Friday, July 29, 2016

And now a toast for my daughter Lauren

Lauren moments after receiving her Master's Degree at Kennesaw State.
Lauren was sitting at our breakfast table, bent over a tablet as she put the finishing touches on an essay for school. I glanced down at her work and offered a few suggestions -- "want" should be "won't", "there" needed to be changed to the possessive "their" and, well, there really was no subject in the penultimate sentence.

Lauren wasn't happy. She tossed the pencil she was gripping onto the table and glared at me. It was the sort of look you might expect from a frustrated kid. After all, she was only 10 and still struggling mightily with the English language.

Fast forward a quarter century and my daughter is now a beautiful young woman, happily married with two children of her own. She also has two bachelor degrees and, just a few hours ago, was awarded a Master's degree in Early Childhood Education -- with honors -- from Kennesaw State University!
That's a pretty decent resume. It all becomes noteworthy and amazing when you consider she handled the added workload of going back to school while juggling a full-time job as a Special Ed teacher; serving on the board of our synagogue; raising a toddler, Bailey; and handling wifey chores for her husband, Josh.

Oh, right, she was also pregnant for much of the time and managed to give birth last spring to my second grandchild, Avi, during semester break. Now that's planning!

Lauren all dressed up and ready for commencement.
If there was any pencil tossing during her recent course work, I wasn't around to see it. Lauren did ask me to do a final read on a paper or two and, other then a few dangling participles and an occasional split infinitive, there wasn't much to edit. Go figure!

All those years ago, when Lauren was filled with potential and thrashing about to find the road that beckoned, it was hard to see exactly how she would, one day, get from there to here. This not knowing is one of the challenges that parents, wanting only the best for their children, are forced to confront on this journey called life. It's simply part of the job.

I never doubted she would find her way. I only wish I had the voice back then to speak of the future as a done deal. Lauren's beauty and grace, good heart and soul, meant that karma -- and other such spiritual stuff -- was always on her side and it was only a matter of time until her dreams became reality.

That's not to suggest it's been easy. In addition to the karma thing, there was also a lot of hard work, long hours and perseverance involved in the effort. But Lauren is a smart, focused and determined woman. Once she's set her mind on a goal she simply doesn't quit.

Wendy and I got an up close and personal look at her work ethic over the last month or so. After dropping Bailey at camp each morning, she came over to our house with Avi. We got the chance to spend some quality time with our grandson and Lauren got a chance to study.

On most days, Bailey also ended up at our home and we all spent the afternoon napping and playing, watching "Curious George" and eating dinner -- fish sticks and applesauce. Yum!

Even on the days when I was sore and tired from holding Avi and chasing Bailey from room to room, there was a sweetness that lingered about when Lauren and the kids left for home. I grumbled a bit to Wendy about being way too old for such work, but the quiet after the kiddie storm only served to remind me how special such moments are in life.

So if you happen to have a goblet of wine about -- or a glass of water -- then raise it high and join me in toasting my daughter on a job well done. You, Lauren, now have a special husband, two wonderful kids, three college degrees and a Mom and Dad who love you very much and couldn't be prouder of the accomplished young woman you've become. L'chaim!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Finally making it 'Uptown' in downtown Columbus

A bit of whimsy in Uptown Columbus.
After a short and eventful road trip across north and central Florida, Wendy and I decided to take a detour recently on our way back to Atlanta. That's how we ended up spending an afternoon in Columbus, the place I still consider home -- at least in a sentimental fashion -- even though I haven't lived there in 40 years.

We pulled off the interstate at Tifton and maneuvered our way along a series of state highways and secondary roads, passing through a half-dozen or so sun-bleached towns and cities -- Albany, Dawson, Lumpkin and Cusseta -- before pulling into Fort Benning.

The massive military base makes up a third of what the locals refer to as the tri-cities. Columbus and its neighbor, Phenix City, across the Chattahoochee River in Alabama, fill out the rest of the metro area.

After clearing one last rise in the road, the skyline of Columbus and its two skyscrapers -- the government center downtown and the headquarters of AFLAC a few miles to the east -- came into view. At first blush the city seemed a clay-stained vision of what I had seen on previous trips. The heart of the community was nestled in a bend of the Chattahoochee, sprawling to the north and east like a creeping bit of kudzu.

If rumors and news reports of massive growth and redevelopment were true, then what I was seeing from a distance had little to do with reality and much to do with my aging memory. Uncovering the truth of such reports, however, would have to wait another hour or so while I attempted to put the lie to Thomas Wolfe's assertion that you "can't go home again!"

First stop was to visit my folks at Riverdale Cemetery.
The first stop was a visit to see family and friends, all resting comfortably in the Jewish section of Riverdale cemetery off of Victory Drive. The Feinberg family plot, nicely shaded by a towering oak tree, is surrounded by the graves of the men and women who once called Columbus home and were members of Shearith Israel Synagogue.

