Abe’s life was shaped by his history. My dad came from “the old country”, somewhere in Poland, but he came early enough so he had no accent. Abe was the baby of the family. His father died when Abe was 3, from Tuberculosis, but Abe had several older brothers and sisters as surrogate parents.
Life in the old country was hard. I’m pretty sure this is not the typical “had to walk both ways uphill” story. Sometimes, food was so scarce, they would scrape whatever they could from the bottom of the oven for extra food. When my father was young, there was no electricity, they rode horses, but only if they were lucky enough to have one, and they would go to school if they could get there, in shoes, if they had enough money to buy them.
So, when the prospect of coming to America came along, the family did whatever they could to get here. His mother came first, and then they came over one or two at a time, sending money to the others so they could catch the boat to America. When poor immigrants in the 1930’s crossed the Atlantic Ocean, it wasn’t on a Princess cruise ship; the boat was so rocky that they spent most of their time green with seasickness.
In America, Abe and his family lived in one apartment, sleeping on whatever bed or couch was available. An actual iceman came with his truck to deliver ice for the icebox. The family was fortunate enough to have a radio. Best of all, everybody got to live in relative peace, no Russian Cossacks coming to pillage the town.
Being a twelve year old immigrant in a strange country where you don’t speak the language, Abe had headaches for months while he was learning to speak English.
Then, at school, he saw something he had never seen before – people with dark skin. They didn’t scare or upset him, they fascinated him. He didn’t even know that people could have brown skin. So he brought them home for dinner. My dad has always had friends of every color, religion, and background.
Naturally, Abraham ran into some problems. Being the new kid on the block, and one who didn’t speak English, he caught some gruff from the neighborhood boys. Abe didn’t even know when he was being called names. They taunted him by calling him a “mockie”, which means someone of foreign origin, but to some people it sounded like “Markie”, so the name stuck and became his new English nickname.
But the bullying didn’t stop there. The boys at school tormented him. Life was pretty miserable. As is often the case, however, some stroke of luck came along to assist. Abe ate garlic. Lots of it. Raw. With Butter. And then, he talked to the bullies. I’m pretty sure this is the reason garlic was always considered to ward off evil. And probably one of the reasons Abe and his family had such longevity – what germs could live in the presence of this stuff? If you have ever smelled anyone who eats lots of raw garlic, you won’t be able to get too close. The smell literally permeates the skin, and, well, it worked for Abraham.
Eventually, Abe went to the army to serve his new country. When he got there, he was introduced to non-kosher food. For the first 3 months, all he ate was apple pie and milk. Finally, he decided to try the fried chicken and he was hooked, not to mention, hungry. From that moment on, he ate everything in sight and continued to enjoy food of all kinds.
Family always came first. Even though he never lived with me, except for a few months when he moved out to Arizona, he was a great dad and grandpa. We could always count on Abe to take care of us and to protect us. I don’t know what we would have done without him. I heard a quote once that states “A father is a guy who has snapshots in his wallet where his money used to be.” That was Abe. He never really had much. He was from the Depression era and never quite figured out how to get rich. Instead, he kept playing the lottery and figured that luck was the way things worked in this world. He won a few hundred here and there, but never hit the big one. That never seemed to stop him from living. He always had enough money, somehow, to take us to dinner. I think dining out was opulence for him. Compared to where he came from, he was living the good life and he was going to make darned sure he shared it with his family.
When my dad was in his mid-forties, he had a bleeding ulcer that almost killed him. When the doctors saw him, they were about to give up until one doctor came in and said “we are in the business of saving lives” and pumped Abe with enough new blood to live another 40 plus years. That represents the main theme for Abraham’s life: HOPE. Hope was the one thing that motivated my dad, throughout his life. He never gave up hope.
