Josna Rege

396. Missing Ted

In Family, people, places, poetry, Stories, United States on March 18, 2017 at 2:56 am

My father-in-law Theodore (Ted) Melnechuk passed away on March the first, at the age of eighty-nine. There is a void where he once was, and we cannot fill it. Science writing was his profession—neuroscience writing in particular, but his interests and expertise were broad and eclectic. Poetry was his avocation, and he loved form in verse, from sonnets to limericks, which he wrote daily, for years, thousands of them. He wrote a poem for every occasion in our lives, on my mother-in-law Anna’s birthday and their wedding anniversary and, also for Anna, every Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. He was kind enough to read and edit all my writing for years, and I still follow his rules about the serial comma, the adverb following the verb, the title of an essay stating its thesis. Gently, he pointed out some of my tendencies to verbal excess, noting only that a second adjective tended to cut the impact of the word in half rather than doubling it. Once, wistfully, he expressed a wish that I would evaluate literary works for their intrinsic beauty, the way he had learned to do, rather than merely interrogating them politically.

For more than 40 years he marked, clipped, and sent me and many others articles of interest from The New York Times, which he read religiously every morning. He read the print issue, of course, and if for any reason it was not delivered he would fret, fume, make phone calls, and eventually drive down to the newsagent’s to pick up a replacement copy. Only then would his day take its proper shape.

Ted loved words, puzzles (crossword and jigsaw both), word games, games of all kinds. Puns, anagrams, acrostics, homonyms, palindromes, all endless sources of pleasure. He loved playing games with his children and together they made up their own idiosyncratic rules for them. In the ten years after his beloved wife, my dear mother-in-law Anna, passed away he had taken to organizing a games day on the third Saturday of every month, when all four children joined him for lunch followed by an afternoon of high jinks and tiddlywinks, Melnechuk-style, followed by Scrabble in teams. Ted always kept score, meticulously, and the family not only kept them in perpetuity, but compared their new scores to old ones, delighting in besting themselves. But the older he got, the less Ted, once super-competitive, cared about winning; he simply enjoyed finding good words, a place to put them on the board, and the company of his children.

Still, as much as he loved his children, my father-in-law had his priorities. He did move up his daily nap time on games days to accommodate the special schedule, but even Games Day had to give way to big football and baseball games; sometimes he would peremptorily announce that it was time for us to leave. Other events that could not be missed: all three of the horse races that make up the Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes (on television of course). For every one Andrew and I would receive a cordial invitation to join him half-an-hour before the race began, when we would be given a photocopy of the line-up and invited to pick our first three choices for the winner. Ted would always pick the horses with the best odds of winning, while Anna would pick the names she liked best. Another must-watch ritual was the Macy’s parade on Thanksgiving Day—mostly, I think, because it was held in his native New York City.

Ted loved New York. As a son of Ukrainian immigrants, he was born (in 1928) on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, attended high school at Brooklyn Tech (where even then he brought the arts to a science and technology high school as Editor of their literary magazine), and college at Columbia, where he studied science, took literature classes with Mark Van Doren and wrote poetry with classmates Alan Ginsberg and John Hollander. Although he left New York for Massachusetts in the early 1960s, he followed the New York scene avidly and, as long as he was able, used to travel down to the City with an old friend once a year to go to the opera and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In Amherst he was a member of a group called the Ex-New Yorkers, who used to gather once a month to reminisce about their hometown, choosing a different theme every time.

Also every month, from the very beginning of his stay in Amherst, Ted held a men’s poker game on a Friday night—low stakes, high seriousness. He cancelled the game only once that I recall— the month after Anna’s death. In the last month of his life he moved into assisted living in Amherst, and one of his poker mates moved in soon after. But they didn’t have time to get Poker Night going again in the new venue.

So many daily, weekly, monthly, annual rituals, now all gone. Will any of us ever manage to be as faithful to them? Which of them will we keep up? Now that I no longer receive my regular envelope of clippings from the Times, I must subscribe on my own, though mine will have to be the digital edition. Nights, when I am at a loose end, I will play Canfield’s Solitaire, Ted’s favorite, though I won’t keep a running score as he did. When I need to soothe my soul, I must remember to play music, like Ted, who always listened to classical music on the radio or CD player as he worked at his desk. And on Saturday mornings I will visit the Book Shed at the Amherst town dump to see if there’s anything of interest; but I won’t get there as often, or keep my eyes peeled anymore for British murder mysteries, Ted’s favorites (he went through hundreds of them, some of the best ones many times over, since he claimed that he always forgot whodunit).

