December 30th, 2010 is a date of personal interest, the anniversary of the day my father succumbed to leukemia, at the very end of 1960. I understand he had been sick for a few years.
I don’t think of my father very often, because he died so early in my life. I was so young that I hardly have any memories of my father. There’s a conversation i vaguely recall with him and my Mom concerning my progress through school; he was very supportive. I can’t recall the voice distinctly. He has become an amalgam of photos and stories, an abstraction and a myth.
József or Joseph, or Joe? “Apa” or “Dad”. I had seen the stationery, showing his business nom de guerre, “Joe Barr.” I suppose if Bernie Schwartz had to rename himself as Tony Curtis, why shouldn’t Barcza Jozsef as well?
Throughout childhood I’d suddenly be snatched out of what i was doing, when someone would start to tell a story. They’d lived their lives with him, whereas I was so small when he passed away. I found so much glamor in the stories from my mother, and from my older siblings, who knew him so much better. My brother Peter had after all reached the advanced age of eleven and a half, but that was a massive difference compared to what i had seen and the precious little I had managed to retain.
Fifty years ago today, my family came to the end of a huge struggle. For awhile my mother lived by my father’s side in the hospital, and so the kids went to stay with the pastor of our Lutheran church. My father had been a prominent member, helping with the heating & air-conditioning; hm, or was it actually donating? there’s something else to ask my Mom, to untangle tales. I love those one-on-one conversations we have where she goes into a bit of a reverie, telling me about the past. Our conversations led to Silence is Golden, an opera i wrote about ten years ago, although I didn’t nearly cover it. I have been trying to find out about the past my whole life, it seems.
1960 itself, while it may seem to be a bit-player in this drama, stands shoulder to shoulder with a series of blanks, because I know so little with certainty. Other events from that year have been conflated into my life-story.
1960 is also the year of JFK’s election. That America was orphaned by his assassination in November 1963– when i was eight years old — allowed him into my mythology: as JFK probably had been for any other sensitive young person of the time. We’re not talking about the modern complex figure, but rather the earlier version of JFK, a witty avatar who seemed so perfect.
Jussi Bjoerling also died in 1960. I only discovered Bjoerling in subsequent years, particularly between the ages of 10 and 20 when our culture at home came mostly from the record player or the radio. Astonishingly, he sounded wonderful right up to the last month of his life, in 1960. The amazing performances –especially in his last concert in 1960– added to the aura surrounding 1960 in my head.
I conflated them all together, all those men who died young. Bjoerling (or Björling if you prefer) was supposedly born in 1912, and so was 48 when he died. John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born in 1917, the same year as my father. Dad was 43 when he died, same age as the youngest President ever elected in 1960, who would be dead by the age of 46.
Needless to say the mystique the entire decade acquired –by now it’s trite and cliche to talk about the ’60s as a period for music, political ferment and more– was very personal for me.
Today, while I am aware of my father, it’s really a day for my Mom. Every year she’s burned a candle on this day, thinking back. Every year it’s a day to touch base, re-affirm the family connection. For me Christmas has always had the dark cloud of mourning hanging over it, because old year really seems to pass away and in a real sense to die. I’ve rarely had a New Year’s celebration where i fully gave in to the extroversion of the day, given the family’s habitual introspection that week leading up to Dec 30th. But I think we also draw strength from that darkness, and enter the new year refreshed and renewed.
Happy New Year to you, and thanks for reading this.