Saturday, October 08, 2005

George: 1944-2000

This should actually have been posted yesterday, since he passed on October 7. But this has been a thoroughly stupid week, with all kinds of stupid, pointless running around, and yesterday was no exception.

George and my husband were in high school together, and somehow, improbably, became friends. George was from Brooklyn; Jim is from Queens. (Each borough regards the other as a foreign country.) George's background was Polish; Jim's is German and Irish. George majored in physics in college; Jim majored in English. George loved art; Jim loves music. George was a Francophile; Jim is a Germanophile. They used to razz each other mercilessly about George's predilection for Impressionist art (Jim called it "fuzzy"), and Jim's sartorial gaffes (I still remember George telling Jim that his orange socks were "so autumnal, they'll start falling down any second"). George was an anti-war hippie; Jim served in the Air Force.

Improbably, the two became friends in high school, and the friendship lasted -- with all its jagged edges and hard places -- until the incredible phone call came from George's wife that he had died. They were out shopping when he said, "I feel a little strange." Then asked her to take him to the hospital. Then died in the car seat next to her. Turned out he had had a massive heart attack. Yet, just four months previously, he had had a thorough physical and been pronounced in excellent health.

We had last seen him and his wife just a year previously, at our daughter's wedding. We hadn't really expected them to come, and were so pleased that they did; we hadn't seen them for five years previously, though we had kept in touch all that time. When they left to go back home, they promised us the next time wouldn't be so long, that they'd be up on a fall foliage tour the following year. On our daughter's first anniversary, we were attending George's wake.

When he died, he had just retired from New York University and was teaching at a small community college in Queens. At his wake, all his students came to pay their respects, and I heard so many comments about what a truly excellent and caring teacher he had been; and that was new to me too -- I had always known George only as a research scientist. On the way to the cemetery, his wife told us about the trip they had taken to Poland to see George's grandparents' village, and how George had taught himself Polish so he could communicate with his relatives. My stepfather is Polish, and let me tell you -- that is a tough language to learn. But George managed it.

Typical for a Francophile and a scientist of Polish background, his relationship with God was ambiguous: he was an "A&P" Catholic ("ashes and palms"), but his music collection ran to several settings of Masses and Liturgies, many of them Orthodox. He probably subscribed to the "Timekeeper" theory of God, the God Who set everything in motion and then sat back to watch it all spin itself out. I don't think he ever disbelieved in God; I've never met a successful Polish atheist. I sometimes wonder how he's making out now, but there's one conversation I would love to have heard:

George once said to Jim that the Italian baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi had written the same concerto 400 times (there are 400 works ascribed to Vivaldi, and they do all sound as if they were written to a fixed formula). I'd love to know what George said to Vivaldi when he actually met him. ;-)