April 18, 2000
Over the past few days, we have heard and read so much about Gary’s amazing accomplishments -- his role as a teacher, leader and political activist. But to us, his family, he had other titles -- husband, father, cousin, uncle, friend, companion. To my sister Helaine and I, he was first and foremost, our big brother. We knew him the longest of anyone here today, and Helaine and I would like to share some of our memories of him with you.
As a brother, Gary was a formidable presence. Six feet tall, he towered over our parents, both of us, and most of our Russian and Polish relatives. He was always the smart one, with good grades and perfect SAT scores, the Salutatorian of his high school class. Our elderly grandmother on our father’s side, who was totally blind and could not speak a word of English, summoned Gary as a boy to her Coney Island apartment. “They tell me you’re so smart,” she said in Yiddish, “so, say something smart.” I’m sure he did.
Not only was Gary smart, he was popular too. Our home was always filled with his friends and there was often a pretty new girlfriend on tap for Saturday night. I can picture him now getting ready for a date -- standing in front of the bathroom mirror pouring on the hair goop to get that sweep of dark hair just right. He was voted the Best Looking and Most Popular guy in his high school senior class.
And then there was basketball, an arena in which Gary probably did not have much God-given ability. But, he approached basketball, his great love, the way he approached most obstacles that came his way -- with absolute determination and perseverance. He spent hour after hour, well into dark, shooting baskets into a hoop mounted on our garage until he was good enough to make his high school team. As an adult, Gary went on to become a fanatic Celtics fan -- although not compared to Jeanne -- and in the past few years, the assistant coach of David’s basketball team. There is no question, when it comes to basketball, David rules!
Gary was the oldest -- four years older than Helaine and almost 12 years older than me -- and the only son, which gave him a vaulted position in the family. With that position, came high expectations. And he never let our parents down. They literally adored him.
For our father, Murray, a self-made, self-taught immigrant from Russia who never graduated high school, Gary’s achievements were the fulfillment of a dream. Our father never fully understood Gary’s lack of desire to earn what he called “real money.” But Gary understood that it was our father’s work and economic accomplishments that allowed him to follow his dream. As Gary wrote to my father in his first published book, “The work of one generation makes it possible for the next generation to contribute.”
In truth, my father was incredibly proud of Gary, although I wish he could have expressed it to him more directly. As Helaine recalls, delivering Gary to college at Yale University gave him the thrill of his life.
Our mother, Rose, practically worshiped him from the moment he batted his thick black lashes at her. Gary could do no wrong, except neglect to call her when she finally did let him out of her sight. One might say she was overprotective. When Gary was in elementary school, fearful about him letting him walk to school alone, our mother actually hired a driver to take him in the family Cadillac. He refused to get in the car -- probably his first official protest. But my mother was as stubborn as Gary. So, Gary walked and the car followed half a block behind. This and other excesses of my mother’s spending habits developed a lifelong ambivalence in Gary about creature comforts. He certainly liked most of them, but never really wanted to admit it.
Throughout my mother’s life, she and Gary had a deep bond. She became totally dependent on him. He saw her through years of emotional problems and a divorce, taking responsibility for her welfare in ways that should not have reasonably been expected from a son, especially one so young. But Gary always had a need to do what he saw as “the right thing.” He took care of her -- with one part compassion, one part responsibility and one part guilt -- and she loved him intensely for it. She became the chronicler of his life -- keeping every note and news clipping he sent her in a series of scrap books -- which Jeanne has at home.
Lest you think Gary was perfect, it only seems fair to share some of his foibles. He was the original absent-minded professor, who rarely left anyplace without leaving something behind. Frequently distracted and a bit of a klutz, many a valuable antique met a sorry end in Gary’s wake. And let’s just say his record behind the wheel of a car was not stellar. To Gary, a car was not a potentially dangerous machine, it was a conveyance to move him from place to place as he talked and gestured or made notes on a pad. Given his total respect for the law, he had complete disregard for the laws governing parking. There were times when the back seat of his car looked like a storage room at the parking violations bureau.
