Message From Mom
This yellow bloom inspired a story that has been waiting nearly twenty years for me to write.
Why I write
Hello and thank you for visiting!
In addition to the privilege of serving as a Councilwoman for the Town of Huntington, I am a writer.
Master of the Kitchen
Part II of Joan Cergol/Greg Cergol blog duet: "We look out the same window, why don't we see the same thing"
Psychoanalysts like to sometimes speculate that certain men marry women like their mothers.
In my case, I married my father.
Joan prefers to wear the tool belt in the family. She loves to fix things, tinker with gadgets and work outdoors.
As she does, you will often find me in the kitchen, answering the call of a good pasta recipe or a complex dessert.
Sound unusual? Topsy turvy?
Visitors do an occasional double take when they see my wife toiling in the dirt and me behind the stove; but for us, it works.
Most of the time.
Joan has been known to take her “Mrs. Fix-it” role a tad too far.
Like the time she nearly electrocuted herself trying to install a new stove. Or fell into the fishpond while trying to clean it. (She survived both mishaps.)
I can just hear some of you asking with disdain: “How can a good husband leave these chores to his wife?”
I say, why not?
Joan has a passion for household projects while I have always been indifferent to them.
And “a man has got to know his limitations.” My dad’s pedigree as a prodigious home contractor never transferred to me.
And I get edgy when I am attempting things out of my comfort zone.
In fact, my wife loves to warn others to steer clear when I have a hammer in hand. So, I let her take the lead.
But that doesn’t mean I escape the work.
Often, I am pulled into projects to serve as the “grunt.”
Moving ladders here.
Cleaning up debris there.
Doing the bulk of the painting after Joan chooses a color for the walls.
Laborer to my wife’s role as supervisor. (Remember when I explained her ancestors were Italian royalty?)
And in the end, despite my efforts, credit for a job well done goes to the supervisor.
“Joan, the kitchen looks “beauteeful.”
“Joan, the bedroom color is stunning.” (Was I away on vacation when these jobs were done?)
Fortunately, payback comes at family gatherings and holidays.
My work in the kitchen has made me the de facto family chef. (My grandfather actually was one when he first came to the U.S.)
And no matter who cooks, I get the credit for a meal well done. (This can make my wife, a wonderful cook in her own right, a bit testy around clean-up time.)
Most amazing of all, I think, is the fact that our extended family has actually come to recognize and accept this reversal of roles.
That’s saying a lot in a clan of Italian immigrants.
Joan and I didn’t plan to be different. We didn’t make a conscious decision to shake things up.
We just followed our hearts and left the gender rule book to others.
So I prefer to tool around fixing things to perfecting a soufflé!
And I make the grandest of messes with all of my projects.
And despite what the man tells you, I never leave a worksite without cleaning up, leaving Greg the “grunt” to attend to those lesser chores.
Well, maybe now and again I will ask him to help lift something I cannot. But my various physical injuries are testament to my not asking enough.
Here’s a newsflash about Greg Cergol, the chef: when the newsman announces he is on to his next culinary creation I am both excited and mortified, continually reassuring myself it will all be good in the end.
The man has a knack for using every bowl, pot, pan, utensil and gadget in the kitchen.
Oh yes indeed, Greg is a cooking virtuoso! As for the kitchen clean-up, not so much.
The scene goes something like this:
Just after I have tackled, completed and cleaned up from some very involved home project I am called into the kitchen by Greg to inspect or taste his latest cooking or baking achievement.
As I scan the kitchen I have to wonder how much of the ingredients actually made it into the dish itself because by all accounts they are smeared to the refrigerator, sink faucet and oven door handles, splashed across countertops and caked into bowls and utensils piled sky high in the sink.
Sweet Jesus! Does the man ever wash his hands before moving from one step to the next?
Greg is oblivious to the kitchen catastrophe. His is in some Lidia Bastianich-induced nirvana.
Maybe it’s genetic. Greg’s already told you his grandfather was a fine chef. And that is really good for him, and, of course for me and our family, once we sit down to dinner.
But getting there can be a rough road because those same great chefs do not clean as they cook. In fact, they don’t clean at all.
Have you ever seen Wolfgang Puck or Emeril Lagasse wash a dish or a pot while the garlic is peacefully sautéing? Do you think they ever would?
I didn’t think so. No, the master chef soaks up his praise and then struts from the kitchen, dramatically releasing the ties from his apron, signaling his work is done. He leaves the clean up to the lesser-evolved cooking species.
So here comes the kitchen grunt.
Rushing to the sink like a firefighter to a blaze.
Yes, people, this time that grunt is me.
But I hardly mind it.
Those of you who have experienced Greg’s remarkable homemade pasta dishes, cakes or pies know it’s true.
He’s the master of the kitchen.
