by Angeliska on February 29, 2012
Charles Lessing Polacheck, R.I.P.
born January 19th, 1914 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin – died February 27th, 2012 in Austin, Texas
How do I begin? How can I possibly encapsulate a life so broad, so full of incredible achievement,
tragedy, drama and joie de vivre? The scope and breadth of his life is too large for me to even attempt
to limn, in faint chicken-scratches, cobbled together from all the years of stories I wish I’d recorded –
though I did manage to get some of them… It’s just too much, and I’m overwhelmed by my grief at
knowing he’s gone, truly gone. I feel so small next to his memory, his legacy – I can’t manage it,
can’t do him justice with a ledger of dry facts and dates, people known and places lived, traveled to.
How to tease out the fiber of his story, to draw out that cord that connected this blue star-eyed baby
to the man I only began to know when he was already old? I can only tell you what I know.
He told me once when I asked him what animal he would be, if he could be any at all, that he would be a dolphin.
He told me that his favorite color was heliotrope, but then changed his mind, and said it was really aquamarine.
What if instead I tell the story of how when he was little, his nickname was Pips, which stood for
“Pig-Iron Pete”, a character from a Unionist play his mother Hilda wrote – and that people also
called him Chas, and Polly – for Polacheck, but that later in life, everyone who knew him well
called him Charlie. To me, he was always Grampa. To my littlest cousins, he was Baba.
William and Hilda, my great-grandparents.
When William and Hilda were courting, he would recite
“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, by W.B. Yeats to her.
Or what if I tell about how Carl Sandburg, the beloved American poet and author of our family
favorite, “The Rootabaga Stories” was friends with my great-grandfather, who was also a poet, and Charlie
used to find him asleep on the sofa in the parlor. Once there was an assembly at the school, and Sandburg
came and read his stories. Those stories my great-grandfather read to my grandfather, my grandfather read
to father, and my father read to me. One day I’ll read them to my children too, I hope. Those tales, a golden thread.
William Polacheck, Charlie’s father committed suicide when my Grandfather was fourteen years old.
It was his second attempt to end his life. The first was foiled when Charlie, then twelve, found his father
suffocating on exhaust in the family car. Charlie dragged him out, and saved his life. A few years later,
William planned better, and there was no one around who could save him. It was this tragedy that shaped
who my grandfather would come to be: for half his life, an alcoholic who drowned his pain in drink,
an actor, a collector of masks. Charles didn’t learn to drive until he was forty years old, and moved to
Los Angeles, where not driving is an impossibility. He overcame his fear of automobiles, and after
many years of subjecting himself and his family to the vagaries of his alcoholism, he discovered
Alcoholics Anonymous. There is no doubt that this program saved his life, and my grandparent’s
marriage. Through AA, my Grampa came through the tempest of his anger, his loss, and the void
left by his father’s death, to become one of the most serene and wise sages I have ever known.
In 1978, he founded We Agnostics, one of the first AA meetings for atheists and agnostics in Los
Angeles, and helped hundreds of people by becoming their sponsor. Years later, he told me about
visiting his father’s grave, and how he had finally forgiven him for succumbing to his depression.
This past September, he celebrated his AA birthday, with 41 years of sobriety. Those two decades
will stand as a testament to his belief in a Higher Power as he understood it – “The total of all energy
in the universe.” My grandfather once told me that he was not a religious person, but that he was a
spiritual person. I thank him for showing me, and many others, the freedom of that distinction.
I hope to live by his tenets of “rigorous honesty, unconditional love, and consistent responsibility.”
“Under the lime tree
On the heather,
Where we had shared a place of rest,
Still you may find there,
Flowers crushed and grass down-pressed.
Beside the forest in the vale,
Sweetly sang the nightingale.”
–Under the Lime Tree, Walther von der Vogelweide
He and my grandmother Jean met when she came to take a photograph of his folk-singing band.
In that moment where she focused her lens on his face, the first green tendril of our family tree
unfurled. Jean’s father called him a “troubadour”, but they married anyway, in a traditional Jewish
ceremony. When the time came for the sheva brachos, the seven blessings said for the couple over
a glass of wine. The groom drinks, and then passes the glass to the bride – but Charlie gulped it all
down instead. Despite all the trials and tribulations his drinking brought to their marriage, they managed
to survive, and stay together until she died in 2003. I remember vividly him holding my hand, and reciting
to me Wilhelm Müller’s Der Lindenbaum, barely able to get the words out through his tears:
“At wellside, past the ramparts, there stands a linden tree. While sleeping in its shadow, sweet dreams it sent to me.
And in its bark I chiseled my messages of love: My pleasures and my sorrows were welcomed from above.
Today I had to pass it, well in the depth of night – and still, in all the darkness, my eyes closed to its sight.
Its branches bent and rustled, as if they called to me: Come here, come here, companion, your haven I shall be!
The icy winds were blowing, straight in my face they ground. The hat tore off my forehead. I did not turn around.
Away I walked for hours whence stands the linden tree, and still I hear it whisp’ring: You’ll find your peace with me!”
I know he is now under his Linden Tree, with Jean.
He made it into the New York Times, as an actor playing an actor in Elmer Rice’s “Two on an Island” – I think it was while working on this play that he had the opportunity to meet one of his heroes, Kurt Weill. He attended the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, and was a member of the agit-prop Repertory Theater Group in Chicago with Studs Terkel and Lou Gilbert. He and Studs remained friends until Studs died in 2008.
