Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, all of the good f-words - food, family, friends - and none of the obscene g-words - guilt, greed - that crop up at Christmas. This Thanksgiving, however, will be a bittersweet event, a celebration of a life that ended too early.
Susan Jordan, the older sister of my wife, Lois, died last May in the crash of a small, experimental plane in Utah. She was a pre-boomer, 67, but she epitomized the vital r-words of Life (Part 2) - running, relationships, reinvention.
Running, of course, is our short-hand for working out, staying fit in body and mind (connected, as you know). Susan ran, hiked, climbed, lifted, did yoga, swam. Something intense every day, sometimes twice.
As the matriarch on Lois' side of the family, she brought friends and family together for Thanksgiving at the Berkeley house she shared with her daughter, Jenny, and her husband, Ronnie Wong. It was a joyous Jewish-Chinese pilgrim festival of food and love, of relationships that were fostered and strengthened for the year. Jenny and Ronnie will host this one, which could be the last as they move on.
Susan's reinventions were epic. Chicago-born, she was a school teacher before she became a lawyer. And what a lawyer! One of her most famous cases was the defense of Inez Garcia, who killed the man who raped her. For the first time, the Battered Woman Syndrome was recognized as an affirmative self-defense.
And then a terrible set-back in her late forties. A medical malpractice left her unable to talk for long periods without pain, a crippling impediment for a trial lawyer. Another reinvention or two or three. While she continued to participate in major cases, she also became a yoga teacher and a practicing Buddhist in the Theravada tradition, sharing the benefits of her spiritual practice by organizing meditation retreats for lawyers and others. Above all, in more ways than one, she pursued her passion for flying, often on missions to protect the environment. She was the passenger in her friend John Austin's plane when it crashed in the Utah desert.
The summer before she died, Susan took me up in her own plane for a couple of hours over northern California. I had never seen this restless, willful dynamo at such peace, and so happy. Her joy and my pleasure in the flight is a vivid memory, a gift for all my holiday seasons to come.
Watching the Spirituality show, I thought of another spiritual moment of a different kind. Some years ago, my friend Gerard Papa needed a parish to sponsor his team in the Catholic Youth Organization's prestigious basketball program and found the Rev. Vincent J. Termine, at Most Precious Blood in Bensonhurst. A crusty, twinkly Brooklynite in his early 50s, a kind of movie priest - "Celibacy was never a problem," he told me once, "and I didn't take a vow of poverty. But obedience, ah...."
He helped Papa paint white lines on the linoleum floor of his bingo hall and erected portable backboards. They held open tryouts.Black kids from the nearby Marlboro projects ventured across Avenue X, the black-white borderline. When the team was assembled, it was more than half black.
Racial integration was never the primary mission, Papa has maintained all these years. Blacks, he told me, "weren't relevant to where I lived. I had essentially no contact with black people and I didn't really think about 'em too much." Papa just wanted a good team. He wanted to win. He says he was surprised when the neighborhood freaked. At the first integrated practice, a van screeched up and a gang of young white men piled out swinging bats. One of them was the son of the local "man of respect." The Flames piled into Gerard's Thunderbird and raced off to Coney Island, figuring correctly that their attackers would not follow them into a black neighborhood.
That season there were telephoned death threats, and Papa's tires were slashed. His black players were beaten and most white players were pressured to quit. But he refused to disband the team. He believed in his own righteousness. Apparently, so did Father Termine. Remembering a piece of advice from his own mother - "Better a dead priest than a bad one" - he stormed into the back room of the local social club. Cards and chips flew as Father Termine ("I can be dramatic when necessary") roared about Jesus and justice. When he was finished, the team and Papa were promised safe conduct.
That was more than 30 years ago. Father Termine is retired. Papa and the Flames are still beacons of integration and youth basketball in New York City.