And I, his clever clean-up assistant/home-repair maven.
Welcome to the Cergols.
Part I of Joan Cergol/Greg Cergol blog duet: "We look out the same window, why don't we see the same thing?"
After talking about it for years, my husband Greg and I have launched the inaugural installment of a blog series that will be dedicated to showcasing the ongoing debates in relationships.
During our thirty four years as a married couple, we’ve enjoyed many important collaborations.
Parenting two remarkable young ladies is at the top of our list.
After that, well, I actually can’t think of a whole lot of other fruitful collaborations.
That’s because, to tell you the truth, there aren’t many worthy of mention.
It’s not that we haven’t tried. There are a number of things we do as a team simply because we manage a household together.
We cook together. We paint rooms together. We close and open the pool together. Put up, and take down, the Christmas tree. Together.
There is a single occurrence that inevitably obliterates the blissful togetherness of our collaborative efforts.
Someone loses patience and snaps.
And I’ll give you one hint: it usually isn’t me.
Now let me state right here, as to avoid any possible misunderstanding: I adore Greg Cergol. And I’m pretty sure he likes me.
Greg is the smartest, kindest and most interesting man I know. He’s also an amazing husband and father.
There’s just one problem.
We can’t work together.
Greg has his ways, and I have mine.
And whenever he tries to coax me into his way of thinking and doing things, I resist.
That’s because my dear and thoughtful husband seems unable to take on a task without plotting everything out to the smallest detail as to avoid the possibility of any mistakes.
There’s something to be said for that noble approach if you happen to be a surgeon.
Luckily, so far none of our co-pursuits have involved an appendectomy.
I am frustrated by unnecessary delay in over-planning and prepping when there is a job to be done.
It’s not that I’m any less conscientious than The Man. We are both clear perfectionists. Here’s the difference: I like to dive right in with my all, and he likes to slowly ease into things, with a little of himself at a time.
Admittedly, there are times when my ways can run afoul, for example, when I’m attempting to assemble furniture following only a cursory scan of the instructions.
Meanwhile, Greg could be busy earning a Ph.D. on that instruction manual as the pieces remain scattered on the floor for days.
In the end, in my way of thinking, if the table stands solidly even though I’ve got a few inexplicable pieces of hardware in my hand at completion, that’s success.
How about this?
On the last project we tackled together, the repainting of a bedroom, with a steady hand I eked out a flawless job of paint edging between the wall and the baseboard without the aid of masking tape. Greg was unable to process that I managed to skip this step and still complete the task. So what did he do? He taped anyway.
Are you getting the picture?
So here is my theory that I believe applies to the majority of life situations: the end result of a given project will be virtually the same with, or without, the fuss.
Provided you could make a decision about the project in the first place.
Therein lies another obstacle to getting any project off the ground.
Someone has to make a decision.
And unless I’m willing to wait until hell freezes over, that person has to be me.
But that’s a discussion for another installment.
For now, we have cause to celebrate that we are, at long last, on to what we hope can be the next successful Joan and Greg Cergol collaboration since launching Emily and Kristina into the real world.
Greg? Are you still with me?
The realization came to me shortly after our lives intersected- Joan is the greatest person I have ever met.
Giving. Kind. Compassionate. My love and my life.
Yet, the thought of co-authoring a blog with her leaves me uneasy.
Like the feeling that always washed over Ricky when Lucy would smile and say, “Honey I’ve been thinking….”
My anxiety seems illogical. We’ve been married for 30 years.
Joan is an excellent writer. Creative. Thoughtful. An independent woman with distinctive views.
But my gut won’t stop churning.
Being a husband teaches you that logical thinking can sometimes result in mayhem.
Okay, maybe “mayhem” is too strong a characterization….but Joan can surprise you.
When it comes to work, she is an absolute lone wolf.
She lapses into what she calls “the zone,” and no one can penetrate it…not a co-worker, friend or husband.
When I check in during the day by phone, I know instantly if she’s there.
Her voice is distant; her attention light years away.
“Honey, I’ve decided we should dispose of all our worldly possessions and move to a mountain hut in the Italian Alps.”
“Sounds great, Greg.”
At first, I thought something was wrong; but after a few years, I realized “the zone” was nothing personal. (Maybe we husbands AREN’T always the most perceptive.)
That silence has now become my cue to bid Joan adieu until later.
Even her staff has come to understand.
When “the zone” is entered, they post a sign on her door, warning outsiders to stand clear.
“The zone” doesn’t allow for creative give and take, for collaboration.
Thus, collaborating has never been Joan’s strong suit.
In part, it’s genetic.
She is, after all, descended from a royal bloodline. Her father, a prominent surgeon and proud U.S. Army veteran, was also an Italian count.
Royals decree; they don’t collaborate.
