A week or two into our son’s first summer at overnight camp, I got a call from my Uncle Karl. Before his “hello” was out I knew who it was. Most of us linger over the “o”; Karl pounces on the “hell” and hangs out there. Rich, emphatic, musical, his voice—like the voice of his youngest brother, my father—never fails to knock the wind out of my anxieties. That day it contained its usual robust reassurance, but also a hint of something else. Triumph, I guessed.
And sure enough, “Old Alice finally consented” to let him pay “Sam’l” a visit. Twelve-thirty this Saturday. Karl will bring a picnic. “Sandwiches with bread still warm from the oven. Fresh raspberries. And a bag of GM cookies, of course.”
“Sounds great,” I said, wondering just how many calls it had taken before “Old Alice” (the camp director) gave in. No matter. Sam will be pleased. He loves his Uncle Karl—not to mention the ginger molasses cookies he always brings.
“Now, Leslie–” Karl said. Names mean a lot to him and he never passes up the chance to utter one, be it straight or with his own Karlish spin.
“Yes, Kar-ul?” (The more syllables the better.)
I would like to believe I said this with a vaudevillian lilt—almost every utterance from Karl puts one in the mood for a little old soft shoe. Truth is, I’m still the eager-to-please niece and just beginning to riff with him as I might with a peer. That some should find this odd—I’m close to fifty—this came as a surprise to me. Such is Karl’s position in the Lipsky family pantheon.
“What do you think, Leslie? Roast beef? Or turkey?”
“Either,” I said, knowing how the man frowns upon fussy eaters. “But—” I wavered, fearing that indifferent eaters would be even lower on his list. “Maybe turkey is better.”
“Turkey it will be,” Karl said. “Now, for the eggs.” (Ah yes, the eggs!) “I could make deviled,” he said. “Or do you think he would prefer egg salad?”
I pictured Karl in one of his trademark outfits—khaki slacks, checked shirt, do-it-yourself bowtie—standing, short and paunchy, near his tiny telephone table next to the stairs, reading glasses low on his nose, eyebrows fanning in diverse directions but all the rest of him focused on the egg dish which would most please his great nephew.
The second boy of four born to Ida and Harold Lipsky—she a homemaker, he a junior high vice-principal cum insurance salesman—Karl apparently was always intent on bringing joy. My father remembers him at twelve or thirteen, walking proudly down their Brooklyn street carrying a pot of red tulips for his mother’s birthday. Karl was the favorite of the aunts and uncles, my father tells me, and probably the parents too. My father says this without resentment. He adores Karl–as do the other two brothers who are all exceptionally devoted to celebrating each other and the Lipsky name–notwithstanding the fact that the two youngest, concerned about how anti-Semitism might affect their businesses, changed theirs to Lawrence.
My earliest memories of Karl are indistinguishable from my memories of his big old barn-red house at the bottom of a steep dirt drive in Western Massachusetts. Karl and his wife Jen bought the abandoned house before I was born. By the time I got to see the place, the seven chimneys were in working order, the resident bats mostly gone, the two older kids tearing through the woods, and the giant lazy Susan on the dining room table had been spun several thousand times. Because my sister and I lived in Queens and spent our summers at overnight camp, most of our visits to Karl’s were in fall or winter. I say “Karl’s,” maybe because he is the blood connection, or because this was the patriarchal Fifties and Sixties, or simply because it was Karl who came out to greet us; Karl and his sons, Seth and Jed, who dug up some old skis and gave us our first lesson on the hill in front of the house. It was Karl who would boost us onto Duster—he owned many horses over the decades, every one of them a “Duster”; Karl who orchestrated autumn hay rides and jingly midnight sleigh rides; Karl who pulled out a kazoo at every occasion that might call for one, and just as many that didn’t. Yes, we have no bananas.., Come on Boys and get your Beans… How could I not adore this man who gave me so many of my memories of song and speed and flight.
Even if he does sometimes gets carried away, as with this picnic, and especially the egg business.
Skip the eggs, I was tempted to say. A sandwich, fruit, and cookies are more than enough. But I knew better. When Karl, living so close to the camp, put us up the night before delivery day, I made the mistake of telling him what the kid on the camp video said: That Kinderland had only one drawback, the fried eggs, which were “runny and nasty.” This meant that the next day when Karl came with us to drop Sam off, he raised the pesky egg question, first with Sam’s counselor, then with a bunkmate, and, as we were leaving, with the camp secretary who was just stepping out of her office to go to the bathroom.
“Matthew…” “Zach …” “Bonnie. Can I ask you a personal question?”
Bonnie’s pleasant expression morphed into one of mild alarm.
“It’s about the fried eggs here…” Karl explained.
No, nixing the eggs was not an option. I suggested hard-boiled. That settled, Karl asked if I recalled a good place for a picnic.
