A Change of Scenery

Plans change.

Long before COVID-19, Leah and I arranged a summer Airstream adventure that would start with a month at the Jersey shore–where we could spend quality time with friends and family. We were also looking forward to participating in granddaughter Lucy’s Bat Mitzvah ceremony which was three years in the making.

Kathel Matt Lucy sign

Thereafter, stops at the Cape and Portsmouth would precede a visit to Acadia National Park before crossing over to Canada to pub crawl along George Street in St. John’s, whale watch at Cape Breton, feast on PEI mussels, and stroll through Old Quebec before returning stateside.

It promised to be a rewarding road trip, worthy of miles of picturesque scenery and memories. However, the pandemic had other plans for us. For one, Canada had closed its border to us. And secondly, Northern New Jersey was adjusting to its epicenter outbreak.

It appeared that we were doomed to succumb to another of Florida’s steamy summers–unless we could tailor a brief, albeit cautious round trip to attend Lucy’s Bat Mitzvah. Of course, hauling our bedroom-kitchen-bathroom capsule would be a decided travel advantage, knowing we were insulated from motel maladies, risky restaurants, and nasty public restrooms on our way North.

So we sketched out a new plan, and off we went.

Ordinarily, to avoid RV resort and campground fees during overnight transitions, Leah and I would scout the area for Wal-Marts, since Wal-Mart has a long-standing tradition of allowing RVs and travel trailors to boondock in remote sections of their parking lot. But after driving 7 hours through stormy weather, we settled behind a quiet Cracker Barrel in Wilson, NC where drag racing and doughnuts were less likely to occur.

Cracker Barrel

Another 8 hours of driving the following day brought us to Lucy’s house, where a deep driveway in the front provided a perfect spot for suburban camping,

driveway Airstream

and the tent in the backyard provided the perfect cover for Lucy’s weekend ceremony.

backyard

Attending this Bat Mitzvah seemed like a miracle, considering the circumstances, although Lucy could never have imagined that her special day would become a rain-or-shine, mask-wearing, socially-distanced ceremony staged in her backyard.

Leah Jimmy Kathel

Lucy’s decision to become a Bat Mitzvah took many of us by surprise, because her dad, Matt was a lapsed Catholic who traditionally participated in holiday decorations and gift-giving, while Danielle, her mom was a non-practicing Jew who balanced Christmas with 8 nights of Hanukkah celebrations, which was always rewarding for Lucy.

Nevertheless, Lucy came by her decision independently, and was fully supported by both parents. Despite being Jewish by default (Judaism follows matrilineal descent), Lucy followed her curiosity, and with her tutor, Galia’s help, she slowly began to identify with Jewish history and culture, while looking for purpose in its doctrine.

After a year of discovering the Old Testament and learning the meaning of many age-old traditions, Lucy decided she wanted to become a Bat Mitzvah–to celebrate her coming of age and her beginning of life as a fully participating Jewish adult.

To that end, Danielle secured Cantor Barbra on Galia’s recommendation,

cantor

who home-schooled Lucy in Hebrew reading, challenged her to read from the Torah, and counseled her in conceiving a meaningful mitzvah project. It was a two-year task that Lucy embraced, along with her school work and dancing and gymnastics and music lessons and play dates with friends.

After brain-storming and soul-searching, and empathizing with the plight of immigrant children separated from their parents at the Mexican border, Lucy elected to stage a fundraising benefit for ASTEP Forward (Artists Striving to End Poverty).

She coordinated an evening of music and dance at Fairlawn Community Center, and recruited notable talent (including James Brennan, acclaimed Broadway actor, choreographer, director and grandfather) to fill the bill, ultimately raising $3500 in ticket sales and merchandise for the organization that delivers performing arts workshopss to underserved communities across metropolitan New York.

She also managed to perform a song and dance duet that featured Bumps (Grandpa Jimmy).



Two months later, Lucy was standing before us on her special day–her Bat Mizvah preparation now complete.

