In Memory of Jerry Gray

1935 – 2020

Why I Write

by Jerry Gray

I have been so defined by those who were important and then their disappearance, vanished from my life because no reason was given for their coming, or going.  I am writing of childhood, of course, and a damaged habit that then persisted without my noticing, a habit of not asking who that was, how they appeared or disappeared or why. My landscape is littered with disappearing parents, a brother who vanished for 20 years and died homeless, a great aunt who lived secretly 20 years in hospital, a relative who became a Carmelite nun, others whose histories or absences were mentioned only in proverbial hushed tones. So it is in certain families.

My Mother

I had finished sorting through all my family photos and actually wasn’t thinking about my mother. I was focused instead on choosing the next project I might tackle while “sheltering in place”. 

Yet, My Heart Sings

My world has become so small. On a regular basis, I see only my husband as we share the same living space. Occasionally, I see a neighbor outside from a window, or wave to one from across the street. We might shout a greeting, “How are you doing over there?”, but that’s about it. There is no way to have a real conversation while trying to maintain a distance of six feet between people. Our social lives have become “screen time”, zoom calls replacing big noisy family dinners, FaceTime instead of morning coffee with a friend, but I’ve found nothing to replace the warm neck squeezes and soft cuddles that I miss from my grandchildren. I walk often, and we walk together sometimes, my husband and I, but with so much together time we both seem to enjoy our walks alone a little better. The parks and recreation areas are closed, so we are limited to our neighborhood. Lovely houses to look at, trees, gardens and flowers, spring is beautiful and in full bloom, but there are no hikes in the bright green, mustard-covered hills or through the redwoods on a path dappled with sunlight that both soothe and refresh my soul.

A Journey

I can still envision my father’s Marquette touring car as my father, brother Gerhardt, and I embarked on a most unusual journey. We started in the town of Goerlitz where I was born and where my father’s family had lived for many years. I did not know what a momentous journey it was for us or that it marked the culmination point of several years of planning on my parents’ part.

New York City To WHERE?

It was the end of April in 1939 and I was finally allowed out of bed where I had amused myself since August of 1938. I was 30 pounds heavier, and my X-rays showed real progress in fighting tuberculosis, which my doctors believed I had developed from drinking the milk of a tubercular cow the past summer on a farm where we vacationed. My parents didn’t send me to a sanitarium in the mountains as the doctors suggested. They kept me at home, fed me six times a day, read to me twice a day, took my temperature four times a day and put it on a chart, gave me a bath once a week (all that was allowed), took me in a taxi every few weeks to the doctor who gave me an X-ray, and bought me a radio (unheard of for a child’s room).

A First Friend

In the 1930’s my Japanese immigrant parents had forged their life dependent on my father’s work for the Pacific railroad that provided a company owned house. Located in a rural isolated whistle stop in eastern Oregon with no neighbors for miles around, my two brothers and I formed our own playgroup. The three of us (born two years apart) ate, slept, fought, and played together. We shared a nanny goat who provided us with milk, Our playground was along the banks of the nearby Deschutes River or in our backyard covered with tumbleweeds swirling in the hot summer heat. During our first six years we shared childhood diseases—measles, whooping cough and the occasional flu. We grew up without the benefit of electricity, indoor bathroom facilities, or hot running water but this was not experienced as a hardship; the inconvenience of an outhouse, heating water for our outdoor “hot tub” or grinding the gramophone to listen to Japanese music recordings were simply part of our life.

The Consolation Of Solitude

“I vont to be alone”, Swedish-born film star Greta Garbo is reputed to have said.  It’s all I remember of her. Never saw any of her films; didn’t understand the mystique surrounding her. I thought she was odd. Did she marry? Have a lover? Have children? I’d no idea, but her desire to be alone seemed an aberration. I was young then. It would be a long time before I understood.

Things I Wish They Had Told Me

Ours was a close family even though we were scattered around the country. When I say family, I am talking about my father’s family. There were eight surviving children who as adults continued the bond of their childhood. Growing up in Kissimmee, Florida, running the general store, being the only Jewish family probably contributed to the closeness. The stories that came down to me from my grandmother described how the children seemed to hang together in couples. All her children had nicknames which added to the intimacy. For example, my father was called Lovey. We treated it as a proper name, so my cousins called him “Uncle Lovey”. There was a family story about my uncle who, as a shy child, when asked his name would answer “My name is Jody, but they call me sweetsum”. There seemed to be a birthing arrangement of boy-girl-boy girl. The close pairs of siblings –  Alda and Lovey, Morton and Sis, Dora and Jody – represented that.

The O’Connor’s

My mother is the oldest of seven children. Growing up, all the families lived in the greater Los Angeles area. We Jordan kids were just five of the 29 grandchildren our grandparents had. Mostly, we were like stair steps, born year after year after year, but in 1960, the year my youngest sister was born, there were four grandchildren born within a few months. My grandparents youngest grandchild and first great-grandchild were born the same year. While some of us lived close enough to attend the same grammar school and high school, most lived far enough away that we saw each other on occasional weekends, for birthday parties (which with so many kids were a pretty regular event), and all the holidays. Christmas Eve at our house, Easter at my Aunt Lola’s, Thanksgiving at Aunt Baby’s, a summer party at the O’Connors because they had a swimming pool, and so on. Cousins visited back and forth and were chosen to accompany families with same-age children on vacations, skiing trips or sailing to Catalina with our uncles and their kids.

Class Photo

When he died, my father’s funeral arrangements and financial affairs fell to me. Years earlier, at my urging, he had set up his modest estate as a trust which made it easy to administer and disperse to his children whom he named as his sole beneficiaries. The funeral was well attended; the wake even more so. One by one, his friends pulled me aside to tell me how much they loved him. They raised their glasses, cried over him and toasted to his everlasting memory.

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