Now I, too, am someone who puts great stock in finding the perfect picnic spot, but here I was starting to really worry. Sam’s just a kid. He can’t be expected to appreciate all the effort and deliberation going into this picnic. Sure, he’ll enjoy it—for nine or ten minutes, but then it will be time for Frisbee or free swim or just plain schmoozing, Sam’s favorite time, which Kinderland, (a camp dedicated to preserving Yiddish culture and the ideals of the old Left) has penned into its daily schedule. Karl, I feared, was setting himself up for disappointment.
“Down by the lake?” I ventured.
After the call, I wished I’d at least told Karl that he need not make a special trip for homemade bread, that the berries don’t have to be ‘just-picked.’ Then again: If it’s not worth making a big effort, it’s not worth doing at all. Surely that was Karl’s credo. I couldn’t suggest he not sweat the picnic because sweating it is what Karl does best.
What, by the way, he expects others to do also—as when he called me in Cambridge and asked me to find, and deliver, a Christmas cactus to his friend who was in a hospital near me. And not just any Christmas cactus, mind you, but one in between red and pink, yet slightly closer to pink, and not completely closed, nor fully in bloom, but just on the verge.
“Friendship.” Karl told me once when we were out for dinner after a day of skiing. “That’s what I value most in life. Friendship, nature, and music.”
I was surprised. Before this I might have said Karl’s extravagant efforts were driven entirely by instinct. Or compulsion. Perhaps some over-activity in the part of the brain devoted to taste—in food and flowers and—stemware. But during that dinner, alone with him for perhaps the first time, I saw his reflective streak.
Also, I was surprised Karl didn’t put “family” in his trinity. Or did he think of his family as friends—never obligatory or merely tolerated but always chosen and relished? That’s how he’d made me feel, especially when I was no longer living with my parents and he would invite me to go skiing or to visit him and Marianne with friends. (Jen had died when I was fourteen and Karl later married Marianne, a beautiful, cosmopolitan Swedish fashion designer.)
It was during these visits to their house in my twenties, when seeing the place through the eyes of my friends, that I began to realize just how remarkable it was: the structure itself with its eighteenth-century floor boards and huge stone fireplaces, the extensive collections of just about everything–antique spoons and sabers, top hats and fur hats, strops and clocks, marmalades and mustard and candied gingers—and the grounds! He and Marianne had created magnificent gardens, a ring for the horses, trails through the woods. I had never thought of my uncle as rich. I thought of him as a man who bought a house filled with bats. I thought of his now successful business selling Americana as the one he began in an unheated garage. And I often overheard talk of money problems. Yet now, viewing the house through my friends’ eyes, I could see it was an estate. As for the man himself, he, my friends informed me, was even more of character than I’d led them to expect. And while most enjoyed the place and the man as much as I did, one found the amount of stuff in the house downright suffocating, and another was not at all charmed when Karl woke her by croaking reveille out of an old bugle. I shouldn’t have been surprised that not everyone was as enchanted as I, but I was surprised. And like many of the once-bedazzled, I became devoted to searching for the hidden blemishes in the gifts bestowed upon me. I began to consider their costs.
A cousin and I had a few heart-to-hearts where we scrutinized our beloved uncle through our newly raised feminist consciousness. How controlling he could be! How hard it was to get beneath all the natty outfits and showmanship! Maybe there really was no “beneath.” Maybe, after all these years, the style had become the man. We wondered whether we were ever really ourselves with Karl, or whether he knew those selves, given that listening wasn’t his strong suit and so many “conversations” revolved around such and such Pinot Noir or so-and-so’s stock of Roquefort. We amused ourselves by trying to characterize a typical Lipsky Experience, as lived by Karl or his sons, or the rest of us when under their influence—which just might be always. Often it involved a meal at a castle or better upon an ice floe, maybe front row seats at the opera next to a king, or better still, a death-defying ride down the Nile or across the Sahara with a touch of cholera thrown in. Son Jed was the athlete and daredevil, Seth the brilliant political journalist (who reputedly more than once interviewed a world leader while bombs exploded overhead). Somehow Jill’s experiences in the gift business never became part of the family folklore. It seemed clear that typical Lipskyesque qualities were those associated with men—brawny shoulders that could paddle rushing rivers, quick wits that could give clever toasts at large parties. Yes, it was hard for us girls—only moderately athletic and “overly” emotional, more inclined to grope for our words and choke up when we said them—to find our place within the Lipsky Legacy. Hard for us to find a man who might live up to the ideal. (I, for one, instead of choosing men who had that ruddy, muscular, can-do glamour, gravitated toward the skinny, sallow poets or Marxists, and, eventually, toward women.)
