The 20th Century died 11 years ago, and now some of my most beloved family from that epoch, are dying, fading off, and exiting. And I hardly had a chance to get acquainted.
Born two years after the Versailles Treaty ended WWI, before Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, before penicillin, direct dial telephone, credit cards, air-conditioning, television and the discovery of the planet Pluto, Harold Hurvitz (1921-2011) was the eldest of three born to Harry and Fanny Hurvitz, who were also the parents of Frances Cohen (1923) and my father Sol (1932-2009).
Harold’s life, biographically and chronologically, encompassed engineering, WWII, husband-hood and father-hood and the building of a successful, multi-generational heating and air-conditioning company that outfitted the many steel and glass buildings anchored low and towering high in the City of Big Shoulders.
Tall, blue-eyed, sharp, intelligent, and possessed of a calm fortitude and self-assurance befitting a man who knew his place in the world, Uncle Harold was for years the gold standard in our family for character, kindness and an inability to be disloyal.
He was married, in 1943, to a woman he had already known for perhaps a decade, (Aunt) Evey. They lived on the South Side, in those intact Jewish neighborhoods of apartment houses, synagogues, delis and social clubs. Those were the days, of Benny Goodman and Drexel Avenue, Hyde Park and Maxwell Street, of black cows and red meat, shvartzes and Chinamen, Inland Steel and the Outer Drive, the Union Stockyards, Soldier’s Field, Irv Kupcinet, the Chicago Daily News, Dad’s Root Beer and Jack Brickhouse.
After the war, Harold and Evey had three kids: Adrienne, Michael and Bruce, and these three went on, under the benevolent leadership and example of their father and mother, to create families of their own, made up of people who have mostly worked to build prosperity, build family connections and create a unity and purpose for life.
How I imagine I fit into my own family, and how my father imagined he fit into his family are curiously and strongly connected to the life of Harold Hurvitz.
I found, after my father died in 2009, that I was more cautious about the mythology of autobiography. A human being creates his own story, and he adheres to it, whether true or false. Let three children come out of the same womb, and each child will have his own version of family life and how well he was raised.
The death of Uncle Harold is strange, strange because his tenure on Earth was so long, and his presence, like the columns holding up the Parthenon: structural and eternal, resistant and real.
My own relationship to Uncle Harold was fashioned by the mythologies and stories filtered to me through my parents who thought Harold and Evey and their progeny had it made…..
They were going on a cruise. They were getting married. They just had a baby. Simi and Mickey, Evey and Harold, the two Mikes, the two Sues. It was a drum-roll of hearing about family through the stories of other people, rather than experiencing them yourself. And through many years, my father, in NJ, spoke on the phone with his brother through artful dissonance and polite chit-chat.
The good news that emanated from the golf course, from Rancho Mirage and Lake Shore Drive, from Deerfield and Highland Park….the stories that I heard, were stories of laughter and success, of camaraderie and closeness, procreation and prosperity illuminated by the floodlights of the Palmolive Building, orchestrated by a band playing in the Drake Hotel, for the majesty of a candlelit apartment in a high-rise, accompanied by many well wishers and lots of food.
In every photo: baby-faced boys and well-fed girls, golf courses and cruise ships, summer camp, yarmulkes, bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, Water Tower Place and Frango Mints, Scottsdale, Boca Raton; Filet Mignon, and chopped liver; enormous platters of cold cuts on silver trays. This is how it seemed. And one never knew the tedious, back-breaking and time-consuming labor that built it all inside a windowless warehouse somewhere north of Touhy.
And sometimes the image of Harold’s family stood in opposition to the hard times we had in our smaller family of Sol. I had thought, maybe unfairly, that my own father minimized himself and aggrandized his older brother, to his own detriment. But my father relished his own artistic and independent streak. And he was not the first-born, but raised to idolize and respect and look up to the first- born.
My father had epilepsy, difficulty earning a living, back problems and a disabled child. And finally he succumbed, quite early, to a degenerative cerebral illness that robbed him of the ability to speak and walk. But if he were alive, he would tell me not to write any of this and just to remember that he was a good father and a good husband.
After my father died, I went out to Rancho Mirage and visited Uncle Harold, 11 years older than my father, but still alive and smiling. He was attached to his own plastic oxygen tube . And wheeled, by a home care aide, around a vaulted ceiling desert ranch house where he and Aunt Evey had spent thirty summers, and were now confined year around.
Uncle Harold said he was “an anomaly” because he had almost died earlier that year. He said he believed mostly in “blind dumb luck”.
And luckily, he was born a Jew, not in Poland or Germany, but Chicago; and luckily he met a woman he loved and stayed with for seven decades; and luckily he had great children who venerated and adored their father; and luckily he lived to see and touch and kiss grand-children and great-grandchildren.
And despite his time spent in the West, Harold, like my father Sol, was a Chicagoan, raised to think that if you just worked hard, thought logically, did the right thing, told the truth, you might just succeed.
He had absorbed the ethos of Chicago, a self-confident city of fighters and survivors, given to powerful winds and brutal snowstorms, blinding rain and suffocating summers, violent crime and astonishing wealth, yet boisterously productive, practical, energetic and hopeful.
Harold managed to endure and to leave to the rest of us, a lesson that success is not about mastering the latest technology, but by living according to those codes of honor that never die.
And family….above all… The Family. It stands supreme, and is there for those who are weak or falling down, and for those who are strong and on their way up, young and naïve, old and wise, middle-aged and stressed out. They all have a place in this family. And they must not forget that they are not alone.