Dear Michael and Caroline,
I was always of two minds about my Uncle Leonard. On the one hand, he was a cool guy. Handsome, charming, successful, with cool cars, a cool French wife with red hair and a French accent, a cool house and a cool job. He could outsmart anyone, and probably had.
One time he came out with the most epigrammatic quip I had ever heard, delivered altogether spontaneously. In reference to our Uncle Morris, my grandmother’s oldest brother, who was rich enough to live on Fifth Avenue, but no doubt rich by dubious means, he said, “Morris, as a matter of principle, never does anything legitimately.”
Leonard could always cut right through the crap, cut right to the chase and, while at it, cut your heart out, too.
He played catch with me once on the front lawn of our house in Fair Lawn. I was probably nine or ten years old and already deeply in love with baseball and thrilled to be having a catch with a certifiable grownup because my father seldom if ever found the time.
Leonard threw the ball hard, smacking loudly into my glove, and my hand started to smart. I told him to throw softer because it hurt, but he kept throwing hard, maybe to teach me a lesson, to teach me life could be hard, life could hurt, you had to throw hard, live hard, too, so you better learn to catch a ball that came in fast.
He also told me something at my bar mitzvah party in 1965. My grandparents the Shefts funded the party at a place on Route 4 in Paramus called the Steak Pit, now a discount clothing outlet. Quite a shindig, with maybe 100 or 200 guests, a band, plenty of food and booze, the works. Family and friends came over to me bearing envelopes stuffed with either checks or cash or bonds. And Leonard saw me and came over to whisper in my ear, “Just so you know, nobody here really cares about you, Bobby – none of these people.”
I suspect he was drunk at the time, maybe even close to dead drunk. I hated him for saying that, it was pretty rude under the circumstances, especially with me only 13 years old and all, even downright mean, as if it bothered him to see me getting all the attention.
So now I’m going to give you the on-the-other-hand kind of stuff.
Leonard talked against his mother often, called her stupid and manipulative and ill-intentioned, and I resented that, too, disbelieving him. Why would he try to turn me against my own grandmother, who, as he knew full well, would do anything for me, and often would?
Again, to warn me, just as he had at my bar mitzvah. Warn me to watch out because little was ever as it seemed. The guests at my party had come to get dressed up, dance, eat, drink, pass out business cards, check out what people wore, compare cars and status – more so, no doubt, than to honor me. They pretended to be there for me, but really were just out for a good time.
My father once warned me about Leonard, my father who never badmouthed anyone. I forget the context of the conversation, but he told me something about how Leonard never really got along with anyone all too well. So it indeed seemed.
He got divorced.
He fell out with his son, Peter.
He squabbled constantly with his mother.
No doubt he worked his employees hard. Somehow, he must have had a hard time growing up.
My mother, his sister, is deaf, profoundly so, and that must have sucked up all of his parent’s attention. He grew up feeling neglected, a second-class citizen, passed over for his deaf sister, who could be temperamental in her own right.
Funny how life goes. Your views, or at least certain views, sometimes soften with time (while other views harden). You understand actions better, more sympathetically. Almost everything Uncle Leonard ever did with me that once seemed so wrong now feels just about right.