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Harry Buschman

From The Westlake Village Collection.

There's very little movement in this story -- nothing much happens. There is little motivation to stir its surface and hardly any to keep it going. It's simply the passing of Seymour, a neighbor and friend of mine for nearly forty years. Like all passings, it means more to the people he left behind than it does to him. Melancholy as the story may be, I will set it down as simply and honestly as I can. Seymour led a simple and honest life and rhetoric would do him injustice.

I said goodbye to him this afternoon. Actually I didn't say it to him, I said it to myself. He dropped off to sleep before finishing his story about the Bernstein button factory that occupied the loft below his in the garment district. Seymour manufactured men's and women's coats after the war and he bought all his buttons from Bernstein. I heard the story many times before, but I let him go on, it seemed to please him to tell it again.

He looked small in the hospital bed -- fragile. You could almost see through him. The nurse said he would sleep now and probably through supper time. He would get another shot then, and with a little luck, she thought he might sleep through the night. We both knew differently, of course, that's why I said goodbye.

I called his daughter, Yehuda in California earlier this morning, before I knew how bad he was. She had to get someone to stay with the kids, then she was going out to the airport and take the first plane she could get to New York. She would probably be in Westlake Village some time tonight. I told her I had the key to Seymour's house and I'd wait up for her. It will be good if she sees him before he dies -- good for both of them.

Seymour was the only Jew in our neighborhood. He celebrated twice as many holidays as the rest of us, ours and his, and he seemed to enjoy them all. I can still see his window decorations -- Menorah candles and a Christmas wreath ... what an optimist, Seymour! But life doesn't let you enjoy yourself forever.

I often wondered why Seymour stayed in the Village after his wife died and his daughter married and moved west. These two things happened to him in rapid succession. His daughter moved to California with a gentile she met in college, then his wife died shortly after. All the bounce went out of him, and even though we walked every morning he seemed detached. His zest for living and his capacity for interest in the everyday life of Westlake Village was missing. I thought he would recover, given time and a little understanding. He was not a man of death and separation, he was dedicated to life ... L'chaim!

Seymour served in the United States Army, European Theater Intelligence -- he could speak four languages. His brother in the Motorized Cavalry was killed in the Battle of the bulge, his uncles, cousins and Grandparents disappeared into the black hole of Dachau -- so it wasn't as though he hadn't seen tragedy before. Surely, I thought, he would come to terms with it. But it was a personal melancholy he couldn't overcome and he couldn't share it with anyone.

Seymour was no different than any man. Like many men I've known, he was a fountain of advice and experience. Like a Rabbi, he had a solution for everybody, whether the problem was physical, mental or financial, Seymour would show you the way out -- but no one could help him, no one could be a Rabbi for Seymour.

So he came to the last day -- there is a day for everything. A day to be born and a day to die ... they're not the most important days of a man's life. The first and the last day are the most necessary but not the most important, it's what comes in between -- what a man makes of it all.

The autumn night came early. I ate and called the hospital again -- no information of value. I turned on the porch light so Yehuda would know I was expecting her, then I did my dishes -- it was 7:30. I called one or two people in the village who knew him or cared one way or another, there wasn't much else to do. I would miss him -- that I knew. Old men share something quite unexplainable in literary terms, an affinity, I guess. Something in common that goes beyond their blood relationship and family responsibilities. It is a connection somewhere in time between that first and last day in which both men find themselves together. We spoke often of the shocking rapidity of the clock. Time was passing more quickly than it used to, sometimes an hour would go by without our noticing -- as though something we had no control over was hastening us along.

A sharp and rapid knocking at the door startled me, it was nearly nine. Two hours had slipped by -- two hours of barren thought. It was Yehuda.

I still remembered her as a little girl. Here she was a mother of two ... two boys from different marriages. Seymour was her father, not her life. Then she got on my phone, a call to the coast where the sun had not yet set and another call to the hospital.

"He's still asleep they said," she told me. "Can you tell me how to get to the hospital?"

"It's complicated, I'll drive you."

"I rented a car at the airport. Maybe you could come with me."

She was on top of everything, I always thought of Yehuda as a child who couldn't make a decision without her mother and father being there to guide her.

"Sure, I'd be glad to go with you. I'd like to see him again before ... before ..."

"Yes I know you would. Let's go together."

So we did that. I piloted and she drove. She commented on the things that were different since she left -- a new Macdonald's -- a change of shops at the Mall, Gimbels had handed over to Montgomery Ward. We talked about her family -- her own family.

"David is ten and Quincy is four."


"Yes, Quincy. Roddy and I thought it sounded good with MacFadden."

"Turn left just after the next light, that'll bring us into the IC parking lot." I wondered how 'Quincy' went down with Seymour -- or MacFadden for that matter. Was it another nail in the coffin? "Now wasn't that a great metaphor," I reminded myself!

