Thursday, May 28, 2009

bob livingston 1919-2009: an appreciation

My father, Bob Livingston, died last week at aged 90 in our family home in Long Beach, NY. It was a good life and as they go a relatively easy death, which among other things gave us some time to reflect on his life and contribution. While members of my family differ in religious observance, politics, and just about everything else, we came together very nicely for the funeral and shiva, the seven initial days of mourning in Jewish tradition, from which I recently returned to Philadelphia.

At the funeral, I offered a brief appreciation of my father, a version of which appears below. It may be interesting to general readers for its discussion of his generation and its place in American (and Jewish) history. For those who knew him, of course, it will be that much more pertinent:

"We are here today to celebrate a long life and a good life. Surely the length is not in dispute. Bob Livingston lived 90 years, having produced two children, four grandchildren, and by my account seen 17 different presidents, some of whom he even liked. To give you an idea how long this is, if my father had lived backwards instead of forwards, we would now by celebrating the inauguration of Andrew Jackson, and people would be getting excited about the new railroads that were replacing canals as the principal means of safe transportation. (There is no truth to the rumor that my father met Andrew Jackson, although he appears to have met at least one of Generals Patton, Bradley, and Eisenhower, depending upon the audience.)

My father was part of a generation--the children or (on his father's side) grandchildren of immigrants--who lived to see changes that were satisfying but also baffling to them. At times, he must have felt caught between his parents' and children's worlds and the varying, contradictory demands they made upon him.

A Biblical analogy may help here. The book of Be'reishit (Genesis) tells of three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The role of the first and third is obvious. Abraham was the first Jew, the forerunner of monotheism, courageous enough to smash his father's idols and virile enough to father a child in his (not to mention his wife's) old age. Jacob became Israel, giving his name to the people and fathering what became the Twelve Tribes.

Caught in the middle, so to speak, Isaac had a more ambiguous role. In his youth, his father tried to kill him, albeit (or so we are told) for the best of reasons. In his old age, his wife and children played tricks on him. Sure, he invented Mincha [the afternoon service], but even that's the shortest and most frequently missed of the three.

Yet Isaac also did some things that the others didn't do. For one thing, the Bible tells us that he loved his wife, Rebekah, something it never quite says about Abraham. (It is best to leave Jacob's family out of it, altogether.) For another, he appears to have been rather cleverer than given credit for: at the Akedah, or binding, he asks his father why there is no animal to sacrifice, and notices that Esau has Jacob's voice on his deathbed. Isaac, in short, was less domineering than his parents or children, but appears to have been a good bit more likable, and to have provided the decency and continuity than enabled the whole enterprise to go forward in a period of radical change.

I think about this a lot when I think of my dad's generation and the pressures they endured. As children, they were expected to sit quietly before their elders, when they were allowed to be present at all. (My father and his sisters were sometimes called on to perform for the company after dinner ended.) In their old age--in late twentieth and early twenty-first century America--it was simply taken for granted that children were smarter than their parents, and the grandchildren were smartest of all.

In their youth, it was taken for granted that women--not to mention minorities--lived in separate if not actively inferior worlds. On several occasions my father related how his sister Sylvia, who attended Columbia Law School, would enter a room and the men would immediately interrupt their conversation--a conversation which, ironically enough, concerned gender issues. Who, he would ask, is more qualified than her to participate? Today we simply assume that women can be politicians, Supreme Court justices, and anything else that they want to be, and a Black man is our most popular President in a generation.

In their youth, men were supposed to keep their feelings to themselves and not discuss their emotions publicly. Now many discuss little else.

Like Isaac in the Bible, my father and the other men of his generation could at times be overwhelmed or simply confused by these changes. But when the chips were done, he and they came through.

Perhaps my father's best known contribution--surely the one that required most adjustment from his parent's world--was his work with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which spanned the last 35 years of his life, especially after he retired from Merrill Lynch [yes, that Merrill Lynch] in about 1980. As most of you know, my dad had what today would be called a substance abuse issue, which he confronted directly and forcefully, never taking a drink after 1975. That alone would have been impressive enough. But he didn't stop there, becoming an active speaker and sponsor who took the message of hope/renewal to others, most of them younger and many far less educated than he was, and some of them in considerably worse personal or professional shape. During my visits to Long Beach the phone would frequently ring with someone needing help or just somebody to talk to. He would rarely say no. In his last years, when I called to see how he was, he would often say "I'm going to a meeting" before I had a chance to ask.

That was his public side, but there was a quiet decency he expressed in private, also. In the Second World War he served as an officer in the Quartermaster Corps, affectionately known as the Jewish infantry, getting closer to the front lines than intended in the Battle of the Bulge. He spoke with pride but also humility about it, never glorifying war or denying that there had been excesses--even atrocities--on the part of American as well as German troops in the battle. He was proud of his Jewish heritage, could lead te'filot (prayers) in Hebrew, but never showed off about it or tried to impose his views on others in the family. Even in trivial matters he was kinder than most. Once, when I was visiting Merrill Lynch, a customer of another broker called asking for stock quotations [no Internet in those faroff days.] "Tell him to go __ himself," offered one colleague. "Tell him to call his own broker," said another. My father gave him the quotations.

I don't like hagiography, and I don't think that my father was perfect. Surely he was not the most patient person in the world. Many were the times we sat down for a big game only to see him get up angrily after the first setback, utter one of his trademark expressions of disgust ("Can't stop them," "They're killing them," etc.), and go off to do something else. Like many men of his generation he spent long hours away from home. Probably we got to know him better as an old man than as a young one.

Yet what stays with one most is not these moments, but the moments of decency, of support, of continuity, the sense that someone was there who cared about something besides themselves and was willing to do something about it. Such was the fate, I think, of not just one but millions of Bob Livingstons, if not the Greatest than certainly the most persistent generation of men that our country, and my people, have created. They were not as domineering as their parents and never quite as self-fulfilled or -expressed as their children. All they did was to win the war, do their best to create a lasting peace, and leave the world a little bit better than they found it. Sometimes, that's more than enough. Thanks Dad. We'll miss you."


At 2:47 PM, Blogger Nadine said...

A beautiful tribute. Sorry that in all the years we've known one another, I never met him.

At 9:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As one of the many Bob Livingston's ("literally) in the world, permit me to thank a son for an outstanding tribute to his father. We Bob L's join in saluting your father for his contribution to our nation.

Bob Livingston

At 9:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As one of the many Bob Livingston's ("literally") in the world, allow me to thank you for the outstanding tribute to your father, and salute him for his most significant contribution to our nation.

Bob Livingston

At 1:10 AM, Blogger Sankt Ingen said...

It is as touching as objective and almost educative.I bow to your father dearest.

At 12:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Michael. Placing your dad's life in context was really beautiful and seems to answer questions for you and now for me about my own dad.



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