When we bought our first car, she chose it.
It was only AFTER I toured our first home that Joan revealed she had already agreed to buy it.
Parenthood? I was alerted when it was time.
When I vacuum the house, she always goes over what I have done. When I clean the kitchen- ditto.
Parsing words with her in a blog, I fear, could leave me a mere footnote.
After all, in this small piece of the vast internet world, I will be speaking for husbandkind.
I must be able to get a word in edgewise.
(And if you know Joan’s gift of gab, which comes from her delightful mother, you understand how difficult that can be.)
So, why proceed, you ask?
First, I have never run from a spirited debate. My siblings will attest to that.
Secondly, I am able to rise above, to live by the words of Arthur in Camelot.
“How to handle a woman? Simply love her.”
If you’re not buying any of that, realize this.
The bottom line is that Joan’s decisions have always proven to be the correct ones- whether I liked ’em at the time or not.
So if she tells me to write a blog….I’m there.
Fate takes flight
Sometime around 1953 a young German-born Pan American Stewardess was assigned to ensure the airline’s hospitality for a high profile passenger.
For much of that long flight from Berlin to New York City, the charming Gisela Wolff entertained the passenger with interesting and lively conversation, a skill at which she was particularly adept.
Ultimately the conversation touched on Gisela’s need to secure a sponsor for her planned visit to New York, where she was to meet her U.S Army Officer gentleman-friend’s parents for the first time. She had explained that U.S military rules prohibited officers from serving as sponsors for single women.
After the long flight, whose time was passed with delightful conversation and laughter, the weary but grateful passenger handed Gisela his business card and offered to act as her sponsor for that important trip to America. Gisela thanked the passenger and happily took him up on the offer.
Months later as Gisela was being processed for what would become her first momentous visit to New York, she dutifully presented her sponsorship credentials to a New York City airport official. The bewildered official stared at the young woman’s passport and sponsorship papers for few minutes before speaking. “Uh, Miss Wolff, am I correct in reading your U.S. sponsor’s name as James R. Hoffa- as in Jimmy Hoffa?”
“Why yes,” replied the polite stewardess, as if it were nothing at all. The official raised his eyebrows as he promptly stamped Gisela Wolff’s entrance papers, all at once making possible her debut in America.
And that is the story of how mom managed to land a sponsor to visit New York, during which time my lovestruck father proposed marriage to her, after she, of course, won over my grandparents, just as she apparently did, Jimmy Hoffa.
Mom never saw Hoffa again. And needless to say, after 1975, neither did anyone else.
Being Disney wasn't always a walk in the park
In the early 1950s a young surgeon was called to a cruise ship’s infirmary to tend to an ill passenger.
When the doctor stepped into the examining room there waiting sat an illustrious businessman complaining of indigestion. Recognizing the world-famous patient the doctor asked, “What on earth put a man like you into such a state?”
Answered the patient, “Doc, that’s easy to answer. Every day I run into one headache after another on my construction project, and to top it off, I’m running up massive debt on it and worry if this venture is ever going to pay off.”
The patient was Walt Disney. He was referring to the construction of Disneyland in Anaheim, California.
The young doctor was Dr. Nicholas DeVito, my dad, substituting as the cruise ship physician for a friend on that voyage.
Dad told us this story only a handful of times during his life.
My takeaways: 1) even Mickey Mouse suffered bad days, and 2) big dreams take big money.
But thanks for dreaming big, Mr. Disney. Needless to say, your legendary brand of magic paid off.
What was also magic on that day is that you had dad there to tend to you with a little antacid and a large dose of encouragement and faith that dreamers with good plans and intentions ultimately succeed.
Dad dispensed that kind of wisdom to me too on a few occasions when I questioned the probability of attaining certain dreams.
Mr. Disney may not have realized how fortunate he was to cross paths with dad that day to get a little of his legendary good medicine.
But I do.
This week our family lost its patriarch, Bruno Nicholas Cergol.
Bruno was my father in law who, over the last ten months, fought a brave battle against leukemia. We all called him “Poppi.”
The best way for me to honor Poppi is to share the heartfelt words of his oldest son, and my husband, Greg.
On a very difficult day, Greg soothed many hurting hearts with the following tribute:
One of my earliest memories of Poppi came when I was about four or five years old.
He arrived home on a Friday night after picking up some pizza for the family.
And he proceeded to tell us how….after leaving the pizzeria….he stumbled on three men…trying to steal his car.
Those guys chose poorly.
Needless to say….by the end of Poppi’s story….the three battered and bruised thieves were in police custody.
And Poppi was on his way home.
Poppi was always bigger than life.
An imposing physical presence….with massive hands that would swallow yours when he greeted you.
He was a man of few words…because he didn’t need them.
You always knew he was there.
