Thinking of Uncle Jesse, on Tu B’Shevat

Today is Tu B'shevat, and I am thinking of Uncle Jesse
Jesse Wallach died on a winter’s day in 1999, at 90.

“Uncle, great uncle, lend me your cane.”
“It’s such a long walk from your lap to my bed.”
As in Armor and Sturtevant’s East African song,
I still need your cane.

Uncle Jesse,
volunteer in Spain, seconded
 	to the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, the Canadians in Spain.
After Spain, he volunteered for the Pacific.  
He didn't like the military, or war.  But nobody 
in this country had any experience with hand-to-hand combat
				except the International Brigade veterans.
He didn't discuss either war.
	But when a new book about Spain came out,
		he checked it for accuracy.

Lifelong student of politics and history;
	lifelong leftist.
He did not lead an easy life, from the banks of the Ebro,
	to Pacific islands I never heard him discuss,
	to the untimely death of fiery aunt Lucy, as her piano career was ripening,
	to the long last illness of his second wife, Clara.
But his enjoyed his life on West End Avenue.  
	We used to call him "Funny Jesse".
		Not because he told jokes or played games with the children,
			but because we sensed the gentle humor 
				he brought to every family gathering.

Both Lucy and Jesse were excellent cooks,
	and they loved to share.
They threw great parties for leftist musicians and artists
	visiting this country.
When I started college in Connecticut they said to me,
	“Good.  Now you can visit us more often.”
		Then they gave me a key to their New York City apartment.
			"If you want to bring a girl, that’s fine.  
				Our study is a second bedroom."

You could always depend on Jesse, on his help.
	He was cheerful and steadfast.
I wish I could tell him again
	how much he meant to me.

Jesse didn’t talk about the historical significance of all that he did.
	But spoke thoughtfully and as an active witness to history.

Yesterday, I was listening to music from the ballet "Spartacus"
	What did Spartacus think of, in his final days and hours,
		when he knew that his slave revolt against Rome
			faced defeat?
I wish that I could tell him:
	He has outlived his enemies;
		outlived the empire that he fought.
And his name is a byword for hope defiant.

We do "the work that we must do," 
	even in Spain, even in sickness, even in slavery, even here.
		We see the future with our hands.

Tu B'shevat is the new year of the trees.
	Jesse was a Marxist.  I am a Jew, a humanist, and try to be a Buddhist.
		But this holiday somehow reminds me of him.
We plant apple seeds.  
	We hope to see green seedlings sprout.
		We don’t expect to live long enough
			to eat the apples.
As children, we enjoyed fruit from trees that others planted.
	As my mother used to say.
		“If you can’t pay back,
pay forward.”

We work by faith:
	in the earth,
		in the seasons,
			in the people,
				in the future.
And for us it is always Spring.

Oh my comrades,
Oh my kinfolk,
Oh Uncle Jesse,
Thank you.
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