Note: Aunt Clair, my father’s sister, has been included in this blog many times, including a post that was dedicated to her ( this one). She was a unique person who had a major impact on my life. As my cousin Ilana so aptly put it: Every teen and young adult should be lucky enough to have an adult who cares about them and exposes them to new experiences who is not their parent. We were fortunate to have Aunt Clair.The family gathered this past Friday to celebrate and honor her. These were my remarks.
Thank you for coming – or participating via Zoom.
I’m Linda, one of Clair Brody’s nieces. Aunt Clair communicated her last wishes to me, and I hope this gathering reflects her intent.
From the time she arrived on March 5, 1935 until her death on November 2, 2021, Clair, far more than most, did things on her own terms. It is something I have long admired, though I’m not sure it always worked to her benefit.
Aunt Clair was Brooklyn born and bred. Arriving while the Great Depression still had a grip on this country, she was the beloved daughter of hard-working parents, Leo and Selma Brody. She was the younger sister, by five years, of Diane (now Gareen) and 2 ½ years younger than Barry, my father. She was so proud of her older and very accomplished siblings. Clair went to New York City public schools and graduated from Brooklyn College, with a major in photography. She was a talented photographer and some of her work is on the table here. (I am including other photos below to show her work)
Clair went on to write code for computers – for TWA (which allowed her to travel far and wide), Bendix and Avis among others – she worked in that industry when it was in its infancy and when there were few women.
My brother Mark and I went to her apartment in Greenwich Village on Wednesday. There were a couple of reasons we went, but a major reason for me was to find some mementos of who Aunt Clair was and the legacy she leaves us. I think what we found does just that.
We were greeted by one of the long term doormen, who recognized me from my prior visits. He immediately asked, “What is happening? How is she?” Mark explained that she had passed away and his face dropped. The weight of the loss was clear. We thanked him for being so helpful to our Aunt Clair and continued on to pick up her mail and go up to the apartment.
Her mail gives another glimpse into our Aunt Clair. She has likely donated to every social justice and charitable organization in the world. The ACLU, Planned Parenthood, the Nature Conservancy, the City Mission, the Simon Weisenthal Center….the list could go on. Though she was never rich, she was generous with what she had.
We went into her apartment. First, we have to acknowledge that organization and neatness were not strengths of our beloved Auntie. Aunt Clair loved gadgets and tools and she had lots of them. She loved a good deal from Costco – so there was evidence of that, too. She enjoyed cooking and eating. – though she had a tiny galley kitchen in her Greenwich Village studio apartment – it was well-stocked with pots, pans, dishes….and gadgets.
There was a lot of dust. Aunt Clair accumulated things and saved everything. Medical reports from decades ago, instructions for exercise, letters. I found the original lease to her apartment – from July 1, 1960! She paid $80.40 a month. Think about that…she lived in the same place for 61 years. What does that say? As much as she was a free thinker, and she was as insightful and intelligent as they come, she did not embrace change.
As I looked around her apartment, I saw her love of art and music. Her taste in both could be quirky. She had lovely pieces of pottery. She also kept a plastic ring with a smiley face.
She loved biking. She had a compact stationary bike set up in that studio apartment. She had lots of tools and supplies to take care of her other bicycle, the one she kept in storage. I had great adventures with her biking.
There is much more I can say – and I will say a bit more about my personal relationship with Aunt Clair – but first I will turn to her other niece, Ilana. Then her nephew Mark will share his remembrance and I will come back.
Before I share my personal memories, I want to say on behalf of my mother, that she is devastated by the loss of her sister-in-law. They may have been fractious at times (as Aunt Clair was with those near and dear to her), but they maintained a close and devoted relationship long after Dad died. Mom will miss their late-night telephone conversations and just knowing Clair was there for her.
I’d like to share some specific memories:
Aunt Clair was feisty. My father loved telling stories about her toughness, even as a little girl. One involved an unfortunate dentist who told the young Clair that the procedure he was about to perform wouldn’t hurt. Well, it did. Clair was indignant, claiming that he lied, she kicked him in a particularly sensitive spot and climbed down from the chair.
Making your way in New York City as a single woman isn’t easy. I remember Dad telling me about a mugging where Aunt Clair refused to give up her purse. She fought back and ended up bruised, angry and minus her pursue. Though Dad admired her spirit, his message to me was not to do what she did.
