When the kids were little, they took piano lessons from an elderly woman in our neighborhood named Elaine Lebar. Mrs. Lebar was an accomplished musician, and a taskmaster – once barked at 5-year-old Jesse, attempting a piece by Chopin, “Play it like the composer wrote it!!!” She was also a remarkable woman with an arsenal of anecdotal hidden gems.
She once told me about when she and her husband Stan first settled on a house to buy in Anne Arundel County in the early 1960s: they were at closing when either the sellers or the realtor (I can’t recall which), upon realizing that the Lebars were Jewish, tried to back out of the deal. Evidently, there was little if any Jewish presence around Annapolis at that time. The Lebars managed to secure their home and Stanley set about spearheading the establishment of a reform congregation, which is thriving today.
As a toddler, Shep used to come to Jesse’s piano lessons with me, and eventually took lessons from Mrs. Lebar himself. No matter her stern and exacting nature, the boys loved Mrs. Lebar. Shep, because he delighted in watching her overfed Jack Russell terrier Dali (named after Salvador) perform tricks for treats. Dali was so fat she looked like she might burst; but like Mrs. Lebar, she retained her talent well into old age – her long nails click-clacking across the floor as she scurried to perform rolls and turns.
Jesse particularly liked Mrs. Lebar because, old as she was, she often didn’t remember what she’d already assigned him to practice, and what was new material. Once she pulled out the sheet music to the Star Wars theme song when Jesse was six and asked him to give it a go; she marveled – and he beamed – when he executed it perfectly at the first attempt. “Amazing!” Mrs. Lebar exclaimed, a rarity for her. She’d forgotten that Jesse had mastered the Star Wars theme song a year earlier, and even played it in a concert she arranged for her students at the local church.
One day, I was observing Jesse’s piano lesson in Mrs. Lebar’s cluttered living room when I noticed a statue on a shelf that looked unmistakably like an Emmy. Had Elaine Lebar been a star of early television? Perhaps a pianist on Lawrence Welk?
At the end of the lesson, while Dali was doing one of her twirl-for-treat routines, I asked Mrs. Lebar about the Emmy. It was then that I learned that her late husband Stanley, who had spent his career at Westinghouse, had spearheaded the initiative to capture the Apollo 11 mission and lunar landing on television. Without Stanley Lebar, and the team he assembled at Westinghouse, half a billion people would not have been able to watch that historic event on T.V.
I was still in my mother’s stomach when “we landed on the moon” but my father woke up my then 10-month-old brother Scott to watch the event. Perhaps he was just wired this way, or perhaps such acts on the part of our parents and early television memories make a difference; Scott went on to develop a fascination with space and flight, earn a degree in aeroastro engineering, and become a U.S. Naval Aviator.
Mrs. Lebar eventually grew too old to live alone and her adult children found an assisted living facility for her and Dali in southern Maryland where she still lives, occasionally performing for fellow residents to this day.
Jesse was three-and-a-half and Shep nearly two in November 2008 when Barack Obama was declared winner of the presidential election. I tried to wake both boys so they could join me in front of the television, hear Obama’s acceptance speech, and see the throngs of cheering crowds in Chicago, D.C. and all across America. I could not manage to rouse either kid, but on January 19th 2009, I called a moratorium on Dora the Explorer and Jack’s Big Music Show so we could watch the inauguration.
Jesse quickly eschewed the event for a science experiment he was working on, and Shep retreated to his room to play with his stuffed animals, and I decided to let it go. Neither one had been alive for even five years; I couldn’t compel them to feel the emotion I did as America’s first black President was sworn into office.
My first significant television memory was Nixon resigning. I was four years old in August 1974; my mother was ironing in the basement in front of our only – small, black & white, antennae-topped – T.V. I remember watching this jowly disembodied face as it gravely addressed the country with words that had little meaning to me. But when Nixon said he would “resign the Presidency, effective noon tomorrow” my mother stopped her ironing, and let out a little high-pitched whoop-whoop; this might have been the first instance when I felt a surge of recognition that I lived in America – a place where even the President was not above my mother, or me.
Today, as I find myself watching television coverage that swings pendulum-style between commemorations of Apollo 11 and clips of our inarticulate President at a political rally, fomenting racism and hate, there are many thoughts swirling in my head. I miss Elaine Lebar. I am grateful for the contributions she and her husband Stanley made to our society, and also to my children’s early lives. I miss Barack Obama, for many of the same reasons. I miss that time when I was four, when watching television was an “event” in and of itself, and not a constant deluge of competing images and a background buzz of angry noise.
Most of all, I miss the feeling I always had – throughout my childhood and well into my adult life – of feeling fortunate and proud to be “American.” I miss the sense that no matter how flawed we were or had been as a nation, we were always correcting for past mistakes (like Nixon and slavery and Japanese internment camps), and that we were always moving in a direction forward, on a road paved with promise, and that was accessible to everyone.
On the anniversary of “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” perhaps what I really miss is the comfort and quiet and safety and unknowingness of being inside my mother’s womb, as I was on that day, in a tiny graduate student apartment in Iowa City, Iowa – waiting to emerge into a place that I would learn, and come to truly believe, was the land of the free and the home of the brave.
In short, I miss the country into which I was born. I don’t think I’m the only one. I wish that not only I, but all of America, could go back where we came from.