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  • Max Stearns

The Old Man on the Mountain

When I was a child, my parents’ favorite vacation was camping in the White Mountains, New Hampshire. This often included visiting a major landmark, The Old Man on the Mountain, a natural rock formation bearing a man’s face. The site also bore significant structural challenges over the years, despite the remarkable efforts of Edward Geddes, who dedicated his life, at considerable risk, to preserving its integrity. After midnight on May 3, 2003, the Old Man finally succumbed, the visage collapsing to the ground. Learning about this moved to tears.

This week marked the fifth anniversary of the passing, or Yarhzeit, of my father, Herbert Stearns, on both the secular and Jewish Calendars. Rarely do these solar and lunar calendars so neatly align. My mother, Audrey, passed away nearly two years later. My sister, Wendy Bornstein (who blogs here) and I dedicated a paver stone to our parents’ wedding anniversary at the newly designed site. That site allows visitors to catch a glimpse of a once remarkable landmark by standing at set points and viewing clever cut outs that align alongside the now-unadorned mountain. Thankfully, Wendy also had the opportunity to take my parents for a final visit and to imagine a lasting connection to what once seemed a permanent iconic image.

More than anyone I have ever known, my father took endless pride in being American and in being Jewish. These were the virtual twin strands of his identity-forming DNA. My father was not only a learned student of United States and ancient Jewish history; he was also an avid collector, with an endless thirst for connecting those he loved in his present with his passion for the past. My parents’ home, although modest, was a museum. It contained countless artifacts, documents, and ephemera, celebrating physical wonders that included the Old Man, reminders of the remarkable history of a people who somehow had managed to endure for thousands of years, and images of treasured United States institutions, capturing its often rich and complex history. Although he was endlessly enthusiastic about his collections, my father wasn't naïve; there were leaders he loathed and loved, although our sentiments didn’t always align.

My father’s view of American history was informed by his longer view of Jewish history. When discussing the latter, he often reflected, as a curious point of pride, that no people motivated by disingenuous historical construction would highlight leaders and events in ways that painted them so unattractively. He pointed out that the recorded history of the Jews, codified in religious texts, is hardly one of unerring triumph. It is the story of genuine human beings assuming and losing power, or variously succeeding or failing in their goals, with some recognizing the importance of ends far beyond themselves, and others succumbing to problematic inclinations, at times with tragic consequences, not only personally, but for their people. By his reckoning, the history of the United States held striking parallels. The evils of slavery, of racism, and of the oppression of immigrant groups and religious minorities trying to make their way, or to define their place in a new world, was always part of the fiber in a richer fabric of an often troubled nation in which, despite its flaws, he took great pride.

When confronting his collection after my mother’s passing, my sister and I realized that there were elements that although a genuine part of the stories he told, we neither wished to make our own, nor wished to sell. Thankfully, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, in Baltimore, Maryland, dedicated to African American history, was happy to accept parts of the collection related to slavery and the slave trade, and Wendy and I very much hope that, through this process, visitors might learn more about parts of those long and tragic chapters in our history.

As I get older, I increasingly recognize the natural human tendency to recraft our histories, perhaps even our memories. I assure you, readers, this is not a political statement. I do not mean this in the sense of constructing events or eliminating events that actually took place. Instead, I mean that we reconceive the valence of such events over time. My father’s father, for whom I was named, passed away when my father was the age of my now-youngest child, in his mid-teens. A young man’s perspective of an iconic figure, frozen in time, risks inhibiting opportunities to refine and reconceive a relationship in ways that notably differ from my present vantage point as a middle-aged man.

As children, we imagine landmarks as permanent and embedded features in our lives. There are persons: parents, siblings, children. And structures: houses, synagogues, churches, mosques, neighborhoods, schools. And, yes, institutions: nations, states, religions, and countless valued affiliations. When we are young, we think of these as enduring. As we grow, we realize that landmarks shift; they are never truly permanent. Even the most impressive monuments fall. Children study Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias, but it is the experience of growing into adulthood that gives the poem its deeper meaning. And even then, some markers, should they fall, move us to tears.

In one sense, I’m happy that my father didn’t have the opportunity to see once-vital institutions, which are far more important than any natural rock formation, begin to erode, even crumble. I increasingly wonder whether institutions that seemed such permanent markers to me as a child will remain so for my own children and, perhaps one day, grandchildren.

I welcome your comments.

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