because both my sister and I had worked at the newspaper with him. The cat probably should have been Alex, a gray Abyssinian my late sister had brought home as a kitten only to discover she was allergic to him. She couldn’t bear to send him back, so I adopted him and he became my best friend of 17 years. Derek, one of our current cats, seems to have stood in for Alex. Derek is diabetic, and I give him an insulin shot twice a day. So that may be some allusion to having helped care for my sister when she was ill. The inside of the house appeared largely as I had left it the last time I was there. And Barbara looked only a little healthier than the last time I saw her alive, so there was a sense of picking up where we had left off. I’m not surprised that the hug felt very real; I have many tactile memories of hugging my sister.

But what triggered this dream after all this time? I believe it was a “Throwback Thursday” photo posted by a friend on Facebook. She is a survivor of ovarian cancer, and she posted a TBT photo of herself from when she was undergoing treatment. I’m so certain this photo was the catalyst for my dream that I thanked her for posting it and told her what had happened to me.

There are many interpretations of what dreams may or may not be. I’m always happy to discuss all the possibilities, but it doesn’t really matter to me. I got to hold my sister again, and I am so grateful.

[2015]

dreams

Mark Becker (1960-2014)

My friend Mark Becker died in a horrific accident on the New York State Thruway on February 27th. He was on his way to teach a class at Bard College. He was 53 years old.

Like me, he went to college a bit later in life. Unlike me, he didn’t stop with a bachelor’s degree. He went on to earn his master’s, and then to teach at Columbia University and at Bard. His specialty was geographic information systems (GIS). His work included documenting the effects of global warming and mapping the most effective placement of resources in the battle against AIDS in Africa. He was also the Associate Director of the Geospatial Applications Division for the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) of Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

All of this grew, I believe, out of his crowning achievement: the co-founding of the Bergen Save the Water Action Network (SWAN) with his partner of 30 years, Lori Charkey. Bergen SWAN has been responsible for the preservation of thousands of acres of sensitive forests and wetlands in Bergen County, New Jersey and Rockland County, New York that would have otherwise become home to townhouses and shopping malls.

A memorial service was held for him on March 23rd. Lori and her cohorts managed to turn a rather sterile corporate auditorium into a magical homage to Mark, complete with live plants, live music, water fountains, and wind chimes. The tributes were remarkable, mainly because they showed a life well lived in so many circles. I’m sure my stories were as much of a surprise to his academic colleagues as theirs were to me.

Here is what I had to say about my friend:

I met Mark through my sister Barbara. She passed way in 1990. I find it very poetic that we are here celebrating Mark on what would have been Barbara’s 51st birthday.

I was forming a band around 1978 and needed a guitar player. My sister suggested I call Mark. I think my first question for him was “Can you play Led Zeppelin?”

Let me tell you: He could play Led Zeppelin. And The Beatles. Jeff Beck. The Allman Brothers. Yes. The Police. Steely Dan. Mahavishnu Orchestra. His bandmates who are here today can attest to his musical gifts. Mrs. Becker, thanks for letting us rehearse in your basement. We apologize for stapling carpet to the walls.

But music was only the beginning for me and Mark. He was curious about absolutely everything, so any subject was fair game for the most intense conversations. For him, everything was amazing, and that outlook was contagious.

In the mid 80s we were roommates in a house in Westwood, NJ. It was a growing experience, especially for me since it was my first time living away from home. I was a slob. Mark was not. Neither of us liked confrontation. After so many days of me leaving my unwashed dishes in the sink, I came home to find them stacked in the middle of my bedroom floor. I didn’t get mad. I washed my dishes. Lesson learned: Clean up your own damn messes. We had a great couple of years in that house; a lot of music and a lot of laughs. It’s also where I got to know Lori, and to marvel at the life she and Mark were creating together.

Mark was the closest thing to a Taoist I ever met. He would never have called himself that, which made him the best kind of Taoist. He was contemplative. He did not impose himself on nature, but rather sought to understand his place in it. He was one of the most peaceful souls I have ever encountered. The first copy of the Tao Te Ching I ever read was Mark’s.