Gary was the first in our large extended family to venture away from the cloistered Jewish community in which we were raised. I don’t think he ever really looked back, although he never lost his deep connection to his roots. Just in the last week, he was still updating and fine tuning his Passover Hagaddah. And, as he grew, he brought his new ideas and beliefs home to us, sparking endless debates among all the outspoken members of our family.
For Helaine, Gary was a friend, a companion and a role model. From the time they were young children, they had a strong, loving relationship. She was always “Gary’s little sister,” In fact, just a month ago, an old friend of Gary’s met her and said, “Hello Gary’s little sister,” like it was yesterday.
As they grew up, they became buddies. He always took great care of her -- introducing her to his high school and Yale friends. Today, some of Helaine’s closest friends were Gary’s classmates in high school.
During the early years of Helaine’s marriage, their political interests grew apart. They found common cause working for Gary’s mentor, Allard Lowenstein, in his winning campaign for Congress. Gary took great pride in Helaine’s accomplishments in sculpting and philanthropy and loved her children and her husband very much. He always made time to keep up with family issues.
As they continued to mature, they found a common ground in their desire to help others. The 14 weeks Gary spent in the hospital before the transplant, gave them time to talk and share ideas. Their love and friendship grew to a new level. In Helaine’s words, “I will always be proud to be Gary’s sister and to have known him in this special way. Not only was he my brother, he was truly my friend.”
For me, Gary was more like a father than a brother, right into adulthood. When I was fifteen, our parent’s turbulent marriage ended in divorce, and in the chaos of those years, Gary and Helaine stepped in as surrogate parents. I became Gary’s project. He began what he saw as my intellectual training when I was thirteen, with a trip from Long Island to a Greenwich Village cafe to hear beat poetry and drink hot mulled cider. He introduced me to the New York subways and taught me the game of guessing the economic class and profession of the passengers by looking only at their shoes. He took me to art museums and expounded on the paintings; he shared his favorite books and introduced me to contemporary poetry. He was my mentor and my guide to a scary new world. He offered advice: Never give up; Be curious; Take risks, but avoid danger; Always answer a question with confidence; Find the humor; Speak your mind; Trust your instincts. He encouraged my involvement in dance and challenged me to question authority.
In the mid 70's, I thanked my teacher by challenging his authority. I called him a male chauvinist, and accused him of being patriarchal, overbearing and socially conservative. He just could never give up those button down shirts! He was hurt and defensive. I was angry and more radical-than-thou. I wanted to know I could make my way in the world without Gary interpreting it for me. On my 30th birthday, he wrote: “We came from the same seed and that binds us. But we’ll have to build new bonds if we are to grow.” And we did. In the years that followed, our relationship grew into a more equal one, based on mutual respect, trust and love. Now that I want it, I can’t really imagine what I will do without Gary’s wisdom and insight.
Despite Gary’s total devotion to his work, family was really at the center of his spirit. And he was rarely too far away from any of us. His connection to his kids was intense, maybe sometimes too intense for easy comfort, but filled with love. And Jeanne was his match right from the start. He loved his nieces and nephews on both sides of the family, keeping close track of their comings and goings -- always ready to offer advice and counsel to this new generation. He developed deep friendships with his brothers-in-law, Fred, Jack and Frank, as different a threesome as you’ll find. Gary brought Douglas’ mother, Jeannie Bellow, into our lives, and Douglas, Courtenay and David, who we love dearly. And he brought us Jeanne Charn, who will be our sister for the rest of our lives.
I’d like to end with a poem that Gary wrote for me on my 17th birthday. It resonates with his voice and his values. It is a message to his children, and our children, and all of the people who he loved.
TO MY SISTER ON BECOMING SEVENTEEN
You need not know of fear
I do not wish you fear
But not just yet --
And when enough hurts
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