Epitaphs, Quirky Things, Funny Stories, Weird Things, Poignant Tid-Bits … about Abraham Engel
Written and compiled by me, his daughter, Robin Jill Engel, for His MEMORIAL Service in 2010
When we went to clean out Dad’s apartment, there wasn’t much of value, but there were draws filled with … stuff: empty Sweet& Low packages, loose pills of all kinds, old mail and envelopes, pens, old tea bags, broken watches, broken glasses held together with masking tape, old combs, an occasional photo, a pocket knife, empty pill bottles, lots of little pieces of paper with phone #’s on them – often without names, tattered, stained clothing…
What he did hold onto that was valuable – a few photos, frayed at the edges, between a book or tacked on the wall with tape; a few remnants of his Jewish heritage – a talus (shawl that is worn in temple), a challis, a yarmulke; books – a few random letters of the encyclopedia, a book on Judaism, a book about movie stars, a book about the great gangsters; an old set of cuff links; some post cards I sent him when I was a teenager; an article about Morris (my cousin, who would go to Harvard and become a very wealthy man) and his accomplishments
My dad was always taking cat naps – anywhere, in almost any position – he didn’t sleep well at night – you could call him almost any time of the night and he might be up, and possibly eating herring.
When Abe was about 85, his friend Greg asked him: “So, ever think about the ladies anymore, Abe?” To which Abe replied…”yeah, I want a woman who looks like Marilyn Monroe and has a blouse that’s dangerously low.”
About 5 months before he died, my dad went to Hospice – for the second time (the first time was several years previously). We really thought he was a goner; we were all ready to say our goodbyes, as was he. However, within a week, he bounced back, and a few days later he made me go get him a corned beef sandwich from Chompies, a nearby Jewish deli. After that, I had to get him corned beef or salami at least once a week for the next month or so.
Once, when he was driving through a not-so-nice neighborhood with Rose, his girlfriend, someone shot a bullet right through the open window of their car. Luckily, it missed both of them. I don’t think they ever drove in that area again.
My dad got arrested once. He was coming back from a trip somewhere, and his girlfriend picked him up at the airport. They had purchased some handguns in another state. They were almost out of the airport, and he had forgotten that the guns were in his bag when they decided to go back into the airport for a cup of coffee. Oops. Alarms went off and they apprehended him, and the next thing you know, he’s arrested. He lost the right to vote for that felony mishap.
He always hid a small gun in his apartment (he never lived in a house). In the last few years, it was a b-b gun. When I cleaned out his apartment and moved him to the assisted living home, I took the gun away. About once a month or so, he would ask for the gun. “Why?” I asked. “not a good idea for an old man who can barely walk and is paranoid half the time.” His reply “there’s some people I don’t like here.” Yeah, I’m sure it was not a good idea.
He repeated himself…a lot. For a while, we thought it was old age, but as we thought about it more, we realized that he always did that. As he got older, it got worse. He repeated himself…a lot.
He could dance a pretty good salsa and rumba, and according to Rose – the Lindy. He loved swing music from the 40’s. He played the drums for a bit when he was younger, but he never stopped drumming – always playing the beat with his fingers or hands. Buddy Rich was his idol.
He was amazed that other men could fix things or were really good at mechanical things, because his mechanical aptitude was sparse. Sometimes, he would try to fix something, or install something, but it didn’t turn out that great. Once, he replaced the lock on my door, and he put it in upside down. It stayed that way for several years, until the next guy came along and had to set it straight.
He would talk to everyone. Most people liked him. He could be funny sometimes, but mostly, he was just a good conversationalist and a good listener. He could talk to people like a woman, or a therapist. He showed a genuine interest in whatever they were doing.
He never wanted me to work. He always asked me when the next vacation was coming up for me. He considered it such a tragedy that I had to work, instead of being a lady of leisure. I am beginning to understand his thoughts on the matter.
