This week brings two anniversaries to mind, not of the wedding kind.
A birth and a death, both. A man I knew well and one I never met. I’ll concentrate on the former.
My dad would have been 108 had he lived another 19 years. When I think of him, it is not as a man near life’s end, but the middle-aged version. Perhaps that’s because he was 35 when I walked on stage, and never less than 40 during my school days.
I think of the challenges he faced getting a job in the Great Depression and his wartime service in the army. I recall how hard (and how much) he labored to make a living for his three boys and our mother. I witnessed how the responsibility was like a machine-lowered ceiling pressing down on him.
Milt Stein was a sweet man. My brothers and I saw him express that affection to my mother with tender words and embraces. She occupied his world. We were satellites circling a planet named Jeanette.
How might one celebrate his memory?
I could revisit the video interview I did when he was about 75.
No, too weighty. Moreover, the four-hour recording won’t fit my schedule right now.
I might arrange one of his favorite hot meals and uncap a lava flow of ketchup on top of it, as was his habit. My mom, you see, was not a master chef.
Another possible homage would be to stir a creamer in my morning coffee as he did, for what seemed like minutes at a time, almost long enough to wear his metal spoon to a nub.
The bell-like sound echoed too early and too long inside our two-flat on Talman Avenue. You knew dad was home — so announced the clanging — as it did that by 5:30 AM he’d be off to his job at the downtown post office.
If I had the urge to go to Chicago’s Loop today, a visit to the main library would serve as a symbolic honor. He borrowed books there and read novels and the Sun Times on public transit to and from work.
My memories take me to all these places and more: to excursions on the elevated train beginning at the Western stop, to trips on the #11 Lincoln Avenue bus, to Riverview Park’s high-rides, and Cubs games at Wrigley Field.
In the bag full of a lifetime’s remembrances, those ritualized, repeated events stand out. One such repetition occurred at the baseball contests. We understood the drill, though Milt Stein never failed to remind his boys of an essential feature.
The relative poverty of dad’s childhood required continued focus on the dearness of a hard-won dollar, even as time moved him away from the economic challenge of America in the 1930s. Thus, this man told his three sons we could each have only “two items” on our day at Wrigley.
Mom packed us all lunches. Corned beef on rye bread was typical, maybe a banana, too. But if we wanted ice cream or a Coke or a hot dog, my father limited us to any two of these, not more.
Ed, Jack, and I thought the restriction unreasonable, but we’d never experienced want. Our sire got categorized as a miser. Only years later did I recognize his limitations offered protection against a future when food might be a question not of how much, but whether we’d have any.
This little story leads me to salute Milton Stein’s 108th birthday anniversary the way he’d have advised. I intend to shop at the grocery, especially those aisles filled with all the goodies I likely wanted on a day at the ballpark in, say, 1959.
You know what I’m going to do, don’t you?
I’ll buy just two items.
The top image is a sign of The Four Candles, a Wetherspoons pub in Oxford named after The Two Ronnies comedy sketch. Matt Brown is the author. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.