Friday, December 21, 2012

In My Family We Cared

“I care. I care about it all. It takes too much energy not to care... The why of why we are here is an intrigue for adolescents.  The how is what must command the living. Which is why I have lately become an insurgent again.”  (Lorraine Hansberry, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window)

The words you just heard were written by the playwright Lorraine Hansberry.  They are also the epitaph on her tombstone.  Lorraine lived the last years of her life in my home town of Croton-on-Hudson, New York, and was a close friend of my family’s.  I visit her grave quite frequently, not only out of respect for her but also because it’s quite close to my parents’ grave, in the town’s little cemetery wedged between the public library and the high school.   I guess at some level I must find it comforting to imagine that they might occasionally interrupt their eternal rest to share a cup of coffee and chat about politics, theater, and literature, the way I remember them doing when I was a child.
In my family we were insurgents.  We were radicals.  We were intellectuals, outsiders, and sometimes outcasts.  Indeed, in the case of my maternal grandparents, we were revolutionaries.  My grandfather, a proud participant in the Russian Revolution of 1905, left Russia and came to New York in 1910.  He left behind him pogroms, persecution, and a notice to serve in the Czar’s army.   He also left behind him the religious observance that in his mind was inextricably linked to the Old World and its subjugation of the Jewish people.  Forever passionate about their Jewishness and forever equally passionate in their rejection of orthodoxy, my grandparents raised my mother and my aunt in a militantly secular, Yiddish-speaking, ultra-leftist enclave in the Bronx.
I am less clear about what caused traditional religious observance to lose its meaning for my father.  What I do know is that when, at the age of 19, he lost his father, he informed his mother that when the year of mourning was complete, he planned never to go to schul again – and, with the exception of the occasional wedding or funeral in our extended family, he never did.
When I try to tell people about the experience of growing up in a family like mine, I am often asked to explain what we did believe in.   Certainly our Jewish identity and our Jewish heritage were important in defining who we were.  Beyond that, it may surprise you to hear that my family was, in our own way, profoundly spiritual.  With no rule book to guide us, no congregation to enfold us, no ready answers, and no short cuts permitted, my brother and I were each expected to find, and to listen to, our inner voice, and to conduct ourselves according to the highest moral standard at all times.  In my family we believed in humanity’s possibilities.  In the words of Lorraine’s character, we cared.  We cared about it all, and we believed that the how of our being here should command us. 
In my family, we were different.  My parents refused to be pigeon-holed, and they refused to live their lives within the parameters of anyone’s narrow categories.   As a result of my upbringing, I am unusually comfortable in the lush, gray area of ambiguity and questions – perhaps I’m more comfortable there than I am in the harsh bright light of definitions and answers.   To me, caring about it all requires being open to other people’s ways of living their lives.
It’s noteworthy that many of the speakers in this term’s Tuesday morning series remembered something about how their families fought.  The worst family fights I remember took place when one of us showed some vestige of prejudice, or in some other way failed to live according to our family’s principles.  Hypocrisy was perhaps considered the deepest failing in my family, and when any of us was guilty of it we could count on the others reading us the riot act (and probably not very gently.)  In fact I now count upon my adult son to do the same for me.
I want to share with you another reading that had a special meaning in my family.  Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” was my father’s favorite poem, and had he lived to be there, he was planning to read it at Chris’s and my wedding.

Dover Beach
Matthew Arnold
The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

A poem as dark as “Dover Beach” might seem an odd choice for a benediction for a young couple.  But I know why my father loved that poem and why he chose it for that occasion.  To him, the poem says that even when faith abandons us – whether in a brief crisis or for a lifetime of searching – we can find sustenance, strength, and meaning in our human connections.   Yes, we are here as on a darkling plain, but if we are true to one another, we are not alone.  And so I will close by saying to all of you: let us care about it all.  Let us be commanded by the how of being here.   Let us true to one another.
Speaker ~ Nina Davis-Millis, Co-Head, Acquisitions, Metadata, and Enterprise Systems, MIT Libraries

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Continue in what you have learned

The Spire

This past Sunday I was in Chicago to participate in the ordination to Christian ministry of a young man I had known since he was a child.  He is an able student, well trained, older than his years and he will be a good minister. He has appropriate schooling and then some.