In our Queens neighborhood, my teenaged friends were tough, brash and fearless.
But around Poppi…they turned into choirboys—soft spoken and humble.
They always called him “the Big B”….a nickname of endearment and respect….they use to this day.
Poppi…of course… had a heart to match that big body.
There were few days when he didn’t put others ahead of himself.
One story Poppi told me only recently captures that spirit.
Poppi and his teenaged friends were driving to a neighborhood party when they crossed paths with a group of girls.
These girls were not part of the “in” group and they definitely weren’t invited to the party.
Poppi altered that guest list on the spot.
Within minutes…the girls were piling into the car with Poppi’s buddies and off they all went to the party.
We all know Poppi as a builder.
But he had a great many jobs in his life.
He sorted piano parts for Steinway.
Helped crochet floor rugs.
Served as a clerk in a lumber yard.
Managed a popular Nassau county motel.
There were two constants in everything he did—
A passion to do the job right…and a desire to be creative.
Poppi often told Joan and I he would have liked to work as an architect.
Even as a teen, he dreamed of doing more….so much so…that when his father initially tried to push him toward a career as a mason….
Poppi told the man he loved deeply…it wasn’t for him.
For years, Poppi recalled that conversation with regret.
It’s not easy to tell your dad…..his life is not your dream.
But as we know….fate directed Poppi down a similar path.
His father’s death forced him to grow up fast.
He left high school, and went to work helping to support his family.
Even when a scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers came calling, Poppi had to forego a career as a pro baseball player to help keep food on the table.
Poppi’s life often reminded me of the character George Bailey’s in “It’s A Wonderful Life.”
He always had to set aside personal dreams to meet his responsibilities to others.
At times, I know Poppi was tormented by the inability to chase those dreams.
I don’t think he ever got over losing his father so young.
But he rarely complained about it.
His answer….was to help US chase OUR dreams.
He never stopped talking about the importance of a higher education.
College wasn’t an option for us.
He and mom made it a requirement…like going to church on Sunday.
So it filled him with pride that he not only got to see all four of his sons graduate from college-
But also his two oldest granddaughters.
On the way to those college degrees, we all served summer internships with the firm—BPF Construction.
And not just my brothers—cousins Jeff and David and others toiled at the feet of CEOs, Bruno, Gino and Frank Cergol.
They worked us hard…probably to send the message school was the better option.
In the days before BPF, my cousin Dennis decided to abandon college for the working world…
Poppi provided his first job.
And after just one day with shovel in hand…Dennis is said to have run back to class.
He completed his undergraduate studies and still enjoys a career as a prominent environmental lawyer.
Poppi relished that tale whenever it was told.
While we worked hard, the BPF crew also laughed loudly and often.
And we always enjoyed a nice lunch.
Along the way, Poppi and his brothers created works of art with stone…brick…cement and wood.
If you could dream it, they could build it—fountains and patios…kitchens and bathrooms….spas and steam rooms.
“No problem,” was Poppi’s typical response, no matter what the project.
He was unflappable, always able to figure out a solution for a problem that didn’t seem to have one.
And he did every job as if he was working on his own home.
In many ways, using that toolbox was Poppi’s way of showing how much he loved us.
And he dispensed a lot of love.
He renovated my homes…and all my brothers.
And as Gary has noted often….it was about much more than the work.
That time we had with him…in my case…often doing more harm than good as his “assistant.”
Now, every time we look around….we will be blessed to see a piece of him.
One of the few times he ever HAD a problem was at a birthday party for my girls.
Poppi dressed as a clown and was given the task of handing out balloon designs to the kids.
No matter what they asked for—a dog or a hat or a heart…the balloons all looked the same.
Eventually one of the irate seven year olds pointed at him and shouted…
“Clown! You’re a fraud.”
Pops loved that kid’s spunk.
He also loved his friends. Many of you have known him since childhood.
Some like Uncle Richie helped save his life after a horrific car accident as a teen.
Others laughed with and comforted him over this last difficult year.
He cherished you all…and would tell you…not to be sad today…
But to celebrate the good times you all shared.
Good times…like the trip we took with Grandi and Poppi to Italy.
It was reality TV at its best—
Six of us, with 20 pieces of luggage…
And despite all that luggage, Poppi seemed to wear the same light blue sweater every day.
Joan was able to trace all the restaurants we visited by pointing to the collection of food stains on that sweater.
We toured Italy in a mini bus that was often the biggest vehicle on the road….
…barely able to squeeze through the narrow streets.
At one point, Joan hid on the floor as Poppi propelled us along a tight road dangling above a cliff overlooking Lake Como.
With Poppi, of course, family always came first.
And through these last weeks….we saw what that meant to his family.