His house is empty. This weekend Andrew and his siblings are clearing his room at the assisted living place, where he stayed for only six weeks. He had insisted on continuing to live in his own home, resisting home help, remaining independent to the end. Here is the obituary that he wrote himself; a shorter version will run in his beloved New York Times this Sunday.

Rest in Peace, dear Ted.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

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  1. josna dear, i am with you in spirit, hope you can feel it at least a little across physical distance, in this prolongued season of loss. as for ted who i have not met: they don’t make these men anymore, it looks to me. hugs to you, to andrew, nikhil and the family bine Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • Thank you, dear bine. Yes, I can feel your heart reaching out, you who have suffered this loss yourself only recently. I have passed on your hugs to Andrew; the memorial is set for June 10th. Love, J

  2. Josna, what a beautiful memorial for your father-in-law. You really must feel the absence of such a man, but he will always live in your memory and that of all his children and grandchildren. My condolences to you and your family.

  3. The nicest way to call a human being to mind is to allow the stranger to wish they’d known them too. I like this man, I would have liked to have known him. You clearly miss him — I can see why — but this appreciation must go some way to keeping his memory alive. A touching tribute, Josna, and a brave one to write.

    • Thank you for your kind response, and I’m glad that I could evoke in you some feeling of affectionate recognition, even if you didn’t know him personally. In his twenties he was a librarian for a time, working in one of the branches of the New York Public Library, which was also where he met a fellow librarian who was to become one of his closest lifelong friends. Anyway, books were precious to him. One of his quirky habits was making a errata list of the typos in every new book he read, then sending it to the author or publisher to correct in the event that they issued a new edition!

  4. What a wonderful and descriptive rememberance of Ted, Jo. All of you were blessed to have been a part of each other’s lives, and I can see that you will miss Ted dearly. I had forgotten about the games, especially the Tiddley-winks!

    • Thank you, Nadine. Yes, the games–he took them so seriously, as do all his children. There hasn’t been a monthly games day since he passed away; I hope we start them up again eventually. Love, J

  5. Dear Jojo,
    You express yourself so well and with deftness even in an area that is difficult and often awkward for many others. Thank you for sending this tribute to someone who obviously
    touched and changed your lives in many deep and gentle ways. He sounded like a man with a definite and well defined character of strong opinions, and great good humor.
    The people in my life who have helped to shape and polish off some of my rough edges seem to be of similar strength and depth. How fortunate to have spent time in such company for so many years!
    Much love, your friend, Marianne

    • Thank you, dearest Marianne. (You’re up early, Birthday Girl! I will call you a little later–sorry that my card is going to come a little late.) xo J

  6. He sounds like a wonderful father-in-law. You wrote a beautiful tribute.

    • Thank you, Kristin. You go on inspiring me to remember and record the lives and precious legacies of our elders.

  7. Lovely eulogy for a special man Josna.His love for economy and impact in writing reminds me of my father who, during my winter holidays from boarding school,used to have me write precis of chapters from his favorite books. Your family seems to have been truly blessed to have Ted to know and remember.My deepest condolences for your loss,

    • Thank you, Asghar. It is often in retrospect that we most appreciate the habits of our elders, which, in our impatient youth, may have irritated us. I remember reading that J.S. Mill’s father James Mill (who was also his tutor when J.S. was a boy) also made him write a precis of every book he read, which felt like torture at the time but later on he admitted that it became a lifelong habit–and skill–for which he was very grateful.

  8. A wonderful tribute Josna ji. Sending light and prayers your way.

    • Thank you kindly, Mahesh-ji, glad you appreciated it. Warm regards, Josna. (BTW, shall we drop the “ji”– after all, we are fellow Hermonites!)

  9. Dear Josna, I am sorry for your loss. What a wonderful human being, what a beautiful life. And that you shared a beautiful relationship comes through in your sharing. Much love dear.

  10. I met Ted way back in 1994, when I was a student at Amherst College doing a summer internship at the local paper, and working on an article about Amherst Community Television. Not only did Ted give me lots of information for the article, but after finding out I was interested in poetry, he invited me to attend some of his readings at the Black Sheep. He and Anna also invited me and my future husband over for a wonderful dinner at their house. He was one of those larger-than-life, jack-of-all trades that I never forgot. This weekend, I was telling my son about some of the brain research Ted had described to me all those years ago, and I happened to look him up. I was sad to read about his death, and also Anna’s. They were both such kind, fascinating, generous people, and I have always been grateful I had the chance to meet them. Thank you for sharing this moving tribute.

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