Lucy bimah

Lucy’s parents, Matt and Danielle had spaced 6 ft diameter tables under the canopy for appropriate distancing between guests,

tent service

while an internet audience joined us via Zoom.

self portrait

A small selection of family members managed to assemble from Vermont, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida.

family1 (3)

Lucy’s closest friends were also on hand.

Lucyfriends

For the following hour, prayers were chanted;

Lucy points and cantor

rituals were observed;

Sarah torah

speeches were made;

speech

wine was sipped;

Lucy sipping wine

bread was broken;

motze

and Lucy’s Bat Mitzvah status was eventually conferred.

certificate

After an afternoon of spiritual enlightenment, it was party time!

lucy cutting cake (2)

Congratulations, Lucy on all of your hard work, and your accomplishment on becoming a responsible young woman.

Lucy w torah and parents

 

Saying Goodbye

I lost my father on Friday and I buried him yesterday.

For the past three years, I’ve periodically chronicled his decline (L’Chaim, Swimming Upstream, The Gift), while celebrating his defiance toward the dementia that was slowly robbing him of his vitality. At the time, it became clear to me that he was not going without a fight, which was also emblematic of his life as a self-made man.

His death was not COVID-19 related, as the final weeks of his life were spent in lockdown at a “clean” memory care facility located in West Palm Beach. But because of the lockdown, it was impossible to visit him for the past month in order to protect all the vulnerable residents from a scourge that was infecting nursing homes across the country.

When the hospice chaplain Face Timed on Thursday to say that Dad’s time was near, the staff relaxed their policy–allowing Leah and me a last chance to say goodbye in person. We settled on Saturday, since it would take a day to make the necessary arrangements for clearance at the gate.

But Dad had other plans. The call came Friday morning at 7 am.

Like so many around the world, I mourned the death of a loved one, and cursed the sky that I couldn’t be there to comfort him in the end.

I felt a deep sadness for my sister, Debbie sheltering in her Vermont farmhouse, for she would have no connection to his funeral service and burial in Florida and be able to express her grief.

During the 3-plus hour ride to Sarasota, Leah and I scrambled to assemble an ad hoc ZOOM conference that the funeral home was willing to facilitate. It would be their first. We cobbled together a few dozen email addresses from our contacts, and stitched a virtual mourning quilt of family and friends who might share my father’s memorial.

Leah and I gathered at Temple Beth Sholom Cemetary with my sister Marilyn, and brother Ron (Florida residents), and were joined by an assigned rabbi to officiate the service. The graveside lecturn, usually reserved for the officiant, was now the iPad anchor for the thirty-or so members of our newly minted guest list.

Rabbi Simon began with a blessing, and soon it was my time to sing his praises…

This occasion is awkward. I’m standing here at Dad’s gravesite, while struggling to say goodbye to him in the presence of only a handful of people.

And it’s unfair, because COVID-19 has robbed us of physically sharing our grief and reflections of a life well-lived, rather than celebrating in a manner that is more deserving of Dad’s stature.

Under different circumstances, there would be a full circle of friends and family standing elbow to elbow around this plot to pay final respects, and to honor his accomplishments and his love of life.

But, unfortunately, that is not the case today. Instead, we must consider a deadly pandemic at our doorstep that attacks our strength and soul as a nation and threatens to steal our loved ones before their time.

On the other hand, I am grateful that technology has given us the means to broadcast this message around the world via ZOOM, so that many of you at this moment can appreciate my father the way I did. While it’s not perfect, it’s the best we can do under the present circumstances.

Ideally, I’d prefer having Dad standing beside me while I deliver his eulogy.

If only for a shining moment—if I could—I would magically correct his eyesight and hearing, and return his once-keen memory to him, so he can realize and appreciate all that he achieved in life, and he could see all the lives that he touched with his kindness—both here and in the cyberworld.

He would be a complete person once again, instead of retreating to an insular world of darkness and confusion, where only those suffering from Alzheimer’s can truly understand, yet never have capacity to express.

