At 8:30 PM on 23 July 2009, my father, Samuel Irving Bellman, passed away. The funeral was yesterday, and my older brother Joel and I both gave eulogies, in addition to my Aunt. My son Benjamin read a poem he liked—The Darkling Thrush, by Thomas Hardy; when I had told my father Ben was struck by it he was transformed from a severely ailing man of 81 or so to . . . “Tell Benjamin that he made Grandpa feel as he was floating on clouds! Wonderful! Unglaublich!”
So here are our eulogies: first that of Brother Joel, then mine. No, this isn’t musicological, but I’m doing it anyway. My Dad was such a presence, and had such an impact on what Joel and I became (whatever that is!), that it is only meet and fitting. I present this as heartfelt memorial, without the slightest apology for non-musicological content, nor for sentimentality or lachrymosity.
May his memory be for a blessing.
From Joel Bellman, the older son (reprinted with permission):
Samuel I. Bellman, 1926-2009
July 26, 2009
Good afternoon, everyone. I want to thank you all – our relatives, friends and colleagues – for joining my family and me on this occasion today.
We’ve shared so many happy times and celebrations in the past that I hardly know how to begin these remarks, but let me try.
For years, there was a kind of a standing joke between my father and me. Every time I met someone in the course of my work who was famous or in any way newsworthy, Dad, a university English professor, would ask, half-seriously but all hopefully, “You tell ‘em about your old man?”
Sometimes I’d lie and say, “Oh, yeah, I mentioned you.” Other times, maybe feeling mean or immature, I’d say, “Hell, no! Why would I?” Because what he was really asking was, “Did you tell them where you came from?”
Now, with your indulgence, I want to tell you about my old man.
You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who was more proud and supportive of his family. My mom, as many of you know, can fend for herself; she’s from Chicago, as we are often reminded, and while she may not be as skinny as Obama, she too is tough. Dad adored her and depended on her utterly. And when it came to his boys, he was invariably our biggest champion no matter what we were up to.
It’s hard to imagine two more impractical career aspirations than radio journalism at the dawn of happy-talk TV news, or classical music scholarship in the blighted age of disco and heavy metal. But Dad choked back whatever reservations he had and became our biggest boosters.
What else can I tell you? When I was 10 years old, he took me fishing at Happy Jack’s Trout Farm – this son of Lithuanian immigrants who had settled in El Paso, Texas and opened up a tiny country store in what Dad used to call the “Christ-forsaken place” of La Mesa, New Mexico. He taught me to ride a bike, without training wheels, when he himself had never learned how.
He took us on long summer driving vacations – Lake Cachuma, Lake Isabella, Lake Elsinore and especially Lake Arrowhead, where I always looked forward to setting off by myself in a little motorboat with nary a peep of concern from Dad. Years later, as an adult, I finally came to appreciate how lucky I’d been to have a father who, because he taught, had most summers off just like I did. He taught me to drive and let me take the wheel on some of those vacations and never criticized my driving or showed any anxiety about it – a feat I doubt very much I’ll be able to manage with my own sons.
He took us on our first trip to San Francisco in 1966 – no, not that kind of trip. Thanks to his friend and Department Chair Bob Morsberger – and his own enterprise in cutting through the academic red tape, we had our first experience traveling to and living in England, during a year-long house swap and exchange teaching visit. This stoked and solidified my lifelong Anglophilia and led to at least half a dozen later visits.
He took me to my first theatrical movie when I was only five years old –“Cinderfella,” with Jerry Lewis. And more Jerry Lewis: A drive-in movie double-bill of Gore Vidal’s “Visit to a Small Planet” and “The Bell Boy.” Later, when like every other 10-year-old boy I was into the secret agent and spy craze, he took me to see “The Ipcress File” with Michael Caine, one of the coolest ‘60s movies I ever saw. Still later, live theater: “Man of La Mancha” with Richard Kiley, “Fiddler on the Roof” with Herschel Bernardi, ”Othello” with James Earl Jones.
One time, he saved my brother’s life when, before Jon could swim, he accidentally drifted into the deep end of a colleague’s swimming pool. Dad jumped in fully clothed and rescued him – despite not knowing how to swim himself.
To my mother’s consternation, my dad discovered, and fueled, my appetite for dark and weird and often age-inappropriate fiction – Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, the fantasy, science fiction and horror of H.G. Wells, the corrosive cynicism of Ambrose Bierce, the tragic fatalism of Stephen Crane and Joseph Conrad, Edward Gorey’s eerie Victorian ghost-story anthology “The Haunted Looking-Glass,” the collected New Yorker cartoons of Charles Addams, morbid and violent old radio thrillers like The Shadow, Lights Out and Inner Sanctum.
There was the lighter stuff, too – Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass,” the nonsense work of Edward Lear, Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop cartoons, Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies with cheerful choruses of singing flowers; his collection of Big Little books featuring comic-strip and radio serial characters from the 1930s; his L. Frank Baum Oz book collection; and later, an eclectic and improbable assortment of 60s pop singles ranging from Ernie K-Doe, Little Peggy March and the Troggs to Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Peter, Paul and Mary.
