In the spring of 1993 I was winding down things in Seattle before moving to Prague. One afternoon I stopped in a local tavern where I was friends with the barmaid, and the place was empty except for the two of us and one guy drooped over a beer at the far end of the counter. When she asked about my preparations his head suddenly popped up and a voice with a decidedly southern accent boomed, "Prague? I was thinking about moving to Prague, but I wound up here in Seattle!". I squinted down the counter at the stranger and asked, "So where are you from?", expecting an answer in the vicinity of Georgia, maybe Texas, but instead this fellow did a very Southern thing, and answered my question with a question. "Well, where are YOU from?". So I told him, and we played out a few more questions that included neighborhoods, high schools, and the like, before the realization set in. "Jimmy?", I ventured. He grinned and rubbed his balding head, pointing at mine and said, "Yeah, Bobby? Man, we got OLD, didn't we?". So much time had passed, in fact more than twenty years, since the last time we saw or spoke to each other that we still addressed each other by our childhood names, and not the more grownup sounding "Bob" or "Jim".
Jim and I have stayed in touch since then, in fact we enjoyed the last New Year's Eve I ever spent in the US together at the Two Bells Tavern in Seattle, WA in 1998 (yep, that's Jim with his arm around my shoulder in the photo). And Jim even visited Prague in the summer of 2003 with a couple of his friends from Portland, OR. We still exchange e-mails several times a year, and I'm going to write to him right now, after I post this. And I hope you will all take this opportunity to wish your friends and old acquaintances, long lost or otherwise, a Happy New Year!
In the late 1980's I spent a year in Silicon Valley, working for a high-tech telecom products company. One of the friends I made while working there was an Iranian guy, who lived in San Francisco and commuted the short distance by car. Hossein was very cordial, and highly educated. Some weekends I would visit him in the city and we would eat dinner together at a restaurant in North Beach. Hossein's father was a diplomat when he was growing up, so he had lived in a number of European cities and had lots of stories to tell. Sometimes he would kid me, while enjoying an after dinner cigar and brandy, about marrying me off to one of his girl cousins in Tehran, since I not only had a good job, but like a good Muslim I didn't smoke or drink. One evening he told me that he was returning to Tehran to head up a government telecom research facility. We stayed in touch, but I never saw him again.
During the Christmas season in 1990, I was shopping at Nordstrom in downtown Seattle with my girlfriend and as we passed a perfume counter, she sprayed a bit of Chanel No. 5 on her wrist from a sample bottle. Before we reached the end of the counter a thickly accented saleswoman's voice tracked us from behind, "No, no , no. That's not the way we try our perfume in Europe!". I was wondering just how one could test perfume otherwise, when she began waving a tissue and spritzing perfume at it. "Aha, and just where do you come from in Europe?", I asked, thinking that her accent indicated elswhere. "Oh", she said, "well, I was born in Tehran, but I really grew up in Vienna". I had just received a holiday card from my friend Hossein and I still had it with me in my backpack. I said, "That's funny, I just got a card from a friend who was also born in Tehran and grew up in Vienna." Her jaw dropped as she stared at me and asked in a quivering voice, "Hossein?". Mind you, in some countries with large populations, saying "Hossein" is like saying "Joe". But then she added "Hossein... Serri?". I couldn't resist pulling the card out of my backpack and showing it to her. She burst into tears and said she and Hossein had been best friends growing up and that she hadn't seen him since they were both fourteen. When I knew Hossein he was already in his early forties, so we're talking about almost thirty years, here. The woman gave me her business card and I promised to pass her contact information along to Hossein.
Back at home, I couldn't resist placing a call to Tehran. I thanked Hossein for the card he sent and told him I had just run into an old friend of his, a woman he apparently grew up with in Vienna. "Naomi?", he asked, before I even had a chance to say her name. "Yes", I said, hearing what sounded like sobs on the other end. "I lost track of her so many years ago, this is like a miracle finding her again, my friend", he cried. "Yes", I said, "it's a small world".
Christmas is a sad time for many of us. Not all memories are happy ones. I try to maintain a cheerful disposition throughout the season, although my whole family is now long dead and buried, except for a few girl cousins. And I have no children either, with whom to share the joy that should always be present at Christmas, especially for the little ones. This season, I'm thankful for my girlfriend, my cat, and a handful of good friends.
In 1998, I spent my last Christmas in America with my aging mother. We reminisced about my sister, my only sibling, who had recently passed away before the age of fifty after a long and painful battle with cancer. And we reminisced about my father, who died at a couple of years before my sister, killed by a careless Florida doctor who had adjusted his chemotherapy improperly with disastrous results. My father's meager life insurance had been slowly eaten away by my sister's medical bills. My mother had to pay these herself after the state of Alabama cheated my sister out of the health benefits that might have at least ensured a less painful death. As a result of the financial strain, my mother was faced with losing the tiny, central Florida retirement home we were sitting in during our holiday discussion, but she didn't let this spoil her mood.
Over our Christmas treats and coffee we talked about the fun times our small family had experienced over the years, of which there were many. And she told me things about my father I had never heard before, for instance how many years earlier he had established a substantial trust fund for the orphaned daughters of his deceased business partner. Apparently my mother was the only person who ever knew about the gift, except for the orphans. In a brief interlude to our discussion, that quietly avoided the pain and suffering my own family had felt, I flashed back through the years to the tragic loss of another family.
One Alabama morning nearly forty years ago now, the youngest daughter of my father's business partner woke to the sound of loud noises coming from their kitchen. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she discovered her father at the kitchen table, slumped over his morning newspaper, through which all six rounds of a .38 revolver had left thumb-sized holes before making a bloody, unrecognizable mess of his face. Lying dead on the floor by the table was his wife, the shooter, who had just missed herself once with a second pistol, this time a .22 caliber, leaving a small hole in the ceiling before successfully putting a final round into her own brain. This is not something any nine-year old girl should wake up to see in the family kitchen. Luckily, the other daughter, twelve at the time, was spared this gory sight, since she had been sleeping over at a friend's house. The older daughter was named after her aunt, who was the identical twin sister of her mother. In the wake of the murder-suicide, the two orphaned girls were sent to live in a small, sleepy southern Alabama town with this identical twin aunt, the spitting image their now dead mother who had just murdered their father. I still shudder just imagining what it must have been like, this real-life example of Southern Gothic horror if there ever was one.
My family's successful business was almost totally wrecked in the aftermath of this tragedy, which coincided with the disastrous economic situation in the US during the early 1970's and the Vietnam war, where my first brother-in law was just then experiencing his own, personal tragedy. My parents were children of the Great Depression, poor teenagers during World War II, members of a tough and resilient generation which went on to build a successful America that garnered the world's respect and admiration, all too quickly now becoming a fading memory.
I am the only son of these good people who are no longer with us, the last of the line. And I remember much, both good and bad.