Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Everyone's Friend

Herbert Springer was about as far from being a Princeton man as anyone.

A New York guy from start to finish, Herbert - TigerBlog's Uncle Herbie - fought in Europe and the Pacific in World War II, drove a cab in New York City and finally opened a drug store of sorts (cosmetics, candy, greeting cards, that kind of stuff) on the corner of Flatlands and Flatbush in Brooklyn.

Yesterday, as TigerBlog was driving his cousin Toby's best friend Esther from Brooklyn out to Long Island - on the occasion of Toby's funeral - Esther (who flew in from Colorado) asked what TB remembered about his uncle, who died just short of his 52nd birthday.

"Everything," TB said.

In fact, TigerBlog has never forgotten a detail about his uncle, a man who was a complete character in every way. He can still see his face and hear his voice, and most of all he can see the captain's hat he always wore.

What did TB remember, Esther asked.

TB remembers how his uncle would eat his eggs sunny-side up and runny (Esther suggests that he ate them three at a time), always in his boxers. How when TB would be there, his uncle would cut his bagel and put butter on one side and lox on the other.

He loved the beach, which always meant a summer in a bungalow in the Rockaways, where he'd put on his hat and play pinochle with his friends.

To be around Herbie Springer was to laugh, to carry on, to have a good time. He had friends, sure, but he was also the kind to make friends with everyone he encountered - strangers on the street, people who wandered into his store, friends of his nephew.

One day, when TB was about six or seven, he was in his uncle's store, where his uncle let him make change in the cash register for customers (and take candy off the shelves whenever he wanted). As his uncle stood behind him, TB gave the change to a man, though it turned out to be too much change.

His uncle watched, obviously aware that TB had given back too much money. The man with the money laughed and pointed it out and then returned the extra.

TB thought his uncle would be mad at him. Instead, he looked at TB and said: "if that ever happens to you, you give back the money, because it's not yours. You never take anything that's not yours."

Toby was the younger of Herbie and Edie's two children, and TB's aunt and cousin Gale were there yesterday as Toby was laid to rest next to her father. Upon arriving at the cemetery, TB saw his uncle's grave for the first time in years, and there, across the top, above where it said "Herbert Springer," were the words "Everyone's Friend."

Toby was 56 years old when she suffered a massive heart attack Saturday morning and then passed away a day later. In TB's family, death appears to come in the 50s, 80s or 90s, but never in the 60s or 70s. And it appears to be fairly evenly split, for reasons that escape TB.

Except for some time in San Diego, Toby lived her life in Brooklyn, spending her last years living with her mother in the same apartment on Ocean Avenue where Herbie had eaten all those sunny-side up eggs all those years ago. She survived two major car accidents, including one when she was six years old, which left her one kidney short for the rest of her life.

At her funeral, she was remembered by those closest to her - especially her long-time boyfriend Sam - for her love for her friends and family, for all of the cards that she would send for any and all occasions, for the way she could scribble so much onto the back of one little postcard.

They talked about her big heart and how, like her father, she too was "Everyone's Friend."

When TB thought of his cousin, he thought of her incredible ability to talk to people, any people, always with her thick Brooklyn accent. TB always said that she had a heart as big as her mouth - and he meant that with great affection.

TB's favorite story about his cousin is the one that BrotherBlog told about how when Toby came to visit him when he lived in an apartment building once, she woke up around 5 in the morning and went to the lobby, where she read the magazines out of everyone's mailboxes.

Another is the time that former equipment manager Hank Towns came into TB's office to talk about the 30 minutes he'd just spent on the phone with TB's "relation."

If you know Hank, you know that he's not the kind of person who wanted to be distracted from his task because someone wanted to make small talk on the phone.

At the same time, you also know that Hank's bark is way worse than his bite.

It took TB about two seconds to figure out which "relation" Hank was talking about. It had to be Toby, who 1) would get TB's phone number wrong, 2) get Hank on the phone and 3) wouldn't let him get off the phone.

Hank was more humored than annoyed by it, the way that Toby wouldn't let him off the phone, the way she talked about herself and grilled him on his life.

TB was out all day yesterday at the funeral.

He didn't miss much at Princeton, apparently, as first semester exams roll along.

Stories posted on yesterday were limited, with a story about how men's basketball player Will Barrett is withdrawing from school because of his injury and a nice-looking information central page for the upcoming EIWA wrestling championships.

On a normal Tuesday, TB would have been wearing something that said "Princeton" on it, in orange and black, with a swoosh on it.

Instead, he was wearing a shirt and tie, at a funeral for someone else who died too young.

It was doubly sad for TB, especially when he stood in front of his uncle's grave, hearing FatherBlog point out that he's been there - buried with his captain's hat - for 34 years now.

TB thought about his uncle, and as he did, he couldn't help but wonder what he'd be like had he lived, what kind of impact he would have had on TB, how much TB would have liked to have spent time with him as an adult, not just as a child.

And then Toby's casket was placed next to the grave, and TB thought about all the times his talked to his cousin and said that he had to go, that'd he catch up with her later, another time.

Unfortunately, that opportunity is gone now, forever. Sadly.

And now she's next to her father. "Everyone's Friend," father and daughter.

Both cut down way too soon.

Aleha Hashalom, Toby.


CAZ said...

That was one of the nicest & saddest things I think you've ever written.

I'm so sorry for you loss my friend.

Anonymous said...

Toby was my friend. I just met her Uncle today at her mother's house. What lovely people. We all lost.
RIP Toby

Rena Wallenius said...

Toby was my friend. I cherish her last cards and letters sent a few days before she died. Here in San Diego,her many frends miss her. Your words were very comforting and an apt description of this unique woman, taken from us too soon.
Rena, Oceanside, CA