Nevertheless, I hold onto the belief that these words bring him comfort, and he can finally rejoice in the light of loved ones who have left this world before him.

There’s an alphabet of adjectives I could use to describe my late father, as he was my mentor, my ally, and my role model.

But when I consider all 95 years collectively, there is one word—as it relates to me, the family nucleus, and all the people in close and distant orbits—that stands the test of Dad’s time on earth.

My father was DEVOTED…

Almost everything took a backseat to his family. Family was his anchor and his lifeline:

Dad was a devoted son to Lena and Joseph—two immigrants from Eastern Europe, who like so many, came to America with nothing more than a dream–to escape religious persecution and find a way to provide a certain future for their children. Dad would later put up the money for his parent’s corner house on N. St. Claire St. in Pittsburgh’s East End.

sailor portrait

Dad was a devoted brother to his oldest sister, Ann and his youngest sister, Sylvia. But his deepest devotion was reserved for his older brother Morrie (by only 2 minutes), who was his best friend until he passed away in February, 2012—which coincidentally, or not, was the first time I noticed any convincing symptoms of dementia exhibited by Dad.

Dad was a devoted uncle to 7 nephews and 4 nieces—always willing to celebrate their birthdays, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and weddings. And he was always willing to offer his counsel, regardless of time.

My father was also a fiercely devoted husband to my mother, Bertel. Throughout their 58 years together, they built an enduring and nurturing marriage founded on trust, reliance, and love. They took good care of their family and each other until the end. When the last 2 years of Mom’s life became especially challenging—as she battled yet another cancer that would eventually ravage her—my father nursed her around the clock with grace, always giving more of himself than what seemed humanly possible.

wedding portrait

Dad and Mom had 2 sons: Ron and me; and 2 daughters: Marilyn and Debbie–within a 12-year span. Growing up, it was often a helter-skelter household with strong personalities always competing for attention. All too often, Mom would invoke the all-too-familiar “Wait till your father gets home” warning, but after a time, I realized that Dad’s bark was worse than his bite. Typically, our home was filled with books, music, kitchen aromas, and prayer.

The 80’s and 90’s were productive years for my family, which eventually made Dad a devoted and doting grandfather. He enjoyed time spent with my boys, Noah and Nathan, and Debbie’s girls, Rachel, Zoe and Ava. Decades later, after Dad’s diagnosis and subsequent commitment to a long-term healthcare facility, Ron would add Benyamin and Baela to the mix.

Dad’s grandchildren were always his principle source of pride and joy, providing him with limitless nachas and so many opportunities for gifts and giving.

Three years ago, despite deep-seated dementia, Dad rallied and flew from West Palm to New York to attend Zoe’s wedding to David. It was a Herculean effort with all hands-on-deck, but I don’t think I’d ever seen him happier and prouder while bearing witness to a third-generation family marriage.

A year later, Zoe and David presented Dad with Ari, making him a great grandfather for the first time.

But my father’s devotion extended beyond family.

He was also devoted to his country. At 19, Dad enlisted to do his part in World War 2. He was inducted into the Navy on May 8, 1943, serving aboard the USS Chester. He was later transferred to aircraft carrier, USS Antietam and deployed to the Pacific warzone. Dad rose to the rank of Petty Officer, 2nd class before his honorable discharge 3 years later.

When Dad returned from the war, he entered the wholesale plywood business, and quickly learned what he could from family and competitors. After a series of sales jobs in the industry, Dad established Steel City Lumber Company in 1956, and rode an opportunistic wave of building and remodeling around Pittsburgh’s vicinity and northern Ohio.

He was devoted to his customers, offering a superior product at a fair price by reinventing the DIY shopping experience. He eliminated the behind-the-counter model of dusty hardware shelves and open lumber sheds and replaced them with airy warehouses, where shoppers could now walk shopping carts through wide aisles and select merchandise from open bays–bringing a more user-friendly concept to the attention of Home Depot. 

