ALLAN MISSED HIS WIFE
Allan Fishkind took care of people, most notably his wife, Joan Smith. She was the star, the name on the bustling shop, Joan Smith Flowers, with her talent and hearty personality that charmed friends and clients alike.
Allan, big and strong and dependable and low-key, drove the flower arrangements into toney clubs and hotels in the city or around our town, maintaining the shop, fixing stuff.
Joan was the love of his life, and vice versa, both of them coming from earlier marriages, with children.
With friends, Joan would unwind, tell stories of her Dickensian childhood, leaving home in her mid-teens, surviving in a Y.
Allan did not tell stories. He was tall, like Joan, usually with an inscrutable smile on his face. Some attributed his mellow presence to what he called his health regimen.
He also found time to take care of a blind friend who bravely lived in her own house. In the days after 9-11, he collected clothing and blankets and drove them to the collection point at the edge of the horror scene.
In our old waterside commuter town, Joan and Allan were townies. I remember them talking about a bar that had line dancing on weekends or a spaghetti-and-meatball fest for some good cause.
Allan took care of Joan during her illnesses, which neither discussed, even when the shop closed down.
Two summers ago, they popped over to our deck, Joan as chatty as ever. My wife loved Joan, knew her well, and sussed out that Joan was saying goodbye, which turned out to be true, on Sept. 20, 2020.
There was no service, no fuss, but Allan’s goal was to arrange a memorial bench for Joan at the edge of Manhasset Bay, across the street from Diwan, a favorite restaurant. He accomplished this on a sweet Sunday morning, Sept. 5, 2021, greeting friends from all their circles, giving a sweet talk about Joan, the star. Then he settled into a routine nobody could quite chart – but clearly, life without Joan was not the same.
This past summer, Allan materialized on our deck, settled into a chair, and chatted about himself more than he ever had before – even alluding to his own youthful hard times. We made him an herbal tea, and he chatted some more. He looked thin, and it turned out that other friends were telling him he should check with a doctor, but he delayed until he was days away from death from pancreatic cancer.
Word got around that Allan had been buried by a son, somewhere upstate, far from the town Joan and Allan had graced. When I go for a walk along the bay, I stop by Joan’s bench and think of both of them, together. Joan and Allan.
MY COUSIN CARYLE ADMIRED JUDITH JAMISON
Among my earliest memories are two Spencer cousins. Art died last year and his kid sister Caryle passed this year. I can remember a lot of giggling when we were little and our families would get together.
My wife and Caryle shared an interest in family genealogy, and would compare notes – and on the rare times we got together, Marianne says, Caryle retained an adult sense of humor. Also, my brother Peter loyally visited Caryle in her final, uncomfortable years.
But the person who knew Caryle best is her daughter, Michele, now living in England. Michele wrote a lovely tribute, which includes the memory of her mom being “a bit of a tomboy, and loved being outdoors and in nature,” as a girl. Michele recalls walks on nature trails and horseback riding and bird-watching and home crafts, making Christmas decorations and fruit cakes “that took months of soaking in brandy and had the weight of a doorstopper.”
Caryle fed local birds like cardinals and hummingbirds and took in stray cats and often had a horse or two nearby.
Michele added: “What I most admired about her was her complete lack of prejudice or bigotry.”
Then Michele added a surprise to me:
“The second was her love of dance. She didn't make a show of it, so it's easy to think it wasn't that important to her. I've come to suspect it was a deep part of who she was.
“Mom loved ballet and modern dance and took lessons in both during her early adulthood. She even took part in an interpretive dance troupe at our church. She loved musicals that featured dance, and I have many childhood memories of staying up late with her to watch old musicals on television.
“What I didn't fully comprehend until many years later was the depth of her interest. That realization came at my college graduation. The commencement speaker was American dancer and choreographer Judith Jamison. Mom surprised me by not only having heard of her but knowing the full history of her career and having seen her dance with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It was the only time I've ever seen her star-struck. She was desperate for an autograph but couldn't work up the nerve to approach her.”
As it happens, I once interviewed Judith Jamison and was struck by her elegance, her intelligence, her long expressive hands and eyelashes. Whenever I think of my cousin Caryle, with her animals and her crafts, I will hold on to this vision of her, adoring the glamorous and thoughtful dancer.
