Unauthorized Biography

Unauthorized Biography
Rita Gollin
September 6, 2017

Editor’s note: Recently, my mother sent me these succinct yet beautiful stories from my upbringing. I asked her for permission to share them on my blog, and she said she was honored. So, here they are:

Dear, darling, forever and deservedly and unreservedly beloved Michael,

I’ve always loved you and always will.

In the fall of 1956 when we decided it was time to have a second child, we discovered that you had already begun to be. Then on July 3, when my parents Max and Sophie Kaplan drove from Brooklyn to Rochester for the Big Event, I served dinner, then called my OBGYN Dr. Thro, and headed for the hospital.

When the doctor arrived at the labor cubicle, the just-installed resident told him that since I wasn’t screaming I was not ready to deliver, whereupon I said, “Dr. Thro, you’d better come in and catch this baby”– which he did. None of us reached the delivery room. The brand new nurse helped me onto a gurney, told me to grab the crib behind it, placed you in it, and said, “Don’t worry, B was the average grade in my graduating class.”

My parents remained for a few days, babysitting Kathy, but also—we later realized—so the family back in New York would assume they had stayed for a bris. In fact, however, our OBGYN had invented an ingenious device that constricted blood to the foreskin and so precluded cutting.

Life proceeded smoothly, punctuated by such events as a first birthday party for you and Judy Harway on the Harway porch.  Shortly before, our friends the Hadasses offered to lend us their nearby house for the summer. But soon after I arrived for a walk-through, you disappeared—then reappeared almost immediately at the top of the staircase, delighted by your new achievement.

On a birthday soon afterward, you immediately put to use your new hobby horse, cowboy hat, and regalia including a red vest, bow tie, and holsters. Nana helped celebrate at a new restaurant on the roof of the airport—where the birthday cake arrived studded with sparklers. Fireworks filled the sky soon afterward, which you (understandably) concluded were also acknowledging your birthday [Editor’s note: this fourth birthday party is my earliest memory].

While crossing the large meadow behind a friends’ pool club soon afterward, you dropped your new wristwatch. Determinedly, you searched in a pattern of decreasing squares until you did indeed find it. Our friend Viv Harway was so impressed that she invited you to serve as an expert respondent for one of her child psychology classes. Your reward was a leather change purse, in a sense your first wages.

Another event at about that time was really a group event. Because Strong Memorial Hospital concluded that medical students would benefit from observing a cross section of four-year-olds at play, they set up a nursery school and charged low fees. But instead of achieving a representative cross section, the class was almost entirely composed of faculty children. It was not long before all you realized that the room’s large “mirror” consisted of one-way glass, and began cavorting before the observers you never saw.

Just a bit about our days on the SS France en route to England. The five of us shared a single cabin—you and Kathy in one set of bunk beds, your father and I in another, and Jim in a crib in the middle bolted to the floor. You named the cabin “BooTiki”—designating second level B, cabin 260. We registered you all for the children’s program, vaunted for its meals, shows, and games. But for the return trip you all refused to be “jailed.” Subsequently and consequently, we all occupied a table for five in the main dining room.

Renting a house in the Village of Datchet (near Windsor and Eton) made you and Kathy eligible for the local school—Eton Porny. So you could say that you went to Eton for a semester. Though all the other boys wore shorts, you stuck to long pants, declaring “I am an American boy.” The other students’ accents amused you, as when you mimicked their pronunciation of “rubbahs.” But you happily raced through the series of increasingly challenging “readers” that your teacher had at her disposal for students who had finished their assigned work. And you didn’t complain about lunches at the English Restaurant across the street, beyond remarking that all the food was beige.

That winter, we left Datchet for our lengthy trek through Europe (pausing for three months at Cabo de Palos)—armed with Legos, books, and miniature animals–eventually returning to London and sailing for home.  Among the many memorable prior events was celebrating your birthday at the huge amusement park on the southern bank of the Thames, which offered scores of carousels and other alluring rides and games.  When the coin you inserted in one of them garnered a large prize, you thought it was a rigged birthday gift (as would happen again years later when you went fishing on your birthday and caught masses of bluefish).