I was there because of my relationship to his family and his religious tradition of origin. He grew up in the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ and now will be a minister in the American Baptist communion.

In my words to the congregation I told them that the intellectual dimensions of his call were dwarfed by the relational dimensions of his life. He is a Christian because he grew up a Christian not because he suddenly was converted of some fundamental truth and his Christian life was shaped by a grandfather who listened to him preach in imitation of his own preaching. His grandfather encouraged him to dream great dreams.

The Apostle Paul writing to Timothy in his second letter pays homage to the importance of family and relationships in the training for life and ministry. We often do not, seeming to think of Christian faith is begun by a transmission of information.  Sometimes one does come to faith after an “aha” moment, but less often than we academics think. More often we are shaped by a community and fine tuned by moments of insight.

My grandfather taught his grandfather. His grandfather taught me and I taught other members of his family. They in turn were role models for my children as they grew up.  My daughters first confronted death when I officiated at his grandfather’s funeral and we all went to the graveside together. It was their first funeral; information about life and death comes in many forms.

Being part of the service on Sunday was an important thing for me to do. It was in part the paying of an obligation to his family for what I had received. It was an honor as well, but most importantly it was an affirming gesture that allowed me to be supportive of one who will write a new chapter in church history.  It is a different world than the one our grandfathers knew, but I think they would be wise enough to recognize his dedication and talent and would have understood that he was writing a new chapter of holy history.  We all do well to remember Paul’s words to Timothy: “continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it…” It was a good way to begin the Advent season.

Robert M Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

My Family

Speaker ~ Robert Ferrara, DSL - Senior Director of Strategic Planning, Communications, and Alumni Relations


Families are complicated and the emotions and the experiences run the gamut. The Bible, especially the Book of Genesis, recounts many stories of familial rivalry, jealousy, and estrangement– like Jacob and Esau. But the stories of familial reconciliation and mutual support are also numerous and powerful, like this occasion when Joseph is reunited with his brothers in Egypt:
Genesis 45:1-8

Then Joseph could not restrain himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Make everyone go out from me!” So no one stood with him while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud, and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard it. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph; does my father still live?” But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed in his presence.
And Joseph said to his brothers, “Please come near to me.” So they came near. Then he said: “I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. But now, do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For these two years the famine has been in the land, and there are still five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. And God sent me before you to preserve a posterity for you in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt.

Thanks for this opportunity to reflect and share some stories.

I think the overall theme today is - family life through thick & thin, good times & bad – based on our shared experiences, shared memories, and shared futures. .

This timing is especially appropriate because my wife Deena and I just got back last week from an MIT Travel trip to Sicily, where I was able to find my grandfather’s birthplace.  

The opening reading reminded us that the families of the Biblical patriarchs had their share of issues and dysfunction - just like our families today.  In my family’s case, I do not think it ever got so bad that my siblings wanted to throw me into a pit and abandon me – as Joseph’s brothers did.  Though, the thought might have occurred to them at times.     But we have had many more good times than bad.

I grew up in a family of 5 children – 3 older sisters – Marie, Nicole, and Gen - and a twin brother Ray, who also attended MIT with me. BTW, I am 10 minutes older than Ray        and that is huge.

Like all of you, each of our siblings has several special talents and gifts. For today’s theme – family life – it is my middle sister Gen who is a key. She is the main family genealogist. She not only does the lion’s share of research on our roots, but also used her artistic talents to create a lovely illustrated book for all of us.

So I had good material heading to Sicily and to my grandfather’s birthplace, the town of Castelbouno (“Good Castle”) way up in the mountains east of Palermo near Cefalu. It is quite beautiful and I’m happy to show you my iPhone pictures afterward.  

