Thursday, May 02, 2013
Gail Godwin once said, “There are two kinds of people: one kind, you can just tell by looking at them at what point they congealed into their final selves. It might be a very nice self, but you know you can expect no more surprises from it. Whereas, the other kind keep moving, changing... They are fluid. They keep moving forward and making new trysts with life, and the motion of it keeps them young. In my opinion, they are the only people who are still alive. You must be constantly on your guard against congealing.”
My father was such a man. He devoted his life to learning, growing, and being fully alive, and those qualities were his greatest gift to us.
It is hard to imagine what it must have been like for my father, at age 13, to see his mother leave her family to join the army for a more exciting life. It was the late 1940’s, when such behavior was unheard of, but… in my father’s oft-repeated words, his mother, a vivacious, Auntie Mame-type character, left a man “whose idea of a good time was taking off his shoes” to travel the world.
This event, coupled with other shadowy episodes of the sort that people rarely speak about now, and most CERTAINLY did not discuss back then, caused him to seek refuge in books, films and the unwavering pursuit of a self-actualized life. He used every trick in the book to ingrain this pursuit into his children, and we are now sharing them with his grandchildren.
In young adulthood, he pursued the beginnings of a religious vocation like his brothers, but told us that he left after having dreams of his future children. Those dreams led him to Julie, his “Jewel”, who gave him five children. These children remember lying on the floor after dinner, with the lights dimmed, while he played music on the record player, asking us what we “saw” when we closed our eyes and listened. Long before the days of VCRs, he shared his love of film with us, putting us to bed well before our bedtime, only to wake us later when an amazing movie was on TV. His favorites were old Technicolor musicals, but he also loved the classics, and continued to see most of the popular, foreign, and independent films that came out until the day he died. He introduced us to sitting on the front porch to watch thunderstorms unfurl, and going to the airport on Sunday afternoons to watch the planes, followed by ice cream. He delighted in going on rollercoasters as much as any child. He taught us how to be fully alive in the world, to be awake, critical, and curious. Despite our lack of resources, we were taught to savor: as children, we were told to chew our food 27 times, and, on Christmas, we opened presents all day long, so we might appreciate each gift that we got and thank the giver appropriately.
He loved teaching French and Latin at Binghamton Central High School. I remember his excitement each time he came up with a novel concept for his class to get them interested in the subject matter. He was an incredible teacher at home as well, often making up games so the lessons we learned would be fun. As a parent now myself, it is plain to see that he thoughtfully orchestrated our education, and devoted incredible amounts of energy to its creative implementation. Despite always holding down a second job to make ends meet, we were, for a good part of his life, his vocation and highest priority.
In 1972, he rented out our house and took his wife and a family of then-four children to live in France for a year, on half of a high school teacher’s salary. We were poor, but got to attend French public schools, experience a vastly different culture, and our lives were transformed forever. As a result, three of us have returned to live in Europe on our own as adults. Back when we were in high school, there was not a book we read for English, French, or Philosophy class that he did not remember and discuss with us. Dinner at our house was the place to be for our friends, because we had animated conversations on fascinating subjects. We were always encouraged to express our opinion, even if it challenged my father’s beliefs, because thinking for ourselves was valued above all else.
A gentle, devout man, there was not an ounce of entitlement in him. It was rare to see him get angry… although life dealt him many blows, he internalized the pain, rather than lashing out at those around him. He was intensely private, and when he had his first stroke in ’93, he self-consciously withdrew from many social situations, was forced to relinquish many of his dreams and activities, and, in his own words “grew down”, essentially living a life of the mind. If you saw him on the street, he often looked disheveled, as his left side was not working so well, and he was not the kind of man to let others dress him, but late at night he was writing eloquent short stories. We recently learned that the workers at The Binghamton Public Library know him by name. Even late in his life, my father was a keen, silent observer of human nature, the man who unobtrusively sat in the corner, noticed everything, and then stunned with his astute comments, often delivered with a dry sense of humor. Despite his intellectual acuity, he was often humorously unpredictable. Only a month ago, at Easter, though he was having trouble walking, he woke from a nap on the couch, donned my daughter’s frilly Easter bonnet, hobbled to the front door, and just stood there, grinning, until someone noticed him, then asked, “Why should Ilaria have all the fun?”
He resembled no one so much as the George Bailey character in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Earnest, idealistic, vivacious and naïve, when my father went into real estate, inspired by George Bailey’s actions in the film, he specialized in “farm home” properties, to help people of modest means get into their first homes.
Bob Kretz was learning every day of his life. When he retired years ago, he began auditing classes at SUNY Binghamton: photography, creative writing, history. literature. Last year, at the age of 76, he started learning Italian to add to his repertoire of French and Latin. He often sent his children books or films that he thought might be of particular interest, or relevant to what was going on in our lives at that moment.
These are but a few examples of my father’s spirit, and the many gifts he gave to us. As Auntie Mame said, “Life is a banquet…. and most poor suckers are starving to death!” Robert Kretz is a man whom, for most of his life, had more movies and books in his collection than dollars in the bank, but, today, our lives, and the lives of our children, are deeper for his life choices.
He was a dreamer… with all of the riches, and, sometimes unfortunate consequences, that come with that mantle. As a result, I’m a dreamer, too.
And at this moment, in MY dream, I see my father, sitting in a café on The Left Bank of Paris, watching the sun set, reading a book, and, let’s face it, drinking a glass of wine… maybe even smoking a cigarette, because he is finally free.
R.I.P. Robert James Kretz, 1935 -2013