Thursday, July 8, 2010
Family Ties: Uncle Sol
It's July. Hot as hell in Atlanta. Possibly quite literally...not that I subscribe to the belief of the existence of hell anyway, at least not in the biblical or religious sense...my dad always told me we create our own heaven and hell right here on this Earth during our lives. I tend to agree. I've been to this hell...the one of my own creation...gratefully, I survived and am back to tell the story. I've actually been meaning to write for a while, but the words have evaded me. Maybe I have too many things going on in my life, or not enough, or I'm truly the unofficially-diagnosed ADD child I've joked of being for so long. No matter...I'm here. Now. And really, that's all that matters.
A couple of weeks ago, my 90 year old uncle, a true patriarch of my family and someone I truly thought would live forever, or at least a few more years, went to the hospital to have tests run, and he never left...Sunday he was joking and playing poker with his family from his hospital bed; Wednesday he took a turn for the worse after contracting a staph infection and never came back. He died late Wednesday night. Uncle Sol was one of three of my mother's brothers, and the last one still alive until this past June. The oldest of 3 boys, Sol outlived George (nicknamed Gorgeous George due to his movie star good looks) by only about 2 months and Max (Uncle Maxie to those who knew and loved him, my mother's twin), who died a week shy of his 80th birthday September 2005. Sol and George were only about 14 months or so apart in age; George would have been 89 years old had he lived one more week.
Mom's brothers were all pretty cool and amazing guys...a dying breed of man from the greatest generation. Mom was the youngest of 5 kids: Aunt Ann was the oldest, then Sol and George, then came Uncle Max and mom, the babies of the family. Ann and Sol were both born in Warsaw, Poland and moved to the United States right around the end of WW1...George and the twins were born on US soil. Ann and mom are the only surviving siblings now, both in Atlanta. Ann is 95; mom's 84.
There was no "old money" in my family...in fact, I am guessing that until the 1950s or so there was little money to speak of. Being the baby child of a baby child, I have never been privy to all the details and history of our family; however, as I am getting older, information continues to unravel little by little. I do know that their mother, my grandmother, had a very severe form of asthma and at age 39, she died, leaving behind the 5 year old twins and the 3 adolescents. The older kids were pretty independent by the time my grandfather remarried, adding a step sister to the picture. Aunt Anita was only 3 years old when she joined the family; mom and Max were 11...aunt Ann was already in her early 20s and had begun her own family here in the south.
From all accounts, my step grandmother, Anita's mom, was not a very nice woman to her step kids. My mother, a very impressionable 11 year old girl who probably needed a loving mother the most at this stage of her life, suffered the brunt of her step mom's cold treatment. From what I hear, one reason of my step-grandmother's "evil step mom" ways could have been that she was unaware of the existence of the twin children...that fact had been hidden from her...until right before she married my grandfather...quite a rude awakening, if you ask me, and while I don't excuse her for being so mean to my mom, I can understand the resentment she may have had to feel tricked into raising not just her own child, but two more. Family life was far from calm and after a painful adolescence, in 1942, at the age of 17, mom quit high school, moved to Atlanta to live with Aunt Ann and work as a secretary. It was a different era, and while mom never finished school, she entered the workplace and developed skills that would later enable her to be the vice president and bookkeeper of her and my dad's business. Mom was an expert at shorthand and typing, and until I was well into my thirties, I had no idea that she was self taught; if I could, I would award her an honorary high school diploma and maybe even a college degree!
Raised in New York during the depression, children of Polish and Russian immigrants, all the boys went on to serve in the U.S. military during WW2, as well as to be hard working and dedicated family men. After the war, Uncle George and Uncle Maxie stayed in New York and became electricians, while Uncle Sol headed south and created a life in Atlanta. According to his own autobiography, Sol was tired of working for others, and in 1955, he and his wife began their own business, a mattress and juvenile products factory, in Atlanta. Colgate is still a family owned business and a true American success story.
All men were true examples of self made hard working guys, exemplifying what it meant to practice a strong work ethic, and while they may not have seemed so warm and fuzzy at times on the outside, being their niece, I saw their soft sides on many occasions throughout their lives. Any gruffness was immediately balanced out by their senses of humor and loving hearts...always.
I loved (and still love) all my uncles, however, it is Uncle Sol with whom I was closest. Uncle Sol and his family lived in the same neighborhood as us, so I grew up going to his house and seeing him pretty regularly. Unlike my mom, who was pretty anchored to her home and Atlanta, my uncle and his wife (also an Aunt Ann...she passed several years ago), were avid travelers. So I would frequently go to their house and help them arrange the latest travel pictures in their photo albums, living vicariously through them as I viewed images of foreign lands. I remember once going to a birthday party at about age 8 or 9 or so...it was one of those pottery places where you get a little ceramic figurine and paint it...and I brought home a little dog figure that I painted brown with blue spots. I immediately thought of Uncle Sol and his wife to be the recipients of my masterpiece. For many years, they proudly displayed this ugly little dog on their shelf, along with prized souvenirs and family photos. Sol and his wife, Ann, had a way of always making me feel special, heard, and loved...and often at times when I needed that kind of affirmation the most.
