April 9, 2012.
It was not even three years ago that I stood at this very podium at Gutterman’s. I had come home to deliver the eulogy for my best friend from childhood, David Fischer, who died after a short bout with leukemia. David was a bit of a nerd, in the best sort of way, an aspiring jazz trombonist and a lover of science fiction. My father, as many of us know, always liked people who were smart, and that included my thirteen-year-old friends. He in the front driving and David in the back with me, barely able to see over the seat, would, on the way home from this bar mitzvah or that winter band concert, discuss topics as far ranging as Woody Herman and his Thundering Herd or the latest Ursula Le Guin story.
As I drove up from Washington to Long Island to speak at David’s funeral, those memories came floating back. With cars whizzing by on the New Jersey Turnpike, I tried to gather my thoughts and formulate the core of what I would say. I wasn’t very successful and later that evening I sat in the dining room of my parents’ house in Old Bethpage staring at a blank laptop screen.
Suddenly my father popped his head in.
“You know, your father has written some good eulogies in his day. If you want me to take a look, just ask.” He had a devious, self-congratulatory look on his face.
“What”? I replied. “I’m good, dad. I know how to write, too.”
“I’m just saying, your old pops here is a prett-tttty good eulogy writer. I’ve written some good ones! Crowd pleasers! I could take a look. I’m just sayin’!”
Thinking I had been somehow transported into an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, I said, “Um, dad, you’re not challenging me to a eulogy writing contest, are you?”
“No, I’m just saying that if you get stuck, just remember Daniel isn’t the only good writer in the family. I’m a prettttt-ty good at eulogies.”
Jay Mendelsohn, ladies and gentleman: perhaps not the warmest and fuzziest guy in a time of grief but never one to shy away from an intellectual challenge. And a man whose sage advice—people drive like maniacs in parking lots—will live on long after him.
There’s a lot to be said of my father and I know my siblings and his dear friends will touch on a bit of everything today. He was brilliant scientist—I once asked him, proud and wide-eyed, like any kid, what he did for a living and he responded, “You wouldn’t understand.” He was right. I didn’t understand and I still don’t understand. Every year on family day at Grumman Aerospace, when the public could get a glimpse inside, I remember seeing a dry-erase board in his office filled end to end with mathematical hieroglyphics. Was my dad building a hydrogen bomb or were those just plans for a backyard swimming pool? I still don’t have a clue.
He was funny and he loved comedy. He loved his Modern Jazz Quartet and Beethoven sonatas. And he tried his whole adult life to pick up hobbies and talents that his childhood never afforded him. To no one’s delight, he took up violin at the age of fifty, fancying himself a modern-day Thomas Jefferson. He learned the keyboard even later than that, just as he spent hours at the driving range teaching himself to hit a golf ball, the only kind of ball not found in the Bronx circa 1940.
But for all intents and purposes, the beauty of the Jay Mendelsohn A to Z is that you really never have to get past the B’s. A, of course, is for atheism, though if any of us harbor hopes of being home by the All Star break I’ll mercifully spare you the details of my mathematician father’s legendary disdain for all things religious.
His religion can be found in the B’s anyhow: The Bronx, Baseball and Bagels, the beauty being that the first two were generally discussed while eating the third. For as long as I can remember, the book Gödel, Escher, Bach sat on the downstairs shelf in our house. This is the Jay Mendelsohn version: The Bronx, Baseball, Bagels.
He and his buddies would gather each morning—and I mean every morning—at Town Bagel, Plainview’s own Algonquin Round Table. Ralph, Milt, Herb, Lenny and the gang. They were such a fixture that a a little plaque above the first booth notes it as the headquarters of the “Town Bagel Irregulars.” The Irregulars would talk about everything—think Regis and Kelly but with a bunch of old Jewish guys—a stack of papers on the table providing the discussion fodder. But mostly the talk was about baseball, even in the depths of January.
My father’s love of baseball is well known and I won’t dwell. Suffice to say his entire life seemed to revolve around the New York Mets and a recliner. From Art Shamsky and Cleon Jones to Rusty Staub and Jon Matlack. From Mookie Wilson to, well, Mookie Wilson. Boy did my father love Mookie Wilson. It’s no surprise that he chose to leave us last week just hours after Opening Day, when the Mets were firmly ensconced in first place with a 1-0 record.
|© 2013 Matt Mendelsohn Photography|