Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Gentle and Embracing Heart

When I began the Jewish Identity and Legacy interview series, I don't think I fully appreciated what I was getting into.  I was interviewing people in their 90s which made it important to capture their story, but it also brought me to them at the final stage of their life.  Two of the 14 have passed away, at least those are the ones of which I am aware.  This week Harold Wittcoff, who I interviewed with his wife Dorothy, died at age 95. I wrote about both of them as citizens of the world because of their extensive travel with stints living abroad and their active engagement in the world.  I have been working on my painting of Harold's story which gave his death an added resonance.

It is a strange thing to spend a few hours with someone learning about their life.  To get a sense of them as a person and presume you know them based on that slight knowledge.  Yet the act of asking someone about their life does spark something, a certain intimacy.  Transcribing the interviews, editing them and then letting details bubble up into a painting to tell their story, builds on that.  I find that I feel a genuine sense of loss with their passing, as if I knew them better than time would support.  Enough so that I decided to stop by the shiva tonight to offer condolences and give his children additional copies of the recorded interview in which he told so many family stories.

The obituary captured his many accomplishments, his engagement in life, his travel and his long marriage.  I certainly learned a bit about those topics in my interview with him, but I also learned a bit more by merely observing.  Before I met them I did some research.  Enough to know of Harold's career and his many accomplishments.  I fully expected him to take center stage and wondered how we would draw out his wife's story, afraid that his would overpower.  I need not have been concerned.  I soon learned that Harold was a very humble man, far more inclined to talk about his wife's accomplishments than his own.  He was proud of her and encouraged her to tell her story.  There was a warmth and affection between them that was palpable.  At one point he reached out to cover her hand with his and I thought this is what it is supposed to be like.  This is what we all hope for.

He recounted their joint decision making process when it came to a move to another country.  It was clear that they both shared a curiosity about the world and a sense of adventure.  He attributed their meeting to "beshert", fate, and perhaps the helping hand of the Jewish community.  They were clearly well matched to share the adventures of life.

Their son and granddaughter also joined us in the interview.  Dorothy's son was born of her first marriage, a marriage that ended when her husband died in WWII.  Harold was a part of her son's life from early on and the same easy affection and humor colored their relationship.  There were strong ties of the heart that connected the family.  A gentle recounting of shared visits with his granddaughter, a teasing humor with his son and a son's pride in all his father had accomplished.  That heart was big enough to fully embrace Dorothy's son as well as a child they took into their family from the DP camps who became a son to them as well.  Together they had one more son to complete their family.

Harold was a storyteller, eager to recount the story of his parents' immigration to America in a manner that brought the listener along with them.   I could imagine him as a very effective teacher.  He understood the importance of story.  So I am grateful that I met him in that final stage of his life and perhaps can help to tell his story.  Not so much the one of accomplishments of which there were many, but the one of a gentle and embracing heart.

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