My father Sylvan was interviewed for the Veterans History Project (video). He was one of the lucky ones, separated from his unit when they were shipped to Anzio. The 1156 Combat Engineers indulged his taste for cold, hard work, building Bailey bridges across German rivers.
I’m not inclined to mourn. When the tears come, in sudden brief showers, they seem related to the harsh contradictions of the present, to his labor in hope for a better world, by a Russia that is more eager to destroy than build, to kill than save, with a virulent nationalism of the kind that may dog the human spirit forever. What did my father’s generation extinguish by their humanity extended to former enemies? Perhaps nothing, perhaps the darkness of humanity can be abated for periods of time, to rise again when the agony of a generation is forgotten.
What follows is a personal remembrance, of the kind that exists outside the horrors of the present.
In memory of Sylvan Morein, March 26, 1923 – March 20, 2022
In 1992, my father Sylvan was in hospital, when he almost died from pneumonia. I wrote these reflections then; they serve well now. I have learned that the depth of a person can have multiple dimensions. I’ve learned that the worth of a person is better measured by their positive qualities, rather than their lacks.
Sylvan did not have an abstract mind. His thoughts were governed, not by principles, but by values, burned into his brain during the Great Depression. While my maternal Grandpa Frank, with brilliant intuition, was able to cushion the Green family, such was not the case with the Moreins. Caught between the philanthropic instincts of his father, Joseph, and the severe economy of his mother, Betty, his mind was imprinted with the personal struggle to survive. When I was young, the purchase of a new chair or table was a matter of great fanfare. And old furniture was not thrown out. This house has become a veritable junk pile of old furniture. I once remarked to Grandpa Frank that Dad had no aesthetic sense. With a wry smile, he replied, “Yes, but what can you do about it?”
But as the saying goes, blood is thicker than water. A lifetime with this very different person prompts some observations. There is the realization that the quality of a person is not the same as intellect. A person’s professed beliefs may be at odds with an unerring instinct for fairness and charity in his personal relations. One may not have the framework to extend his concerns to the poor and the homeless at large, yet may be touched and generous in the situations that he personally confronts.
Sylvan practiced dentistry for fifty-three years, and became known as the “painless dentist.” I have, while traveling, and after he retired, patronized other dentists. The discomforts were similar. Yet the patients made broad expressions of affection, verging on love. The only explanation I can think of is his solicitude. An elderly Italian immigrant whose first dental visit was with my dad vowed that upon his retirement, she would never visit another dentist.
Throughout his life, he engaged in surprising acts of personal generosity. These acts, and the bonds that preceded them, seem forged on an ancient tribal model, between the strong and the weak, the powerful, and the insignificant, in a way not encompassed by modern western theories of social responsibility. They have no pattern, no philosophy, but they cannot be denied. His quality was recognized early in his career, when he was groomed by the elders of dental politics, with eventual presidency of the county dental society. What qualities did his elders perceive? They never said. Perhaps there is such a thing as a “man of quality” that defies further description. Comparing myself to my father, my modern intellect and liberality against his deeds, he wins hands down.
When his elder brother Lou was stricken with a brain tumor, he went over to the house with his two nephews, Allen and Barry. Lou could not walk. To get him into his bedroom, the three of them put him in an armchair, and carried the whole thing up the stairs. The image is burned into my brain like the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. His care for his father and two brothers provided a lesson this nonverbal man would never put into words: “We never leave someone behind.”
His attitude towards mortality was noteworthy. At age seventy, with two brothers deceased, he felt stalked by death. Twenty years later, his fear abated. Today we take our leave, without regret, since. his was a life well lived..