Friday, June 03, 2016

June 3, 2016--Always Talk To Strangers: Holly & Chris

Beginning in July, 2007, I wrote a series of pieces about encounters with strangers. By now they total nearly 50. Many appeared here. 

Over the next number of months, on Fridays, I will publish some of my favorites in the hope that you will enjoy them.

Here from that July is the first of them--"Holly & Chris"--

I was brought up in a family that did not believe in friends. Or even in the concept of friendship.

Thus, by the time I graduated from college, I had established no lasting friendships. And since from everyone I knew who had these kinds of relationships—those formed during childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood—this meant that I would never have real friends because real friends, if not carried over from early in life, could not be made during middle age much less even later.

This was one of the axioms of that era, equivalent to the theory, actually assertion, that one’s personality, one’s very being was fully formed by no later than age eighteen. The rest of life was a matter of playing out that hand of intra-psychic cards.

So, like my parents, I focused almost all of my relating on my relatives, or what my Aunt Fay, a strong proponent of blood being thicker than water (as if water flowed in the veins of everyone with DNA different than ours), called “My wonderful family!” I can hear that exclamation point even now, lo these many decades after I first felt it.

At the time I didn’t question any of these assumptions, these forbidding a priori givens. I merely motored on, preparing myself in a variety of ways for responsible adulthood. Always keeping in mind my father’s admonition when I took the risk to ask, rather tell him, if it was permissible to want a life with connections beyond just my loving immediate and extended family, was it acceptable to want to seek happiness in various ways likely to be different from his and their definitions? When I found the passive, conditional-voice courage to ask this, he admonished me with something that has echoed through all of my life and against which I have attempted in recent years to struggle—“What does happiness have to do with anything?” Period. End of story. So get on with it. Which I attempted to do.

But later, feeling somewhat bereft and isolated from the kinds of warm relationships I saw among the people I knew, friendships that clearly meant so much to them, that obviously enriched their lives, and in many cases were stronger and more profound than what they took or got from their own families, I struggled, first, to try to understand why I was taught not to trust strangers and to seek all warmth, love, and security from just within my family; and, second, I tentatively began to reach out to others to see if there was any possibility of forming later-in-life versions of friendships—pushing against the more pessimistic developmental perspective and admonishments of my family and formative years.

In regard to the first struggle--My mother’s immediate family managed to get out of Eastern Europe a decade before the Nazi anschluss and the subsequent pogroms and ultimately the Holocaust. Those of her relatives who remained behind, thinking it would all pass them by, never made it beyond Auschwitz and Dachau. And so, when they arrived in America and later learned the full horror of what they had escaped, they huddled together even more, isolated in their foreignness, their Jewishness, and their perceived vulnerability. Even here. In America!

My father’s people were more secular, solidly middle-class bourgeois Austrian Jews who came to the United States in the 1880s, never agreed to be ghettoized on the Lower East Side, learned English quickly, made a good living, bought a house in a mixed neighborhood in Brooklyn, and considered themselves both superior to the Polish and Russian Ashkenazi Jews. Above all they felt assimilated and decidedly American. It seems that the first thing they did after buying the brick house on Bedford Avenue was figure out how to get to Ebbets Field so they could root for the Dodgers in person—it didn’t get any more American than that.

But then, just as they were settling in to be quite comfortable, they were battered by the Depression and discovered than not only were their savings worthless and their house dramatically diminished in value, but also in the eyes of others in even more desperate circumstances they were JEWS and were thus collectively responsible for what the country, their country, was suffering. They were seen to be a part of the universal “Zionist conspiracy” that had inflicted this nightmare on America and the rest of the world. And so when my father and his brothers and sisters went out looking desperately for work, willing to do anything, even things decidedly beneath them, they were met with signs that literally said--

“No Jews. No dogs.”

So indeed, what did happiness have to do with anything? And who could you trust? Basically no one. In truth, though from both of my families’ experiences it is no wonder they would turn inward, they also found that you could not, even when just fighting to pay the rent and feed your wife and children, you could not casually even trust everyone in your, to quote Fay, “wonderful family.” I could tell you some of these stories if that were the subject of the day. Suffice to say that I suspect my father and my Uncle Harry, who reside now in side-by-side graves in Mt. Lebanon Cemetery, are still not talking to each other.

So is it any wonder that these two families, with my blood an equal mix of both, would orient me not to trust strangers and thereby not to believe in friendship. In a world red in tooth and claw, where dangers and worse lurk, though they are not perfect—Mt. Lebanon being a case in point--when it comes to friends versus family, no contest.

