Tag Archives: family history

Monday Musings: Remembering My Brother Bill

Five years ago this week, my family—spouse and kids, brother and sister and their families, cousins—gathered in northern Massachusetts to say goodbye to my oldest brother, Bill, who had passed away earlier in the year after a brief, intense battle with lymphoma.

Five years ago.

Honestly, I can’t believe it’s been so long.

My brother, Bill
Bill in 1976, while visiting me at sleep away camp.

Bill was older than me by nearly fifteen years. Same parents; I was a mistake. A happy one, my folks always claimed, but a mistake nevertheless. Despite the age difference between us, Bill and I were very close, drawn together by shared passions for music, for baseball, for nature and birds, for literature, for history. He (and Jim, our middle brother) introduced me to much of the music I still love to this day, everything from the Rolling Stones and Little Feat to Jerry Douglas and Tony Rice. Bill was also a musician—a fantastic vocalist and skilled blues harmonica player. He and I performed a short set together back when I was in college—a memory I still cherish, and one of the coolest things we ever did together.

Bill, David, Jim
Left to right, Bill, me, Jim. Back in 1990 or so, when I, at least, still had hair.

He and I didn’t get to see each other nearly as often as either of us would have liked, but usually we spoke weekly, sometimes more. One of us would hear a new piece of music, or see some unbelievable highlight from a pennant race game, or finish reading something the other would just love—whatever. And it would prompt a phone call. An excuse, really, for the joy and comfort we each derived from speaking to the other. (And I should add here that Bill had a very similar relationship with Jim. Some of the shared interests were different but they were just as close. And I should add as well that to this day Jim and I have the same sort of relationship as well. We three were/are bound by so much.)

Like many relationships, though, mine with Bill was as complicated as it was loving. He struggled all his life with mental health issues and substance abuse. For several years, when his life-long battle with alcoholism raged with particular ferocity, he drew me into his struggles as a reluctant enabler. He confided in me, called me in the midst of binges, then swore me to secrecy, telling me I couldn’t tell our parents. I was in my mid-twenties at the time, living a continent away in California, trying to survive my first years of graduate school. I still remember those conversations with disturbing clarity. Slurred, confused, maudlin, affectionate, but also manipulative, all against the background noises of sloshing bourbon and ice cubes clacking against the edges of a crystal tumbler. I finally broke out of the pattern, but those phone calls took their toll on me, and, for a time, on our friendship.

Bill was a brilliant poet, but after the dissolution of his marriage and the loss of a job he truly loved, he stopped writing. He could have had a writing career. He was that good. On some level, I believe he resented the fact that I managed to turn my dream of being an author into a profession. He read what many call “literary fiction” and often expressed, subtly or not, his belief that writing fantasy was a waste of my talent. At the same time, he kept all of my books displayed prominently on shelves in his home.

With Bill, such contradictions were fairly common.

Uncle Bubba, Erin, and Alex
Bill with Erin (center) and Alex, back around 2004.

He loved his nieces and nephew—my girls (who, for reasons too convoluted to explain here, used to call him Uncle Bubba), Jim’s son and daughter, our sister Liz’s son and daughter—and doted on them, more like an attentive grandparent than an uncle. But often during family get-togethers he would, without warning, grow moody, sullen, silent. To this day, I wonder if on some level being with our families made him regret choices he made earlier in life, when he might have started his own family.

Yet, as difficult as he could be, he was always the king of whatever room he entered. He was beautiful, he had unbelievable charisma, he was a terrific storyteller. He was also brilliant, well-read, funny as hell, and stunningly generous. He had the best laugh I have ever heard. I’ve said this before, but it is worth repeating: his laugh was so wonderful, it made others want to be funny. Eliciting that laugh was like winning the humor lottery.

The memorial in 2017 that drew my family and me to Massachusetts on a crisp, gorgeous fall day, coincided with Bill’s birthday, which would be tomorrow. He would be 74 if he was still with us. He would lament how old that sounds, but then make some crack about Mick Jagger still touring at 79. (Once he and I were joking about something and I made some remark about me being more immature than he was, and he said, “Hey, man! I was immature before you were born!”)

I miss him every day. I have a musical mix on my phone that I named for him. It includes all the music he turned me on to, all the music we used to talk about during those many phone calls, and some stuff I’ve discovered since he died that I know he would have loved. The playlist is constantly growing.

Happy birthday, Bubba. Love you.