He was devoted to his business partners, inviting his brothers-in-law along to share in his success. He was also devoted to his suppliers, establishing extended relationships beyond the workplace. But most importantly, he was devoted to his employees, retaining many of them until he sold the business 23 years later.

Dad and Mom resettled in Long Boat Key during 1979. Rather than retire at 55, Dad embarked on a failed life of golf and sailing, and a prosperous second career in commercial and residential property investments, where his devotion now extended to his tenants.

Lastly, Dad was a pious man. He was deeply devoted to the tenets of Judaism and tzedakah, and eagerly devoted his time as Men’s Club president at Pittsburgh’s Temple B’nai Israel and Sarasota’s Temple Beth Shalom, where he was also an active board member for Israel Bonds.

Even as a resident of MorseLife Memory Center for the past 4 years, Dad was a constant presence at Sabbath services and High Holiday services until he was no longer able.

After Dad weakened so, and became bedbound during the last weeks of his life, Leah and I would periodically video chat with hospice assistance. Music became his true salvation, so we would always conduct a virtual sing along when connected.

I fondly remember Dad joining in, giving us the best of what he had left, indiscriminately shouting “YEAH, YEAH, YEAH” as we serenaded him. And that gave me an idea. If I tweaked the words just a bit, I could get Dad to participate in a Beatles classic:

Hence, we’d sing, “We love you…” and he would magically respond on cue with, “YEAH, YEAH, YEAH!”

last pic with Dad

Regular visits by Lisa, the hospice music therapist would often be effective in bringing Dad added comfort and solace. She would always close her visits with a rendition of Oseh Shalom. Even in Dad’s darkest hours, I could see him come alive for a shining moment, as I would watch his lips form silent words.

Dad, I love you. I miss you. And I will always carry your memory with me.

I‘d like to believe that Dad can still hear us, so I’d like to close my remarks with Oseh Shalom performed in unison…

Oseh shalom bimromav
Hu ha’aseh shalom aleinu
V’al kol Yisrael
V’imru: Amen

May the one who creates peace on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel. And we say: Amen.

graveside (3)

It was eerie hearing a detached  cacophony of unsychronized voices on the iPad–from across the country and from far away places like Israel, England and Belgium–yet for all the misgivings of being alone together, it was a textbook example of making the best out of a bad situation.

Sadly, there can be no traditional Jewish period of mourning, where people assemble for seven days to say Kaddish for the dearly departed. The pandemic will not allow for it. Instead, we will individually summon the voices in our heads, and offer a silent chorus of blessings.

Rest in peace, Dad.

Cruising for a Bruising

When Leah and I embarked on our Norwegian adventure aboard the Viking Star,

Viking Daily

we were unaware that COVID-19 was invading the decks of Diamond Princess while she cruised from Hong Kong to Japan–inevitably turning her into a floating Petri dish of suffering for its 3711 passengers and crew.

There was no mention of Diamond Princess peril during our maritime emergency drill–but an advisory letter was delivered to our stateroom that evening.

Covid-19 letter

When the general alarm sounded, all 450 crew members reported to their assigned muster stations,

crew on drill

while 920 passengers assembled inside the Star Theater to learn how to prepare for an emergency evacuation.

crew on drill1 (2)

After instruction, the crew went about their business, and passengers scattered throughout the ship to enjoy themselves, unconcerned with what was brewing in Asia. Afterall, this was our home to share for the next two weeks.

The Viking Star never felt too crowded or too busy. The spacious Living Room had plenty of comfortable seating for small talk and table games.

puzzle

As a whole, people took their time getting from point A to point B. Many strolled with canes–others with walkers. It made Leah and I feel so much younger than the seventy-somethings attracted to Viking’s vision of casual luxury.

During the course of our cruise, we always gravitated to the 3-deck Atrium at mid-ship,

atrium staircase (2)

where people gathered for conversation and daily music performances. While more than 20 different nationalities were represented onboard, nearly half the ship was American, with large blocks of Brits, Aussies, and Brazilians filling out the count.

piano atrium

When it came to dining, we had a variety of options that came with a couple of rules. The dinner dress code required shoes for all and collared shirts for men. Additionally, use of sanitizer stations or hand sinks at all dining room entrances and exits was expected before seating.

