My blog which I started writing during the pandemic was initially meant to be a way to say, hey, I am still here and will be when we are able to travel again and that was back in 2020. It was started to let people know that we can overcome all the issues that we encounter in our everyday lives and come out stronger. It, on occasion, spoke to the events at the time and has over the past couple of years, been more personal, but sometimes with events that have happened, but really, it has been about reflection and trying to handle life in general.
Today, however, and until yesterday, this would not necessarily been the subject, but now, it is, a more personal reflection. One of a man I knew and perhaps did not know, but certainly had an influence on me. I am speaking of my biological father, who was not the one that help raise me and that is for a different discussion, but one, whose influence was more far reaching than that. I am opening myself up here, because I found out he died yesterday, of natural causes. His name is Kenneth Gartner and when I was growing up, he was not there. In fact, I did not know he existed until my pre-teens and teenage years, or so I thought. He was not spoken about, but again, the reasons are for a different time, but he was and when I needed to find out about the other half, a wall was put up and as teenagers go, I was not anything special and dealt with a lot of anger, given the situation at the time.
The fact of the matter is that he and my mother divorced when I was two years of age and if one has recollections, I remember things from about 3 years of age, and this was solidified, by my seeing reel to reel film, which had been given to me by Kenn when we met as adults, but that is for later. I also knew things were different because I attended her wedding to the other guy at age six and knew something was different and something was not right. It had to that point, been 3 years, since I had seen him, or that is the distant recollection of a then 6-year-old. After all this, the “family” moved to Minnesota, from New York in an old VW Bug and I never saw Kenn again, but something was always nagging at me, and as I grew up, I needed to know who the other half was, as I certainly did not act or look like the guy she married. In fact, we did not get along and that is an understatement and then my two brothers came along, and that did not make it easier.
I needed to know who this person was and why he was not there and why they split apart. An answer I would not ever know, but I needed to know him and throughout my teenage years, as things in Minnesota were not good at all, I tried to find him. I had an aunt, thank you Harriet, in New York City who sent me newspaper clippings, so I knew he existed, and I needed to know and would leave the house to go to a payphone, no cell phones then 😊, call directory assistance and even asked them to make the phone call. These were the old days, and they would. The first few times, the call went through, but when the answering machine picked up, I was too afraid to say anything. What would happen or what would I say. On one occasion, however, I got the nerve up and left a message. Of course, how could he respond. It was a payphone, and I did not leave a number. I was not going to leave the home number and things at home were not good anyway.
Fast forward to later in my teens and early 20’s and having my own place. Still no cellphones and only a cordless phone and answering machine. I again got up the guts to call again and this time, left a message which to this day I remember and did not know what the result would be including my phone number. It had been 18 years, give or take, since I had seen him and did not know if this was by choice or not. In the end, it really does not matter, and I did not know what the outcome of leaving a message would be, but I still needed to know about my past and the other half to have some closure be it good or bad. And one day, when I was at my little studio apartment in St. Paul, I received a call. This place was very near the culinary program I was attending and when I graduated, I planned to go to New York to cook professionally. While I do not remember the specifics of the call, it felt comfortable, and I told him I was coming to New York City to seek out a job in cooking. My maternal grandparents were still around at the time, so I flew to New York and stayed with them. On that call with Kenn, we arranged a meeting.
I still remember that meeting as clearly as if it were yesterday. I remember him saying meet me at the Wine Bar in Soho at whatever time we had arranged and so I hopped on the subway from Queens and went into Manhattan and got out at my stop. Upon getting out of the subway and back on the street, among hundreds of people, I heard loud a clear, “Jamie” and I looked in the general direction of the sound and across the street a way back, I saw him. I remember, feeling, now I know where I come from. From a physical perspective, I knew the genes were right, the nature part of the nurture – nature question fit like a glove. What I was to find out over the years, is how much. Of course, at that point, I did not know what to expect.