Monday Musings: Celebrating Nancy

David and Nancy
Us in Dublin, Ireland for WorldCon 2019. (Photo by Cat Sparks)

I mention Nancy on this blog quite often, yet, I rarely write about her. Well, she has a big birthday coming up this week (tomorrow) — a BIG birthday — and so this seems as good a time as any to sing her praises.

For those who have somehow missed the references, Nancy is my wife of thirty-plus years. She and I met at Stanford, when we were both getting our Ph.D.s. She was a first-year grad student in biology; I was in my second year in the history program. We met because one of her suite-mates in grad school housing, another history candidate, brought her to the department’s weekly grad student card game at the on-campus pub.

Yes, we met over a game of hearts, and we were both smitten that very day. Nancy later confessed that she saw me and thought, “Oh, this is the guy I’m going to marry.” Poor thing . . . . For my part, being a guy, I saw her and thought, “Wow!”

Wedding Day Photo 1
Our wedding day, 1991.

We were married in the Rodin Sculpture Garden beside Stanford’s art museum, and a year later moved to Tennessee so that Nancy could take an assistant professorship at Sewanee: The University of the South. Our plan was to stay for a couple of years, and if nothing worked out for me in the history department, we’d leave for wherever and start again with me taking the offered job and her trying to work something out. Rinse, repeat until both of us were employed. That was the idea. But at her urging I started to pursue my lifelong dream of writing fantasy professionally, and before we had to leave, I got my first publishing contract. Thirty years later, we’re still here.

Nancy provost installation
Our family, the day Nancy was officially made provost of the university. Erin is on the left, Alex is on the right.

In that time, Nancy has been assistant professor, associate professor, full professor, and chairperson of her department. She has been appointed to a named chair in the biology department (for those unfamiliar with academia, this is big deal). She has received research grants to support her scholarship from a host of organizations and agencies, including the National Science Foundation. She has been an associate dean, associate provost, university provost, and, for the past nine months, acting president of the university. She is the first woman ever to serve as Sewanee’s president.

I am a pretty confident person. I believe in my creative abilities, and I believe in my own intelligence. I like to think that I’m usually one of the smartest people in whatever room I’m in. And yet, when both of us are home, I’m not even the smartest person in my own kitchen.

Erin, Nancy, Alex
Erin, Nancy, and Alex.

Nancy is a creative thinker, too, though in an entirely different way. Her creativity, her brilliance, is rooted in her ability to approach any problem, any issue, at any given time, from multiple perspectives. This is what has made her such a successful scientist, and it is what informs her strategic thinking as an institutional leader. She is also a person of remarkable yet quiet strength. She is serving as president, coping with issues large and small, interacting with people in various university constituencies who, let us say, sometimes forget how to be their best selves. She is also, like me, dealing with the illness of her child. She recently lost her mother and, with her brothers, had to help get her father situated in an assisted living community. She is spouse, mother, daughter, sister, friend, colleague, community leader. She does all of this with composure, with grace, with her sparkling and mischievous wit, with an equanimity that humbles and dazzles me on a daily basis.

Nancy and Samantha
Back when we first started dating. Nancy is the one on the left . . .

Yes, I adore her. I would never claim to be a neutral observer where Nancy is concerned. But you don’t have to trust me on any of what I’ve written here. Others will say it as well, including many who don’t always see eye-to-eye with her. That is part of her charm. She can disarm with a smile. She can discuss without bringing ego to the conversation, and — something truly rare in today’s world — she can agree cordially to disagree.

And still I haven’t begun to scratch the surface when it comes to telling you about her. She is far more than her professional activities. She knits and gardens, she brews beer and makes AMAZING Indian, Thai, Moroccan, and Southwestern cuisine, not to mention gorgeous fresh bread and the best chocolate chip cookies anywhere. She has run triathlons and used to be an active rock climber. She loves to travel and to hike (and she tolerates my birdwatching interruptions when we’re hiking together). She plays cards and board games and is somehow really good at all of them.

I’ll stop now. Except to say she’s the love of my life, my partner in silliness, my best friend. And yeah, tomorrow’s her birthday.

Happy birthday, Sweetie. Love you.

