I was making one of those efforts to get rid of unnecessary papers the other night. You know, tossing out warranties for refrigerators that went to the dump years ago and suchlike.. I came upon a file of old correspondence about home repairs — retaining walls, crumbling porches and plumbing, always plumbing.
Keeping the water out that’s supposed to be out and the water in that’s supposed to be in — that is an ongoing project in a wooden house built in 1908.
Until 2011, my parents were the official owners of Douglass St., so I was often in communication with my father about it. And I found a letter
“11 Jan 98. Hi, Terry — Re 545, I think I can start the year off on a positive note, reporting that I think we finally see a light at the end of the drainpipe.”
Reading that sentence brought my father fully back to me. It’s been fifteen years since he died. I took the photo above around the time of this letter. He’s holding a picture of his mother and grandmother. He was 79.
(In fact, that wasn’t the light at the end of ANYTHING. I had a huge flood two years ago and had to tear out and rebuild both bathrooms. But I digress.)
There followed the numbing plumbing details:
“… downspout is positioned tightly… a piece of wire got stuck… draining the neighbors’ water into OUR drainpipe…”
Finally he’s done with the plumbing and moves on to the family:
“Sue is doing o.k. We were marketing and she put a 4-pack of toilet paper in the cart. I put in another 4-pack, remarking we knew we’d be buying more, so why not try to reduce the number of trips. No, she explained, we buy 4 now, because when we need the next 4, it may be on sale or she might have a coupon. “How do you think you got so rich?”, she demanded.”
There you have it: My mother’s sense of humor and passion for bargains, my father’s good humor with my mother’s ways, and my father taking the trouble to report the mundane details of a shopping trip to me.
How many people my age got chatty letters from their father? Macy Baum was an unusual man for his generation. He was open and sensitive and communicative — and funny, always funny. Everyone loved him. He had a small but successful advertising agency, and I think the combination of worldly success and sensitivity was particularly unusual and cherished by other men.
Dad grew up in Omaha, Nebraska in a poor and close-knit Jewish community. Both his parents emigrated from little Jewish villages (shtetls) in the Pale of Settlement, the territories of the Russian empire where Jews were allowed to live.
When my father was young, Jascha Heifetz, a Russian Jewish violin prodigy, was a huge sensation and every Jewish parent dreamed of their little boy following in his footsteps. There’s a kind of worship of musicians in Jewish culture. I saw that with my first boyfriend Jon, the piano player who saved me from drowning (see BE NICE & DIE). Jon’s family idolized him simply because he could play the piano! Not just his parents, but the whole extended family! It was very weird and not such a good preparation for life, as you might imagine. Anyhow, all the Jewish families, poor as they were, bought violins and paid for lessons for their boys, and one of these boys was Macy Baum. My worried Bubie famously asked my Zadie, as they listened to my dad practicing, “Do you think Macy will ever be able to make a living playing the violin?” To which my Zadie replied, “Let’s hope he never has to.” You see, Dad was tone-deaf. You cannot play the violin unless you have a good ear. It must have been agony in the Omaha ghetto, with all those little boys — many with no musical ability — practicing their violins.
Dad’s family was Orthodox, and he was the Golden Boy, the first in his family to graduate from college. He was supposed to become a rabbi (since a music career was out), but when the rabbi called him in to talk about it, Dad confessed that he didn’t believe in God. So that was the end of THAT!
Dad’s passion was always journalism. He was editor of the college newspaper, and chief of the debate team. When the whole family moved to Los Angeles during the Depression, he got a job on the LA Times selling ads, which led to a job offer from a small advertising agency. It was the Depression, and he was thrilled to have a well-paying job. He met my Mom at a Valentine’s Day Dance, sponsored by Hadassah, the Jewish women’s organization. His girlfriend Loretta had insisted he come, even though she was one of the organizers and would have no time to spend with him. Not a good strategy, if Loretta wanted to keep Macy for herself.
So Sue and Macy met on Valentine’s Day 1941 and got married on August 5. (I’m hoping I’ve got the year right. Everyone I could consult is dead.) It was an intimate affair in the rabbi’s study. The sanctity of the occasion was compromised by my mother’s uncle who was a real joker and wore a too-big hat that kept falling down beneath his eyes, making everyone snort with laughter.
Soon Dad enlisted in the army. This beautiful painting was done by one of the soldiers he served with. I don’t know how the artist painted this in the midst of a war. But Dad returning home with it rolled up. He fought in the Pacific and saw a LOT of action. One day on some small unnamed island, Dad led a patrol with seven men to reconnoiter. They were following a map, assuming the area they would explore was safe. But the map was wrong. They came around
a bend in the trail, and were met with a hail of bullets. All seven men accompanying my father were killed. He ran until he came to a river and walked down that river for three days, always fearing he would be shot by his own side. Finally he came to his own camp.
In fact, Macy was famous for getting shot at. If you were at the front, you could not get a promotion to officer status unless you actually engaged with the enemy. There was one soldier complaining that he SO deserved to be promoted, and it wasn’t happening because of that stupid rule. Another soldier asked, “Why don’t you just go out on patrol with Macy Baum?” To which the complainer replied, “I don’t want to become an officer THAT bad!”
BACK TO THE DRAINPIPE LETTER. The toilet paper incident is followed by:
“Which reminds me — you recall how I was dithering about when to sell my Vanguard index shares…” Of course I did NOT recall. My father was always trying to teach us about stocks and bonds. My sister Nancy and I would sit there with glazed eyes, pretending to absorb the information. I found out later that Nancy thought I DID absorb the info, and SHE was the only incompetent in the room!
Dad goes on: “I’ll not bore you with how many stocks went thru the roof after I’d sold out. Or the time 50 yrs ago when I ordered 100 shares of Desilu, and the broker sent me 100 shares of Disney by mistake. I indignantly demanded my Desilus as ordered, which was my mistake.”
Okay, the golden boy lost a golden opportunity. But at least it makes a good story, and that’s worth something!
“It’s late, and I’ve got to go to school in the morning, at West L.A. Community College, in Culver City: 9:30: Computer Science (Word and Excel); 11:00: American History Since the Civil War. Mondays & Wednesdays.”
So this was how Dad was going to handle his retirement. He had decided to close his business a year earlier, when he lost his biggest client. He was 79 and he couldn’t figure out what to do with himself, so he started college again. It turned out he loved it. The other students called him “Pops,” which delighted him. And he made the Dean’s List! I wish I still had the certificate, which he kept prominently displayed on his bulletin board.
His last words in the letter are: “Movie tip: As Good As It Gets.” It was midnight when I read those words. I had never seen that movie, and I wasn’t sleepy, so I live-streamed it on Youtube and watched it until two in the morning. Helen Hunt is unbelievably luminous and wonderful in it. So glad I saw it.
I felt like I had spent the whole evening with my Dad. He died in 2005. It’s been so long since we spent time together. Miss you, Dad.
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