My mom…my wife and daughters…
My brothers and sisters-in-law….Gary and Gina, Chris and Mara, Mark and Bonnie….and all their kids….
They came to make Poppi laugh…to hold his hand…to cook him a meal.
And then as word spread about how sick he was….a flood of people arrived at the hospital, and then to his home last week.
His brothers, his sister, his nieces and nephews. His lifelong friends.
It was amazing to see.
Your love crushed his illness that day.
Poppi, we all know, had many physical challenges in his life.
And Grandi was always at his side to get him through.
Their bond was unique.
He hated phones ringing….she could never let one go unanswered.
She hoarded too much….He wanted to throw everything away.
But their bond was unbreakable.
They made each other better…
…especially as my mom helped him find his faith.
Much of the man Poppi was…..came from the woman with whom he spent 58 years.
On one of his last nights…Poppi asked that we turn up the lights in the family room….
He wanted….he said…to see his wealth.
No one understood until we realized he was looking at a photograph of his 10 grandchildren.
Emily, Kristina, Grace, Mia, Brooke, Nicholas, Alexa, Bruno, Francesca and Matteo.
Losing Poppi isn’t easy….It’s hard for all of us…
But I find comfort in something my brother Gary told Poppi at the hospital.
Dad….Gary reassured him…..You will always be in my head…and you will always be in my heart.
Later, I realized….It has always been like that.
Even when Dad wasn’t physically with us, his voice in our ears reminded us to work hard…to give your best no matter the task.
And to put the needs of others first.
The best way for all you grandkids…and really all of us… to remember Poppi….
…To honor Poppi….
…is to live like Poppi.
His life wasn’t perfect….but it made a difference.
The words of the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson summed up Poppi’s time with us perfectly.
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.
William Dowdell Denson
It was only a matter of time before William Dowdell Denson would make an appearance here at my blog.
It’s hard to know where to begin in telling you my story about Bill Denson. He was so many things to me: a colleague, a confidante, a mentor, and above all, one of my closest friends.
But as you are about to learn as I did back in 1990, Bill was so much more. And while this remarkable gentleman is no longer with us, he will forever remain a larger than life figure in our American/WWII history.
By the time I met Bill he was 77 years old and in the twilight of his distinguished legal career. I was 29. We would become an unlikely and somewhat inseparable duo. I was marketing director and Bill was of counsel to a prominent Nassau County law firm, Meltzer, Lippe et al, also known as MLG.
The managing partner of MLG had an avant-garde approach to marketing, so it was of no surprise to me when Lew asked me to develop a newsletter that would read more like People magazine than a stodgy corporate bulletin. I instantly latched on to the idea because the concept would enable me to employ my love of digging around for, and writing, good stories.
So began the process of me finding the compelling human interest story behind each lawyer in the firm’s “stable.” I decided to begin my interviews with questions or statements like: “what do you do, or who are you, when you’re not practicing law?” Or, “Tell me something no one knows about you, or your unique story.”
Now, asking a lawyer that kind of a question might seem pretty antithetical if your goal is to communicate and sell the collective legal prowess of a law firm. But, that line of questioning worked wonders in gaining entree to the provocative kind of content I needed to make our new newsletter InSights live up to its People magazine promise. And as it turned out, clients and potential clients responded with great interest and enthusiasm to the back stories of MLG lawyers. It enabled personal and very human connections to take place that broke the ice surrounding the complex legal problems that were often brought to the firm.
I soon discovered there were cantors, dancers, important art collectors, and even a young partner whose father was a renowned accordion artist who, among many incredible recording accomplishments, performed on the soundtrack of the Godfather, as well as appeared in the wedding scene of that same film.
And then I got to Bill.
Bill, was an Alabama-born, West Point, Harvard Law School-educated Atticus Finch-like lawyer who spoke with a charming southern drawl. All of those qualities had a mesmerizing effect that captivated me so I figured, this is going to be easy.
Actually, no, it was not.
Why do you want to know? Bill slowly and defiantly drawled out in response to my question, in a clear effort to make me defend and/or reconsider my plan. His pensive blue eyes were trained on me in wait of my answer. He did not reveal a shred of emotion to allow me to get a read on how I was doing, or where to go from there. (This, I later came to understand, was a great skill that Bill had mastered as a fierce litigator in his earlier courtroom days).
Suddenly, the little hot shot who sat before Bill was sufficiently reduced to her proper size.
I finally came up with an answer Bill evidently did not like.
“I want to use your story to market the law firm….you…and us,” I stammered, trying to make it clear I was on his side, being sufficiently intimidated of the alternative.
“You, do, do you? And what exactly do you hope to achieve by that?” Bill seemed to spit those words out at me in slow motion. He clearly reviled the idea of telling me his story for marketing or gratuitous purposes and wasn’t the slightest bit shy about making sure I knew that.
