Friday, October 2, 2009

A very successful man

I learned recently that my former father-in-law died. It's been about 9 years since I've seen him. After my divorce, I tactfully backed away from regular contact with my ex-husband's family. Not for any reasons of bitterness or unresolved issues, simply to enable my ex and me to follow our new life paths. But thinking of Jacob's passing brings back memories and I feel the need to write about him.

Jacob was a humble man about his many accomplishments in life. He was very successful but not in the flashy or excessive way that modern society notices. I would say that in terms of things that really matter in life -- raising a family, being a good husband and father, and being a decent human being, Jacob's life was a real success story.

Like many men of his generation, Jacob felt things deeply although he didn't always articulate these thoughts. This was the era of men who preferred to sort out their thoughts by watering the lawn or pruning a bush. He grew up in France and experienced WW II as a young man. In the aftermath of the war, Jacob saw many terrible things and this caused him to doubt the existence of God. Yet I never heard him speak of hate. In contrast, he valued harmony in all forms -- within his family, his circle of friends, with neighbors, or his customers. I have a funny memory of him wearing a baseball cap with the inscription "One world - One love" on it. He retained an Old World sensibility yet was tenderly amused by the brash openness and optimism of American culture.

He had a strong love of animals and at one time considered becoming a veterinarian. But the need to support a growing family, three sons in all, turned Jacob's talents toward the practical world of business. He excelled as a top salesman and was a motivational manager. If I had taken the time to ask Jacob for business advice, I probably could have learned a lot. But at that point in my life, I felt that I knew all the answers, and I was more interested in doing than listening. Jacob never made the annual list of top executives at Forbes magazine. However as a person, he topped any list for his qualities of honesty, dedication and integrity. Jacob was a greater success than some of the ethically bankrupt executives that I have interviewed as a journalist over the years.

Jacob loved his garden and delighted in his blooming cactus plants and fuchsias. In my mind's eye, I can see him carefully studying his plant kingdom. When I needed some quiet time at large family gatherings, I would go outside and admire Jacob's efforts in the garden. Sometimes he would walk along with me, making friendly and low-key small talk, explaining the nuance of a particular flower. Jacob's kindness extended to plants and to people alike.

In his retirement years, Jacob took up ceramics as a hobby. Working with clay, at this time of his life, was an interesting physical and mental activity. He enjoyed being around people yet the act of creating a vase is a solitary activity that lends itself well to contemplation. I think this new hobby was an interesting catharsis in some ways. In a practical sense, his first bowls were very heavy and the glaze was uneven. But his talent quickly evolved and the bowls and vases became lighter, finer and objects of beauty. Every eye that saw them, wanted one -- soon Jacob's creations were adorning tables and shelves in the homes of family and friends. Even strangers would comment and want to buy them. What started as a casual past-time became an avenue for personal expression.

I still have a small multicolored vase from an early artistic learning phase that I would describe as 'Jacob discovers color'. Bright patches of blue, purple, orange and yellow form a colorful mosaic. The vase has been in a closet, forgotten for years, but today I remembered it and washed the dust off. I've added some daisies and put it on a table in my office. The colors remind me to be happy and "enjoy life." I think Jacob would like that.