Excuse the severe look, but I’m not too good at this selfie thing. Me at Edgewater Park in Cleveland. Hearing the water slapping the rocks threw me into a meditation.
Barb has no nostalgia for Cleveland. I do.
My proletarian cohorts at Walmart ribbed me about this week vacation. Something along the lines of: “And where’s he going? Not Vegas. Not Cancun. He’s going to – wait for it – Cleveland! Haw haw.”
I didn’t break any noses, though I suffer Cleveland jokes without the sense of humor you’re supposed to have. I love Cleveland. True, when my mother died and I had to sell the house on Langerdale, in South Euclid, a bit of the bloom went off the rose.
But not much. My thankless executor duties behind me, I realized I still missed Cleveland. Still yearned to go back.
It’s changed. For one, the entertainment districts downtown have exploded into a new, hip incarnation.
The anchoring draw for my going back — the “excuse,” if you like — was the stone setting of a woman who was my buddy’s mom. She was very dear to me, a second mother.
Much was made during the graveside reminiscing of Bobby Gitlin’s love of the Elsner house, where I slept over a lot when I was a kid. Once I ran home and said, “Mom, the milk’s even better there!” Turned out it was the same exact milk. Probably delivered by the same milkman. Oh God, remember milkmen?
Family and friends stood by Jean’s grave in, of all places, Parma, where Workmen Circle, a social justice organization that powers progressive Jewish identity through Jewish cultural engagement and Yiddish language learning, has a cemetery. Here, many secularist Jews mingle with the angels.
People spoke about the formidably erudite yet sweet-spirited women who’d touched our lives.
Then, at a get-together in Beachwood, I had the chance to meet old friends. This may have been the best part of the trip.
It’s fun to encounter the gang you remembered from back in the day and realize they were, and are, precisely who you imagined. The sentimental gloss you laid on the memories didn’t obscure the reality, or the truth. That was them.
One guy – hadn’t seen him in fifty years – reminded me of what a self-styled little Jimmy Brown I was during those tackle games on the grass at Bexley Park when we were twelve.
“Nobody could tackle you.”
“Except you. You were fearless. I remember one time I was running and all of a sudden you wrapped your arms around my ankles, just stuck your head in and did it. I went down like a sack of potatoes.” I cocked my thumb at the still handsome, vigorous Micky and said, directing myself to the woman beside him, presumably his second wife: “All seventy-five pounds of him. Fearless.”
“I can’t believe nobody got hurt,” he said.
“I did. One of the last games I remember playing” – we’d got older, may have been thirteen or fourteen by now – “over by the fence by Wrenford, someone tackled me and I fell down backwards and smacked my head. I didn’t know if it was Wednesday or Thursday or where I was …” I didn’t tell him that sometimes I wander from room to room trying to remember where I put my reading glasses or car keys and wonder whether that smack on the head was a latent trigger for early onset Alzheimer’s.
But not to worry.
Today, I laid aside anxieties. About how I’d account for myself. About what I’d “made of myself” in comparison with other kids from the South Euclid community I grew up in.
Another Jewish guy of old-neighborhood vintage, who went on to be a lawyer, showed up radiating bonhomie. He praised my blog, which meant a lot to me. It was great talking to Bruce.
And Howard. And Donna. And Jerry. And Mark. And Denice.
And of course Mike, whose mom got better milk, and who was the main connection for the whole trip.
Nobody grilled me sarcastically about what a shonda it was that a nice Jewish boy with a healthy IQ and good grades should have washed up as a cart pusher at Walmart. Nobody gave a shit.
It was a meeting of hearts.
My older sister, who, like me, had known the lady we’d honored and had driven from Red Hook in Brooklyn, New York, to be here, came by with a plate of cold cuts.
“This is such an amazing little party,” she said.
She and her friends, who’d been at last night’s dinner in Little Italy and had just been at the cemetery and were here now, had congregated on the veranda to chat and reminisce and laugh.
“Yeah, I’m having a great time,” I told Lisa.
Friends I’d met through Barb were putting me up for the week, and I spent some of my time at a swimming pool in lovely, leafy Gates Mills. Even the outdoors work rebuilding the patio at my Arizona house hadn’t lent me such a coppery glow. So I can say I got my tan in – wait for it – Cleveland. Haw haw.
Can’t wait to get back to work to show them.
I’m in Prescott now, and it’s good to be back. But I still think when I die my soul’s gonna fly to Cleveland. It’s more heimish there.
Big raucous dinner at Mia Bella in Little Italy. On left is Larry Elsner, a lovely guy and son of the departed but never forgotten Jean Elsner. Right of him, my sister Lisa, who’s either making a funny face or has a mouthful of calamari, but I’m running the shot anyway.