I couldn’t know it at the time, but he helped put me on a path that would lead me to embrace Zen Buddhism. Mark did this, not by proselytizing or by pedagogy, but by being who he was, by living his convictions, and by being my friend. I wish I had thanked him.

I can’t help but note the passing this year of two champions of the environment for whom music was as vital as breathing. When Pete Seeger passed away earlier this year, Arlo Guthrie’s response was “Well, of course he passed away! But that doesn’t mean he’s gone.”

For my friend Mark Becker, I leave you with a similar sentiment from Walt Whitman:

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

 All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what anyone supposed . . . and luckier.

[2014]

becker

Songs Along the Path

It was quite a trip from being raised Roman Catholic to having my jukai ceremony at age 51. (Yes, I was tempted to write “a long, strange trip” or “a long and winding road,” but thankfully I stopped myself.) I had doubts about my given religion even as a child, went through a rebellious atheist phase in my twenties, and eventually found my thoughts and feelings about things spiritual were closest to Taoism and Buddhism.

I can pinpoint the various influences that got me here: the TV show Kung Fu; my roommate’s copy of the Tao Te Ching; listening to Alan Watts on WFMU; sessions with a therapist whose approach was decidedly Buddhist; stumbling across copies of Buddhism Without Beliefs and Zen Mind, Beginners Mind in a favorite book shop; finding Heart Circle Sangha and finally getting up the nerve to step inside.

Perhaps the subtlest and most powerful influence has been the music I’ve listened to since my youth. It has stirred me as few other things can, and its ability to do so has not diminished with time.

The Beatles were my first exposure to Eastern spiritual themes in pop music, as they were for so many others. But in going back through my music collections, I identified so much more. Some of the songs certainly have overt Buddhist references: John Lennon’s Instant Karma, Three Dog Night’s Shambala, Steely Dan’s Bodhisattva, Alex Chilton’s Dalai Lama. Some have spiritual themes that, while not expressly Buddhist, are perfectly at home in Buddhist contemplation. Others contain a feeling, theme, or even just one line of lyric that got me to consider the bigger picture, or seemed to affirm something I was already feeling.

I’ve compiled more than 200 of these songs, and the list continues to grow. Recently I distilled the collection down to what could fit on a CD so I could present some friends with a kind of Zen mix tape (remember mix tapes?). I sequenced the playlist for a bit of narrative structure, and was struck by how many of the tracks reference water imagery and impermanence.

These, then, are some of my songs along the path. Regardless of the artists’ original intentions, this is what I get from them. They’re all available on CDs or iTunes if you’re inclined to try the collection for yourself. Your mileage may vary.

Litany (Life Goes On) by Guadalcanal Diary
We start with a sort of overture or grand statement for the collection. Relentlessly positive, the lyrics spell out how the world looks through clear eyes and with an open heart. The uplifting music takes what might otherwise be the uncomfortable uncertainty of “We move so quickly / Who knows where he time goes? / Where does this road lead? / No one knows” and turns it into a celebration of possibilities. Embrace life and fear not; it has no beginning and no end.

Now by King Missile
Probably the most obscure song on the list (and the shortest), it has the uncanny ability to focus my attention on the only thing we ever really have: the present moment. It contains what is, for me, a very playful depiction of dependent arising: “Once there was nothing but nothingness / Then something happened and now there is somethingness.”

Mind Games by John Lennon
This is the song that truly started me on the path. Where Litany is a celebration of being presented with this marvelous world, Mind Games is a call to action, a resounding chorus of how one can proceed. It made me want to know what the “karmic wheel” was, and it introduced me to the idea of non-attachment: “Yes is the answer / And you know that for sure / Yes is surrender / You gotta let it go.” It never fails to lift my spirits.

Pure and Easy by Pete Townshend
Townshend has been a spiritual seeker most of his life. He became a follower of the Indian mystic Meher Baba in the 60s, and much of his best work has been rooted in this seeking. Pure and Easy is the foundation of his Lifehouse idea, a spiritual song cycle that he struggled for years to bring to fruition. The Who’s best album — Who’s Next — arose from that struggle. When he sings of “the note in us all,” it sounds to me like the Tao or Buddha-nature. This song also came to mind when I first read “The Note” in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.