No, this was not going well at all. As I recall, the rest of the conversation continued something like this.
Me: Well, I’m your marketing director, and that’s what I’m supposed to do, and was asked by Lew to do (as if mentioning the managing partner’s name would score me points). I probably sounded like a childish fool and Bill took no pity on me.
Bill: Well, young lady, I happen to come from an era of lawyers who do not see it proper to advertise themselves. In fact, I find the idea garish if not ethically abhorrent, and I therefore will not allow it or be part of it, no matter what anyone says.
Now, what I have neglected to tell you thus far is that Lew gave me an advance briefing of Bill’s illustrious legal background to prepare me for the blockbuster of all stories ever to be told by his firm.
Bill served, under General George Patton’s Third Army, as the Chief Prosecutor for the United States in four war crimes trials held in Germany following the Second World War. After that, his government service included a stint as the Chief of Litigation for the Atomic Energy Commission where he represented the Commission at the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, among so many more notable achievements and posts.
As Chief Prosecutor for the United States in the four WWII war crimes trials, Bill prosecuted 177 Nazis and sent 97 of them to the gallows. After the Dachau trials in Germany, Bill was later quoted: “I never tried an accused who I wasn’t personally willing to place the noose around his neck and pull the trap.”
This was no man to be messing with.
I decided to politely end my questioning for the day, and excused myself like a proper lady to return to my office and sulk.
The next day I heard a rap at my office door, and who of all people did I see standing there but the mighty Bill Denson. That charming voice spoke to me again.
Bill: May I come in?
Me: (uh oh?) No words. I nodded in the affirmative.
Bill: (in that sugary polite, charming southern drawl) May I sit down, if you pleeeease?
Me: Still silent, I patted my guest chair and took a long deep breath. I had no idea what was coming but prepared myself for the worst.
And then, a surprise.
Bill: I want to apologize if I came off a bit strong with you yesterday. I understand you have a job to do and I’ll see what I can do about helping you do that job, but I want you to know I have my limits.
Me: (now insulted and in the hubris of my youth also unafraid to speak my piece). Limits? What could you possibly mean by that? You can tell me whatever you want, or not, and I’ll be more than glad (relieved) to move on.
Bill: (With his eyes cast downward) You know, my dear old pappy, who was a very able lawyer and who taught me everything I know, was just about nearly disbarred for having the audacity to have the word “lawyer” engraved on the license plate of his car.
Bill articulated this to me in the hushed tones one uses to reveal a shameful family secret, and in that instant I understood exactly what yesterday’s flogging was all about.
Me: (with this reveal from Bill followed by a complete fascination by the prospect of peeling away the layers of this “onion”) How about we start out like this- nice and simple- you tell me your story, from the beginning, and I’ll keep my pen down and listen. I really want to hear it, if for no one else, but myself.
Bill seemed both amused and challenged by my offer, and with that, gave me a wide and sincere smile nodding in the affirmative. We shook hands on the deal and made plans to have our first lunch together.
After that, I visited Bill daily to hear installments of his story during lunchtime. After starting out on a light note by making me chuckle at his obvious disappointment or disgust over the items he begrudgingly pulled out of his lunch bag (items like yogurts or other fat-free products packed by his wife to guard against his heart condition) Bill started from the beginning to tell me the story of his life and his work.
There were nights I could not sleep after some of the particularly intense sessions we shared pouring over Bill’s experiences, that often included Bill sharing his U.S. Army photo collection depicting the gruesome conditions found in WWII concentration camps after liberation. These were the same images used as exhibits in the trials to depict the crimes.
At Dachau, Bill tried nearly 200 hardened war criminals who perpetrated unthinkable atrocities against innocent and helpless prisoners held in WWII concentration camps- many defiant until the very end, with one, actually saluting and proclaiming “Heil Hitler” in his final moments just before being hanged.
Now here in this blog I can tell you so much more about Bill’s remarkable legal achievements that have since been well documented in history. A Google search will easily take you to video interviews of Bill that are included in exhibits at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.
But this story is about my personal journey with Bill, and how his incredible experiences, friendship and trust transformed my life in ways I never could have expected.
During one of our lunch sessions I shared with Bill that my mother had become a refugee as a teenager in Germany during the final years of WWII. Mom was forced to flee her home, along with her mother and younger brother, as a result of the constant bombings and killings of innocent German civilians during those final savage months before the war ended.
I told Bill that mom was later devastated to learn what her people had done, and it haunted and hurt her years after she emigrated to America after her marriage to my father, then a U.S. Army officer stationed in Berlin. There were so many times, as a child, that I would hear mom sobbing alone in her bedroom, and when I asked her why she would simply reply: “oh nothing, dear. Mommy is sad about the war.”