Historian of a Steel Town
Charles E. Stacey never left his hometown. He went to school in Donora, Pa., alongside the Monongahela River, when the mills were running, and clogging the lungs, when Stan Musial was the most famous native.
Dr. Stacey stayed in Donora and taught history, and one of his pupils was Reggie B. Walton, a football star with a brain and a will.
“I can visualize him in American History, near the back, fourth row,” Dr. Stacey said a few years back. “Near the window. Totally attentive. Everybody liked and respected Reggie.”
Reggie Walton went away to college, and law school, and became a federal judge known for his independence, his dedication to fight drugs.
Charles Stacey became the superintendent of schools, and he and his wife, Sue, remained on McKean Ave., the main drag, with its empty movie theatres and restaurants. Somebody had to be the voice, the memory, of Donora, available to teach the history of the region to visiting students and reporters.
When I was writing the biography of Stan Musial in 2011, I met Charles (“call me Chuck”) Stacey, who was running the Donora Historical Center, in a deserted storefront on the main drag. I asked if he could put me in touch with his star pupil, and a few days later my phone rang and a voice said, “This is Reggie Walton. Dr. Stacey asked me to call you.”
And when Donora honored the star baseball player, Ken Griffey, Sr., not too long ago, Judge Walton made it back to be with his old teammate. The two stars stood alongside their teacher.
Dr. Stacey died on April 25, at the age of 90. Every small American town deserves a Charles Stacey, who remembers the people who settled and worked and dreamed.
Lucky Donora. It had Charles Stacey.
BEAU GESTE BY AN OLD FRIEND
Last month I heard from Sam Toperoff, athlete and writer, that Thierry Spitzer had died in a car accident. I remembered Thierry as an active pre-teen, but in fact he was 58.
At the memorial for Thierry in the old neighborhood in Queens, I caught up with his sisters, AnneLise and Karine, and I told them my two daughters always felt Thierry had a certain life force, as a long-haired active kid.
I hadn’t seen Thierry since he was an early teen but I knew he had worked for decades as a waiter at the Hotel Carlyle in the city. His dad, Philip Spitzer, who died last year, had been an agent for me and also for Sam Toperoff, who now lives in the French village near the Alps, a second home for Thierry’s mother Anne-Marie.
Sam, being a writer, told me about the adult Thierry:“A very sweet and funny man. Less than two months ago, he was sitting in my big comfortable chair in the living room talking about how good it was to get back to the Carlyle after two years without work and how sad Manhattan was still.
“He came over most summers to stay with his mother and Karine in the village. We talked sports as though we really knew stuff. We walked in the mountains when his knee permitted.”
Thierry had played basketball and softball in the French village, and also played tennis.
“I just remembered this,” Sam wrote. “Thierry was in the semi-finals of the big tennis tournament here, big crowd, tough match, and in the third set he called an opponent’s ball good after the judge had called it out and conceded the point, it cost him the match. I’ve never forgotten that. So revealing.”
That's how I will remember Thierry.
FAREWELL TO MY ROOMIE
When Julie Bretz got me in touch with her dad early in 2022, Joe Donnelly and I greeted each other on the phone as “Roomie.” This dates back to when and the Newsday’s sports editor had us share a hotel room during the World Series in St. Louis, to save a few bucks. I just might have griped a bit about Joe's smoking…but forever more, Joe and I were “Hey, Rooms!” -- just like ball players.
While others recall the great stories Joe wrote, let me talk about another skill of my roomie:
Joe Donnelly could throw. When we called him “Joe D,” it was homage to another great fielder with a strong arm, many decades ago. I recall Newsday softball games but also a few baseball games at a mid-day empty Shea Stadium or Yankee Stadium, before the real players arrived for work.
Joe could roam center field and his throw from the outfield would sting the palm of any infielder or catcher who stuck out a glove.
Joe also played touch football – quarterback, of course. I recall him saying his model was Sonny Jurgensen of the Washington NFL team. He could throw the ball 30-40 yards, maybe more, with perfect aim.
I know this because we Newsday people used to play touch football in the fall. In those days, Newsday was an afternoon paper, meaning deadlines were long after midnight, but somehow or other we would wobble into a park in nearby Hempstead around 11 AM. A few Mets who lived on Long Island would join us, for the running more than the competition,
Joe would shuffle around, not trying to look or act like a pro quarterback, just another scribe who had worked late the night before. But when the ball was hiked, and he had a few counts of “one alligator, two alligator…” and everybody went running off in different angles and Joe would put the ball in somebody’s hands.