Gambling. That was my dad’s passion. When he met my grandparents, they took a liking to him because he loved the race track as much as they did. The difference was, my grandparents would go, spend a small amount of money, an allotted amount for the evening, and come home as if they had gone to the theatre. My dad, on the other hand, practically lived there. He was always trying to hit the big one. He would bet 3 different ways, and he thought that by really studying the booklet – all the details of the horses and their jockeys, he could figure it out. Nobody ever really knew how much he won, because, like a real gambler, he never let on how much he actually won, or lost. He kept money hidden in his socks, and I’m sure there were other places that we’ll never know about. When he wasn’t at the race track, he was playing cards in back rooms, behind closed doors in the hidden rooms of restaurants (no casinos in New York) where the cops knew all about it and were paid off to protect the clandestine smoky card rooms. They played gin rummy or poker mostly. My dad was pretty good at gin, and he got to know all the goombahs in town. One thing he never did, was borrow money from them, so as not to end up as chum eventually. But he did have the utmost respect for these old time gangsters. They had the power that he always craved but never attained. He was a gangsta wanna-be, but thankfully, he remained free of that status. It’s a good thing he never pulled the tricks he pulled when he played with me or Kevon (my son). He would sometimes hide an ace or two up his sleeve so he could cheat for us (in other words, so we could win against the others).
My dad was always coming up with new inventions. That was the other way he was going to make us all rich. His weren’t the weird or unusual kind; they were always something pragmatic and usually a re-design or improvement on something already in action. And he didn’t just talk about them; he went after patent searches all the time. Some of his inventions that never were: variations on the car lock; ways to protect old people should they fall, like giant air filled suits; improvements on canes… I think you might detect a theme. Things that kept people safe, healthy, or could be used in daily life. My job was to help him determine the holes in his plan. Sometimes, he even had the ideas sketched out by someone who knew what they were doing, but that’s as far as they ever got. Of course, I was never able to talk about them, except to family members, should someone steal the ideas.
Memory from my brother John: “Mark (Abe) was always asking me to feel his tightened biceps whenever I’d tell him I was working out. He’d say, “whatdoya think of this? eh??” too funny! He was like a piece of steel!
Sometime in 2008: “I was sitting by a lake yesterday and I’m thinking that perhaps I should take my father out for a spin, in his wheelchair, to see the lake. It’s so beautiful. But I won’t be able to take him for a few weeks. He might not make it until then. If I feel a sense of urgency at fifty, imagine what it feels like for him at 86. Every day is a blessing. Or is it a curse in his body? Then again, maybe that’s why he perseverates on things now, more than ever, as a distraction to the inevitable, as a distraction to the misery. I mean, a conversation with him is usually about body ailments and how many people are older than him and still going. He spends at least ten minutes ruminating over how old the celebrities are that are still alive, and how Mitzie down the hall is 92 and still going strong. My response on the other side of the phone is usually “hmm, mm-hmm”. It’s pretty much the same conversation every time, unless he’s asking about the kids or obsessing on the current political election. All he wants to do is get away from that old age home because everyone there reminds him that he’s old.
And he curses a lot more than he used to – not actual curses, more like “that damned bastard”. One day he told me that he thought he was thinking silently inside his own head, having an internal dialogue, but he actually said “why are those stupid bastards coming to bother me?” out loud when the nurses were passing by. They were not pleased; he’s usually such a social chap.
My dad has actually turned into one of those cantankerous curmudgeons like Jack Lemmon or Walter Matthau in “the Sunshine Boys”, except that to a viewing audience, they appear as quite humorous characters, whereas, in real life, cantankerous old men are not particularly funny. They are annoying and depressing. One of my greatest fears is that I am becoming like him. I find myself cursing under my breath at people sometimes, or being ornery or just getting annoyed at the slightest things. Am I turning into a Sunshine Lady?
I kept staring at the lake, wondering if he would miss beautiful, sunny days when he dies, or if he will actually be in a place where it’s always a beautiful, sunny day. On the other hand, he might not have any conscious memory of this place after awhile. Or will he? I continue to muse about these things. I guess the point is, I really should get him out of that place and take him to the lake.”