Hardly anyone we watch in the current national drama appears authentic or worthy of our recollections. We have to look elsewhere for genuine moments of human intimacy that are devoid of histrionics or “fake news.”
I have found in these bizarre times—and maybe you have as well—that I fall back into encouraging memories of people whose lives I have felt in my heart and my bones. Folks who are or were real and who left an indelible lesson behind for me to cherish.
‘You don’t know what it is to have loved a woman like that.’
Today, I remember Franklin.
Franklin, my old friend and one-time congregant, died on August 2 fifteen years ago. A sage and polished man, he shared intimate agonies with me, including his unyielding grief at the death of his wife and sweetheart. He remains one of the sheltering trees I’ve found along this fascinating journey through people’s lives.
What I remember the most were his words after his wife died: “Look, I don’t have any interest in anything or anyone else anymore. You don’t know what it is to have loved a woman like that, to have made music for her. My kids mean well, they take me out on these silly outings. I don’t care. I don’t have any use for this life without Madeleine.”
At the time, Franklin was 77, robust, handsome still, and had only stopped playing the saxophone the day after his soulmate departed this world. He stared at me across the desk in my study and—besides feeling deeply for him—I grasped that I really didn’t know enough about what love is. I did not neglect my primary duties to him as a grieving and potentially sick and troubled parishioner, but an emotional awakening unfolded for me. I was actually envious of this man’s pain and experience and I miss him grievously—even as I hope that he discerns my own healed spirit from up there in the heaven.
Franklin was born in Chicago, in 1924. He was truly a son of both the Great Depression and the so-called Long Weekend between the two World Wars. He lived his religious heritage—not so much in liturgy but in life itself. His roots were cultural yiddishkeit, holidays, community, succulent foods, and certainly hard work. If Chicago grew into the city with broad shoulders, Franklin was a robust amalgam of its brawn and brain. Resilient, light on his feet, enterprising, and truly generous, he was the humanist, the organizer, the sprite gambler, the man who understood the value of a bag of groceries and the meaning of romantic love. He was playing the saxophone when a brunette with green eyes and a fiery face walked into the club and chose him with a wave of her hand.
It could only have been his life-long dance partner Madeleine, who stole and then nourished his core when she was still only 19 years old. Franklin and Madeleine were married in 1946, after his wartime service in the Philadelphia shipyards, sharing two generations of laughter and tenderness, even as Franklin sang from “Fiddler,” grew the family sheet-metal business, and breathed in life across all categories of the arts and philanthropies.
Franklin lost his will to live just a few months after losing Madeleine even as an insipid cancer began to consume his body. He would whisper to me, in morphine-drenched conviction, that he was done, and that he wanted to die. I thought often about the lyric from the biblical Song of Songs, “For love is as strong as death.” I understood that here was a painful realization of this aphorism and felt blessed and informed.
His children and grandchildren adored him, of course. They would beg me to convince him to cling to life after Madeleine died and he was in and out of hospital, depressed and infirm. But he had told me something that put a seal across my heart. I learned from Franklin that a genuine romance must be more than romantic.