The news was so shocking and sad that I nearly dropped the phone. Dave had died. I don’t even remember who called. Probably it was my mother, devastated at the loss of her eldest brother. Who wouldn’t be devastated to lose someone like Dave….brother or not? This was a genuine loss to the world. That consummate mensch, that man with the broadest smile perpetually warming whichever space he inhabited, was no more. He was 57 years old and even I, in my early 20’s, knew that he was young, much too young. He left us far too soon.
Dave was not a famous man. And he absolutely was not an infamous man. But he was a totally good man, a man who loved the world, especially his small part of it, his wife, his son and all of our family. He was truly the guy who could never hurt a fly.
I remember sitting on the hotel porch in Parksville. It was 1963 and I was newly married, 20 years old, and chatting amiably with my Uncle Dave. He sat on a green rocking chair and I thought to myself that it was unusual for him to be so inactive. Doing nothing was not his way. His father, my grandfather, Pop, had recently died and the maintenance chores that kept them both so busy now fell to Dave alone, especially on a Sunday morning.
Dave was there for the weekend and planned to drive back home to Queens, as was his habit, on Sunday evening. He would chuckle at the expected traffic laden trip and especially at Klinkowitz, one of our tenants who Dave would drive back to the city weekly. He always described Klinkowitz the same way. He told us about the non-stop chatter coming from the passenger seat which always ended abruptly when Klinkowitz began to snore about five minutes before the Thruway toll. Once Dave had paid the toll, KIlinkowitz would suddenly revive, reawaken, and resume where he was in his narrative.
Dave would laugh at the story which he retold often, marveling at the lengths one would go to avoid kicking in a pittance for the toll collector. But, on this day, Dave was less than his amiable self and I finally worked up the courage to ask him if everything was ok. When he replied I knew we had trouble. He told me, “I’ll be ok.” This was not normal for Dave. Something was wrong. And indeed something was very wrong. Dave had had a heart attack. He was rushed to Liberty Hospital where he remained for about a week. No emergency bypasses in those days. And no special tests. Just rest and be told it was a mild heart attack. Oh yeah! Not!
Dave was the eldest of three children. Born in Europe he arrived in America a strapping little boy of 10. His younger brother Charlie had become the family prince whose future career as a dentist was the dream of my grandparents. Dave, it seems, was loved greatly but not expected to be an academic or professional. And, as for my American born mother, she became educated only because she was forceful and determined. My grandparents were unconcerned whether or not she knew the works of the Romance or Victorian poets. Peshka and Pop’s values were not focused on women becoming educated, even though my grandmother herself was driven to operate her own business, the eponymous hotel. She was a woman of the future but she just didn’t know it!
Lacking a formal education Dave climbed the ladder with his smile. It was impossible not to like him. Charm was an effective tool for success and to Dave it came naturally. No one ever had to tell him to look someone in the eye and smile. That was just his way. He was a big bear of a man with a magnetic personality, and always that broad, beaming smile.
Dave would have succeeded in any kind of business, and he did. He became a proprietor of a store fixtures company on Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn. His store is still there!
Dave married his first cousin, Fannie. She was born in Poland and had come to New York as an immigrant in the early 1930’s. She moved in with her aunt and uncle who happened to be my grandparents, Dave’s parents. She was a bit older than Dave as Pop, my grandfather, was happy to tell anyone interested, but they fell in love and married. We had a standing joke in the family when someone would ask Pop how old Fannie was at her wedding to Dave. The answer never changed. He would point to my sister and mutter in Yiddish, “A zay v Janet.” About the same age as Janet. This was the answer when Janet was a toddler and when Janet was a teenager. Probably, if Pop were still alive, he would respond similarly today although Janet is now in her late 70’s.
Dave and Fannie adopted a child and named him Lazer. He was born with a gilded spoon. Lazer was three months older than I so I was able to constantly compare his cache of toys with my own. My toy collection consisted of a family Monopoly game. I also had a pink ball and roller skates and an old bike. There was also a shared basketball hoop in the backyard and a battered ping pong table in the basement. Period! Lazer, on the other hand, had everything. Literally I cannot think of a single item that he lacked, from the Lionel train set to the tape recorder to the endless boxes of games of every iteration to books that he actually owned and didn’t have to walk to the Osborne Terrace Children’s Library. like I did, to borrow. The biggest blow to my jealousy genes was the brand new 1957 Chevy Belair, a 17th birthday present, green and white, with its great and powerful fins. Ultimately I was handed the keys to my father’s ancient Buick. Take it or leave it. I took it!
Terrified throughout his childhood that Lazer’s biological mother would come for him Fannie and Dave never had a listed phone number. Although the adoption was legal they still were obsessed with the notion that this woman would come to claim their son. And she did! She actually did, but she arrived at Charlie’s dental office with its listed phone, and saw Charlie’s son, our cousin, who was several years older than Lazer, playing in the backyard. She thought she had it wrong and didn’t appear again for many decades. Lazer never knew about all this drama and was not told he was adopted until he turned 21. Long after Fannie and Dave had reunited in the world to come, Lazer’s mother reappeared and this time she and he had a touching reunion in which he met an entirely new family including siblings.
Now the entire cast of characters is gone. Their story is carried on by Lazer’s children and grandchildren, none of whom ever knew Dave. I cannot begin to imagine the pride he would feel with his grandson the doctor, his grandson the lawyer and a slew of wonderful grandchildren. It was not to be.
To know my Uncle Dave was a remarkable joy. Such delightful people are rare in our world. He was a fount of goodness, tenderness, joy, happiness and love. When he died the funeral home made a grievous error. They momentarily left the casket open. I will always regret that it was I who discovered the mistake and gazed into the coffin. I did not recognize the occupant. I immediately realized why. They had buried him without his smile. I had literally never seen Dave without it. I can only hope that he smiles still in olam ha ba. May he rest in peace!