These conversations with my cousin were a guilty pleasure. Liberating—yes, but disloyal, ungrateful. True, too hearty a dose of joie de vivre can leave one with a queasy feeling, but better our family parties in spectacular settings with too much good food and always some rollicking adventure for the kids (all sporting the identical “cargo vests” Karl ordered from L.L. Bean) than no parties at all, no exuberance or sense of camaraderie.
As for Karl himself, every time I’d comfortably settle into some critique that brought the myth down to man-size, I’d remember a counter-example or witness, something new that would surprise, disarm, enthrall me all over again.
True, he got pretty worked up at the sight of my spatula pressing firmly down on the pancakes I was making, but when my borrowed station wagon backed into his beloved Subaru, he stayed perfectly calm, was actually rather gallant about it.
And sure, he’s obsessed with the best—copper pots, cuts of veal–but when he met me for lunch at the college where I worked, he was as enthusiastic about the bowl of cafeteria chili with plastic-wrapped oyster crackers as he would have been over a signature dish at one of Michelin’s five-fork picks.
Most touching to me was that icy night early in my pregnancy. Karl, always chivalrous, was opening his car door for me. “Don’t forget your seatbelt,” he said, nodding toward my barely showing belly. “Precious cargo there,” he added.
Not such an original expression, I realized, but I had been nervous about how my extended family would react to my unorthodox pregnancy, to the child who would be raised by two women—and here Karl was clearly bestowing his blessings.
Which brings me back to Sam, and that picnic.
“Guess what?” Karl said, calling me a day or two after the scheduled event. (Sam didn’t show? He forgot to say thank-you?) “I arrived exactly at 12:30 with a beautiful basket and met Sam at the appointed spot and–it’s the darndest thing—”
(His handshake was limp. His eyes skittish? Karl has high expectations of kids.)
“He’d already eaten!” Karl exclaimed.
I paused to take in the gravity of this.
“Did he know you were coming?
“Yes, but apparently nobody bothered to tell him I was bringing lunch!”
“What a shame,” I said. “Was he able to eat anything?”
“Well, yes, a little,” Karl admitted. “A few raspberries, a bite of turkey and hard-boiled egg–mind you, not runny.”
This sounded just about right for a ten-year-old, fed or not.
“But how can you enjoy eating when you’ve already eaten!” Karl added. “You know what I mean?”
I did, I did. But I was more interested in whether Sam seemed happy at camp.
“Oh sure,” Karl eventually told me. “He seemed fine.”
“It’s all about creating memories,” Karl said. This was about a year before the Kinderland picnic. He was staying with us in Cambridge while Marianne was having surgery in Boston. His pronouncement was in reference to the camping trip he’d recently taken with his grandchildren—the one in which he staged some Native American ritual, complete with feathers and shakers—but I knew he meant just about everything he does. “About creating connections,” he added, thinking perhaps about those cargo vests that in truth never got worn simultaneously as he’d envisioned, or about any of the countless ways he continually expands his personal, unvirtual world wide web so that there’s barely a place on earth where he doesn’t know someone who wants to put him up in the finest style they are able. “About those Ginger Molasses cookies,” he volunteered with a let’s-not-be-naïve-about-this, grin: “I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of them. Just last month, when I was over in Amsterdam, I was put up by Jan Heuvingnott whom I’d once sent cookies to, and in the morning, he took me to meet Van So and So, his uncle, the maker of Delft china.”
“Jed,” Karl tells me, maybe the second or third night of that same Cambridge visit, “he’s trying to convince me to try out the new ‘shaped’ skis. He says they make it easier to turn. But you know, Leslie–” and I’m thinking, ‘I do. I know.’ My father has the same constitutional aversion to taking the easier route. “I don’t want to get lazy,” Karl says.
I laugh. We’re talking downhill skiing here, which most people give up by the time they’re sixty or seventy. At eighty-five, Karl “doesn’t want to get lazy”!
It’s easy to forget how old Karl is. True, there’s not much hair on his head and quite a bit sprouting from his ears, but when he visits our summer cabin, he sleeps like a boy scout on a mat on the floor. He thinks nothing of driving three hours to lunch with a friend, and he’s always phenomenally punctual. That’s why when it was twenty minutes past his ETA on that same visit to Cambridge, I began to worry—but only as I might about anyone traveling on a frigid night to a place he hasn’t recently been.
Soon the phone rang. “A man who claims to be your uncle arrived at my doorstep,” said an unfamiliar voice. “He’s acting a little confused.”
Only then did I remember that old is old. Stroke? I was thinking as I rushed over. The call was from just down the street. Garden-variety senility?
But there was his Subaru in the neighbor’s driveway, and there was Karl in his woolen worker’s cap, perfectly alert and chipper—though slightly abashed–as he explained he’d misplaced my address.
