While visiting my in-laws in Orlando, Fla., more than a decade ago, I was driving in a car with my father-in-law, Meyer E. “Mike” Pollack, when we noticed a huge billboard with a photo of The Beatles (in their Sgt. Pepper-era regalia). It was an ad for a local radio station, bearing the slogan, “The Beatles Rock WJRR.”
My father-in-law – no Fab Four fan was he – merely smirked and said to me, “That’s about all they do.” (Mike’s musical knowledge base stopped somewhere in the early ‘50s, before the advent of rock `n’ roll. He was strictly a Big Band kind of guy, with classic Jewish music on the side.)
But Mike had more in common with John, Paul, George & Ringo than he ever imagined, because he was the living embodiment of the Beatles credo (“Abbey Road,” “The End,” final verse) that “the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
Mike, who passed away last Saturday night, was all about love. Maybe not the kind of free love you think of when contemplating The Beatles, but love nonetheless – for his wife of 52 years, his three children, his 10 grandchildren and his three great-grandchildren. And his two daughters-in-law and one son-in-law (yours truly).
He was unashamed to show his unconditional love, in actions, words and deeds, something that’s unusual for men of his generation. Sometimes, it was embarrassing or discomforting how much he showed that he cared for you. But he knew life is short and it’s important to show loved ones how you feel. And he received that love back in spades, as evidenced by his grandsons’ highly emotional eulogies delivered earlier this week at his funeral.
Mike loved being Jewish. Although not an observant Jew, he was traditional in the way he thought and felt. And he knew his stuff. Being Jewish filled every fiber of his being. It was in him where it counts – in the way he lived his life. He was—to employ a much overused word—a mentsch. That’s why he worked as a Jewish nursing home administrator for several decades. He cared about people, especially those in the darkest, scariest times of their lives. He wanted to comfort them and raise them up, even if it was just for a few minutes. He wanted them to feel respected and not obsolete, discarded, unwanted or forgotten.
Mike owned a formidable collection of 78 RPM records. It is a treasure trove of Jewish and American music from the first half of the 20th century. After retiring in the ‘90s, he took a rolling cart full of his 78s and a record player and frequently visited nursing homes, becoming a “professional volunteer.” He played old-time music for dementia patients there, because he wanted to spark a memory for them, even if it was only fleeting. Many were the times he called to say how a particular Glenn Miller or Artie Shaw tune got a strong reaction from a patient who normally never spoke much. They might recall a special time in their life after hearing an old record and discuss it with the group, much to their caretakers’ absolute shock and awe.
One time, Mike played a pre-war Japanese record at a nursing home, eliciting an intense, emotional response from a Japanese patient there who usually simply faded into the woodwork. (I like to think the record might’ve been a 78 we found while going on one of our occasional jaunts to antique shops in this area when Mike visited.)
Mike knew he had a unique role in this act of volunteerism. Besides knowing the music through and through, he understood how to work with nursing home patients and how to reach them. Very few people could do this adequately and with such grace and thoroughness. I have many of Mike’s 78s now and I could play them at nursing homes. I could even read up on the records and talk about them. But I don’t have his vocational training to know how to press the right buttons with these folks. I don’t have his feel for the situation, and I didn’t live the music.
Simply put, he was a unique, unusual man.
I don’t believe in mythologizing people. I know that’s our tendency after we’ve lost someone, and I’m still feeling raw about losing my father-in-law. Like all of us, he wasn’t perfect. Like all of us, he was far from it. He could be stubborn. He could be “my-way-or-the-highway.” He could be vexing and taxing at times. Like most fathers-in-law and sons-in-law, there were occasions when we probably let each other down.
But I know I’m a better person for knowing him. And that’s probably the best thing you can say about anyone.
Several years ago, my in-laws were visiting from Florida and enjoying dinner at our house when we happened to mention we’d bought an outdoor bench but hadn’t had the time to put it together. It was still in the box, but we’d get around to it. Mike immediately asked where it was, pulled all the bits and pieces out, and started building the bench, despite our protestations. The sight of this man in his mid-70s laboring over directions and rolling up his sleeves to put a bench together was something to see. Being our guest, we pleaded with him to stop. We were frankly afraid he might overdo it.
“Please, let me do this,” he implored. “I want to do this for you.”
About a half-hour later, the bench was finished. It was perfect, and Mike beamed while looking at his job well done.
This was typical of the man. He wanted to contribute, to be useful and make a difference in some way.
And he did.