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The Lesson of Nelson McNutt

Another piece from the “Way Back Machine,” date not reliably captured but I believe is was first published in 2003.

I come from a family of immigrants, a fact that puts me in good company with a significant portion of the people who live here in the big PX. But for the details, my family’s stories are probably a lot like yours. I had a chance to reflect on my ancestors the other day upon meeting a fellow named Nelson McNutt who in a round about way reminded me of a very important lesson: the value of being mentally present. He may not be that way all the time, or even most of the time, but my guess is that he’s done it for a long time as you’ll see.

I was born in the United States as were my parents. My father’s father, Sam Hoffberg, emigrated from what is now known as Belarus. The story I’m told is that during the depths of the Pogroms, his father woke up one day to see his brother hanging by the neck from a tree. That was apparently motivation enough to uproot the clan and head to Hartford, Connecticut. via Ellis Island where my family’s unpronounceable and even less spellable name was written down as “Hoffberg”.

Sam Hoffberg grew up poor, and fought and scrabbled for everything he got. Like many first generation immigrants, he was a striver of the first magnitude. As I understand it (and like many of his generation, he was loath to tell his stories), he got a degree in accounting at night while working a day job, and after years of hard work, came to enjoy considerable financial success. When he died, Sam left behind an apartment on Fifth Ave. in New York City across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and an estate worth well into seven figures. He gave significant sums to his temple and to charities and was a big financial supporter of the state of Israel.

My Mother’s father, Dalai Brenes de Carrillo was from Costa Rica, a country I’d never heard of when I was younger, and but for the current wave of eco-tourism, most people still wouldn’t know today. Unlike Sam, Dalai came from some degree of privilege. In his own way, he was a striver as well, but his quest was for knowledge. His ancestors were the founders of public education in Costa Rica. His father was a Mason of the highest degree and the ambassador to the US. His brother served with distinction in the OSS during WW II.

Dalai was educated at Northwestern University. By the time I knew him, he was a full professor at Cornell University, later to become chairman of the Romance Language department. He was known in the world of Spanish Literature as an expert on Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s epic and seminal novel Don Quixote de la Mancha—known to lovers of musicals as The Man of la Mancha. Also unlike Sam, Dalai left relatively little in the way of money and possessions when he passed: A small house outside of Ithaca, NY, some books, a bag of much used Leica cameras and lenses, some personal effects, and that was pretty much it.

Sam was married to Helen. Helen was his second wife, and truly none of us, including my father and maybe not even Sam, knew much about her. She was an imperious woman.

Dalai was married to Eleanor. Eleanor was Swedish and met Dalai at Northwestern, and between the two of them, they spoke six or seven languages. She was an epic figure prone to the most outlandish behaviors. One of my many favorites occurred while she was still a school teacher. One day one of the boys brought a squirt gun to school. She of course confiscated it, but only to put it to better use. Later that day, she was leading her class down the hall for some reason or another. Stopping outside the open door of one of her colleagues, she took aim with the squirt gun and shot upwards so that the stream rained down on the thoroughly befuddled teacher. Her students just about killed themselves laughing. Years later, she brought a dart gun (the kind that shot suction cup darts) to my wedding. She was like that.

I knew all four of my grandparents. Helen died just after I graduated from college and the others passed on over the course of the next fifteen years or so. Both my grandfathers met my first born, and Dalai my second, so there was a time when there were four generations in the room at the same time which seems like a very fine thing indeed.

103 And Still Kicking

I was reminded of my ancestors the other day upon meeting Nelson McNutt, of Newton Massachusetts. I was in the next town working on a project with my friend Bob of Bobby and Me fame, and Bob thought we should take a break and go say hello to Nelson.

Nelson was born in 1899. I’ll give you a moment to think about that.

That means he’s 103 and that he’s lived in three centuries. If Sam and Dalai were still alive, they’d be a bit younger, but the sense of walking and talking with my progenitors was palpable.

The day I met Nelson, he was out in front of his house tending his peonies—something I can’t imagine Sam or Dalai doing on a bet. It was a warm, sunny, late August day and Nelson was on his knees working a hoe back and forth, turning the soil and getting after some pesky weeds. We shouted our hellos and Nelson rose to greet us in a fine, firm, reedy, Newton-accented voice.

It turns out that Nelson was born across the street in the same house that his mother was born in, in 1876. He got his first driver’s license in 1916 (right about the time young Sam Hoffberg’s uncle was getting strung up on a tree). The first car that Nelson owned was a 1922 Model T, a car that is now owned by a young fellow down the street who’s just 85. Nelson finally turned in his driver’s license in 1999 when he was . . . 100.

Nelson was drafted into both the Great War and the Second World War, which means he served his country in two world wars by the time he was just a bit younger than me. He put in 36 years with the state of Massachusetts and retired a lifetime ago to tend garden and chat with his many well wishers. At 103, he is lucid, sharp, funny, has all of his teeth, and can carry on and follow a conversation. My favorite interchange was:

“So, Nelson, what are you growing in your garden?” (He has a very large vegetable garden.)

“Raccoons, possums, and deer.” This with a completely straight face. “Yeah, they come and clean me out all the time, but they occasionally leave a little something for me. The other day I caught a raccoon that musta been thirty pounds.”