But, second struggle, when I looked around for counter examples in my own family I noticed that my cousins Nina and Murray, to cite two, had not allowed the family promulgations to define their lives—in both cases they carried dear childhood friends along with them well into and beyond their middle years. They were still family stalwarts but they had reserved equal emotional energy for lifelong friendships. So with their example before me, with considerable trepidation, I pushed myself to begin to reach out to others, seeking at least the possibility of relationships. I thought, if I can succeed at that, which would be a big step, who knows where it might lead. I might actually make a few friends!

Which brings me to Holly & Chris.

For some years now Rona and I have been “regulars” at Jenny Lake Lodge in the Tetons of Wyoming. This means that we return there each year on exactly the same dates as in all the previous years. And we are by no means the only guests who do so—we understand that fully fifty percent do and so that means we see many familiar faces each year when we return. And in this new mode of seeking relationships, since dinner is provided and the place is small, it is easy and natural, even for me, minimally to nod hello and ask how other regulars fared during the fall and winter. Of course we hear many stories about illnesses and operations and children graduating from college and plans for the future when we all will be working less or, better, not at all.

Chris & Holly have been regulars for about ten years. Their time at Jenny overlaps all our days but for one—they leave the day before we do. More about that in a moment.

Last July, after just nodding at each other in the lodge for at least two years, Chris asked if we might like to meet one evening for a drink before dinner. Sensing that my interest in wanting to do so was tempered by some ambivalence he must have sensed seeping up from all of my deep early-life conditioning (which in itself was impressive since he didn’t even appear to be Jewish), he suggested that we meet for only a half hour before our dinner reservation time. Just enough time to do a bit more than nod and ask how long we each had been coming to Jenny, which cabins we had, and if we hiked or rode or did both. About as much discussion I had had with anyone at Jenny in eight years of regular ensconcement.

We might actually have time to begin to get to know each other, exploring the usual--Where are you from? Where were you from? Are you still working? At what? Or when did you retire and what did you do now with all the time you have? Do you travel to places other than the Tetons? Are there any places you like as much? What are you reading? Anything good? And what makes you laugh and feel happy? These later questions are of course not posed, but we discover each other’s sense of humor, or lack thereof, experientially.

So we met at 7:30 the next evening for a drink; and there was so much immediate frolicking and laughing, almost too much to engage in in public at the rather staid Jenny, that Michael the manager came over to us, not to admonish us but to ask if rather than two tables for two for dinner, perhaps, if he could arrange it, might we prefer a table for four?

To cover my nervousness about this prospect, I told Holly & Chris about a former colleague who after a rough divorce eventually began to date. He found the experience so depressing, he experienced so many unhappy evenings where after fifteen minutes both he and his date realized that it was not working that he developed the concept of the progressive date. They would agree to meet for a drink. If that went well they would move on to a light dinner. If that was pleasant, they would go to a movie. But if at any stage either one was not feeling positive about their prospects, they would have social permission to say, “It was very nice to meet you”; and that would end the evening.

Part in jest and part to protect myself from the tremors of an potential impending acquaintanceship, I suggested that we proceed with a progressive dinner—If Mike could hold the second table, let’s maybe begin by having appetizers together, I suggested; see how we do; and if it goes well, proceed to the soup course; and then to the salad; perhaps possibly all the way to the entrée; and who knows, maybe even to dessert!

And so we proceeded, and things began to work, to “click” between and among the four of us. We progressed from course to course and by the time the salad was served signaled to Mike that he could release the second table. We had such a good time that evening and over the next few days that when it came time for Holly & Chris to depart—a day before our time was up—I felt an overwhelming and unfamiliar feeling of sadness: I realized that unless we figured out how to meet between then and the following July it would be a full year before we could in person resume our acquaintanceship and progress perhaps beyond that to . . . ?

Now here we are again this year, back in Wyoming, back at Jenny; and all I can think about after resuming my love affair with the mountains and meadows and lakes and air is—Where are Holly & Chris? Are they OK? Chris had had some “medical issues” during the fall and winter and so . . .  But right there in the lodge the first evening we saw them, and they looked healthy and radiant and we happily picked up right where we left off.

Mike had already reserved a table for four, a little apart from the others correctly suspecting that we would again be laughing as much as catching up with each other’s lives and he didn’t want the other guests to be disturbed.

Our "dates" this year turned out so well that, after one of them, Holly, who is by nature not that kind of gal said, “If this were a real progressive date, we’d now go off to bed together.”

So, Dad, I hope things are fine with you and that maybe even you and Uncle Harry are talking. If not, give it a try because, take it from me, happiness and friendship are indeed worth pursuing.

Jenny Lake Lodge: Dinner for Two

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