Dust

Yesterday we had a visit from my mother-in-law, Lily Phillips. She has had quite a remarkable life – she grew up in Vienna in an educated family of Jewish heritage, and was separated from her parents just before the beginning of World War II. Although she was technically too old – she was already in her late teens – a place was found for her on the Kindertransport, and she was evacuated to England, where she worked, utterly displaced and alone, as a servant in a succession of strangers’ homes. After the war she made her way to New York City, where she was reunited with her parents, who had managed to escape the ovens as well, and where, as a talented artist, she found work as a comic-book illustrator – an extremely unusual occupation for a woman at the time. She was nearly the only one.

Lily is very intelligent and well-read, and has kept her mind active in her later years by taking courses in philosophy and literature at Hunter College. Widowed since 1982, she lives alone on East 72nd Street, in the apartment where my Nina grew up. Her late husband Randolph, himself an extraordinary man, was, among other things, the first chairman of the Committee to Impeach Nixon (before Watergate). He argued before the Supreme Court, despite not being a member of the bar, and was the defendant in a landmark conscientious-objector case during WWII that set the precedent that objectors may refuse combat service on purely ethical, rather than religious grounds.

Anyway, I was driving Lily back to East 72nd Street from our house in Park Slope late last night, and the conversation turned, somehow, to her memories of her father. He was, she said, a sensitive, musical man, a banker, who worked long and patient hours to support his wife and daughter. Lily and her mother used to go away each summer to a lake in the mountains, but her father, who had to stay in the city to work, was only able to join them for a precious two weeks.

Lily recalled that as her father’s visit approached each year, she always grew anxious that the weather would turn – in the Austrian Alps, it can rain for weeks on end – and that her hardworking father’s only respite from his duties would be spoiled. She said that she felt the need to protect him somehow, and knew she was powerless to do so.

I was touched by her story. Her brief description, given almost in passing, evoked with such clarity her little family, so far removed in time and place from 21st-century New York, and so soon to be caught in the gathering storm.

Lily is old now, in her eighties, and she is frail. Her mother and her father are of course long dead, and so far as she knows, everyone she knew as a girl is gone as well. Many, if not most, of their friends and relatives died in the Holocaust. It may well be that there is nobody else alive today who has any personal recollection of Lily and her family from those long-ago days in Austria.

When Lily dies, there will be no one. A mild-mannered Viennese gentleman who worked hard to take care of his little girl, and who liked to play the violin, will be no more than the subject of a third-hand story or two, and a face in a grainy photograph. After another generation or two, the distributed light of memory will fade altogether, and he will be gone.

We live in cities built by the forgotten, speaking in tongues framed by ghosts. We are the distant fruit of the passion of lovers now become dust.

We are like the waves of the sea – the water rises briefly, then subsides.

10 Comments

  1. Robert says

    Malcoolm,

    But perhaps in some sense he will not be gone, ever. You might check into Julian Barbour’s book The End of Time. If his theory of time is correct, that time, and every moment of time, doesn’t just ‘disappear’ into ‘the past’ but exists independently, forever. It makes for a different perspective to consider it. As for whether it’s true, I suppose only time will tell…

    Posted January 23, 2006 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Robert,

    I’m well acquainted with this view, and have mentioned it often to console the bereaved. And it is the opinion, generally, of physicists that the “block time” of general relativity is the truth of the world, and the our perception of the moving present is a persistent and mysterious illusion. Aquinas also saw God’s viewpoint as being outside of time, seeing all of time as an eternal whole.

    But for those of us here below, at least at our present state of development, we are like the falling leaves.

    Posted January 23, 2006 at 2:00 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm,

    First thinking how long I have known you and later Nina yet never knew anything of her parents.
    And now being so pleased to know it.
    And why is that? I’m not a terribly sentimental guy, but I always feel a sadness about the evaporation of life stories. Even people I am not really connected to. This seems innate even if you are some nasty thug. It is not a trait that would seem to aid evolutionary survival. So what is it?
    Add it to the list of things pointing to the mystical and divine.

    Posted January 23, 2006 at 6:05 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi David – what a happy surprise! Thanks for dropping in.

    When you ask “so what is it?” do you mean what is the source of the sadness you feel? As is obvious from the post, I feel it too. But is it necessarily of divine origin? It might be nothing more than that we realize our own lives will be utterly forgotten as well.

    What is that link you posted as your website?

    Posted January 23, 2006 at 6:20 pm | Permalink
  5. It is not necessarily of divine origin – but then – nothing is – (nobody knows and you can’t find out).

    So that leaves only one’s sense of whether it am or it ain’t. A clear meditative state often presents a compassionate connection to all beings. Let’s hope this is not self hypnosis.
    If it is real, I like to think that it burps to the surface in everyone. That the sadness is more than just self pity about our own mortality.

    Not a link – it is “nuh uh” no web site.

    Posted January 23, 2006 at 7:27 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Hi David,

    Of course, it might be that achieving a clear meditative state could indeed invoke a compassionate connection without that capability necessarily being of divine origin, which I take to mean flowing from a God assumed to exist.

    But either way, there are genuine possibilities for us. And for some reason – whatever that reason may turn out to be – I agree that compassion is good.

    But don’t be too quick to rule out the possibility that compassion may have adaptive value. In fact, evolutionary psychologists seem quite happy to rule it in.

    Posted January 23, 2006 at 9:01 pm | Permalink
  7. peter kranzler says

    David Pauley? Geez, next thing you know, we’ll be hearing from Nate Chesler –

    I remember very clearly the first time I met Lily, when the family checked into the Edgartown Inn in Martha’s Vineyard — I saw the two middle aged parents, with sort of faded European gentility, a girl with wild hair, and a cherubic boy — I thought “is this the Addams Family?” — give her my best regards –

    Posted January 23, 2006 at 10:38 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Peter! I will.

    Posted January 23, 2006 at 10:54 pm | Permalink
  9. David Pauley says

    I am far down on the list of those who might assume god’s existence.
    The reference to the divine is more like “having the nature of a deity”.

    Posted January 24, 2006 at 4:12 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Hi David,

    I’m not altogether clear about the distinction you’re making – can you explain?

    Posted January 24, 2006 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

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