cake lover?

Saturday, August 30, 2008

an ode to summer's end (part II of III): celebrating 90 years of great art

after jules and i strapped her bike on the trunk, we were off to east brunswick, NJ to meet up with mom, dad, jennie, derek, baxter, & paige for our great uncle arthur’s 90th birthday.

arthur, my father’s uncle, (his mother’s brother), used to wow his grandnieces, by pretending to eat salamanders. he held them up by their little tails and dangled their wriggling bodies above his mouth, lowering them just so that it really did look like he was eating them. i think he delighted in our squeals of disbelief and disgust just as much as we did. we nicknamed him uncle anteater (we knew he wasn’t eating ants, and we knew he wasn’t an anteater. i think it had something to do with the children’s book character arthur the anteater. uncle salamander-eater just didn’t have the same ring).

arthur neuhauser was born on august 27, 1918. he was best friends with one milton “mickey” lowenthall, whom he introduced to his sister judith, my future grandmother. he met and fell in love with his soulmate rosalyn before he was shipped over to europe during world war II. my great uncle will talk and talk for hours about most things, but never the war. don’t even ask him about it. all you’ll get out of him is memories of his dog, gorgan, a black mutt, whom he smuggled home. and then you’ll hear the story of how judy and mickey lost him while they were dog-sitting. poor gorgan was never seen again, and poor arthur’s heart still has a teeny crack from the loss. arthur and his 3 children (kenny, mitchell, and claudia) were to suffer an even greater loss when cancer stole their rosalyn in 1980. in his wallet, arthur kept a newspaper cutout of a quote of the day for years: “of all of god’s creatures, the goose and the gander mate for life,” until he finally gave it and his porcelain goose and gander statues to his daughter. to this day, arthur has been without his goose, or another mate, though aunt ros’ 2x3 framed picture accompanies him whenever he travels and framed photographs of her beautiful smile fill his room.

arthur worked at the NY times as an editor for 40 years. he also edited books, and even was thanked/mentioned in martin gilbert’s historic account of world war II – he found a very big mistake. arthur has a penchant and a talent for word games, crossword puzzles, and cryptics. he lies awake at night assigning number values to each letter of the alphabet (A=1, B=2…Y=25, Z=26) and attempts to find 100 point words. he’s actually found some. and then he reverses the value and starts over.

arthur’s optometrist was also his next door neighbor and good friend who was practicing out of his basement with out of date equipment. i forget how the story goes, but it has something to do with his optometrist never testing for glaucoma, or his glaucoma testing machine being broken, or something like that (arthur could fill in the details). unfortunately, his glaucoma was discovered too late. his sight, though not his keen mind, has faltered ever since. in his old age, he’s had to learn about the photocopier so that he can blow up his crossword puzzles and he’s befriended the local librarians who save him the best large print books. he has magnifying glasses of varying magnifications by his reading chair, and was recently gifted a reading machine from the VA.

i started developing a deeper and closer relationship with arthur when my grandfather died in 1999. my grandfather was an incredible man, but a quiet & stoic one who came across as foreboding and hard-to-approach to his grandchildren. arthur shared stories about his and micky’s childhood and early adulthood, and helped me understand what kind of man my grandfather really was. i am forever grateful to arthur for providing me a glimpse of my family’s history and of my heritage. not only do i understand my grandparents better because of him, but i understand my father better too. i am also grateful to my uncle for being a surrogate father for my father. i know how much dad cherishes his weekly conversations with arthur.

arthur has gone above and beyond the duty of great uncle. i didn’t even know that great uncles felt a connection with their grandnieces, but arthur does (he even has a connection with his great grandniece, grandnephew and granddogs). he has always been supportive of my life and endeavors. when i was studying to be a teacher, arthur called for monthly updates. when i joined the peace corps he sent me monthly, typed missives, and even included packets of sweet-n-low, until the day the post office caught him and told him it was a big no-no to send white powders in the mail. until recently, when hip & sight problems became too much for him, arthur visited his north country fan club every summer. we thought claudia would never let him return after the time he fell head over keister off the dock at star lake, but we were able to keep his bumps and bruises hidden until they were healed properly enough to pass them off as a minor stumble. when he visits malone, he also has to visit the local funeral home to catch up with the director, for once he misdialed my parents’ number and had a 30 minute conversation with the man. with arthur, there is always a hilarious mishap waiting to happen. i’m sure pat (his daughter-in-law) will never forget the time she set the bowl of scrambled eggs meant to serve 14 in front of him and arthur dug into the bowl thinking it was all for him. when i stayed with him, i was slightly appalled when he made a fresh pot of coffee and then promptly put in the fridge to keep for the week. the next morning we had to warm our coffee up in the microwave. i know the man is going blind, but it’s always slightly comical to me when he pours himself a glass of orange juice, but actually pours himself a countertop of orange juice, and similarly when he dumps his glass of water into the sink, but actually pours it on the counter. it’s only comical because he himself brushes it off with laughter.

arthur recently moved into an assisted living home, a move away from the independent lifestyle to which he was accustomed. he seems to be doing well in the “institution” (as he refers to it).

claudia wanted to celebrate her father’s 90th, but knew he wouldn’t want anything lavish. she asked him if it would be all right if his children and their families from the city came. he said fine. then she mentioned that kenny, pat and the kids would be coming from kentucky. he agreed to that as well. then she said that his sister wanted to come to, and that the north country contingency was waiting with bated breath for the OK. he kept agreeing until about 50 people were allowed to come to help him celebrate his great life.

the shindig was on a thursday evening at a chinese restaurant, no less. cocktails and fancy hors'devours of egg rolls, shrimp dumplings, scallion pancakes, & chicken & pork skewers were served, as well as an amazing meal. baxter wondered where the cake was, since it was a birthday party and all. he ran over to ask claudia about it and excitedly announced to the private room that there would indeed be cake. the north country table (read sugar fiends) cheered.

arthur’s cake was graced by the portrait that his now 16-year old granddaughter designed at the age of 6 – we’ve been celebrating great art ever since.

i’ve learned much from my great uncle arthur – above all, the love and importance of family. thank you uncle anteater.

1 comment:

DP said...

I may be mistaken, but I think the fall into the lake was still a secret from his caregiver in NJ!!