We enjoyed sampling the fish and meats at The Restaurant, located aft on deck 2. It is the Viking Star’s largest menu-driven dining room,

Chef's Table

delivering breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Manfredi's

But for intimate dining, we found Manfredi’s–directly below on deck 1–to be as good a classic Italian eatery as any on sea or land, and without a surcharge to boot. Naturally, early dinner reservations were coveted and prioritized by cabin category, but late-evening seatings became an acceptable compromise for us.

The Restaurant (2)

Next door was Chef’s Table, a small dining room that focused on delivering five fixed courses prepared from locally-sourced ingredients, and paired with selected wines. The course selection changed every few days to showcase a different world cuisine, and was included without surcharge, but by reservation-only.

world cafe

The World Cafe, located aft on deck 7 was Viking Star’s buffet option, and most popular breakfast venue for a wide range of appetites.

buffet line

However, Leah and I have always been wary of buffet lines, which are commonly compromised by passengers who inevitably return for second and third helpings. They unwittingly grab the serving tongs without considering that they may have licked their fingers earlier. Eww!

Bringing our personal hand sanizer to the table always provided a thin veil of protection.

An inspection of The Spa on deck 1 seemed appropriate after so many good meals. We discovered the weight gym,

gym weights

and the machine room.

machine room

and an amazing thermal suite, with a salt water hydrotherapy pool, sauna and snow room.

spa pool

Of course, climate-controlled swimming was available–if we were so inclined–at the Main Pool on deck 7, under a retractable roof.

pool deck

For lounging and relaxation, we could contemplate the panoramic views of the 2-tiered Explorers’ Lounge, forward on decks 7 and 8;

Explorer Lounge

or the Torshavn Lounge,

Torshavn

a nightclub venue for dancing and light entertainment.

entertainment

However, to get away from it all, Leah and I felt very comfortable social distancing inside 5006–

suite 5006 (2)

our Scandinavian-styled veranda stateroom with a king-size bed, a smart TV, and a well-stocked bar refrigerator.

5006 interior

Our cabin was outfitted with a generous-sized bathroom…

bathroom1

that featured an amazing shower.

shower (2)

Thanks to Eric, our room attendant and all the other housekeepers, the ship always sparkled–

Leah and Eric

especially after two ship inspections during our voyage. It was reassuring to see crew members scrubbing and polishing so thoroughly.

On February 14th, our final evening, Leah and I enjoyed dinner at Chef’s Table to celebrate Valentine’s Day, and a return to live TV reception, now that we were floating south of the Arctic Circle.

While savoring our tenderloin stir-fry, we reminisced about our favorite ports:

TromsoViking Star in Tromso (3)

moonrise over Tromso (3)

Altadocked

museum fjord (2)

StravangerViking Star in Stavanger

through fjord storm

and later toasted our crew, who kept us safe and made our cruise so enjoyable.

crew

On the other hand, we learned from current reports that passengers and crew aboard the Diamond Princess had been less fortunate. They were riding out a quarantine south of Tokyo while confined to their cabins. We learned that 218 passengers and crew had shown positive results among a sample of 700 who were tested.

On February 14th, there were 15 cases of COVID-19 in America and over 64,000 cases worldwide with nearly 1400 deaths. Speaking to National Border Patrol Council members, Donald Trump theorized that April’s warmer weather would stifle the spread of the virus.

Today, the world is on fire. At this moment, over 1.1 million people around the world have tested positive for coronavirus, killing over 57,000. The US has reported more than 277,000 cases with over 7,500 deaths, and there is no end in sight. The warm-weather theory has been debunked.

As I write, Holland America’s Zaandam has finally docked at Ft. Lauderdale, carrying 4 dead and another 26 passengers and 50 crew members infected with COVID-19.

Sadly, for the near future, there can only be one way to appreciate a cruise liner.

Viking Star model (2)