Marvin Wolfe Barenblat z"l
March 13, 2022
Top row: wedding and honeymoon in 1954, and in the middle, a party at my grandparents' house in 1956. Middle row: Dad and me, circa 1976, 1984, and 1980. Bottom row: with my kid in 2014, with Mom and kid in 2015, with kid and me two weeks ago, not long before the end.
We buried my father, Marvin Wolfe Barenblat z"l, on Friday. He was eighty-seven years old. He was generous and funny and opinionated. It will be a while before I really understand the spiritual impacts of the fact that that both of my parents are now gone.
There are so many stories. How he grew up in San Antonio with immigrant parents. How he met my mother. Work and travel and parties. (Everyone agrees that my parents knew how to have a good time!) The places he went, the stories he told, the bargains he struck. His gregariousness. His smile.
Mine are small stories, the stories of a youngest daughter. Just as the photos above are photos that are not necessarily representative of the whole: these photos show my parents as newlyweds, then my father and me, then my father and my child. These vignettes are the picture of his life that I can most easily paint.
One of my earliest memories is waking up in the morning and taking my clothes into my dad's walk-in closet to get dressed there. I remember Dad splashing water at the fogged-up glass doors of his shower, and making faces at me, and making me laugh.
When I was five, my parents built a lakehouse on the Guadalupe where it feeds into Lake McQueeney, and we went there often. I used to feel sorry for our cat Leland who would yowl in the car, so I'd let him out of his carrier and he'd walk across the dashboard and Dad would yell. (Dad complained about the cat, but in early mornings he'd beckon, "c'mere, Lele," offering a ramekin of milk.) On the way to the lake we'd stop at a convenience store to get ovals of hard spicy cured sausage hanging on strings.
I remember Dad driving the boat in the evening, maybe with scotch and soda in a Texas-sized styrofoam cup that said Dad's Roadie. (Mom had those cups printed for him, back when it was legal to take "one for the road.") I remember him perched sideways on the side of the boat, his hair windblown, pushing up the throttle to pull whoever was about to ski next. I also remember that he would get frustrated if someone was struggling to get up on skis, and I never wanted him to be frustrated with me.
Dad encouraged me to try new foods. As a child I craved his attention, so I became an adventurous eater. I especially enjoyed escargots (and the joke he would tell, the one with the punchline "look at that S-car go!") He always let me taste his wine. As a little girl I remember chirping, "My favorite wine is Chassagnet Montrachet!" to the amusement of his friends. Relatedly, he taught me the names of big wine bottles -- magnum, Jeroboam, Methuselah.
The year I was ten we lived in Manhattan. Dad spent part of that year in traction with a ruptured disc, but most of my memories of him from that year are of Dad enjoying city life: smoking his cigar on the tiny balcony of our 37th floor apartment, or taking Mom and me to the theater and to as many restaurants as we could visit. There was a Chinese place he really liked called Pig Heaven. For a treat, he would take me to Serendipity for frozen hot chocolate.
Once when I was a teenager my mother was away and Dad took me out for dinner. I dressed up, in a denim miniskirt and big flashy earrings and lots of eye makeup. We overheard a scandalized fellow customer -- "Look at that man, isn't he embarrassed to be out with a girl that young, she could be his granddaughter!" He thought that was hilarious. When I was 14 and we visited Egypt, Dad joked with merchants in the Cairo souq about whether he would sell me if they offered enough camels.
Dad had a notorious temper. (When he pitched a fit, Mom called it "having a piñata.") Relatedly, he disowned me on my 18th birthday because he was mad at me. A week later he took me out for enchiladas at Brown's on south Hackberry, where his father used to take him, and he told me, "I wouldn't sell you for $100, kid." That was his way of apologizing.
A number of years later he also took me for enchiladas at Casbeers, which sparked a poem. Both of those establishments are long gone now. Dad knew San Antonio inside and out; aside from one year in Manhattan, it was his forever home. He'd worked in construction with his father as a newlywed, and he remembered before all the elevated highways changed the shape of the city. He used to drive around and reminisce -- that's where we used to live, my mother had a chicken coop in the back yard...
When my parents were young they traveled to Acapulco with friends at least once a year, and to Las Vegas ditto. Later in life they traveled the world. They went to Kenya with two couples in 1982 -- their friend Sy was a hematologist studying blood-borne diseases in primates -- and they stayed at the Treetops lodge. They went to China with friends around then too, and when they came home they showed slides on the dining room wall.
