The crazy lady across the street

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PERSPECTIVE - PAUL GREEN­BERG

Her name was Mrs. Culick, and the mem­ory of her, and of my own boy­hood cal­lous­ness about her, haunts me now that I’m old. But back then, when I had to think of her be­cause some­times I could hear or see her, she was mainly a cause of shame.

What would the neigh­bors think about this crazy Jewish lady who would bab­ble in some in­de­ci­pher­able tongue from time to strange time? Hap­pily, she had a de­voted and re­spon­si­ble son, Jake, who would come quickly when needed. Sweaty, slob­ber­ing, her stringy hair some­thing out of a snakepit, she could be seen on those rare oc­ca­sions when she ven­tured out on her lit­tle con­crete front porch. The sight of her shocked and scared me then, but now I re­call it only with shame for my ig­no­rance. I would like only to take her in my arms and com­fort her, know­ing what I know and feel­ing what I feel at 80. And pray­ing that, when the an­gel of death comes mer­ci­fully for me, he will leave me with a shred of dig­nity.

It was Mon­taigne who, in a cou­ple of mas­ter­ful es­says about death, “That We Should Not be Deemed Happy Un­til Af­ter Our Death” and “To Phi­los­o­phize Is to Learn How to Die,” wrote that a life should be con­sid­ered on the ba­sis of how its end is met. “When judg­ing an­other’s life,” he told us, “I al­ways see how its end was borne, and one of my main con­cerns for my own is that it is borne well— that is, in a quiet and muted man­ner.”

As one moves on to the next and fi­nal stage of life, wrote Mon­taigne, it would be a great shame sim­ply to put it out of one’s mind and pre­tend to be im­mor­tal—“what bru­tal in­sen­si­tiv­ity can pro­duce so gross a blind­ness”—but in­stead men (and women) should “ed­u­cate and train for their en­counter with their ad­ver­sary, death.”

There is no bet­ter way to pre­pare for the end or per­haps a new be­gin­ning than by re­hears­ing one’s short­com­ings in this brief span in time and eter­nity so as not to per­pet­u­ate them. Life is a dream, a sage once wrote, that should be lived so as to pre­pare for the great awak­en­ing. Mon­taigne would have pre­ferred to die tend­ing to the cab­bages in his veg­etable patch, but in­stead was taken when only 59, suc­cumb­ing to quinsy, which leaves the body breath­less—a painful way to go.

How blessed are those who keel over and leave this vale of tears while busily oc­cu­pied in their life’s work. And how blessed I’ve been in my work, fam­ily and friends. Th­ese days I’m more likely to see those re­main­ing not on the cam­paign trail or at the news­pa­per of­fice, but in a doc­tor’s wait­ing room. Not that I’m in any hurry to leave this an­techam­ber to eter­nity. Hav­ing been a peo­ple-watcher for eight decades, I con­tinue to find them—and my re­ac­tions to them—a sub­ject of in­ter­est. They’ll sur­prise you, this species that has dared called it­self Homo Sapi­ens,

Man the Thinker. Just when you’re about to give up on one of them as ut­terly hope­less, he, she, or other will do some­thing in an in­stant that makes one’s own ef­forts at sal­va­tion seem pal­try in­deed.

Joseph Ep­stein, the finest and most en­gag­ing es­say­ist cur­rently writ­ing in the Amer­i­can lan­guage—which is not the same as the English one—com­mem­o­rated his 80th birth­day by writ­ing one of his rou­tine delights in

the Weekly Stan­dard a while back, which he be­gan by quot­ing some clas­sic and clas­si­cal lines from Sopho­cles:

—————

Not to be born is best, when all is reck­oned,

But when a man has seen the light of day,

The next best thing by far is to go back

Where he came from, and as quick as he can. Once youth is past, with all its fol­lies,

Ev­ery af­flic­tion comes on him, Envy, con­fronta­tion, con­flict, bat­tle, blood,

And last of all, old age lies in wait to be­siege him, Hu­mil­i­ated, can­tan­ker­ous, Friend­less, sick and weak, Worst end of all.

—————

Not be­ing an an­cient Greek, and never hav­ing heard a shot fired in anger, it’s hard for an Amer­i­can son of im­mi­grants to re­sist giv­ing old Sopho­cles a Bronx cheer and telling him to pull up his socks and get on with his life. Too young for the Korean War and some­how over­looked when many of my bet­ter con­tem­po­raries were be­ing sent off to the dis­mal, un­end­ing con­flict in Viet­nam, I’ve been for­tu­nate for some eight decades, knock on wood, Lord will­ing, and In­shal­lah. But am in­clined to tak­ing noth­ing for granted, in­clud­ing life it­self. So many mem­o­ries to re­count, so many sto­ries to tell, so many of my wrongs to re­pent, and surely so lit­tle time to left in which to do all that. And to say goodbye, too, or maybe just so long till next time around. A good day to you, Mrs. Culick, and all the other Mrs. Culicks out there. Know that some­one is think­ing of you kindly.

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