Sunday, July 13, 2014

"Smiling Within" (on Jerry Fox)

smiling within (on Jerry Fox)
Whenever I think of Jerry Fox, my husband Howard’s father, I think of his beaming smile cast from the long dining table over an entire gathering of celebrants. That generous smile seemed to be a giving force, proffered individually to each of his guests; but it was also a smile that came about because of Jerry’s inner content and joy in his friends’ and family members’ presence. It was a quiet smile that one didn’t want to interrupt—yet was always interrupted by the numerous conversations going on simultaneously around him. It wasn’t that Jerry was speechless; for much of each meal he engaged each individual sitting around that table—whether it be one of the family or an invited acquaintance who just happened be in the house at the moment Howard’s mother, Rose, was finishing her preparations—in personal conversation. Jerry was a kind of trickster, a sophisticated jokester and storyteller who could somehow make any story he told relate to the people to whom he was telling it.

     “Fox,” he might begin—the name with which addressed his son—“did I ever tell you about my Uncle Jake?” His Uncle Jake might never actually appear in that tale, but the events surrounding that mythical figure might certainly have something to do with an emotional response to his son. “It just goes to show,” he might end his tale with the traditional conclusion of a Jewish joke, “You can’t have it all: a life and a wife. Yet I have both! What did I do to deserve it?” he might add, insinuating that the windfall was not always what it seemed to be. Rose, herself a masterful humorist, would surely put in her digs. But behind it all was still the gesture of love. Despite their artful argumentation and their occasional “torture” of one another, Jerry and Rose were very much in love.
       Howard and I so enjoyed their company that on many, many weekends we drove the hour and a half drive from the suburbs of Washington, D.C. to the Pikesville section of Baltimore to stay the weekend. Not only was it fun being around his parents—whom I felt were equally my parents, I their adopted son—but you never knew who might drop in for a visit.
     Since Jerry had left the costume jewelry business which had allowed him to retire, he had become a craftsman, after studying jewelry design and metal craft at the Maryland Institute College of Art. In the mid-1960s, his occupational shift coincided with the burgeoning of the American Craft Movement, and Jerry and Rose (who was known to her friends as Sandy) found themselves at the center of its development, attending the earliest craft fairs at Mt. Stowe in Vermont—where the craftspeople sold their wares directly out of their cars—and later venues, before the increasing gathering of craftsmen eventually settled into the Poughkeepsie, New York,   Duchess County Fairgrounds. Having built a studio attached to their house, the Foxes would, accordingly, receive guests interested in purchasing the cleverly designed, inexpensive gold-plated earrings, the colorful epoxy constructed Baltimore row houses sometimes imitating real houses and customer homes, and the patchwork metal boxes, cubes, and doors Jerry produced.
      Later Howard and I would also design and solder earrings during summers and take them with Jerry’s other creations to craft fairs at colleges and city parks up and down the Atlantic coast, earning enough money on those trips to help supplement our small university stipends as teaching assistants.
      In those early days, accordingly, the house might be full of wandering art lovers, family friends, or fellow artists—some of the latter of whom Jerry helped to support. What with the work created by Jerry and Rose as well the many craft and visual art works the couple had purchased, the house was stuffed with an effervescent panoply of artifacts—a few of which might even be described as good works of art.
      Often for these celebratory events Rose would cook up her famous tacos—long before it became a popular meal in the American diet—having flown in tortillas from New Mexico through Jerry’s sister Gladys and her husband, in return for Chesapeake Bay crabs. No one could, and now few would dare to, cook tacos as good as Rose’s. She fried her own tortillas that still dripped with oil, and made her own special fillings that balanced the taste of real, slightly greasy beef topped with fresh lettuce, tomatoes, onions and a pile of shredded cheddar cheese. We noticed that when any of their guests smelled the taco meat upon the stove, they stayed as late as they might in order to nab a special invitation to join in the feast. Our living room displays a ceramic taco, created by an artist friend in fond memory of Rose, from which a bite (presumably Jerry’s) is missing.
      The family crab feasts were, for my taste, even more special. When the newspapers were spread across the large dinner table (a table which now sits without its many “leaves,” in our dining room) I got absolutely giddy. The delivered crabs were spread upon the center of the table. Fresh locally grown corn suddenly appeared out of nowhere, along with brightly red tomatoes and the necessary tools of the trade: sharp knives and mallets. Those evenings served up some of the best meals of my life.
     And then, as always, the smile exploded across Jerry’s face.
     With very close friends, such as their life-time cronies Joe and Flossie, whom they had met decades before in Atlantic City (Flossie had designed the display window in the Foxes’ Atlantic City jewelry shop), Jerry might even light up a few marijuana joints—skillfully rolled by Rose—forcing the drug-denying Howard to suffer some little discomfort. Jerry, Rose, Joe and Flossie had clearly been somewhat ahead of their time (or, perhaps, very much of it), wearing black sweaters, while consuming martinis and listening to jazz throughout the 1950s. Howard recalls that he used to feel embarrassed about his parents, who behaved like none of his friend’s upright, tee totaling, often religiously observant folks. Jerry had long ago rejected all religious edification. When Howard, once seeking a Bible in their home for a quote in a paper he was about to write, exasperatedly exploded, “You don’t even have a Bible in this house!” Jerry quipped. “God forbid!”
      In short, Jerry was no saint. I recall once, upon our weekend arrival, Rose sat alone on the couch in tears. Jerry had left her, now for a couple of days. We all suspected the worst, that he had temporarily run off with one of the single young women who sometimes insinuated themselves into our events. When we questioned Rose about what had happened, however, a slightly different story began to emerge. Jerry loved the large lilac bush at the end of his driveway. Apparently, Rose had gone out one morning to cut back the lilacs, which had bloomed now for several days. “You need to do that so that they will bloom again next year,” she sagely proclaimed. Rose was a sage. “But he got angry that I had trimmed them away, and stormed off! He’ll come back when he comes back,” she angrily closed the matter. Later that day, Jerry returned.
       We suspected that the end of the flowers had meant something very personal for the aging artist. Jerry was always afraid of death—not the actual fact of dying, but the process of it. Having grown up in Brooklyn in a poor Eastern European immigrant family during the Depression, Jerry had had to abandon his education and go to work early in his youth. During her later years, Jerry cared for his mother. But the Depression had left him with deep fears, a seeming distrust of what the future might bring, particularly when it came to the last years of his own life. “Who will care for me?” he often asked.
     In fact, when Jerry was diagnosed with the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, Howard’s sister Barbara brought him home from Miami to her own house, where he lived for many years with her and husband Dale before she placed him in a nearby assisted living group home, visiting him there several days every week. During these many years, Howard called his father every Sunday, and despite his father’s condition, he would immediately recognize his son as well as asking how I was. He might have forgotten that we now lived (for nearly 30 years) in Los Angeles, he might even forget that he had even spoken to Howard a few minutes after the event, but he always recalled the old days with great pleasure. If he didn’t talk much in these rather one-sided conversations, in our imaginations we saw him beneficently smiling. He enjoyed his life, he reported, in the elderly home. At one point he even had what some described as a “girlfriend.” He needn’t have feared for his old age.
     Born on July 24, 1916, Jerry lived on for nearly a century. For some time he had been saying to Barbara that he was ready to die. At the age of 97, on May 28 of this year, with Barbara and his granddaughter Stephanie by his side, Jerry looked directly into their faces before, as Howard’s sister describes it, a single tear fell from both of his eyes before he closed them to die. She didn’t describe the rest of his face, but I’m certain if he wasn’t smiling outwardly, he was smiling within.
Los Angeles, June 29, 2014

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