The ‘Positive Emotional Footprint’ of My Father Mike
When my late father Mike came to these shores from Lithuania as a young man about a century ago, he was a penniless, uneducated immigrant. But when he died at age 91 he had left a meaningful imprint on this world, a Positive Emotional Footprint.
Considering the adversities he had endured, I often wondered how he came to be so benevolent, cultured and resilient, such a veritable “mensch.”
The world Mike entered as an infant was one of hardship and danger.
He was born into an impoverished Jewish family in 1911 in the rural village (shtetl) of Kamai, in Lithuania (like the Russian village “Anatevka’ in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof.”)
Kamai had a population of about a thousand people, two hundred of whom were Jewish. It was only 12 km. from Vilnius (Vilna), the cosmopolitan center and capital he could never visit (“extreme” distance and costs were prohibitive), but Mike imagined it as an alternate universe.
He was the second youngest of eight brothers and sisters who lived with their parents in a ramshackle clapboard house with a grass-thatched roof. It consisted of a small bedroom for his parents, a large family room for living, eating and sleeping, and an earthen floor covered with pieces of linoleum and old cloth.
There were old chairs and couches, a big table near the central potbellied stove used for cooking and heating, which depended on scrounging for wood in the nearby forest. There was no electricity or indoor plumbing, but a water pump and outhouse were outside. A small nearby barn housed chickens and an old horse and wagon.
(I am in uncomfortable awe that my life has been in such contrasting comfort.)
Mike’s early years were marked by abject poverty and bitterly cold winters, but these were more tolerable than the pervasive anti-Semitism which surrounded him. This included intermittent verbal and occasional physical harassment, but the worst were the yearly “pogroms,” assaults (looting, beating, vandalism, fires) perpetrated by Lithuanian and other louts during Passover/Easter season. The attackers believed they were avenging the so-called “blood libel,” the myth that Jews drank the blood of Christian children on Passover (an early “conspiracy theory”!).
These attacks worsened later when the invading Nazis and their nativist supporters killed many Jews there including Mike’s parents (my grandparents) and a younger brother (my uncle). The oldest brother and his family were sent to slave labor camps.
Jewish residents were by then desperately trying to escape Kamai and similar towns throughout Eastern Europe. A few of Mike’s older siblings had left via secret itineraries and he was intent on doing likewise.
He worked at multiple jobs in Kamai and on local farms, saved his earnings, and finally afforded his escape: A covert horse-drawn wagon ride to a port city (a rendition of the “underground railroad”), and then, a crowded ship’s steerage to America.
Mike arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia (Ellis Island was closed to Jewish immigrants at that time) at the age of 19 speaking only Lithuanian and Yiddish. He took a train to Montreal where he at first lived in a crowded flat with siblings in an area heavily populated with Jewish immigrants.
He experienced a few anti-Semitic incidents early on, but these were “nothing compared to Kamai,” he later said sardonically. He was not religious, having lost his belief in God in Kamai (the Holocaust only served to reinforce his atheism), but he was immensely proud of being Jewish.
He had a linguistically (and musically) sensitive “ear,” took ESL classes, conversed with others, and learned quickly to speak and read English and French. He also had facility with many manual trades (carpentry, electricity, bricklaying, plumbing, upholstery) at which he toiled for meagre under the table cash payments.
Mike soon met the comely “Bessie,” the proverbial ‘girl next door,’ the intellectual Socialist daughter of recent Latvian immigrants. They married and had three children of whom I was the oldest.
Over his lifetime, Mike had his share of pleasurable and heartening experiences (family, friends, traditions, culture, upholstery business). He said that his current life was yet another alternate universe to Kamai, but by then he was the epitome of gratitude and wonderment.
He was sentimental and would often say with eyes tearing up, “This was the best evening I ever had,” usually after a meal with extended family or friends. When reminded he’d uttered those same words a few days earlier, he would reply, “It’s true today, and it was true then!”
He was a benevolent soul, whose palpable bonhomie was genuine, ‘vintage’ Mike.
As is the case in all our lives, however, Mike also endured setbacks and disappointments: He made sacrifices on behalf of his family, his work hours were long and demanding, money was sparse, they had a severely autistic child, serious illnesses, marital difficulties, losses of intimates and a business bankruptcy, to mention a few.
What was always remarkable and moving to me, however, was that in spite of the challenges in his early life, Mike was such a warm, kind and generative man. He was the ‘go-to” person in the family or neighborhood if one needed a favor, something fixed or a helping hand.
Whenever I witnessed setbacks or tragedies that he experienced, I was moved by his inordinate resilience, his ability to muster his courage for the benefit of his family or coworkers. He would demonstrably rally his strength, reframe the situation into a salvageable perspective, and palpably work at rebounding from despair. (It was my dad’s resilience which inspired my research and books on that very subject.)
Given his early experiences, Mike could have become an embittered man, resentful of life’s unfairness. But he was the opposite of this: He was appreciative of the positives in his life and he was optimistic.
I still miss his warm presence and ‘feel his absence.’ I often picture my father with an engaging smile (“shmaychl”), whether he was listening to music or opera, fishing or mending a broken something, playing gin rummy or chess, sharing a meal or schnapps, or especially, just being with grandchildren, family or friends.
Mike loved people and was interested in their personal stories. They were in turn drawn to his warm demeanor, and his obvious concern and interest in them. He enjoyed conversations with friends and even strangers (who immediately “became friends.”)
He was a perfect example of ‘social contagion,’ imbuing others with his genuine warmth and bonhomie. Family and neighbors, friends and shopkeepers, coworkers and strangers – were taken with his inviting engagement. I can’t put it better than to say, “He made them smile.”
This unassuming “ordinary man” led an extraordinary life, filled with grace, humility, appreciation and love. He contributed to the general social atmosphere by the ‘ripple effects’ of his benevolence. People who walked away from an encounter with Mike felt uplifted, invariably smiled, and passed those positive emotions on to others.
When he died, Mike left few material acquisitions or wealth, but he did leave a remarkable legacy to his family, friends and community: Warm and comforting memories of a caring, loving and lovable human being who enhanced others. His very presence touched those around him, and reminiscences of him still bring pleasure to those who knew him. He made the world a better place by leaving a profound benevolent imprint on the world, a Positive Emotional Footprint.
You may know individuals like Mike, who ennoble our lives. Their lives, like everyone’s, are complex and challenging at times, pleasurable and fulfilling at others, yet they grace our world with their warm presence and essential humanity. If so, you are indeed fortunate.
Perhaps you yourself are such a worthy mensch. If so, you are a blessing to us, and I bow to you.