I learned that I had a bit of her spirit when I had an experience going into the subway. It was 1980 and Gary and I were going down the stairs to the station, Gary was ahead of me. I had a backpack on and I felt it being jostled. Without thinking, I spun and said loudly, “What the fuck are you doing?” There was a young man with his hand on my knapsack. He looked startled and he turned and ran. Gary had stopped, but the incident was already over. I surprised myself, it was an instinctive reaction. I think I was channeling my inner Aunt Clair.
Some of my fondest memories of time spent with her involved bicycling. Clair biked around Manhattan long before the city made any accommodations for riders.
I joined her for a bike tour of Manhattan. This was no ordinary bike tour. We started in Central Park at midnight! This was in August in the late 1970s when the park was a haven for drugs and violence. Hundreds of people were gathered with their bicycles at the Bethesda Fountain. It was odd to be there. In those years, I wouldn’t have gone into Central Park by myself in broad daylight. It felt exciting and adventurous to be there amongst so many fellow cyclists.
We rode around the park, stopping periodically to hear about its history. We left the park and rode along the east and then west side of Manhattan. We rode down Broadway, passing the neon signs of the theaters, all the way to the deserted financial district. The financial district felt like a movie set, with the skyscrapers seeming like two dimensional facades. It was so quiet, it was eerie. It felt like a ghost town. We were able to ride in the canyon of Wall Street without other traffic, pedestrian or vehicular. I got up close and personal views of the architecture and sculptures in a part of the city I had only seen on a rare school trip.
Our tour concluded at sunrise at Battery Park. A hazy sun rose over the mouth of New York harbor. We rode back to the Village, got breakfast at a brasserie and ended the adventure with a nap at her apartment.
It was not my only adventure with Aunt Clair. We took other bike rides – on Martha’s Vineyard and in Boston, too. She introduced me to walking across the Brooklyn Bridge – we bought wonton soup and ate it midway across – long before it became a ‘cool’ thing to do. I saw plays, movies and ballets with her. She introduced me to Alvin Ailey, not the man, the dance troupe. I have gone back to see them many times, and brought Gary and later my children. We ate many meals at wonderful hole-in-wall restaurants in her neighborhood. I learned so much about the city, and about being independent, from my time spent with her. Thank you, Auntie.
Finally, I want to say that I am so saddened by Aunt Clair’s final months. I wish it had gone differently. She struggled – in so many ways. She was just celebrating her 86th birthday when she found out the pancreatic cancer had returned. She fought it. She so wanted to maintain her independence, but she really couldn’t. Her body was failing her. So was our broken medical system and our country’s flawed elder care. I tried to help and so did others in the family, but we could not fix it. The inevitable was going to happen – and it did this past Tuesday.
I take comfort in several things, my memories, of course. But there is something else. When Gary and I visited her last Saturday, while she was still in the hospital, she was quite talkative. In between language that was indecipherable, she shared something important that I want to share with you. She said she had no regrets – she acknowledged that though she never had a spouse or her own children, she felt loved. She said she knew she was loved by her mother and father, and she felt like she belonged – her words. That’s more than many can say.
The last six months brought Aunt Clair a lot of anguish and discomfort, but I am heartened that she felt loved. I will miss her, as I know many of you will too, but she isn’t suffering anymore – I am grateful for that. There is a traditional phrase in Judaism, and though Aunt Clair was not religious, I think she would appreciate it: May her soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life. I hope her soul is bound with those she loved who left before her – her parents, her brother, her cousin Carol, her dearest friend Phyllis and other family and friends who were important to her.
Apropos of Halloween, our family book club recently read and discussed Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I had never read it before. I have seen the movie versions, the iconic one with Boris Karloff from 1931 and Mel Brooks’ version. For the record, I recommend Young Frankenstein.
Reading the book, I was surprised by how relevant the story is even though Shelley wrote it in 1818 (when she was 18 years old!). I was anticipating a difficult read. I expected the language to be dense and unfamiliar. I was pleasantly surprised to find it accessible. In parts it was quite beautiful and expressive. At other times I found it overwrought, though I suspect the author may have intended it to be. It is quite a melodramatic tale. The members of our book club differed in their judgment of the writing; some ended up skimming because they found the focus on details off-putting, while others reveled in the lush descriptions. I fell somewhere in the middle. I appreciated her ability to convey depth of emotion and paint a picture of the ‘creature’s’ experience as he entered the world, but sometimes I found it overdone and was ready to move on.