The war? What war? Didn’t that happen a long, long time ago, mommy? But for my mother, the pain and anguish she felt between 1943-45 was as fresh as if it had happened yesterday.
Bill was truly moved to hear that story, even wiping his own eyes in empathy, and in return, told me that his German-born wife, nicknamed Huschi (her birth name was Constance) was equally ashamed and appalled, as was her father, whose life tragically ended after that war. His own wife suffered in the same way my mom did.
You see, Bill, for most of his married life, was reluctant to share the full scope of emotions and details connected to his service in Germany in going after these murderous Nazis with a vengeance as to spare Huschi from any more shame than she had already known. After all, Bill was about fairness and justice, and his wife was surely at the top of his list of those most deserving.
Bill had no interest in sharing his experiences for personal glory. His goal was to teach anyone who would listen that these heinous acts at the camps did in fact happen, and could very well happen again in our human history if our civilized society did not take sufficient measures to guard against it, and those who condone such inhumanity.
In thinking about Bill today, I am tearful by the idea that his love and concern for his wife Huschi often caused him to gloss over his experiences in Germany. And yet, his heart and soul needed to purge, because for him, the trauma, as it had for my mom and for Huschi, endured.
Bill just didn’t know how or where to really begin; he was not of a generation that turned to therapists to unload such burdens. It was a constant internal struggle. And above all – fierce litigator aside – Bill was an absolute perfect gentleman at all times. He aimed to please his family, friends and colleagues, not bring them down by heavy conversation or look for sympathy.
And so, when I came along in 1990 and unknowingly forced that door open, it was like a spigot had been opened making way for a constant gush that didn’t stop until Bill took his last breath.
To witness Bill achieve what appeared to be some measure of peace and closure during his final years was as transformative for me as it was for him.
All those who appeared at Bill’s many lectures openly revered him and told him he was a hero, although that was never his intention. What warms my heart until this day is it turned out that nobody was more proud of Bill than Huschi and their grown children.
One of the most somber, but proud moments of my life occurred in the fall of 1998 when Huschi and Bill summoned me to their home in Lawrence. By that time I had left the law firm to start my own marketing/public relations practice, but remained in close contact with Bill and the Denson family.
Bill’s longtime heart condition was finally getting the best of him, and the Denson family knew his days were coming to an end. A very frail Bill took my hand that day and asked me to write his obituary, while Huschi asked me to be the family’s spokesperson to the media after he passed. It was a heartbreaking request, but naturally, I honored it. How could I begin to tell Bill, and Huschi, what they had meant to me? There was nothing I wouldn’t do for them.
So my final days with Bill were spent at his bedside going over the obituary I had written. There were a lot of tears between us and we treasured what we knew were our final moments together. Bill asked me to read what I wrote over and over again to him, as he also suffered from macular degeneration and had limited vision. Finally, when he was satisfied I put the work away, praying it would be a very long time before I had to release it, but knowing it couldn’t possibly be long. My friend was dying.
Huschi called me some weeks later on December 13, 1998, to tell me that her beloved husband had passed away peacefully in his sleep at home early that morning, just as he had wanted. And on that day, as I promised, the world found out that William Dowdell Denson was no longer with us. But it would not be long before his life and work would be recognized throughout the world.
In 2003, with Huschi’s cooperation and assistance from MLG, documentarian Joshua M. Greene authored a book, “Justice at Dachau” the cover of which appears here as my main photo.
Huschi followed Bill into the hands of the Good Lord on December 5, 2006. I will miss them both forever, and will always remain thankful to Bill and Huschi, as well as to their children, Yvonne, Will, Jr. and Olivia, for welcoming me, my husband and our two daughters, into their remarkable and memorable family.
Little did I know Bill was as soft and vulnerable on the inside as anyone else. But by giving me that “test” the first day we met, Bill made me earnmy way into his friendship and trust that makes me all the more grateful for the journey.
If Bill were here today to read this story and about the day we met, he would probably chuckle at my expense and say in his exceedingly charming southern drawl, “Brains” (his nickname for me) you know I was only joshin’ you that day.
Only I would know, he really wasn’t.
Each year on June 13th I spend a few minutes recalling the events that led up to the moment mom slipped from this life into history.
It was the year 2004, and during that first week of June I was preoccupied with a bit of worry about mom after she revealed she was experiencing nausea and indigestion. I didn’t like the weakened sound of her voice.
I begged her to let me take her to the doctor, but mom dismissed the symptoms as nothing out of the ordinary. “I ate too many cherries,” she told me with a little embarrassed laughter.
But I was still troubled by what I was hearing. At 75 years old Mom was a heavy smoker and had been since she was a teen.
I made mom agree to a deal after she revealed to me for a second time in two days that she was not feeling well, yet continued to insist she was fine.
