Last Sunday, Carolyn and I reached a milestone. Aaron became the first Perlstein son to clear his last possessions from our garage. Another important milestone now approaches. This Sunday marks my father Morris’s 112th birthday.
The King—I’ll explain the nickname—died in 1983. But he’s never been gone. It’s not that he had an outsize personality. Rather, his ordinary life offered extraordinary examples of what it means to be loving, honest and kind—to be a mensch.
A little history: My father was born in Warsaw, Poland. He came to America in 1906 with his parents and two sisters. I like to imagine my grandfather holding my father up on the deck of their ship to see the Statue of Liberty. I like to think of my grandmother saying, “In America, you can be anything you want.”
What my father wanted to be was an American. His parents were thirty-four when they arrived at Ellis Island. While they all became Americans—the family was granted citizenship in August 1911 while living on 17th Street in Manhattan—my grandparents had to feel their way into the new culture. Some of America remained alien as it often does to adult immigrants, particularly Jews in a “Christian nation.” My father came here at two-and-a-half. Moishe became Morris. He had no memories of Warsaw. I once asked him what he thought of his parents. His answer: “I thought they were greenhorns.”
As a kid, the King played sports. He also wanted an education and believed that he could get further ahead as a college man at a time when relatively few people went to college. After graduating from the old DeWitt Clinton High School, he worked to help support the family. He also attended night classes at New York University—for eleven years. In 1932, he received his B.S. from NYU’s School of Commerce.
Four years later, following a whirlwind courtship, he married my mother Blanche. He made a good living. After the War, he became a salesman, selling springs to bedding and furniture manufacturers. My mother though he’d never succeed. The King was an introvert. She soon had both a mink stole and a mink coat. Did I mention the lamb’s-wool jacket? My father’s pleasures were modest: family, food, cigars, Broadway musicals, Friday-night gin games and summers at a Catskills bungalow colony—Kappy’s Kottages. He took me to baseball and basketball games. Later he and my mother enjoyed Las Vegas—craps for him, slots for her.
As to the nickname: I started calling my father King after an episode on TV’s The Honeymooners. Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason) ranted to his wife Alice (Audrey Meadows) that he was “the king of the castle.” I ran with it and soon referred to my mother as the Queen. For decades, I sent birthday and anniversary cards portraying kings and queens. On the King’s cards, I always drew a cigar.
The only memorials to Morris Perlstein are his descendents. He lived what New York Times columnist David Brooks refers to as “the small, happy life.” There’s a big idea there. The world just might be better off if more people lived lives not of celebrity or wealth accumulation but of peaceful integrity. Happy birthday, King. Your memory is a blessing.
Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.
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