Former houseguest recalls Stern lessons in life, friendship, courage

October 02, 2001|By Thomas J. Cottle

BOSTON - I was only too eager to accept my father's offer to assist him in a teaching project in Jerusalem for two weeks. I had just finished college and had nothing resembling a career to pursue.

I fell in love with Israel and asked my father if I could remain after he departed. He was delighted and gave his approval. The first question, however, was where would I live?

A telephone call to my mother brought news that the violinist Isaac Stern, an old friend of hers - my mother by this time had long retired from her career as a concert pianist - was staying in a hotel outside Tel Aviv. She suggested I call him.

Normally, I would never impose on her musician friends, who probably hadn't the foggiest recollection of me.

But there was something about Isaac Stern that made one feel he always had room in his heart for one more friend.

Indeed, one of the many things that endeared me to Isaac, my adopted godfather, was his optimistic, joyful approach to concertizing and living.

I never called the Stern's hotel; I just showed up and introduced myself.

Isaac was delighted to see me, as were his two children, who saw me as a new playmate. Within minutes we were on the beach splashing in the waves together as if we were old buddies.

In that instant, I proclaimed him my godfather. Later that evening, sitting on the verandah after dinner, little Shira, Isaac's oldest child, ran toward me holding a present behind her back. It was a key to my own room at the hotel. After that, I never left the Sterns.

Isaac Stern's effortless generosity, playfulness and thoughtfulness, coupled with his manner of treating me not merely as my parents' child, had won me over.

The lasting image I have of our first connection is the way we all played together in the surf.

Taking no time to get used to the water temperature, Isaac just went swimming and body surfing in the formidable waves of the Mediterranean. He stayed in a long time, as long as his children wanted him to.

And then, before we finally left the surf that first evening together, I saw Isaac standing waist high in the water, his hands planted on his hips, blowing out his chest and pulling himself up as if daring the waves - nature itself - to knock him over.

What a wonderful way to face life. What a gift to know that genuine courage is knowing precisely what one should fear.

I loved accompanying Isaac to concerts because he found such joy in music and in people.

One evening as we reached the stage, Isaac looked at me, his trio partners Leonard Rose and Eugene Istomin several feet away, held out his fiddle, and asked, "You want to play with these guys tonight?"

Isaac struggled with leaving his children to play concerts. Life was easy for him in Israel, for concertizing meant only a few hours away from home.

I often babysat the Sterns' two children, Shira and Michael - a third, David, was born several years later.

Every night of a concert Isaac and Vera left the children in the care of their nanny and me, but not before we all endured the same heart-wrenching scene: Michael looking sad and confused, his older sister wailing her unhappiness.

Then one night, Shira's protestations came to an abrupt halt.

Everyone just looked at her as she stood silent before the front door.

When asked why she wasn't crying, she responded: "I just realized it doesn't do any good."

Now it is I standing before the door, crying for the absent father and knowing that he won't return.

I, too, shall have to accept Shira's insight: The crying will do no good.

In the meantime, with his music in my heart, I shall mourn this precious man. And inexplicably in these days, I am suddenly less frightened.

Thomas J. Cottle, a clinical psychologist, sociologist and author, is a professor of education at Boston University.

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