During the years when he owned a crystal import business, they traveled in Eastern Europe several times a year for work. Once I was with them on a business trip there, and Dad took me to a place in Frankfurt that served the very best schweinshaxe -- pig's knuckles -- so I could try them too.
So many of my memories of Dad involve food. He snacked on spicy pickled okra, and on Ba-tampte pickled tomatoes that he cut into quarters and ate with a fork. He never cooked, but was a master at the grill. At the Barn Door, he used to eat steak basted in butter alongside twice-baked jalapeño potatoes stuffed with cheese. He'd grown up kosher, but my parents never kept a kosher kitchen. (Though when some of their kids became kosher, they made sure that family meals were kosher so we could all eat.)
In my childhood home he always kept a box of See's toffee that came with a tiny golden hammer. He pretended it was our secret and Mom didn't know it was there. That felt conspiratorial and sweet. When I was in college he sent me boxes of that candy, much to the delight of my friends. Later in life he ordered Enstrom's toffee to arrive at my door and my sister's door every December like clockwork. He loved being able to give people food or wine that he knew they would enjoy.
When I was in my twenties, my mom encouraged him to come north and visit sometimes without her. Once he and I walked from my office to Jack's Hot Dog Stand a couple of blocks away. It was a beautiful but frigid January day, with a crystal-clear blue sky and a wind chill around -20 degrees. For years he marveled about it, retelling the story again and again: "That sky was Texas blue, but the air was so cold it was like being smacked in the face with a frozen porcupine!" What a turn of phrase.
In the last 20 years or so, Dad came often to seders at my sister's house. He used to comment on how different our seders had become -- his childhood seders were speed-sung in Yiddish! He spoke some Spanish and some Yiddish because those were languages his parents spoke. I'm told he gave his bar mitzvah speech twice, once in English and once in Yiddish.
His parents died on the same day in 1971. He told me that though he said daily kaddish for eleven months when his parents died (because he knew it mattered to Nana and Papa) he didn't care if his children did the same -- unless we would get something out of it, in which case he wouldn't stop us.
Dad used to tell me that being a Reform Jew was the best thing in the world because as long as you paid your temple dues, no one would tell you what you could or couldn't do! That made me laugh at the time, though in retrospect I hear something deep in it: for him, what mattered was supporting Jewish community and taking care of that community, not whether or not you kept Shabbes or kept kosher.
I remember sitting with him on a patio in Hot Springs, Arkansas, when I was in my early 30s (so he was in his early 70s.) We were there for the wedding of a cousin who, like me, bears his mother's name. He was wearing a warm brown blazer, smoking a cigar, and enjoying the crisp cool air. He told me he'd had a great run, and wouldn't mind dying whenever the time came. I've thought of that often lately.
Dad hated that Mom got sick at the end of her life and that no amount of medical intervention could save her. He would sit on his smoking porch with a cigar and shake his head and mournfully say, "I just don't understand how something like that could happen to someone as good as her." After she died, he visited her grave every day except for Saturdays when the cemetery was closed.
When we visited him last, about ten days before the end, Dad was frail and confused and skipping around in time, asking where Mom was or speaking earnest paragraphs of word salad. But he managed to ask me if I needed anything -- trying to take care of me to the very end. He was charming and flirty with his caregivers.
He told his favorite caregiver that I was his youngest daughter. "Yeah? What's her name," Eddie prompted. "You ask her!" he retorted without missing a beat -- he couldn't remember my name, but he knew I was his kid. He also said to her, "You know what my daughter does?" (No, what, she asked.) "Ask her!" He couldn't remember the word rabbi, but he wanted Eddie to know that what I did, mattered.
The last day I saw him, I sang a line of "Hey, good-looking, what'cha got cookin,'" -- released in 1953, when he and my mom were courting -- and he sang the next line back -- "How's about cookin' something up with me?"
That morning he said something like, "If I weren't here, none of you would be in jail," gesturing around the room. I asked him if he felt like he was in jail and he shrugged. I told him that we were all there to be with him, and he smiled. But looking back, I think he knew that his life was ending -- I think "jail" was his body, after COVID and a heart attack and a stroke and everything else -- and he was ready to go.