Joe didn’t gloat or strut. Slinging the ball deep was what he did. Then we would go to a luncheonette and talk about the game, or our editors.
Those Newsday games were a highlight of my life, my career, and I suspect it was the same for all of us. I still refer to my Newsday mates as “we” and “us,” just as old ball players refer to all their teams.
Joe loved his family, loved to write, and loved being around sports, so in his spare time he would caddie or ref games or serve as an official scorer. and he incorporated the vocabulary into his daily life:
For a great view of Joe Donnelly, you absolutely must read the tribute to him by Tom Verducci on the Sports Illustrated website:
Two talented pioneers of sportswriting died this past year – Jane Gross and Robin Herman had to put up with a lot of resistance when they tried to be sportswriters. I am so glad I got to know them and work the locker room and the pressbox with them:
Two familiar faces from soccer passed a few days apart in December -- Grant Wahl, on the beat at the World Cup, and Alex Yannis, who was so kind to me when I started to show up in soccer press boxes for the Times.
Nobody spans the eras of Yannis and Wahl better than Paul Gardner, whom I call "The Johnny Appleseed of Amercan soccer -- crossing the Atlantic with a Brit's birthright of soccer knowledge, and spreading the lore in his opinionated but yet charming way. Paul's expertise is still vital in the great resource, Soccer America:
Two-long time friends departed this past year:
Joe Vecchione was the sports editor who monitored my path to sports columnist. He and his wife Elizabeth, with her charming Newfoundland presence and nursing career, became good friends.
Stan Einbender and I went to school for nine straight years -- junor high, Jamaica High and Hofstra, where he was the captain and rebounder on the team with a 23-1 record when we were seniors. We both married artistic, strong-minded women.
I hate that the pandemic has kept us from seeing friends, particularly Elizabeth Vecchione and Roberta Einbender.
And finally: we think about Loretta Lynn, who made it so easy for me to help write her autobiography, "Coal Miner's Daughter." Loretta's daughter, Patsy Russell, has kept us in the loop. Laura Vecsey, our oldest, wrote her memories of being on the road with me and Loretta:
Loretta was part Cherokee, via her mother, Clara. When she and Mooney bought their ranch west of Nashville, she started to learn more about how the Cherokees were forced from their homes (just a little bit of American history the country never taught us, back in the day.) The Duck River is about 10 miles to the west of the Lynn ranch at Hurricane Mills. Loretta said she could hear the Cherokees crying as they marched along the Trail of Tears.
She brought her pride with her on the stage.
On Page 16 of the original hard-cover book, Loretta has a few words about Andrew Jackson and other Tennessee people who sent the Cherokees away.
More and More, I Talk to the Dead--Margaret Renkl
NASHVILLE — After my mother died so suddenly — laughing at a rerun of “JAG” at 10 p.m., dying of a hemorrhagic stroke by dawn — I dreamed about her night after night. In every dream she was willfully, outrageously alive, unaware of the grief her death had caused. In every dream relief poured through me like a flash flood. Oh, thank God!
Then I would wake into keening grief all over again.
Years earlier, when my father learned he had advanced esophageal cancer, his doctor told him he had perhaps six months to live. He lived far longer than that, though I never thought of it as “living” once I learned how little time he really had. For six months my father was dying, and then he kept dying for two years more. I was still working and raising a family, but running beneath the thin soil of my own life was a river of death. My father’s dying governed my days.
After he died, I wept and kept weeping, but I rarely dreamed about my father the way I would dream about my mother nearly a decade later. Even in the midst of calamitous grief, I understood the difference: My father’s long illness had given me time to work death into the daily patterns of my life. My mother’s sudden death had obliterated any illusion that daily patterns are trustworthy.
Years have passed now, and it’s the ordinariness of grief itself that governs my days. The very air around me thrums with absence. I grieve the beloved high-school teacher I lost the summer after graduation and the beloved college professor who was my friend for more than two decades. I grieve the father I lost nearly 20 years ago and the father-in-law I lost during the pandemic. I grieve the great-grandmother who died my junior year of college and the grandmother who lived until I was deep into my 40s.
Some of those I grieve are people I didn’t even know. How can John Prine be gone? I hear his haunting last song, “I Remember Everything,” and I still can’t quite believe that John Prine is gone.
Jan. 30, 2023