I called it the “three strikes and you’re out” rule and our deal was if she admitted to these same symptoms for a third time after I asked in as many days, we were off to either the doctor or the emergency room. She reluctantly agreed.
As it turned out, mom struck out on the third day.
She called me around noontime and said she hadn’t been feeling well all morning. I heard a little concern in her voice and asked if she was still feeling the same symptoms she described to me the prior two days that she insisted were nothing.
She issued the code red with just three words: “three strikes rule.”
I was in my car in an instant.
When I arrived to mom’s house her color was ashen. Within a half hour of arriving to the emergency room, she was forever silenced by a massive heart attack.
No doubt, mom’s heart attack was in the making for years before it finally perfected itself on that fateful Sunday. Heart disease is sneaky, particularly in women.
There were clear warning signs leading up to the day, and others, I am certain, she never told us about.
Mom was not the squeamish type, having survived WWII Germany as a teenager and refugee. She had a high threshold for physical and mental pain that defined her.
Mom was just emerging from the worst anguish of all when the heart attack claimed her. Dad had died just fifteen months earlier after complications from a stroke. His death was a devastating blow to mom from which we now know she would not recover.
Sure, mom’s smoking did her in at the age of 75. But paving the way to cardiovascular catastrophe was the fact that she was also suffering a broken heart.
Mom and dad were mutual intellects who challenged, entertained and aggravated each other in equal measure.
Observing them during their legendary exchanges about world history or current events was a thrilling experience. One could never guess which of the two would emerge the victor. They argued their respective positions like lawyers in a courtroom.
Dad was always a good sport when mom prevailed as the expert on any given subject, emitting a loud and loving laugh that instantly melted the ice that had accumulated during the squabble.
Mom relished her rightness, and she was right so much of the time even though dad made her work to earn it before he would concede.
Dad would issue the ultimate challenge by saying, “prove it!” and within minutes mom was able to produce supporting documentation to win her argument.
Because mom’s education was interrupted by war, she was inexhaustibly self-taught from a lifetime of devouring every history book, biography, magazine or newspaper she could get her hands on. Our home had a full set of Colliers encyclopedia, overfilled book cases in virtually every room and stacked books spilling out of corners.
Mom’s thirst for knowledge about world history was particularly insatiable. She could put history scholars, including her Ivy-League educated husband, to shame.
But all of those books and knowledge could do nothing to illuminate mom’s thinking about smoking. She was proud of how fit and active she was, and from all outward appearances, nobody could argue that.
Dad was among an era of doctors who smoked, but promptly quit in his early fifties after his patient pointed out the irony of the surgeon treating him for cancer, who was advising he quit to survive that cancer, himself smoked.
No doubt, dad was embarrassed enough by the revelation to quit smoking on the spot, and was ever thankful to that patient for the wake up call he needed.
Dad, in turn, sounded a wake up call for mom to stop smoking, too.
He threw out her cigarettes, scolded and cajoled her, with mom making endless excuses for her continued smoking, along with half-promises to quit.
Here I reveal a very personal and painful example of smart people doing, well, not so smart things.
Too many of us find it easy to convince ourselves that somehow we will be the ones to escape the perils of our bad habits, whatever they may be, and I of course include myself here, and that horrific diseases happen only to other, less fortunate souls who do not have the constitution we believe to possess.
Or, as was the case with mom, we convince ourselves that we are entitled to hang onto bad habits without consequence because surely we have met and exceeded our quota in life for pain or suffering.
Mom always justified her smoking as having started, and having been an absolute necessity, during the war because there was no food, but somehow, cigarettes were plentiful. She credited cigarettes for easing her hunger, soothing her anxiety, and, surviving war.
Those were some pretty compelling excuses for such a lousy habit.
But as we make those compelling excuses to ourselves or entertain thoughts of our own indestructibility, we look around and see family members, loved ones and friends who, in an instant, fall to their knees battling illnesses they never imagined.
And in those moments we are forced to face the truth. We are all vulnerable.
June 13, 2004.
The brilliant and bright light, exuberant and delightful lady I called mom who survived war-torn Germany and inspired so many by her intelligence, charm and beauty, disappeared in an instant without so much as a goodbye.
For some years after, I anguished over what could or should have been done to prevent the calamity that befell mom too soon in her life, and us.
I ultimately came into an acceptance that people make their own choices, and either live with them, or sometimes as is the case, die from them.
I and my siblings did all we could; dad did all he could, but in the end, it was just another another argument with mom he couldn’t win.
So instead of thinking of mom as having left us for a bad habit she refused to break, I choose to ponder another possible scenario.
Mom was every bit as smart as we knew her to be, and on that day it was time for her to admit to dad he was absolutely right– that he had won that smoking argument fair and square- because she damn well had the supporting evidence to prove it.