Old friends and small family wisdoms

THERE'S something peculiar but edifying I've done all my life, from childhood. It's write down - later, while they're still fresh in memory - remarkable things, things insightful in spontaneous ways, and sometimes even artlessly profound, that people I love have said to me. Instinctively I've known that if I didn't write them down, if I didn't emulate Boswell, I would forget them, and they would be lost, making my life the poorer.

Lately I have been going through boxes where I've kept all these memorabilia, mostly on scraps of paper. Some things I can't share; they are too obscure. But others I would like, if I may, to share. It would be greedy not to.

My wife, Annie, after I'd accidentally bumped into her and said, ``Please excuse me'':

``Please excuse me, too,'' she said.

``Why do you say, `Please excuse me,' when I'm the one who bumped into you?'' I asked.

``Because I don't want you to be lonely. I want to be your companion in everything, even in excusing. That's my womanly logic.''

My grandmother Gittel on my grandfather: ``The first time I saw him he was standing under a sky full of stars and looking up. He had a bag slung over his shoulder, and I thought maybe he had so much wisdom, too much wisdom, that he had to carry the excess in that bag. I went over to him and asked, rather pertly, `What's new up there?' He just smiled at me, lost in his wise thoughts, just as a man might smile at a child who had asked an unanswerable question. From that moment, I loved him.''

My grandfather Zalman the first prayer he ever said: ``Dear God, help me to get up: I can fall down all by myself.''

My grandfather on trees: ``I remember there were big, beautiful oak trees I used to gaze at when I was a child in Poland. They gave me a sweet pang in my heart; I never knew why. Perhaps it was because I foresaw that I was going to have a life of wanderings, and already I envied things rooted in God's earth.''

My grandfather on the caretaker of a building: ``I never look down on a person because his work is menial. What matters is his caring. This man, he has a beautiful conscientiousness. I have seen him stoop and pick up little pieces of this or that on the ground, as if he were personally and single-handedly looking after creation. His conscientiousness ennobles his calling.''

My mother, Molly, on my nose: ``Yours is a nose, my son, that is crying out for more of a face.''

My mother, lifting up my shirt at the shoulder-tips: ``Sometimes you look like you need clothespins to hold you up on the clothesline of life. So, love will be your clothespins.''

My father, Nathan, on his son: ``When you were a boy, I sometimes looked in on you as you slept. I wanted a clue, a sign, about how you would turn out. A sleeping face reveals what's truly there. You often smiled in your sleep, and I couldn't tell if you knew why you were smiling or not. But the smiling itself, that filled me with hope.''

My friend Michael on life: ``One moment you're happy, the next you're sad. It's a short journey, but I don't fancy it. I prefer the one from sad to happy, even though it's longer.''

My grandmother on marriage: ``The years go by, and you get more alike. Your grandfather and I, sometimes we have the same thought at the same time. The thought just shines in our two heads. Who knows, one day we may not even need to speak. We may just wave at each other from time to time, like old friends climbing a mountain together.''

My grandfather on loving your neighbor: ``Love yourself, to begin with. You and yourself are going to be neighbors all through life, wall to wall. Love your outer neighbor too, even if, heaven forbid, you get somebody who plays the trombone. It isn't always easy to love a neighbor, just as it isn't always easy to be a friend. You have to love the soul, not the sin, in a person.''

My rabbi, Sol, in one of his ebullient moments: ``Maybe we are just running around too much in our lives, David, hither and thither and helter-skelter. Maybe we should just sit cross-legged on the floor and try to calm our aggravations. But then I would probably be unable to get unstuck, and end up looking like a pretzel for the rest of my life.''

My grandfather at my bar mitzvah: ``So, David, now you are 13, and a man. But don't be in any big hurry to grow venerable. You are standing now on such a sweet hilltop of an age. Everywhere you look, no matter how far, is life, and it all belongs to you.''

My sister, Alice, so happy at her birthday party, just after she had blown out all seven candles: ``What happens if you're crying and laughing at the same time? Does that mean you get a rainbow? A rainbow in your face?''

My friend Charlie as we stood at the end of a rainbow in the park, very small boys waiting for the fabled pot of gold: ``This is what we do, David. We just hold out our hands toward the sky and we keep watch. Pretty soon a hundred doves white as snow will bring the pot of gold down and put it right in our hands. They will, Davie. And even though the pot'll be full it'll be light as feathers. And we'll be rich and happy and bountiful all our lives, and after we die there'll be statues of us all over the world.''

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