At this point Bob and I were caught between amazement and laughter over the thought of Nelson and the dog sized Raccoon.

“Thirty pounds?”

“Yup, thirty pounds. He was a biggun.”

“So what did you do?”

“The man came and gassed him.”

“Gassed him?”

“Yup, put him in a plastic bag and shot starter fluid in it. Put him right out and that was that. Buried him out back there somewhere. You know it’s against state law to transport an animal like that?”

“No, I guess I didn’t know that.”

After 103 years, that had obviously been a big day at the McNutt place.

There was a lot I wanted to ask Nelson, but it felt like prying. It’s his 103 years, not mine. But he did answer the obvious question. “People ask me how it is I lived so long.” And then he turned to me and asked, “Are you married? Because I tell them the secret is that I didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, and didn’t get married.” And then he laughed as did we.

As we drove away, Bobby turned to me and asked, “What do you suppose he thinks about all day?”

I suppose whatever he wants, but my guess is that after the first 80 years or so, he probably thinks about whatever he’s doing at the moment, instead of ruminating about the past or worrying about the future . . . something we should all do more and less of. I say this because I’ve seldom met someone who felt so alive, awake, and content at any age. You just can’t live life in your head and be that way. You actually have to be present.

Though I don’t know for sure, Nelson appears to carry none of the burdens of bitterness that sometimes accompany advancing years. Neither bitterness nor forgetfulness, both seeming byproducts of a life filled with regrets. From what I can tell Nelson has none of that. Like I said, Nelson just seems present, and happy to be that.

Neither Sam nor Dalai seemed present or happy during most of the time I knew them. Neither one ever seemed . . . well . . . content. In retrospect, I think their constant state of unease may be one of the prices of a life spent striving. Wherever you are, it’s not good enough. Work hard, read more, stay at work longer, do just one more thing, and maybe tomorrow will be a better day. A conversation with Sam or Dalai was never a dialog, and it wasn’t because someone else was doing the talking. Whatever was going on in the present moment didn’t seem to matter as much as something that had happened in the past of that might happen in the future, and they had a point of view on both.

Looking back, I realize most belatedly that I revered my grandfathers. They were both hugely flawed, but hugely heroic in their accomplishments. They both doted on their grandchildren, something I didn’t appreciate until much later. They both lived full lives and both left fine legacies to prove it. I spent most of the time I knew them judging them for one or another of their apparent flaws. It’s only later that I have enough perspective to see that they did the best they knew how.

Dalai lived a simple life, but filled it with the very best he could afford. He saved his money and took great trips. He read the best books and thought the greatest thoughts. He always used to say and practice, “a penny for the soul, a penny for the stomach.” He had a Rolex watch, a Leica camera (actually several of them), a Mercedes Benz, Sabatier kitchen knives, a Marantz amplifier, a Dual turntable, and late in life, a Macintosh computer. Unlike the present ethos, he paid cash for all of those things and scrapped and saved for the opportunity to do it.

Sam was a paragon of will. He was given nothing over the course of his lifetime. But that didn’t stop him from becoming a wealthy man and a pillar of his community. He could add a page of numbers in his head without making a mistake. He was a first rate accountant back when saying that didn’t bring down gales of laughter. He was generous, kind to strangers, and he loved his family, even if he couldn’t really figure out how to show it. He was a mensch.

Looking back, I feel the imprint of these two men in my life. Like Sam, I am a man of will. Like Dalai, I love learning and I appreciate the experience of using fine things. I even wear his Rolex and I shoot with his Leicas. If I have a regret, and I don’t like to think that way, it’s that I had such a hard time getting past both Sam’s and Dalai’s prickly exteriors to find the real them. By the time I had the interest and temperament, they were gone. I think at the end, they had the opposite side of the same regret. They both mellowed with age, but the mellowing process started much too close to the end to suit any of us.

On Being Present

I am the son of David, and grandson of Sam and Dalai, and proud of it. Like them, I have been a striver most of my life. My father is now at an age that I can remember my grandfathers being. If Sam is to be the standard, my father has another twenty years. I’d like to think that Nelson isn’t just a product of good breeding, in which case maybe it will be thirty more years. Similarly, I’m now of an age that I can remember my father being, or to put it another way, I am now my father.

And as much as I have always wanted to measure up to my image of my father, and in some ways Sam and Dalai before him, I find myself now also wanting my father, my son, and me (and my wife and daughter and you who are reading this) to be what I imagine Nelson McNutt to be. Less of a striver and more someone who is content to do whatever it is that’s in front of him to do. Someone who seems completely present. Someone who takes great pleasure in a stranger stopping by to say hello. Someone who finds good humor in the fact that the raccoons, possums, and deer seem to think that his garden is their garden. Someone who wakes up each day grateful just to wake up each day . . . because at this point in Nelson’s life, each day IS a great day. Someone who is awake and present and not just doing this so that he can get that.

If I have imagined these things about Nelson, I apologize to one and all. He’s a sweet man and deserving of nobody’s expectations but his own. Still, my fifteen minutes with him was a revelation. I just want to learn these lessons now instead of having to glimpse them vaguely through a veil of memories while waiting for the curtain to ring down one last time.