Later over dinner when I mentioned the neighbor’s remark about him seeming confused, Karl was mystified at first. His eyes narrowed. “Unless…” he said, approaching a grin. “Hmmm.” I noticed through his window, a pair of rather large boots in the hallway, so when he came to the door, I said, “I see someone here has big feet. That might explain it.”
Karl nodded, as if it just might.
I’m never sure how conscious Karl is of his eccentricities. In another story later that night, he told me about meeting someone who eventually became a good friend. “At first the guy wasn’t sure what to make of me,” Karl said. Then by way of explanation, he added, “I guess I had kind of a ‘get up’ in those days.”
“In those days?” I said and for a moment he actually looked bewildered. “Karl!” I nodded toward his suspenders, his knickers, the graceful curve of his watch chain, “you still have a ‘get up!’ In fact,” I ventured, riding the wave of my own boldness, “you might say your whole life is one big ‘get-up!’”
There was a nanosecond of silence and then we chuckled—both of us a little tentatively.
Did he wonder later just what I had meant? I know I did. Pleased with myself for taking the leap that seemed to put us on more equal footing, I was also worried that perhaps I’d offended. Still, the more I thought about it, the more the term seemed to embody what is most remarkable about Karl: not just his joyful attention to what goes on his body, his walls, and especially his table, and not just his tendency to bring an element of theater into everything he does, but his exhausting, effortful way of being himself—his ceaseless, miraculous ‘get up and go.’
The reward is in proportion to the exertion, it says somewhere in the Talmud. The Lipsky household in Brooklyn had atheism in its water, but perhaps this maxim somehow seeped in. Karl knows that fun is what you make yourself; otherwise it’s entertainment. Poor Sam’l, I sometimes think, glancing at him in front of the TV or computer screen. Good thing he has Karl to show him the real thing.
These days, Sam is thinking of changing his last name from Lawrence to Lipsky. When I ask him why, he doesn’t mention Karl but says he wants a Jewish name. I wonder if this has anything to do with Ringelbloom, the man for whom Sam’s cabin at Kinderland was named. Ringlebloom, Sam explained, “lived in the Warsaw Ghetto and buried stuff about life there in metal milk cans.” Some of them were found, but not all.
What gets passed on? What left behind? This is what I’ve been thinking about lately.
About six months after the picnic, and again a few months later, I conducted a test: “Tell me, Sam. What do you remember about that picnic?”
The first time I asked, he said, “I’d already eaten, but still ate an egg and raspberries, and Karl brought cookies for the bunk.”
The second time, he said more or less the same thing, but then added something about a “really neat antique picnic basket with old-fashioned plates and a nice tablecloth. Checkered, I think.”
Each time, I kicked myself for underestimating Sam, for forgetting where I acquired my own educated eye and appreciative palette, for even considering that in Karl’s case, the Talmud might be wrong about the exertion-reward equation.
Recently, when Sam and I were talking about different kinds of genius, he declared Karl “a genius at making people happy.”
This April, I got a call from my father saying Karl had had a small heart attack but was already home and doing fine. Immediately, I mailed a card sporting a photo I’d taken in Italy, a close up of some blazing cherry tomatoes laid out on white paper atop an ancient stone fence. “Get well soon,” I wrote. “Picnic season a’ coming.” I didn’t yet know that later tests would show the need for surgery—a triple by-pass and aortic valve replacement.
Within a week Karl was in a Boston hospital. When I called him there early one morning, he told me with some despondency that he ordered the oatmeal. “It hasn’t come yet,” he said, “but,” and here his voice gained strength, “I’m not even going to think about how it’s going to taste without the salt. It’s all in the attitude.”
All in the attitude. That’s his mantra. Me? I think it’s all in the neurotransmitters, but now, listening to Karl coaching himself on how to endure the tasteless porridge—this, two days before open heart surgery that kills more than a few who are twenty years his junior—I can’t help thinking that attitude just might be a totally outdated concept. Or be key after all.
Either that, or those underestimated virtues of denial and displacement.
The day of the surgery, I arrive at the hospital while Karl is telling Marianne about yesterday’s scrambled eggs. “Positively degrading,” he says. “De-grading!” he repeats to assure her this is no hyperbole.
Eggs again! Yesterday’s breakfast! An odd topic for a time like this, but of course Karl has his priorities.
“When’s Sam’l going to camp?” he asks me. It’s the same question he asked on the phone yesterday.
“July first,” I say.
He nods, looks toward the ceiling, calculating. “Three months,” he says. “I should be on my feet by then. I’ll be getting the picnic ready.”
About a half hour later Marianne and I accompany the gurney down the hall, onto the elevator, and down another long corridor to the swinging double doors that bar us. If Karl is scared, he doesn’t show it. I kiss him goodbye.
Precious cargo, I think, amazed by the softness of his cheek.