Morning Has Broken by Cat Stevens
Hard to believe a traditional Scottish Christian hymn made it into Top 40 radio back in the 70s. The future Yusuf Islam is accompanied here by pianist extraordinaire Rick Wakeman and some beautifully haunting background vocals in a song about constant renewal. Like I tell my kids: Any day you wake up is a good day. Rejoice in it.

Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds
Continues the influence of my Christian upbringing with lyrics taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes, set to music by the incomparable Pete Seeger. It’s probably my earliest exposure to the ideas of necessary opposites and endless cycles.

Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan
I take this as a call to meditation. Whatever is vexing you, the answers are always at hand. Just be still.

Rain by The Beatles
The first of five water-themed songs, this one made me look at the problems we create for ourselves through our perceptions: “When the rain comes / They run and hide their heads” and “When the sun shines / They slip into the shade.” Nothing is ever good enough. We always want what we don’t have. But then: “Rain — I don’t mind / Shine — the weather’s fine.” It’s just a state of mind. Get out of your own way.

Think About Your Troubles by Harry Nilsson
Nilsson’s album The Point was a favorite when I was a kid, the animated film even more so. This is a playful song about cycles and how everything, including your troubles, is impermanent.

Once in Lifetime by Talking Heads
When I heard David Byrne sing “Water dissolving / And water removing / There is water / At the bottom of the ocean,” I was reminded of how the Tao is said to be like water, seeking the lowest places which men abhor. A major theme of the song is self refection, and being surprised by what one finds. The refrain of “Same as it ever was” is almost a mantra. Rather than being a statement about how nothing changes, I take it to mean what was true then is true now.

All This Time by Sting
Written in response to the death of his father, Sting uses river imagery to evoke the endless stream of time, how we all rise and fall in the flow, and the folly of seemingly permanent monuments and rituals. I have always loved the last line: “They only get better one by one.” We have to awaken on our own.

What’s Good – The Thesis by Lou Reed
One of my early struggles with Buddhism was making room for paradoxes. This track is a meditation on loss from an album that was inspired in part by the death of Reed’s friend, the songwriter Doc Pomus. Reed juxtaposes things that don’t make sense together — some real, some truly nonsensical — while trying to come to terms with the death. His conclusion: “Life’s good, but not fair at all.”

Let Love Rule by Lenny Kravitz
A latter-day All You Need Is Love. If love is indeed the answer (as we hear in Mind Games), then we would do well to let love rule.

(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding by Elvis Costello & The Attractions
Written by Nick Lowe, this is a seeker’s lament. We see the pain, hatred and misery. We respond with compassion. Why should anyone scoff at that?

One by U2
Our feelings of the universal are often rooted in our experiences of the particular. Here, a relationship is coming apart, and it brings out something much bigger: “We’re one, but we’re not the same / We get to carry each other.”

Just Breathe by Pearl Jam
What Buddhist wouldn’t be intrigued by that title? It’s only mentioned once, but it’s the best response to contemplating impermanence, and being grateful in the moment.

All Things Must Pass by George Harrison
From the über-spiritual album of the same name, Harrison wrote this in the midst of the turmoil surrounding the disintegration of The Beatles. It’s a beautiful reminder that everything — whether we see it as good or bad — will pass away.

Do You Realize?? by The Flaming Lips
Structurally similar to Mind Games, and musically just as rousing. Listeners have been quite moved by this track that includes the lines “Do you realize / That everyone you know / Someday will die?” Far from being morose, it’s a celebration of seeing the world as it is, seizing the day, and giving the lie to illusion. It brings to mind the Evening Gatha. Take heed. Do not squander your life.

Find the River by R.E.M.
Back to water imagery for the final summation. Michael Stipe’s lyrics are frequently impressionistic (if not downright cryptic) and R.E.M.’s songs have always touched me at a more subliminal level. Find the River feels like an elder looking back at his life and passing the torch. Throughout the song, he observes how “Nothing is going my way” — except at the end, when he sings, “All of this is coming your way.” It could be a warning from a world-weary soul. Or it could be sage advice to check desire, to “do without doing,” to open up to what is flowing in the river — or blowing in the wind.

[2013]

(Click here for the playlist on Spotify.)