Apart from the writing itself, the story led to spirited discussion. It is so rich with themes that transcend time: the nature of man, the balance of progress (scientific discovery) and ethical obligation, the danger of unbridled passion/ambition. It was nearly impossible to contain our conversation to the scheduled one hour (we meet on Zoom). Interesting takes on the story were offered: that it was really a parable of mental illness (perhaps the ‘monster’ wasn’t real at all). Another perspective suggested that it was reflecting on the fears of that age that God had turned his back on man the way Dr. Frankenstein abandoned his creature.
We talked about the role of appearances. The creature’s appearance engendered so much disgust, fear and violence that he became the monster that the people feared. Had the public responded differently, he might never have become destructive.
In terms of the risks of progress, we agreed that the book offers a cautionary tale. We talked a bit about whether Mark Zuckerberg was a ‘Dr. Frankenstein.’ While there are differences in that Zuckerberg has not abandoned his creation (far from it), there are relevant parallels. Progress, without due consideration of the ethics and consequences, is dangerous. Today universities have structures in place to assess the ethical impact of an experiment before it is funded. Private tech companies need to put more emphasis on ethics and consequences before steaming ahead with new applications. How to make that happen remains an open question.
In the story Victor Frankenstein, during his studies at university, becomes obsessed with breathing life into something dead. His research convinces him that he can achieve this, and he becomes single-minded in his pursuit of that goal. He sleeps little, isolates himself and slaves away in his workshop until he succeeds. Most of the story focuses on what happens after that ‘eureka’ moment, but I was interested in exploring that aspect of the narrative.
I wonder whether that level of intensity is necessary for great breakthroughs, for great scientific achievements. My daughter, who is a neuroscientist and has worked in several labs at different universities, offered that she thought meaningful scientific progress can be made by people who have lives outside the lab. She has observed researchers who have families and hobbies and still manage to produce important work. I was heartened to hear that because I am predisposed to think that it requires if not obsession, close to it.
When I raised that question at book club my cousin responded that it is a myth that big discoveries are achieved by single-minded, hardworking geniuses. He pointed out that those accomplishments are the result of collaboration or appropriation of the work of others; though individuals may claim the credit and history may celebrate that person, that isn’t the reality. We didn’t get to examine his point in depth because time had run short. I want to investigate this idea further here.
I have not read the histories of Edison, Ford and others who are credited with huge advances, but it makes sense to me that their work was built on ideas and contributions of others. I think it does us a disservice not to acknowledge that. The mythology of one man, and most often it is a man, forging the path or having the ‘aha’ moment, creates unreasonable expectations and fails to give due credit to those who provide the conditions that permit the discovery. Putting aside the cases where the idea may have been outright stolen or appropriated, wherever you look, in whatever field of endeavor, geniuses need support. These days, even in an individual sport like tennis, the winner of the tournament thanks his/her ‘team.’ Roger Federer, a genius on the tennis court, acknowledges his coach, his physio (I didn’t know what that was until recently), and his family because he recognizes that even if he was alone on the court, others contributed to his victory.
I took my cousin’s important point to heart; it still didn’t exactly answer the question I was posing. Both things can be true. Great accomplishments can require collaboration (acknowledged or not) and an obsessive devotion to the effort. I was pleased to hear Leah’s observation; I still wonder. Though I can’t say I have seen geniuses work up close, I have worked with folks who are at the very top of their field, very respected, sought-after practitioners of medicine, law and public policy. I think it is fair to say they have bordered on obsessive. They certainly put in many, many hours of work and mental energy. They may have families and even a hobby, but it isn’t in balance. I can’t think of anyone in that esteemed position who didn’t prioritize their work (family might share equal billing, but nothing else comes close). I made a choice early in my career to seek out balance, I wasn’t that ambitious. Or maybe I was, but my ambition was to have well-adjusted children. I certainly put time and energy into them. I have come to no conclusion on this. Can a person live a balanced life and still achieve greatness? Of course, it begs the issue of defining greatness, but I’m thinking about major contributions to their field, whatever it might be.
The issue of scientific breakthroughs without due consideration of consequences and whether those engaged in that work need to be obsessed are likely connected. The obsession or unbridled ambition may lead to the inability to consider impacts beyond their own achievement. We need mechanisms in place that balance the drive for innovation with concern for the greater good. The concept of a greater good has proven difficult for folks to agree upon.
In sum, if you have not read Frankenstein, I recommend it – especially for a book club.
Note to my fellow book clubbers: If I have not done justice to the ideas shared, please add your comments. Or, if I have done justice, but you’d like to chime in, please do. If your thoughts rise to the level of a full essay, I’m happy to post it. I extend that invitation to other readers, as well.