Life in Short: a Bar Mitzvah, a Wedding and a Funeral

By Jamie Stiehm

September 12, 2018 5 min read

WASHINGTON — Oh, to go to a bar mitzvah, a wedding and a family friend's funeral. All in the first seven days of September.

A mad dash through life. Yet it was more — a journey from the ancient to the avant-garde.

From witnessing the Torah chanting and robed rituals of young manhood in a beloved but besieged capital, to giving a eulogy in my family hometown of Madison, to dancing in the English countryside at my goddaughter's wedding.

The wedding of bewitching young brides — my first — was worth crossing the Atlantic for, to quote Thomas Jefferson. (A man's man.) It could not have happened when either was born, in the late 20th century.

The merry and gay wedding began at high noon and lasted into the night with really cool dancing that dispelled any notion of understatement.

Get together a spirited collection of all ages from Cambridge, London, Oxfordshire and New Zealand and see what happens. Snappy dressers, too, under the garden marquee surrounded by bright bursts of late summer flowers. Lavender lemonade, anyone?

My English goddaughter is the firstborn of four daughters and a son. This was the first family wedding. Fittingly, Jane Austen showed up in a toast, though in a twist the prim novelist could not have dreamed of in 1800. When the mother of four daughters hears of her eldest daughter's engagement in "Pride and Prejudice," Mrs. Bennet exults, "I was sure you could not be so beautiful for nothing!"

How often do you hear women's voices deliver main speeches at weddings? The other bride's father, an editor at The Times, gave a fine one, to be fair. The friendship started online in a chat room, long before they fell in love.

Some glass broke on the dance floor, accidentally, a reminder of the tragic amid life's joy. Speaking of tragic, I fielded lots of questions on American politics. I apologized.

The history of England was breathing right before me: preserving traditions amid true social revolutions. They hate bloody street scenes.

The next day, I had some remembering to do, like my short-lived years wed to a young Englishman now high in the legal realm. I climbed Primrose Hill to catch up with the London skyline. The new Shard is the highest silhouette, but St. Paul's Cathedral dome will always hold its own. I even had a Sunday roast chicken in a picture-perfect pub, for old times sake.

The temple was absolutely full for two sons of Israel, chanting Hebrew verses as the cantor and congregation sang haunting, ageless words heard the world over. I sat with my book clubbers and enjoyed the display of generations gathered. A tribe of journalists was there, my people.

As we mingled, a sage in the front row told me the joke about Sen. John McCain thinking of converting to Judaism — until he heard about the bris. McCain's funeral was happening that moment at the National Cathedral a couple miles away. McCain had a mordant spark, too. I'm not a Jew, but I know what it takes.

I left before the lunch feasting and dancing to catch a plane to Wisconsin. My parents flew from California.

The late philosophy professor was 92. You could see the charming boy from Brooklyn in the man from Madison.

Hack. Haskell. Professor. Distinguished author and visiting faculty. Fluent in Norwegian. Coffee klatscher. Once a young Army soldier in World War II. Single dad when his witty first wife died. Grandpa — and how he cherished all seven grandchildren, each differently. What a full cup of life Hack had at the end of the day.

To be in his company was to see life as an ironic comedy. Hack dearly loved to laugh.

For me, his best philosophy was six wise words: "You can't make new old friends."

That's for sure. Hack was a beloved family friend, dating back to the summer days when you could swim in Lake Mendota at the University Union Pier. He and my younger mother, Judy, hit it off as kindred subversive spirits, even before the Vietnam War.

Life is a mad dash.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the website.

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