Thursday, October 22, 2015

In Memory of Richard Matassarin

Atticus reminds me of your father from all the stories you’ve told me,” I told my mother as a teenager. I was referring, of course, to the lawyer in Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.   

“Who told you that?” my mother demanded suspiciously.

“No one.” I was amazed that she thought I couldn’t think for myself. “Why?”

“Your Uncle Richard told me the same thing,” she explained.

My uncle had not said anything like that to me but looking back it is easy to understand why he might have thought so. Like Atticus, my grandfather was a widower, and also like Atticus, he was in a serving profession as a highly respected, old-fashioned doctor in a small town. In this case it was Leavenworth, Kansas. The youngest of ten children my uncle was only three when his mother died. He was eleven when his father suffered a sudden heart attack. It would have been natural for him idolize his father just as Scout idolized hers.

My uncle, my mother, and one aunt were the only children still living at home when their father died. They were sent to live with their oldest brother in Little Rock, Arkansas. Later when World War Two ended Richard went to live with another brother in Wichita, Kansas. By the time he was in high school he’d had a number of male role models but he always remembered his father.

He married his high school sweetheart, my Aunt Nancy, and was sent overseas to serve in the Korean War. His daughter, Diane, was born while he was still there and seventeen days later I made my entry into the world. There’s a letter from him to my mother in my baby book. Not only does it express good wishes and mazel tov but my uncle also penned his hope that their two daughter would have a close relationship. Although I spent lots and lots of time in his house, Di and I fought like the proverbial dog and cat. Now, though, she is one of my cousins with whom I have the most contact.

My aunt and uncle had two more daughters and their house was lively, one of the reasons I spent so much time there. I will never forget when I was snowed in at their home for two days during a blizzard. Uncle Richard had been driving us back from Sunday morning religious school and the snow became so thick he could no longer drive the extra three blocks to my house.

It wasn’t just Uncle Richard and my mother who lived in Wichita, but also another aunt and two uncles. We were a close-knit family and my many cousins kept me from feeling too sorry for myself that I was an only child. My mother’s family, second-generation American*, was quite a contrast to my father’s side who were all German refugees. It was interesting to me the variety of attitudes to Judaism among the nine Matassarin siblings.** Some of them looked at it as an accident of birth while others took it as a core of their being. My uncle was among the latter group. The Reform Temple in Wichita was the center of his life. Highly principled he spent years teaching Jewish ethics to young teenagers in religious school.

He challenged us to explain why Isaac was considered a righteous person if he stole his brother’s birthright. I don’t remember his explanation but I do remember he made us think. It was my Uncle Richard who introduced me to the play The Deputy. When I first started becoming observant he again challenged me by asking how a women’s libber could embrace Orthodox Judaism. I think I replied that I’d never been a real women’s libber but his question made me carefully examine my new commitments.   

At the same time we were preparing our move to Israel my Uncle Richard and Aunt Nancy were planning a move of their own. They relocated to Hawaii and that meant I didn’t see them on my yearly visits to my parents. Our only contact was the phone calls they’d make when I was in Wichita. If there was one word to describe their attitude to my life on what’s called by the press The West Bank, it was supportive. I cherished that support.

After a number of years in tropical paradise they moved back to the mainland and were joined by their daughters, their spouses, and the grandchildren in California. Internet made its advent and I was able to connect to my aunt and uncle by emails. With my uncle’s Jewish pride it was not surprising that Di’s son became as observant as I was, although he opted to stay in California. When, five years ago, he met the woman who would become his wife I knew the time had come.

I wanted to see my aunt and uncle. We made plans to go to the wedding. My cousin, Di, warned me that Uncle Richard was not in good shape. The cigarettes that he’d smoked for years had done their damage. She was praying that he’d be able to make it to the wedding.  I was praying that after so many years I’d be able to see him.

It was a shock to find my tall, thin uncle stooped in a wheelchair, bloated and on oxygen. Yet, the love he had for me was still there and I basked in his company.
He lived for another five years and merited having a great-grandson and seeing a granddaughter married. When he died, on the first Shabbat of this year, all his immediate family was close by.

I, of course, was far away, across the ocean. With his death part of my childhood is gone forever, but I have my memories. I remember my Uncle Richard as a man of principles. I’m sure his father would have been proud of him.

Uncle Richard, on the right, holding the chupah*** at my wedding 

*Their father had been born in Romania, made his way to France, and then England where he met and married their mother. The three oldest were born in England but were too young to remember any of their life there.

**The oldest sister died on her nineteenth birthday before the younger children were even born. 
***wedding canopy

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