Charles was a folk-singer, and member of “The Detroit Almanac Singers” — the road company of the Pete Seeger’s original Almanac Singers, with Baldwin “Butch” Hawes and Bess Lomax Hawes and Cisco Houston. Pete and Woody Guthrie once helped Charlie move, back when he and Jean were living in Greenwich Village. “As their name indicated, The Almanac singers specialized in topical songs, mostly songs advocating an anti-war, anti-racism and pro-union philosophy. They were part of the Popular Front, an alliance of liberals and leftists, including the Communist Party USA (whose slogan, under their leader Earl Browder, was “Communism is twentieth century Americanism”), who had vowed to put aside their differences in order to fight fascism and promote racial and religious inclusiveness and workers’ rights. The Almanac Singers felt strongly that songs could help achieve these goals.” I come from a long line of lefties and political activists!
My Grampa was a voracious reader of everything: history, science, fiction, mysteries, crime noir, and erotica. He subscribed to the New Yorker, Discover, Scientific American, and The Sunday Times – and he always did his crossword with a pen. It was so strange when he lost interest in reading, in the last year of his life. It had always been such a big part of who he was. I remember clearly the moment when I was old enough to appreciate the variety of his literary tastes – I would spend hours combing his shelves, and exclaiming with delight over what I found there. So many interesting books. I asked him once if I could borrow a paperback copy of Hubert Selby, Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, and he mentioned offhandedly that “Cubby” was an old pal of his. He was constantly popping out with tidbits like this, as if it were no big deal that he had known various luminaries like Weegee and Stieglitz, over the years.
My Grampa also worked for CBS, NBC and DuMont, as television director and producer, and he directed, produced and translated the first televised operas for The Voice of Firestone, including productions of The Magic Flute, Salome, and Kurt Weill’s Down in the Valley. He was a pioneer in the early days of television, and had many stories about pissing off Arturo Toscanini, Louis Armstrong, and W.H. Auden, among many others. He was an early champion of Leontyne Price and Sal Mineo. During his work on Captain Video, one of the first science fiction television shows, he inadvertently became inventor of the opticon scillometer, an electronic telescope that could see around corners, which he constructed from a spark plug, a rear-view mirror, an ash tray and some wires and a bent pipe from a vacuum cleaner attachment, because DuMont had no prop department!
Do all these things make up a life? Do they paint a picture of who a person was from, birth to death?
There are no neat bookends here, from this date to that date: there are only the stories, the memories, the love. How can I neatly tie a knot in that golden thread, bite the end off in my teeth? I can’t. It’s not mine to do, but instead I can tell you all the things that amazed me about him, that made me love and admire him so much.
Or, what if I tell you about all the things that made him happy?
He loved music, especially opera: his favorite was Gianni Schicchi.
He loved this aria — he said he considered it one of the most beautiful,
if not the most beautiful, in the repertoire:
O moon high up in the deep, deep sky,
Your light sees far away regions,
You travel round the wide,
Wide world peering into human dwellings
O, moon, stand still for a moment,
Tell me, ah, tell me where is my beloved!
Tell him, please, silvery moon in the sky,
That I am hugging him firmly,
That he should for at least a while
Remember me in his dreams!
Light up his far away place,
Tell him, ah, tell him who is here waiting!
If he is dreaming about me,
May this remembrance waken him!
O, moon, don’t disappear, disappear!
He liked sweets: cookies, pastries and candy.
His favorite cake was Hungarian Dobos torte.
He took his coffee black, and he drank lots of it.
He used to go get a hot fudge sundae every weekend.
He loved pantomime and Commedia dell’Arte.
He loved puppets and used to work in a marionette theater.
He was a magician, and a lifetime member of the Magic Castle.
He loved the circus, and used to have circus posters hanging in his bathroom.
He always smelled good: he wore Crabtree + Evelyn’s Mysore Sandalwood,
Tilleul, 4711 Kölnisch Wasser, and Zizanie, by Fragonard.
Back when he drank, he liked Akvavit and Cherry Heering.
He loved to play chess and gin rummy, and almost always beat me.
He liked to watch Antiques Roadshow, and Jeopardy.
He loved dim sum, Chinese barbecue, and crab and asparagus soup.
He was an excellent cook. I’ll forever miss his latkes and his buckwheat pancakes.
He loved to travel all over the world, with my grandmother, and with me.
He loved the grotesque in art, but not the morbid.
I’m grateful for it, though. Grateful to see his strong hands at peace, at rest.
Grateful to know that he’s no longer uncomfortable, frustrated, or sad.
Grateful for the time we were able to have sitting with him, with his body.
It’s a long hard road I’m walking to get closer to accepting his loss with grace.
I was afraid to go and see him like this, but now I’m so relieved that I was able
to, to have that vigil until the Neptune Society came to take him away. I’ve long
thought those rituals were important, but I never really knew until I saw for myself.
It looked like him, felt like him – but he wasn’t there anymore. He wasn’t there at all.
He is gone. The body is only a shell, and all the things that made him who he was
have flown on beyond. Touching his hand, knowing he can never hold mine again.
Everyone is telling me that he’ll be with me always, and I hope that in some way, that
can be true, because I don’t know what I’ll do without him. He was my favorite person
in the world, and I know how lucky we were to be blessed with such a close bond.
I don’t know how to stop writing about him, so maybe I’ll just stop for today. I still have
so many stories about our adventures to share, and more photographs from his life.
In more ways than one, my grandfather has made me the person I am today.
He always encouraged me to pursue my dreams, and told me,
“You should be a writer. You should write books.”
When I asked him once what he thought of my writing,
he said, “It’s like dragons and turtledoves.”
The grape-lilac scent of mountain laurel blows in the open windows.
It’s a windy spring day, and the birds are making a joyful chorus.
I feel him in that wind, and hear his voice. He shared this with me
years ago, and luckily I had the presence of mind to scrawl it down:
In the midst of a meadow
a skylark singing
free from everything.
- My Grampa’s favorite haiku.
Charles Lessing Polacheck
January 19th, 1914 – February 27th, 2012