Sunday, November 18, 2018

What Price Nostalgia?

I'm pretty sure my now-classic Omega Seamaster watch was a college graduation gift. It must have been my Aunt Bea (actually my maternal great-aunt) who gave it to me. She gave me mother of pearl cuff links for use with a tuxedo when I graduated from high school and was set to go to Harvard. She had a taste for the finer things, and a taste for formality. It's kind of funny to think of what she thought would happen at college, vs. reality. For her, Harvard equaled formal social events. My paternal grandmother, another Eastern European immigrant, was overwhelmed when she heard my next door neighbor in the dorm was named Sam Saltonstall. “Stay close to him,” was her advice. She didn't know that Sam's main passion was his trumpet, and I think the famous surname weighed on him. My God, they must have thought, from immigrant to Harvard in two generations. What a country! I don't think they knew I was there to work, hard. But what the hell.

Aunt Bea was the eldest of the five Chertak sisters, “Litvaks” my father claimed, an industrious group full of hopes, I imagine. Bea had become a Philadelphia socialite. Mysteriously to me, she would arrive at our house in her Buick driven by a uniformed chauffeur from her luxurious house (at least luxurious to me) on the Main Line. But grand and blond as her entrance might have been, what arrived to the four of us kids was the warmth she exuded from her corpulent body and outstretched arms. With no children of her own, we were as close as she was going to get. How she had arrived at her chauffeur-driven status we couldn't guess, nor how she had become a socialite, which had included her membership on the board of the Robin Hood Dell, the outside summer setting for the Philadelphia Orchestra. Later on she moved into town at the Rittenhouse Plaza with her likewise childless sister Sadye. We visited them often; they noted affectionately how we liked to eat the nuts which they had on a silver platter on a coffee table, beside a slim silver bowl with a few cigarettes. As an awkward teenager with a photography hobby, I took pictures of Sadye's late in life second wedding at their apartment. I developed them and enlarged them myself, and some of those pictures were on constant private display under the thick glass table tops of their bedroom bureaus. They were still there when Sadye died and all the grandnephews and nieces reviewed the remaining contents of their lives.

My father complained that other husbands only had one mother in law but he had five – our holiday dinners included my grandmothers, Sadye and Bea, sometimes Dorothy and Bill from New York, and sometimes others. A big crowd in a small suburban development home. My Dad resented how many relatives there were on his wife's side – I don't think he thought that they sufficiently respected his rightful status as king, or maybe he just felt like an outsider with only his mother representing his side – and he seemed to resent especially Bea's pretensions, but we loved her warmth. We loved the family playing 21 (Blackjack) after the table had been cleared, with the kids “helping,” and Uncle Bill going “bank-o!” with his bet, and everyone saying “Oohhhh!” at his wild sally. When I was in high school we had a nickname for Bea, I think initiated by my friend Ed Packel - “Wide Zorch.” Even though it was mildly derisive, she loved it. When she would arrive at our house, she would say, “What is it you call me?” We would giggle, “Wide Zorch!” She would say with her widest smile, “I'll Zorch you!” I can't help smile with tears in my eyes, verily as I write this. Aunt Bea, what a character.

Aunt Sadye would reminisce about the 1920's. “They were wonderful,” and she'd shake her head a little at past enchantments. It might have been something like our 1970's. In the 20's Bea and Sadye would spend summers together in Paris every year. I have a couple of menus, one inscribed to Bea from “The Major,” whoever he was. I framed it and put it on our wall. Bea's French pretty much stopped with “Comment รงa va,” I think. But when she said it, it was with brio. The memories.

We never heard that much about their history, at least I didn't, but I heard some from my sisters, who probably heard it from my mother in girl-to-girl talk. Turns out that Bea had gone to work as the secretary of the owner of a big Philadelphia department store, House of Wenger. Before you knew it, Mrs. Wenger was out and Bea was in. At least that's the way I heard it. Or maybe he was never married, but I think he was. In any event, that explained the money, which in turn explained the social standing. He was older and gone well before I arrived, but Bea was very much there until I was in medical school. The last I saw of her was when I came to see her in the hospital and all I saw was her going to some test on a gurney, and she looked my way and said, “Buddy!” with hope and connection to her world of love, and then off she went. Like the last time I saw my Dad in his hospital bed on a Friday night as I flew into Philadelphia from San Francisco, and his “girlfriend” at his bedside said, “Buddy's here!” and I showed him a short video clip of The Producers, his favorite show, on a portable video players, and he smiled and pointed at it – another cherished memory of laughing – and in the morning I got a call that he was gone. What are you going to do?

I think it was Aunt Bea who gave me my Omega Seamaster watch when I graduated from college. Probably. My father marveled at it, I think. He told me how special it was. It was almost like it was a present to both of us. I'm wondering if he could have given it to me, but that's not the way he rolled, and proud as proud could be of me, his gifts were more utilitarian. I owed nothing for four years of college and four years of medical school, there was never any question. I took it with gratitude, but he never asked me for that. All I had to do was to do my best, which I did, and the bargain was complete.

I wore that Seamaster for years, I replaced the strap a couple of times and finally came up with a Speidel expandable band, but then other watches came, the Seamaster lost its crown at some point, and I kept it in the top drawer of my Nakashima dresser for decades. A few years before he died at age 92 when I visited my father in Philadelphia, he pulled out his new watch to show me. It was one of the first digitals. He said, “I finally got the watch that does everything I want it to do! Here it is. And I got it for free from my dry cleaner!” I guess it was a Casio, but it could have been a Timex. Date and time, and probably even a stopwatch, all powered by a little battery.

It's true, I'm my father's son in so many ways. For years now my watch has been a Casio. The latest version is a Casio W-201, $15.68 from Walmart. It did everything I ever needed; what could be better as I went from exam room to exam room? Indestructible; let my patients pee or poop on it, I don't care! The band wears out before the battery dies, amortized at what, $1.75 a year? Comfortable, waterproof, you don't have to move it on your wrist to activate a self-winding feature.

Of course, practicality isn't everything, is it? The Seamaster is just what my admiring father said it was, a classic. In these days of watches as jewelry, even though I eschew jewelry for myself, there it is, I have it. It wouldn't be wrong to wear it for, I guess, occasions, or even every day if I wanted. And its a twofer. I look at it and I remember, not only Bea and the family, but my place in it, her love, my Dad's love, the original family, their pride, their foibles. And the jewelry part is just a throw in, although I can point to it with pride.

No need to choose. It cost me $750 to clean up the Seamaster, add a new crown, and add a nice leather strap. Estimated value of this classic, $1,250. Estimated value of the superior functioned Casio, $15.68 minus two years of depreciation. I'm wearing them both. At different times.

In the end now, at least for the present, it appears that I prefer the Seamaster. Not for the luxury, that wouldn't be Shenkinesque. For the memory, for the feeling. I like it. Works for me. The memories. The mysteries that were never explained.

I wonder who this guy The Major was?

Budd Shenkin

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