Here’s a column that I should have written almost exactly 21 years ago, but never did. That’s because I was in a dark period of my editorial life, an interlude of about nine years in my almost 35-year career with U.S. 1 in which I did not write a regular weekly column and did not even come up with some lame excuse for not writing one. Back in those days you would be hard pressed to find a Richard K. Rein column, and there were no snide apologias for not having a column, either.
After being a consistent columnist through the 1980s, I only managed intermittent columns in 1992 and 1993. I wrote one to mark the birth of my first son in 1992, and I did another when he was a year old. But when the second son was born in 1994, I used the newborn as a photo prop for a cover story on investing for kids’ college education. No column for the second kid.
Frankly I don’t know what the hell I was doing back in the 1990s. But, as I look back and see successive issues of 60 pages in length, 64 pages, 72, and sometimes 80 pages, and when I recall the trials of putting all those pages together physically on paste-up boards, I can guess that I was keeping pretty busy. On top of that, in 1995 we changed frequency from every other week to once a week.
In May of 2002 I reminded myself that the whole idea of starting this paper in 1984 was to create a publication that was pretty much guaranteed to accept the quirky submissions I was making as a freelance writer. So, if I was now going to be tied to a desk putting out that paper, I might as well force myself to get out once in a while and do the work that originally fueled the enterprise.
The comeback column, after about nine years of silence for the columnist, came on May 8, 2002. It was about a benefit auction where I purchased a signed print of Neil Leifer’s iconic photograph of a victorious Muhammad Ali towering over Sonny Liston
Now, as I prepare this antepenultimate column for U.S. 1, I realize that opportunities to produce an idiosyncratic, personalized editorial in a print newspaper don’t last forever. So here’s one that should have been written around Mother’s Day, 1998, in memory of my own mother, Marian Ameigh Rein, who had died the previous fall at age 76.
One of five kids in a family that was originally from the hamlet of Gillette, PA, and eventually moved to Syracuse, NY, my mother ended her formal education by graduating from high school, and then spent the rest of her life learning on her own. When my mother felt the need to work as our family grew to five children (I’m the one in the middle), she taught herself bookkeeping and worked for a small company near our home in Apalachin, NY. When my two younger brothers came along she turned that into a profit center, getting licensed as a day care provider at our new house in Endwell, NY.
Through it all she engaged in ongoing discussions about theology and religion, usually beginning her side of the discussion with the self-deprecating observation that she was only a high school graduate so no one should expect too much deep thought from her end of the conversation. As the family minister said at the service of remembrance for my mother, “this was just a tactic Marian used to pull the wool over our eyes.” In fact, he said, my mother took a pretty sophisticated view of faith. “Marian was never sure about God, about whether or not there is a God. But at the same time, she could not be sure there was no God, either. She hated being taken in by foolish ideas; she hated superstition. So she didn’t want to be caught believing in God if God was only a primitive superstition.”
My mother, the minister said, “had little patience with narrow-minded Christianity, and, of course, narrow-minded Christianity is the most popular kind. Many Christians are sure that they have the only version of the truth. Marian reached outside the fold, and made friends in the Jewish community, friends in the Vietnamese community.”
I can quote the words so accurately today because the minister, Barry Downing of Northminster Presbyterian Church in Endwell, had an unusual way of organizing a memorial service. Instead of inviting family and friends to come to the pulpit and offer their heart-felt tributes to the recently departed loved one, Downing asked everyone to put their thoughts in writing, submit them to him, and then he would do the reading. Too many times at memorial services, he explained, loved ones began to express their thoughts and then were overcome by emotion — often so much so that the thoughts were lost in the sea of tears.
So my father and the five kids, along with the minister and assistant minister, all wrote out our statements. Being the publisher in the family, I grabbed the statements and turned them into an eight-page booklet. More than two decades later I have an almost exact record of what was stated.
For all our differences in terms of faith and organized religion, the minister and I struck some similar chords in our statements. I also noted how my mother had reached “outside the fold,” as the minister put it.
My childhood memories of my mother, I wrote in my statement, “probably have contributed to my inclination to open my thinking — and my newspaper — to all sorts of people and opinions. And our house was open to all sorts:
“There was the dentist. No 12-year-old kid wants to go to the dentist and no 12-year-old wants to find the dentist visiting his house for a social call. But this dentist and his wife turned out to be fascinating characters.
“Then there was the mezuzah on the front door. I still don’t know the origin of it, but suddenly we had one. Not too many houses in Endwell, New York, in the early 1960s had one and certainly no other Christian household had one, but we did.”
The dentist, I now suspect, had something to do with the mezuzah. I know that sometime in the late 1950s, the Jewish dentist presented a book to my mother as something to think about as she pondered the role of religion in world politics. As was the custom, the discussion took place while I was in the dentist’s chair, getting yet another cavity filled in a community that was not about to let outsiders pollute our drinking water with fluoride.
The book was “What Price Israel,” published in 1953 by Alfred Lilienthal, a Columbia-trained lawyer who served with the Army in the Middle East during World War II. “What Price Israel” was a controversial anti-Zionist tract that took up the cause of Palestinians displaced as a result of the formation of Israel in 1948. I’m not sure what the dentist’s personal views were, but the point he was trying to make was that political arguments could not always be reduced to a black and white choice. And in the case of the Middle East, the ingrained problems were not likely to be solved for a very long time. Heady stuff for a 12-year-old to contemplate in 1959. And no easier for a 72-year-old in 2019.
One of my last memories of my mother, I wrote in my statement for the memorial service, was at a visit to my sister’s house. “The minister came by and we talked about — among other things — beef cattle and UFOs. People who don’t know Barry might think this was strange. But we never would. My mother was a real liberal, lower case ‘l.’ Her house was always open to a rainbow of people, and her mind was open to a kaleidoscope of ideas.”
Twenty-one years later, I think that may not be such a bad way to live. Thanks for that, Mom.