Unfortunately, the world was rapidly changing, and from his standpoint, not for the better. As a yellow-dog FDR Democrat, he found things more and more politically intolerable under a succession of disastrous presidencies – that of “Nixie,” AKA “the anti-Christ;” Jerry Ford and his WIN buttons, too contemptible even to be graced with a pejorative; Jimmy Carter and his Sunday School pieties, a nuclear engineer my father derided as the “peanut boy,” Ronald Reagan, “the Beast” straight out of the Bible’s Book of Revelations; Bush I, who was “Bushie;” Bush II, who was alternately “the bastard,” “the Illegitimate One,” or just “The Boy.”
He was alarmed and offended by anti-intellectualism and tabloid journalism, even as he occasionally fell victim to both crackpot theories and crank populism. Prefiguring Philip Roth, my father once informed me that Hitler had a secret plan to bomb his hometown of El Paso as part of a planned takeover of the United States. This was news to me – and undoubtedly would have been to the Third Reich as well – but challenged for proof, he produced a yellowed newspaper column from the El Paso Times in 1942, speculating that the anti-aircraft artillery training center at the nearby Civil War-era Army post of Ft. Bliss might make it a tempting target.
Back in the early 1970s, he grew enamored with the writings of Erich Von Daniken, a one-time imprisoned swindler and author of “Chariots of the Gods,” who grew rich promoting the idea that extraterrestrial aliens – whom my dad reverently referred to as “the Fellas” – had somehow salted the earth in ancient times with the seeds of the human race.
Several years ago, he once received a strange package in the mail, bearing no return address, and opened it up to find a talking Ann Coulter doll. I don’t pretend to know the actual provenance of this mysterious gift, but I’m pretty sure it was not, as Dad insisted, personally sent to him by Ann Coulter herself.
The proliferation of new-media devices – from cell phones to personal computers – my technophobic father found it increasingly impossible to master. Despite it all, he remained surprisingly, if obscurely, productive – we’ve found dozens of essays, poems and articles tucked into every nook and cranny of my parents’ home that I’d no idea he’d ever written.
As my brother and I grew up, married and started families of our own, he embraced his three grandsons with the same ferocious affection he’d shown his own sons, as eager to school them in the fundamentals of scholarship, literacy and the joys of reading and writing. In the era of the Internet, iPods and video games, it was increasingly a fool’s errand – but he never gave up.
Oscar Wilde – another writer Dad introduced me to, through his novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” – counseled that we put our talent into our work and our genius into our life. I guess Dad sort of did – he raised one son who’s a professor and scholar who teaches and writes for a living, another who writes and periodically teaches for a living. We both share many of Dad’s crazy enthusiasms from the most arcane and even disreputable corners of popular culture to the most respectable highbrow literature and conventional symphonic works.
With the passage of time, more and more it’s my father’s face that I see in the mirror; his voice that I hear when I speak, his values and ethics I hope to transmit to my children. I am proud to be my father’s son.
That’s really what I wanted to tell you about my old man.
From Jonathan Bellman, the younger son:
I guess this means it will be more difficult for us to visit each other, right?
You told me that when you were young, a recently departed relative (perhaps Uncle Sol Levenson) visited three male relatives in their sleep the same night. Your father—Grandpa Max—said (in his dream), “We sure do miss you, Sol” and he responded “No, Max, it’s better this way.” Dad, I’m sure it is better, but if you’d like to stop by—while we’re dreaming, perhaps, or if you would just waft a breeze through our hair or give a quick kiss on the forehead—please don’t hesitate, even if there are some tears. Death is unavoidable, but the separation is a choice, and you will be close to me eternally. You used to speak of tribal beliefs that major chunks of parents’ souls are instilled in their children; as a son I believed it, and now, as a father, I know it to be true. Whether it is literally or figuratively true could not matter less. I will always feel you nearby.
One of the last times we saw each other, you directed me to “keep up the Bellman family tradition,” and I do: I teach, I learn, I write, I publish—as Joel does, and as you did your whole life. I go to school every day, as you did, as your grandsons do, as their children will do…as we are meantto do. And in the face of life’s losses and vicissitudes, we—like all teachers—still get to class, because people are waiting for us, people who need and want what we’re offering. Teaching and Learning—passing it on, in other words—is the great chain, reaching back to before Abraham and Isaac, back to prehistory, back to the animal kingdom even, and it has been our profound privilege to spend our lives as links in that chain. As you did, Dad, so I do. We’re still at it, with me putting my feet in your (bigger) footprints. So as surely as I breathe, I declare: no bond between us has been broken. Our closeness remains, and our work continues, as does our family tradition. It will be some time before we see each other again, but that is the nature of the distance between this world and Olam ha-Ba, the World to Come.
I miss you, though. Forn gezunt: go well, and fly high and far, with freedom and joy, with the spirit of the Almighty cradling you and putting wind beneath your wings. And I love you forever.