When I was 16 and somewhat of a "wild child"...and that is putting it mildly...after nearly killing myself and breaking all kinds of bones in my body, my Uncle Sol was more than upset and verbalized this to me. At the time, I was a bit pissed, to be honest...I thought he was out of line and should mind his own business. In later years, I grew to be grateful that he cared enough to be concerned and was bold enough to speak up. When I was 23, I was unmarried and pregnant, and instead of voicing any judgments or disappointments to me, Uncle Sol took on a fatherly role (my dad had passed away when I was 20) and in his generosity, provided me with all sorts of baby necessities for his great-nephew to be. Crib mattress, pads, etc... When Alex was born, Uncle Sol handed me a plain envelope with a few crisp $100 bills at the bris. He said very little other than "Here...this may come in handy" or something like that..I don't really remember. What I do remember is feeling so loved and grateful, overwhelmed with this generosity to the point of tears. Happy tears. It was years later before I really made the connection of my uncles actions and his patriarchal role, which he took on lovingly and willingly.
When I received the call a couple of weeks ago from one of my brothers to get mom to the hospital quickly since things looked very grim for Uncle Sol, I was a bit put off. After all, Uncle Sol, in the past several years, had many medical issues crop up, and to be honest, he was such a trooper, I didn't believe that this was "it". In fact, to be completely truthful, I'd taken it for granted that my uncle would just be there whenever I wanted. I'd actually missed out seeing him on many occasions, to my regret, simply by adopting that mentality and not fully realizing the concept that one day I wouldn't have the luxury of just popping over to his place or to a family function to see him. So, that fateful Wednesday, mom and I canceled our plans and raced to the hospital. It was to be the last time mom and I saw Uncle Sol.
When we arrived at my Uncle's room, it was quite a teary and sad scene. Surrounded by his children, he was barely lucid, yet physically agitated by the CPAP machine he was hooked to, and probably a good deal of pain as well. My cousins quickly welcomed my brothers and I into his room, and one cousin even stepped aside and allowed me to take my uncle's hand for a few moments. I've rarely felt so honored to share such an intimate time, albeit sad, with a family member, and the importance of family became even clearer to me in that moment. During that hour or so that I spent with my family, there were many tears, yet there was also smiles and laughter, as we spoke to uncle Sol and to one another and reminisced about various incidents. We shared stories ranging from my telling my cousin just how important and special her parents were to me, and how I am still blown away by their love and generosity to Uncle Sol's avid love for poker and his dismal driving skills. We laughed as we looked around...all of us cousins from our mid 40s to early 60s...and joked about how despite Uncle Sol's crazy driving, somehow we all survived to be able to tell the story that day.
I left to teach an outdoor yoga class that evening. Somehow it seemed symbolically perfect when, about two thirds of the way through class, the skies opened up and rain poured down over myself and my 6 students. No one complained...it was like tears of simultaneous joy and sadness washing us all...and for me...cleansing me a bit of any thoughts that were not serving me in that moment. Sol died later on that night.
That Friday morning, in the sweltering Atlanta heat, more than a 100 (I am estimating) friends and family members gathered to share in what was a truly beautiful funeral service. I thought I knew everything about my Sol, until I heard my cousins share with all of us some true gems about my uncle. I learned that when he had his factory, there was no aspect of the work that he didn't do, and he commonly was on the factory floor working alongside with the lowest wage earners, never viewing himself as being "above" a job needing done. I also learned that despite segregation laws in the 1950s south, he refused to have special "whites only" bathrooms at the factory. He treated everyone equally simply because that was the way it should be. As I allowed tears to flow and offered a comforting hand on my mother's shoulder, watching her as she watched her last surviving brother be put to rest, I also looked around and saw not just relatives and family friends, but factory workers and their children, some as young as 3 or 4 yrs old, all rallying around to say good bye. It was evident, that the employees felt a connection to my uncle which went beyond obligation or respect...they were also considered to be extensions of the family.
I know that it is very common to not really appreciate what we have until it is gone... Today that is very evident to me. While I didn't see my uncle too much the past few years since he moved to a senior community, I always knew he was fairly close by. That window of opportunity to see him has passed, yet instead of regret, I truly am grateful for the times I did get to see him, as well as for the legacy he left in this world. Sol's kids, grandkids and great grandkids continue to carry on the tradition of hard work, generosity and love that my uncle instilled on them...not to mention his nephews and nieces and our children who were all lucky enough to be impacted by him. When Uncle Sol's wife, my Aunt Ann, was quite sick and suffering from advanced alzheimers, Sol, already in his 80s and having his own medical issues, was patient and selfless in his undying love and care for Ann. His main concern was that he die first and her be scared and alone. This is the kind of man my uncle was...he put the well being of his family first, before himself, and always worked to make things better for those around him.
If I had just known Solomon Wolkin without being related to him, I would still be grateful; however, being so lucky as to be his niece and to have the memories and influence of my Uncle Sol in my life makes me truly wealthy indeed. Rest in peace Uncle.