There was only a few spaces available in the IC parking lot and a sour faced guard came out of the watchman's booth waving us off. "Y'ain't allowed in here. S'only for IC visitors." He made a mixing motion with his forefinger. "Turn right around -- can't park here."

"My father's in there -- Seymour Slansky. I'm his daughter."

The guard reached inside his coat and pulled out a typewritten sheet of paper, adjusted his glasses and scanned down a list of names. "Okay. Over there, next to the Corolla. How come they didn't they give you a sticker fer y'winda?"

"Rented car."

Yehuda had an answer for every question. She was obviously a woman who had made her way through a man's world. She was more than a match for any man. I was struck by her lack of softness -- she was no patsy. Where did it come from? Her mother and father were nothing like that. Watching her talking to the doctor in the waiting room, almost man to man. I wondered if Seymour ever told her about Bernstein's Buttons. She finished talking with the doctor and walked over to me.

"Just a little too late. Wouldn't you know?" Maybe there was a hint of a tear in her eye. She reached into her purse. "I don't have a tissue. Do you have one?" I had a pocket full of them. "Wouldn't you think they'd keep a box of them out here?" Then she broke down.

"I was wondering when you'd do that ... you seemed so ... composed."

"I'm not. I can't tell you how sorry I am to get here too late. I'm going in to see him -- do you mind if I go in alone?"

"Of course not. I'll wait out here -- then I'd like to see him too."

I don't know what she did in there, but when she came out of his room she was very quiet. "I didn't realize he lost so much weight." She shook her head slowly, "I should have paid more attention. Damn! Why do we make life so tough for ourselves?"

"Come on, Yehuda," I put my arm around her shoulders and in spite of her previous toughness she seemed smaller ... like a little girl again. "Everybody dies. It's never easy, there's always something you meant to do."

"And didn't get around to doing," she added. "Would you like to say something at the funeral tomorrow? I think you were closer to him than any of us."


"He would have wanted it that way. It was a tradition with him that the dead can not linger more than two nights. Tonight is the first night. We'll bury him the following morning. It's a pity there is no family to mourn. You and I. That's all."

"There'll be people from the Village."

"I suppose. There's a lot to do -- I have to call the Rabbi and the funeral parlor when I get back. Did you bring his keys with you?

I handed them to her. "Before we go, I'd like to see him, okay?"

"I'll wait."

He was lying under a sheet, no blanket over him in spite of the coolness of the room. His charts were gone -- so were his medicines, his glass of water and the little complimentary sack of toilet articles the hospital gives every new patient. He bore no sign of discomfort -- just peace, and a look of acceptance. He looked as innocent as a child and there was no sign of what he went through in life -- no marks of experience. I said, "Good night Seymour." It was far too late to say goodbye.

Yehuda was standing by the door looking out into the night when I came out. She had already called the Rabbi, and spoken to the funeral director's wife.

"They'll pick him up in the morning," she said quietly. "How simple it is, really ... people accuse us of being hasty, but the grieving begins after the burial, not before."

We drove back home slowly, there was no need to hurry now. Yehuda asked me again to think of something to say at the funeral tomorrow, and I said I would do my best.

The thought of what to say kept me awake half the night. I could write a book about Seymour, but to think of something to say at his funeral wasn't easy. I knew him well, he and I kept ourselves in shape walking the streets of Westlake Village. I knew him before Yehuda was born, and yet there was a part of him I never got to know. That's how it is with men -- parts of us are off limits. Maybe I could say something about that tomorrow ... something like ...

In 1980 the family went to Poland. "I want you to see," he told Yehuda. I wondered if Yehuda would remember, it was more than twenty years ago.

"Do you remember, Yehuda?" She might remember, but would she understand. "Your two uncles, Eben and Jahez, your cousins Natasha and Willa and both your grandparents lived there. Then, sometime between 1943 and 1944 they disappeared. Records in the Town Hall disappeared too -- everything disappeared. He told me the story again and again, Yehuda -- on our morning walks to buy a newspaper at the Dairy Barn. 'You never know,' he would say, 'Miracles can happen."

"The strings to my family are all disconnected," he told me. "He wanted to see if he could find the connecting strings of his family -- he wanted Jessica and Yehuda to know they were not alone. They had roots. 'What good is a family without roots?'

"He used to say that life was like a relay race with no ending; the new generation taking the baton from the older and running ahead with it. 'Then we sit and watch our children run until it's their turn to pass it on. That's the trouble with the Jews of my generation,' he said. 'Somebody stepped in to break up the race and broke the strings that tied us all together."

Well, I might say that and then again I might not. Maybe he wouldn't want me to -- maybe it's best just to let the past be the past -- "L'chaim!

©Harry Buschman 2003

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