All 5 of us siblings have vivid images of “gramps”, as we called him. After all, he lived upstairs and owned the house. We loved him, and he loved us – and Sicily and all Italians, too. For many years, he served as Treasurer of an Italian insurance agency, the Italo-American National Union.

His was typical American story – Ellis Island, Inner city Italian ghetto, struggle for work and education and to make a place for the next generation.  His name was Vincent (like my middle name) and he followed his dad Dominic, coming from the old “old country” in 1900. Sicily was impoverished then and, from what I can tell, America was not a lot better. The extended family all lived in Chicago’s near North side at Oak & Sedgwick Streets. The tenements there were razed to make way for the Cabrini-Green Housing project.   

In 1928, Gramps bought a house farther up the north side, past Wrigley Field. This is where we 5 grew up, and frankly, as I child, I thought I would never leave. It was great growing up in Chicago then during the baby boom. Ours was hugely Catholic neighborhood, highly diverse and teeming with kids. It was lot like MIT.  There were always interesting people around, adventures to be had, trouble to get into.

There were some tough times, too. This was the city and violence was not uncommon. Several kids I grew up with were shot, one even at second base during a dispute in a softball game. There were also times when food was scarce. And there was lots of parental tension. My folks did stay together, however, until all of us were raised and we are very grateful for that. They provided a stable home. They also insisted that we get good educations.  We all went to the local parochial school, St. Ita’s, to be educated by the Sisters of Mercy (That is a misnomer!)

My Alumni Association inspiration came in very handily recently. I organized our old group going to plan 50th St Ita’s grade school reunion. It was terrific, like none of us ever left. Two classmates who had lost their spouses, Steve Benzenyei and Jean Mulvaney, met again and shortly after married!

St. Ita’s provided a far better education than the local Chicago public schools. For high school, my brother Ray and I went off Loyola Academy, a superb school run by the Jesuits, the great teaching order.  Through this all these years, my mom was the glue. All our friends loved her, too.

Mom died in 2007, just shy of her 90th birthday. She left this world the way she wanted. She died at her home in her own bed. All 5 of us were in the next room because Gen had summoned us back to Chicago a few days before.  She died towards evening, just as a fierce snowstorm arose. The funeral home people could not even come. So my sisters washed her and then we all kept a vigil that evening. It was a long and loving good bye. 

My current immediate family started right in this Chapel.  My wife Deena and I were married here 41 years ago. We were a “mixed” marriage and neither side wanted to officiate. So there were fewer choices back then. She was Jewish, and I was nominally a Catholic. Since then, I have converted to her beautiful faith and even have had an adult Bar Mitzvah.  She is truly an incredible partner, and is the center of our family. Her first focus was of course our kids, Michael & Elizabeth

Deena was a stay-at-home mom early on, then she started helping at their pre-school. Because she is such a natural with children, she rose from parent helper, to teacher, and finally director of the pre-school. After pre-school, the kids attended the school right across the railroad tracks from Deena’s pre-school, the Acton Barn. After the kids left grade school, Deena took a job a few blocks closer to our home, right at the end of our street, at the local high quality produce store, Idylwilde Farms. She likes short commutes.  

Mostly these have been great years, but we had one storm to weather - our son Mike’s mental illness. He always had learning and behavioral issues, but then close to 20 years of age, it was apparent that he was schizophrenic. In many ways, his was a classic case, but to parents in the middle of coping with this madness, it is numbing, by far the worst experience I’ve ever had. We should remember that 1 out of six American families have to deal with some form of mental illness. And we as a society have a long way to go. In particular, Massachusetts lags in support for the mentally ill.  Fortunately, Mike is in a group home in Minnesota, which has the best care of any state in the union. I visit him at least 2-3 times per year.  As the staff there and I both know his delusions are now permanent, but still I think the visits help.

But there is a silver lining even in this. I think you treasure life that much more. 

