Remembering My Father, Jack Heisler (1924 - 2007)
On my Father's Yahrtzeit, I thought I would indulge myself by reprinting his eulogy.
As Flip Wilson would have said if he ever met Jack Heisler:
What You See Is What You Get
There is a story, I think, that defines my father’s view of his place in the world. It takes place while my parents were looking for a new house; I was 14 or so, and my sister was, well, 11 months older. The words non-conformity were very much on my sister’s and my lips in those days however little the meaning of it was in our actions. Yet very few of the homes in the suburbs of Buffalo, at least not those in my parents’ budget, had much about them that distinguished one from another. To our incessant complaining about the dull sameness of every house we looked at, my father finally replied. “If I really want to stand out from anybody else, I’ll put a neon sign on the roof.”
Given how he saw himself, I think my father would have not wanted a lot said about him today, though, after an eventful life of almost 83 years, brevity is the most difficult part. Particularly in that to tell the story of my father’s life, you really need to tell stories. Anyone who knew my father - and to know my father really, really well you only had to had to get to know him for about one minute or maybe just look into his open face – anyone who knew him would know that he was all about stories. I’ll leave most of the events to be retold elsewhere and I’ll try to share instead a few stories that really define Jack Heisler, at least to me.
My father didn’t need a lot to get him going on a story. The mention of the most inconsequential thing was enough to excite some memory. The blue sky overhead was exactly the same kind of blue sky that he was walking under that day in Budapest when he ran into his brother Bernie, on leave from the Army, who was searching for his lost siblings after the war, or so the story goes. His own son, Aaron, had just been born and though Bernie had yet to see him, he used his furlough to come to Eastern Europe and find his siblings. Having found them, he then moved heaven and earth (and bribed a few French officials) to bring them first to France and then to America. The best part of the story was when Dad would present his arm to show me the same goose bumps he had gotten on the day he saw Bernie that he would get every time he’d tell that story.
An oil lamp? You know that was all the light they had back in Bilke the day when his new cousin came to visit. She was already sleeping in the bed his brothers and sisters had vacated for this visiting family, the Sterns from Sighet, when he came home from Cheder but he could not wait until morning to see the cousin he had never seen before. His father took him quietly into the room and illuminated with the oil lamp the sleeping two year old that some eighteen years later a customs official, unable to make sense of her name, would change from Cillia to Sylvia.
Mud? Oh there was unbelievable mud that day in Auschwitz when he was forced to run in the mud and the freezing rain back to the barracks, slipping and crashing to the ground while the guards were screaming. He’d always tell how he fell to floor exhausted the minute he hit the front door of the Lager and how he just wanted to sleep right there caked in the wet mud, and how Eddie made him strip off the soaking clothes, helped him clean up and then found something, somehow to wrap him and keep him warm. In the morning his clothes were clean and dry enough to wear again for one more day to get through. “I would have never survived if it wasn’t for Eddie,” he said more than once. “It was Eddie who he kept me alive.”
Are you getting the picture here?
The story of my father stories, the stories of my father’s life was the story of the people in it, the beauty of the people in it, the extraordinariness of the people in it.
Skullcaps reminded him of his sister Leona who weaned him from his bitterness about being a Jew when he came to live with her after the war. He refused to wear a yarmulke and would snatch it from his head each time she placed in on there when they sat down to eat. How she would say nothing but gently try again each time he sat to eat. Eventually he said it was just easier to leave it there; eventually he was again a Jew.
Tfillin told the tale of his mother’s never feeding him breakfast until after she saw the marks on his arm that he had actually done what he was supposed to do. Though she apparently accepted speed reading the morning prayers, he managed to get it done in about two minutes most mornings, his sister Rose did not. She whispered to him, laughing, “I bet you wouldn’t like to fall on your nose for each letter you missed!”
Halloween made him remember the time he took my sister and I in our costumes to his sister Ethel’s house for trick or treat, and how, hiding outside, he sent us back again and again and again until Auntie Ethel finally realized something was up…weddings reminded him of the time Uncle David’s caterer at one of his daughter’s weddings tried to give him the bill. “Wrong brother,” he told him
And everything reminded him of the time he and mom, or He and Judy, or He and Adam, Ben, Cyndee, Joel, Ariel, Karen, me (or just about everybody he ever met) did, or said…whatever…
But the story you never heard from my father was what he did for others and the reason you never heard about it was the same reason my father never did put the neon sign on his roof. The true story of my father’s life was how he never really saw anything he did as extraordinary. The heroes were always others, the extraordinary ones were always others; ask my father to tell about something he did for someone else and he would be hard-pressed to come up with anything. He’d just tell you how lucky he had been all throughout his life, he’d tell you about his misrachstuts – his Godsends, like his parking places. Long before there were handicapped parking spaces, and long before my father needed one, my father would never park more than a few spaces away the entrance of whatever store he needed to go to.
“Park here, Dad, there’s a space!” It was maybe six spaces from the front. My father’s response was that if he wanted to walk he would have left the car at home, and sure enough, right down in front, there it was: his misrachshtut: a parking space right by the front door. Other misrachshtruts: his children Cyndee, Adam, Karen and me (there were no in-laws in my father’s world) and grandchildren, Joel, Ariel and Ben, of course, Judy and her family, especially Austin, and Brooke and Isaac. So many things were misrachshtuts to my father: everything was a blessing to him. If you knew Jack Heisler you knew that he thought the car starting was a misrachshtut. My mother especially was a misrachshtut. Jack Heisler adored Sylvia Stern, really from the moment he saw her in the buttery light of the oil lamp was she was all of two years old. But if you asked him, the key their happiness was all mom; fifty-plus years of wedded bliss but it was only because, all because of mom. Even if you asked him how he found the energy to keep going, to keep taking such extraordinarily compassionate care of my mother during the long years of her debilitating illness, it was only because she deserved it. He even told me that Mom took such incredible care of him for so long it was just his privilege to take care of her.
The Talmud defines the happy man as the man who is happy with that he has. I think they must have had my father in mind when they wrote this. He felt blessed by the ordinary, the everyday, whatever was on his plate. But my father genuinely never saw the relationship between his own nature and these blessings my father thought somehow just fell on him. But you really only had to meet my father to know that his humility was genuine and that the story of my father’s life was truly that he believed his easy going-ness, his simplicity, his capability for being loving and forgiving and his endless capacity for hope that made him the rare and special person he was, was just ordinary, the way everybody was. But my father I don’t think ever could see that because he was just too busy looking at what was so extraordinary in others to see what was so extraordinary about himself. And that is a story worth remembering about Jack Heisler.