In a Nutshell

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My dad’s been gone over twenty years but I’ve been thinking a lot about him lately. In part, I suppose, it’s because I just heard the news that Haig’s, the Armenian/Mediterranean/Middle Eastern deli my dad used to love, is closing for good.

I knew my dad well, I thought, but there were things he never talked about, or spoke of only rarely and never in detail. His experience in World War 2 was just one example of that. I didn’t come to learn the details of his war experiences until I wrote the Department of Defense after he’d already died. He never shared much, preferring to stay in the happier and more comfortable present, I assume.

Sometimes, I’d get my best insight into him via other people.

Since he grew up in roughly the same neighborhood I did, we’d often run into his boyhood pals. The easy, back-slapping friendliness of cops, firemen, bus drivers and teachers (My high school chemistry teacher, Merton Jones, had been my dad’s classmate.) showed me a lot about both what kind of kid he was and what kind of man he’d become.

I’ll never forget going into the neighborhood dry cleaner one time to pick up a load of his dress shirts. Once my identity and familial connections were established, the Korean lady who owned the place told me my dad wasn’t like other American men. Out of the blue. Just like that. I guess my face reflected the fact that I hadn’t known exactly how to take her comment. She leaned in and told me in a half-whisper she meant my dad, unlike her other customers, had humility.

Then there was Haig’s.

As Greeks, we found the smells of Haig’s completely irresistible – as if walking into my Yia Yia’s pantry and opening all the jars of spices and herbs at one time. Big blocks of fresh halvah sat in the case, along with buckets of olives, even the black wrinkly, oil-cured kind that are impossible to find in American stores (or at least they were, before the Bay Area’s slow-food revolution). Taramosalata. Un-dyed pistachios.

My dad and I went in together one time and he started up a conversation with old-man Haig himself. It might have started with talk about food (I can’t remember now.) but it soon covered every single important thing in both their lives. Not just what they found important at that moment, but every single important event in their lives. No, that’s too limiting. They covered every important thing about their backgrounds, their families, their particular histories, world history. By the time we left, Haig and my dad might as well have been lifelong friends.

It was a quintessentially dad moment.

And every time I’ve gone by Haig’s in the intervening years, I think of that day because, really, it was my dad in a nutshell.

Another Sad Goodbye

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We’d stopped in front of College Hall at the statue of Benjamin Franklin to take a quick picture of our daughter, who’s thinking of applying to study at Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania.

An older gentleman walking by said to me in a distinctive Greek accent, “So, is she the candidate?”  The face was more than a bit older, but I recognized the voice at once. It was Tony Tomazinis, a Penn professor of city planning I remembered from my time there, way back in the 1980s.

We talked and laughed for a few minutes and I asked about one of his colleagues, my mentor, Seymour Mandelbaum. “He passed away last week,” he said, eyes downcast. Unsure I’d actually heard what I thought I did, I stuttered and choked through an “Excuse me?” Yes, he said, Seymour had died suddenly. The department was distraught.

We shared some memories and said our goodbyes and Tony walked on.

Seymour was a great human being – a wise person, a deep thinker, a brave writer. He was also a kind and gentle soul. He was at ease with himself and others, funny, warm, kind, challenging.

Had I visited Penn a year earlier, or even a month, I might well have stopped by to see Seymour, a professor and mentor who’d made a substantial contribution to my life. I hope he knew what he’d meant to me, for I likely never told him directly – a boneheaded mistake I now regret deeply and, for Seymour’s memory if nothing else, hope never to repeat.

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