And it turns out one of my fraternity brothers, a bit older than me, has an eldest daughter who is bipolar. From this experience, Jim & Pat Poitras decided to fund the Poitras Center for Affective Disorders Research here at MIT. It is part of the McGovern Center for Brain Research. Jim & Pat periodically invite us to talks at the Center, and this has allowed us to understand better the roots of Mike’s illness. BTW, the middle Poitras daughter, Laura, has just won a MacArthur Genius Grant!

Our daughter Liz and son-in-law Andrew have a great marriage. They blessed us with two grandkids, Sam & Annie. And, as far as Deena and I are concerned, this pair is as good as it gets. In fact Deena is babysitting for them right now, as she does every Tuesday – and Friday – and other weekend days if we can. Sam is older by a few years and has become quite fond of MIT, as may note from the quote in the readings to follow.

I am quite fond of MIT, too, and I want to end with an anecdote from our MIT Family.

A few Fridays ago, Deena and I were to head to Logan for the flight to Sicily. This was our first overseas trip in five years and I was the MIT host, so Deena got to MIT in plenty of time, about 3:30PM.

Things started well enough when she parked temporarily in that U turn area on Mass. Ave next to the Student Center and I quickly hailed a cab. As Deena instructed, I moved the luggage from her car to the cab and, per our plan, jumped into her car to move to the West Garage. Nothing! The car was stone cold dead. So all I could do was ask the cab driver to call back in 20-30 minutes. Then my attention turned to calling AAA and collecting the luggage out the cab.

What I did not know was that my wife also had her purse and another case with all her personal things in the back seat of the cab. We did not realize the miscommunication until the cab was gone. And neither of us remembered the name of the company on the cab door. And then it started raining.

We were completely deflated. Deena did see how she could go on a trip with her personal ID and her womanly things. I had to go because I was the MIT host. Into this dismal picture, two people came by to help. One was my DSL colleague, Tom Gearty, whose office is just down the W32 hallway from me. The other was Jason Ku, a fraternity brother who just happened to be in Cambridge visiting from Japan.

They were immense, helping and consoling us for the next hour and a half, coping with AAA and moving the dead car, calling every cab company in Cambridge, and generally strategizing about the pickle we were in. They would not leave as long as there was anything we could do. I am deeply grateful to both. |

Finally they prevailed on us to go the airport, where the best hope was to wait and hope that the first cab driver would eventually realize he had Deena’s belongings and call. Fortunately, he did just that, calling about 5:30. The best plan was to have him meet us in the airport, where I - very happily – wound up paying two cab fares to Logan – both with big tips. It was just in a nick of time, but my wife Deena could come – and really enjoy what turned out to be a very remarkable trip.

I know so many of you would have done what Tom and Jason did. They really saved us. This is the kind of community we have.

So I am grateful for my MIT family and my St. Ita family and my Deena family and to all of you for letting me share these stories. 

You don't choose your family. They are God's gift to you, as you are to them.

Bishop Desmond Tutu

Every family has a story that it tells itself, that it passes on to the children and grandchildren. The story grows over the years, mutates, some parts are sharpened, others dropped, and there is often debate about what really happened. But even with these different sides of the same story, there is still agreement that this is the family story. And in the absence of other narratives, it becomes the flagpole that the family hangs its identity from.
A.M. HOMES, O Magazine, Apr. 2007

“Dominic married the beautiful young Geochina Cardella in Castelbouno, Sicily and had two children, Vincent [my grandfather] and Pauline. She died in childbirth with a third baby.  After her death, he married her older sister Michelena to help raise the children. They had two more children - Geochina [my great aunt Jennie] was born in Sicily and Eleanor was born shortly after they immigrated to Chicago.

Grandpa Dominic worked on the railroad as “pick and shovel’ man, hard labor. Dominic had also worked in Mississippi on a rice plantation (a 10’ black snake really scared him) and in Oklahoma Indian territory and in Louisiana”. .

Uncle Gene Ferrara (1919 – 2011), as told to my middle sister Gen, the family genealogist  

 “I might not be able to come because I have to go to my job as a robot scientist at MIT”.

Grandson Sam Beal, age 3, on why he would miss Nursery School the next day