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October 24th, 2017

Insight

My sister Lillian

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Dec. 17, 2015

My sister Lillian

When the phone rang, it was my nephew Michael in Dallas, and we were sure the sad news was about his father, George, for he'd been caring for both his parents. But, no, it was Lillian who had died suddenly.

Lillian!

In accordance with Jewish (and Muslim) custom and law, the funeral and burial would take place as soon as possible. Both would take place in Shreveport, our old hometown, and not just because the run-down old orthodox cemetery there held the graves of our family, but because Lillian loved Shreveport and everything about it. As she did the South itself. Especially after she'd moved to New York with her new husband, who'd been stationed at Barksdale.

When the police escort held up traffic for a funeral cortege, she'd say, "Isn't that just like Shreveport!" As if unaware of the custom throughout the rural and small-town South.

Her polyglot language was special itself: a mix of her native Yiddish, Suthuhn, and the Arabic phrases she'd incorporated into it by way of her Syrian girlfriends who, like the rest of us, lived above our families' stores on Texas Avenue. A language composed of malaprops galore, and there were plenty to choose from, one more lovable than the next. For example:

After the rabbi's eulogy for my late wife, Carolyn, she suggested we make a nice contribution to his discrepancy fund. "Well, you know what I meant!" she would say, and indeed we would.

If, in conversation, some bad news or a sad story came up, Lillian would add poo! poo! poo! to imitate spitting three times in order to ward off the evil eye.

On the news of her death, out came the family scrapbooks. But the snapshots in my boyhood memory remain more vivid. It is always the unbearable Shreveport summer, submerged in the kind of heat that requires a towel wrapped around the steering wheel. My sister wheels me along Marshall Avenue on my pedal car in a picture that must have been taken by the kind of street photographer who was everywhere downtown in those days. The most talented of them had to be the artists who took the irresistible ads for Walgreen's on Texas Street, where my sister and her Syrian girlfriends -- now known as Lebanese -- would take me Saturday afternoons. They were all dressed up in late-1930s high style -- Rashi, Tillie, Lillian herself. They'd get me a banana split or a great big scoop of vanilla ice cream planted right in the center of a hollowed-out cantaloupe. I can taste it yet.

Later I can remember Lillian and George's festive wedding at the house on Forrest Avenue; he was a New Yorker stationed at Barksdale with the Army Air Corps, and became an irreplaceable addition to the family, an accountant whose arithmetical skills never failed us. On our visits to Mexico, he never lost track of the peso-to-dollar daily exchange rate. Lillian would return to Shreveport from time to joyous time, and how we welcomed and celebrated the arrival of each as I now played the role once assigned to her.

In her old age, big-hearted Lillian was fired from at least two volunteer jobs. One was a prison literacy program. Lillian mailed a prisoner's letter to his girlfriend, which was against the rules. The second job involved making milkshakes for a charity. The machine made 10 ounces of milkshake at a time; instructions were to pour an eight-ounce milkshake for the client and discard the two ounces left over. True to her mother's waste-not-want-not ethos, Lillian drank the excess from each milkshake. So she was fired from that job, too.

Lillian's indignation could prove as admirable as her love for family. "We're privileged," one of the well-indoctrinated kids in the family once informed her. Lillian's lips would form into an unmistakable sneer at the word Privileged. You bet they were privileged kids, but not by race or class or doubtless by any other currently fashionable way they may have meant. They were privileged to be members of this extended immigrant family. Privileged because their grandmother had made it to this country just as the golden gates began to close with the onset of a whole new set of immigration restrictions in 1924. Privileged to be born free, American by birth and then conviction.

Now she is gone, and yet she leaves behind such a sweet savor.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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