A last letter ... to Alistair Cooke

Dear Mr. Cooke, Having listened over the years with pleasure to so many of your "Letter from America" radio programs on the BBC World Service, I sat down to write my personal letter to you in America upon your retirement earlier this month. Then, Tuesday, I heard the bitter news that a few short weeks after your weekly program went off the air after an incredible run of 58 years, you passed away.

I missed your last Letter, which was first broadcast to the world on Feb. 20, but Tuesday I was able to call it up and hear it on the Internet. Your last "Letter from America" was on the whole a representatively incisive commentary. Supremely current, it focused on the shifting fortunes of the US presidential race after the former CIA chief weapons inspector admitted that, "We got it all wrong" on the issue of Iraqi weapons. It was typically erudite, with references to Shakespeare and Napoleon, and bore touches of your characteristic humor: President Clinton had been considering military action in Iraq, but after Monica Lewinsky became a "figure of fate," Mr. Clinton "didn't possess the moral authority to invade Long Island."

Yet, in retrospect, your firm, clear voice with its crystalline British precision bore a darkly prescient note. You began your last Letter with these words: "Propped up there against my usual three pillows ... I was feeling chipper enough to ... "

They say that at 95 you had not left your apartment on Fifth Avenue and 97th Street for two years. My mother tells me that years ago when she recognized you coming out of your building, you acknowledged her smile with an elegant nod.

The only place I ever saw you was in your wing chair on public television's "Masterpiece Theatre," telling us things we ought to know.

But once I moved abroad, I became your groupie. Every week I looked forward to your voice on the radio. Sunday seemed emptier if I missed your "Letter from America," broadcast the world over on the BBC. Yet even you - who insisted on resisting even an electric typewriter, let alone a word processor, and went on typing your talks on an old manual - agreed to have them inscribed on the Internet.

Even though your fans included many Americans inside the country, we were not the ones you had in mind as a target audience when you composed your Letter. Rather, you sought to demystify our paradoxical land to bewildered foreign listeners around the world. But as I tuned in, as an expatriate American, every broadcast I heard you deliver struck close to home.

And as a New Yorker, I often imagined myself back on that block where you live - and where I passed by so many countless times, as yet unaware of your weekly broadcasts.

I was one of the cast of thousands that constituted the deep and resonant America you painted.

East 97th Street - I had ridden that crosstown bus through the stages of my life, down the congested narrow street which passes from Hispanic groceries to opulent Fifth Avenue co-ops, then onward almost to the Hudson River.

As a kid I'd show the driver my bus pass, climb up the steps, and plop down between a serene West Indian nurse on her way to work the night shift at St. Luke's and an elderly European refugee, gloved hands primly folded, returning from an afternoon at the Guggenheim Museum. I sat in the overheated bus, wedged between them, invisible, getting dizzy from reading Mad Magazine between the bumps.

In high school I stood parting from my boyfriend at that bus stop, watching the approaching bus from the corner of my eye, willing it to move more slowly.

A few years later I sat on the bench reading the newspaper while my toddler played on the swings of the 96th Street playground on the southwest corner, catty-cornered from your building.

Perhaps you looked down at me some of those times I walked by under your window, Mr. Cooke? Glanced at me and past me, musing about the subject for your upcoming radio talk?

Afterward, so very far away from East 97th Street, continents away, I was glad to know you were there.

I loved hearing you expound on Fiorello La Guardia's small stature and big heart, on Central Park sparkling the day after the Cuban missile crisis was solved, on Mayor Giuliani's snow-contingency plans, on Charles Schulz carrying on the tradition of Dickens and Twain. After Sept. 11, 2001, you put eloquent heartbroken words to the unsayable.

Like many a foreigner who settled in the Golden Land, you became one of its biggest enthusiasts.

Your mellow voice with its hint of humor revealed love for the country you espoused. I was glad to think that you may have gazed down, past other young women leading their lives under your window on East 97th Street. Then, every week, you went on the air and spoke directly to me.

From Iceland to India, millions of others who had never set foot on your block felt the same way.

It was at home, in that same apartment on Fifth Avenue, that you passed away Monday night.

America will be farther away without you.

Helen Schary Motro, an American lawyer and writer, teaches at the Tel Aviv University Law School.

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