We “met”, shook hands, and enjoyed some wine at the wine bar, and afterwards, it could have simply ended, good or bad, but it did not. Although I did not know him, really a stranger, I accepted a ride back to Queens, but also to his place in Bayside and we continued the conversation and he shared with me, the reel-to-reel movies of my toddler years, which I now have and have digitized and perhaps had dinner. I don’t remember. In the end, he gave me a lift back to my grandparents’ house, a place he had not been to in some 18 years and dropped me off. Beyond, that I don’t remember much except that I knew returning to New York City was something I had to do which I did, was hired in the culinary field and did that for many years until one day, I saw an ad on the subway looking for volunteer tutors in the NYC Schools. I also need to let you know that he was a teacher at Carnarsie High School in Brooklyn and other schools, as well.
So, I applied, and they took me on. I was still cooking, but the hours were burning me out and I needed a change. In any case, I enjoyed teaching English to Brazilian kids whose first language was Portuguese. I did not speak their language, and I did not have to, but it was the impetus for me to go back and earn my college degree in education at Queens College and was even able to use some of these experiences as my student teaching at the time. I think Kenn was instrumental in getting me in, as he was an alum and a teacher in the city. I should also mention in terms of the nature part, that I never knew where my musical prowess came from. I played trumpet and I was not bad. He, by the way, was a concert pianist who also studied at Julliard and earned his doctorate at Cornell. I know that the other side has no musical skills, so I found out where I got it and years later, when I was living in New York, Kenn needed a trumpet player for his pit orchestra at Canarsie High School for their production of “West Side Story” and I sat in. The only time we collaborated.
He was also a traveler from early on and told me stories of places he had been around the world with his $999.00 around the world ticket. Some of the places I have been, some not yet and perhaps never. He told me of his father, who was born in Hungary, in a town called Miskolc, which some years later, on my second or third time to Hungary and searched out family information but would have been difficult due to the history at the time. He has a huge wine collection, and I heard many stories over the years, some good and some bad. He told me he was part of a gang in New York and eventually went to a military school, to get his act together. Over the 40 plus years we knew each other, we got together, be it in New York or when he married his wife Nora and came out to California. I remember going to his wedding out on Long Island with his third wife, Cindy, who, having known Kenn for that long, would not work, but he went through with it, and this is where I met his mom for one of the only times, over the years. I never met his father, who came from Hungary, as I mentioned earlier. He served in the Seabees in WWII and went on to be an architect.
I have to say that while the 40 years I had known Dr. Kenneth Ralph Gartner was not perfect, and we had times that were also not good, the decision to find out where I came from, on the other side, was necessary, and it worked out in the end. For me, and even though my last name is different, by no choice of my own, I am a Gartner and I hold that inside me with pride. He had no siblings, and I was his only kid, and unfortunately, I have no kids, so I could not present him with a grandchild, to continue the line, but I know all the kids that he influenced in his years of teaching in New York, Massachusetts and California, and where last year, when I was able to introduce to him, in person, Rosa, the love of my life, will be forever felt. I would like to think that in my years of teaching, that perhaps, I had a positive effect on my students. I even felt it from him over the years, as there were times, he said he was proud of what I had accomplished, which is something I never heard growing up. The last time I spoke to him was just a few days ago and he seemed fine, albeit a little frustrated with the aches and pains of life. He was looking forward to going on a river cruise with Nora later this week.
I am glad that I made that conscious decision to find him all those years ago and as the years went by the stories and experiences accumulated. Some stories he told me were in the last years of his life as he was also losing his short-term memory and he many times repeated himself, but other stories were heard for the first time, as other avenues opened, and I was glad to hear them. Seeing the slow deterioration gave me a better perspective and more patience in trying to handle it. I was so glad to have Rosa by my side and she was able to make me understand as did some other friends. I could go on and on as I recall more, but I will finish here with a solemn thank you for letting me into your life. The reasons why you were not there, whether by choice or not, and the legal haggling of the early 60’s, I hold no malice, just the memory of a man who allowed a friendship to blossom over the years and allowed this stranger to come into your life. Your memory will always be with me.
RIP Mr. Kenn. September 18, 1938 - October 23, 2023.
I want to thank you as always for your support currently and what I am currently going through. I will make a quick trip to California to say ciao to Mr. Kenn for Rosa and me and continue with my business at hand, which is good for me to keep my mind off what is going on. As always, I look forward to your comments, questions, concerns and continuing the discourse through whichever means you read my posts!!!
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