It's here that my mother and father can be found; so, too, my paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles and a legion of cousins and family friends and acquaintances: The Hirschs, Kravtins Raabs and Myers; Shapiros, Cohens, Satlofs and Siegels; Levys, Behars, Scopps and Greens; Robbins, Funks and Witts.

Hidden away in an older section of the cemetery is my great grandmother, Bailey Feinberg, who was born in Eastern Europe in 1852 and died in Columbus in 1941. She's the woman my granddaughter, Bailey Levetan, is named after -- her great-great-great Bubbe!

My great grandmother, Bailey Feinberg.
All these folk, mostly immigrants from Russia and Poland, settled in the Chattahoochee valley a century earlier, bringing a bit of Yiddishkeit to the Deep South, creating a vibrant community that prospered and came of age during the Great Depression and World War II.

There were a few doctors, lawyers and accountants among them. But, truth to tell, they were mostly merchants, men who scratched out a living buying and selling stuff -- food, clothing, hardware and scrap metal; watches, rings, luggage and weapons. Stuff!

Some prospered. Others struggled. My father did both.

Wendy and I spent part of the next hour visiting the store where he managed to grow his business, Village Pawn Shop; and the site where he began the journey. Central Pawn Shop, on First Avenue between 10th and 11th Streets, is toast now; a mostly fond but fading memory of a different, simpler time.

It was a tiny place with linoleum floors and fluorescent lights dangling from the ceiling. Once inside, there was a jarring blend of merchandise: watches and rings; hats, caps, suits and leather jackets; tires and tools; pistols, rifles, shotguns and knives; luggage, footlockers and a wide assortment of musical instruments.

The store was hot in the summer, cold in the winter and filled with a bizarre menagerie of characters: addicts and prostitutes, professional gamblers, pool sharks and con artists; men and women struggling to get by and others hunting for bargains; cops in search of stolen merchandise and the occasional reporter in search of a good story.

Chattahoochee and RiverWalk big part of city's redevelopment plan.
Now, four decades later and this spot -- rechristened "Uptown" in recent years -- has been swept clean. The footprint across much of the area remains the same, but most everything has been reconfigured and remodeled. There's a decidedly upbeat and gentrified vibe that hangs lightly in the air.

Thanks to an innovative collaboration between the city's consolidated government, Columbus State University and Uptown Columbus, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the slightly sleepy and seedy business district has been re-imagined and revitalized. It's a happening place, attracting locals, students and the occasional tourist with a pleasant and eclectic blend of upscale restaurant and bars, retail shops and boutiques, historic buildings and a world-class performing arts center.

Perhaps most remarkable is the western boundary of the area, once a decaying eyesore filled with abandoned warehouses, overgrown thickets of underbrush and debris. Now the RiverWalk, a beautifully landscaped path, meanders alongside the Chattahoochee for 15 miles or so from downtown, alongside the city's historic district and Victory Drive, to the southern fringes of Fort Benning.

The path is wide enough to provide runners, cyclists and folks just our for a leisurely stroll plenty of room to exercise and enjoy the natural beauty around the trail. And if that isn't enough to get your heart racing, just know that Mother Nature, herself, has been given a makeover of sorts.

A few years ago the river was slightly rerouted and gussied up with some well-placed boulders to create a rush of whitewater for kayakers and others in search of a wet and chilly way to spend a few hours.

All that remains of dad's store is the address.
For me -- and I'm guessing for other folks of a certain age who once called Columbus home -- walking around Uptown can be a melancholy journey into the past. It's filled with warm and mostly happy memories, especially for members of the Jewish community whose relatives owned and operated a vast assortment of shops and businesses here.

My father owned a pawn shop on First Avenue. It was next to Suran's Furniture Store, which was around the corner from the Kravtin's Novelty Shop on Broadway. Next door were a cluster of businesses -- Blue Ribbon Shoes, Rainbow's Department Store and Tots and Teens -- all owned and operated by the Rainbow and Shapiro families.

Nearby, on the same block, was Aaron Funk's United Jewelers, Gus Mendelson's Fox's Pawn Shop and Sol and Harry's, a hugely successful clothing store owned by Sol and Harry Cohn. A block north was Phil Pomerance's Kiddie Shop, Charlie Stein's Huddle Shop and Victor Kiralfy's woman's store.

Turn the corner at 11th Street and walk a block east past Kirven's department store and Federal Bakery and you'd be just across the street from Miller's Delicatessen, home of the best corned beef sandwich (possibly the only corned beef sandwich) to be found in Georgia south of Leb's in Atlanta.

The businesses are gone, replaced by Uptown's move into the 21st Century. The changes, wow factor and all, can be a bit jarring and unsettling. Certainly what's become of my father's business is notable. All that remains of Central Pawn Shop today is its address, 1023, updated and prominently displayed across a green awning that welcomes folks to "The Abbey".

Turns out what was once a pawn shop is now a ministry for young adults, providing prayer, meals and financial support. Now that I think about it, nothing much has really changed. Given my dad's warm heart and caring soul, I'm pretty certain he was doing the same sort of mission work years ago in his little store.