Monday Musings: Random Thoughts About Thanksgiving

I love Thanksgiving. It is, and has long been, one of my two favorite holidays of the year, along with Passover, the Jewish holiday that marks the coming of spring. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both occasions revolve around family-style meals that are steeped in tradition.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably admit that I didn’t always love Thanksgiving so much. When I was a kid, Turkey Day seemed nothing more than a gift-less dress rehearsal for Christmas. The food was similar, we saw the same relatives. The chocolate treats on the table were basically interchangeable, except for being shaped like turkeys rather than Santa. But, again — and I really can’t stress this enough — there were no presents! And also no tree.

Somehow it became a tradition in our family to pull the same prank on my poor, beleaguered mother year in and year out: At some point during the meal, one of us — usually my sister or me — would go over to speak with her about something we had contrived. And in the course of the conversation, we would slip a dinner mint into the cranberry sauce on her plate. Don’t ask me why we did it; I honestly don’t know. But we did it every year.

By the time I was in high school, we were having our Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations either at our house, or at my aunt and uncle’s house — Turkey Day at one, Christmas at the other. (Yes, we celebrated Christmas, despite being Jewish. A lot of Jewish families did — it was a form of assimilation rooted in social pressure and prejudice.) But in the earliest years of my childhood (and in the years before I was born — I am the youngest child in the family, even the extended family, by quite a few years) we used to drive into New York City to celebrate both holidays at my grandmother’s apartment. Our Gram was a pistol. Funny, irreverent, fiercely loving, independent, strong-willed. She was all of 4 foot 10, but she dominated any room she was in. Even after all these years, when I think of Thanksgiving, the first image that pops into my head is that of our family gathered around her table.

Gram had a few friends who used to join us for Thanksgiving each year. Many of them had been friends of the family for so long that we were expected to call them “Aunt so-and-so” even though there was no actual blood relation. One of these friends was widowed, and she had remarried to a man named Milton, whom we were to call Uncle Milton. Uncle Milton was… Well, how do I describe him? He was old, as one would expect of the friend of a grandparent. But he was also somnambulant. And, looking back on it, I think he used to get pretty hammered at these dinners. We would arrive after he and his wife did, and he would already be well into his cups. We would go to say hello to him and, invariably, he would say, “David. Good to see you. Mind if I don’t get up?” He said this to everyone (although, as far as I know, he didn’t call everyone David…). He never got up, at least not until it was time to transfer from his comfortable chair to the supper table.

Milton became the butt of many, many family jokes. I am not proud of this. None of us are. But it’s true. When we would play 20 Questions, one of us would always devote a round to the poor man. “Is he dead or alive?” “Yes.” “Uncle Milton!” At some point we heard that Milton had fallen and broken his hip. His wife had called him for dinner and he had, against his own better judgment, gotten up. He pushed himself out of his chair and just sort of kept going… When sometime later, we got the sad news that Milton had died, we all wondered how anyone had been able to tell. I know — this is just terrible. Cruel, disrespectful, inappropriate. But, again in the interest of full disclosure, I’m laughing as I type it all out.

Nancy and I have had extended family to our home for Thanksgiving now and again, and for a while we used to share the holiday with another family here in our little town. But our favorite Thanksgivings have been the ones we’ve had with just our daughters, and there have been too few of those in recent years. Our older child has lived in New York since going there for college in 2013. We’ve probably had only two or maybe three Thanksgivings with her since, and we miss her every year. Our younger daughter is still in college and will be coming home this year, with her boyfriend. They both had Covid earlier in the semester and, according to the public health experts Nancy works with at the University, should still be immune and will present no threat to us. It will just be the four of us for the holiday. Quiet, safe. We’ll Zoom with our older daughter at some point, and also with my brother and his wife, who are alone as well, and will be Zooming with their children and my sister-in-law’s parents. Needless to say, this is a strange year.

Which brings me full circle. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, even under these extraordinary circumstances. I find the concept behind it, simple though it is, remarkably affecting. Of course we should take a day to ponder those things for which we are thankful. Yes, we should do this daily, but the fact is we are too often consumed with the demands of the day-to-day, the fraught emotions of a world that seems to careen from one crisis to another, the necessities of work and the obligations that sometimes keep us from appreciating fully the importance of family and friendship. A day of Thanksgiving is, it seems to me, just the tonic we need, this year especially, even as the exigencies of the pandemic limit how many we ought to have seated around our tables.

And so please allow me to close by thanking all of you. Whether you are a stranger who has read one of my books, or a friend I have known for years, or a relative who sat with me at our Gram’s table, I am glad to have you in my life. I wish you a joyous, safe holiday.