Because I began teaching full time after returning to Rochester, we enrolled all three of you at the preeminent country day school called Harley.  Perhaps you remember coming home the first day and exulting that you had met someone smarter than you were, Eric Worby. And as we soon heard from Marcia and Sy Worby, Eric had said the same thing about meeting you.  As an indirect consequence of the Worby family’s interest in chamber music, you began studying the viola in middle school (training that served you well when you joined the Brighton High School orchestra and years later performed in Swiss villages). Of course we shared your dismay when buying 37 Glen Ellyn Way required switching you to Brighton’s schools (where at Viv’s urging, you were all tested and consequently “skipped”).

A random memory. Perhaps after we had started renting at Santuit Pond but before we bought our Mashpee cottage, you and Jim decided to pool your allowances and buy a canoe. So we went to the Rochester store that handled them, and you made your choice (graciously accepting a small subsidy).

Then after buying the cottage, because we agonized about depriving you of group activities, we registered you and Jim for a two week session at a Scout camp not far from the Sagamore Bridge. But after only a day, you were ready to leave. Why should you line up to go swimming or take out a boat, you asked, when our family had no such requirement? So we immediately collected you. And of course, neighbors’ kids and numerous guests provided ample group activities.

Of course, I sometimes worried about you—as when you stayed out very late at night. And when you (commendably) joined marches that protested the Vietnam War, I feared that you might be hassled or that surreptitiously taken photographs might somehow someday impede any career you chose.  Anxieties about your plan to hitchhike cross country lightened when you agreed to travel from Toronto to the west coast by train.  A copy of “Diet for a Small Planet” precluded concerns about your vegetarian years–and I gladly swapped some of your father’s wine for bushels of vegetables from my office mate’s farm that soon turned into stews and borschts.  More consequentially, we worried about mugging and thefts during your years on Chrystie Street.  And particularly during your last two years at Princeton, your father and I worried that you weren’t given adequate direction and advice.

It’s worth recalling that even in grade school, you were determined to help support yourself—successively delivering newspapers, working as a salesman in Rochester and on Cape Cod, waiting on tables in both places, and perhaps most innovatively, importing and selling Meerschaum pipes while at Princeton.  One of your jobs rightly earned a place on your college applications: iguana sitting. And as one happy result of your Princeton-acquired biochem expertise, you assisted Tom Punnett in some of his experiments—while spending the summer with the Punnetts and enjoying Hope’s cooking.

The position as research assistant that you were offered in Switzerland at the ETH had some remarkably fortuitous results, despite the traumas of the suicide of scientist you were assisting and the redirection of your work. Not surprisingly, you made fine friends and took fine trips during those years (from which we benefited enormously when we visited you). Your commitment to make the most of each opportunity was evident on your trip on the Trans-Siberian railroad, as when you managed to visit a Soviet dissident, and when your fellow travelers persuaded the boat to Japan to await you while you coped with a bureaucratic goof in your paperwork.

Far more consequentially, when you decided that you did not crave a scientific career, you determined that an extra LSAT form was available a train ride away from the ETH at the U.S. military base in Dusseldorf–took and passed the test, and entered the BU law school. Not surprisingly, you thrived. One innovation would turn out to be representative: inaugurating scholarships for students who opted to work for nonprofits rather than paying law firms after their first year of classwork. That scholarship system is still in place and has been emulated by other schools—and was the precedent for the scores of subsequent organizations that you founded and worked for (implicitly expanding the meaning of the term “pro bono”).

One of many happy memories repeatedly surfaces. One summer day when your father and I were vacationing along the Mexican east coast with you and Jim, a young fisherman took us out on the ocean and provided snorkeling and scuba gear.  As I vividly recall, I snorkeled blithely on the surface while watching you instruct your not-yet-licensed brother in the niceties of scuba.

It’s almost impossible to summarize the rich and varied professional and personal life that ensued, as you generously and selflessly augmented the lives of innumerable individuals and institutions. You married a remarkably loving and talented woman, and you and Jill have begotten three unusually independent and enterprising children.  It is understating to say that your InnovationLifeLove blog is filled with wit, wisdom, and moving poetry, whose influence is already enormous. From the start, you’ve been a role model for responsiveness to and appreciation of the natural world we all inhabit, and for your diligent probing of our shared cultural heritage.

I can barely even bring myself to type the letters ALS.  Your determination to make every possible effort to cope with that scourge is heroic. My admiration for you is boundless.  I’ve never been a religious person. But as I humbly and gratefully acknowledge, you are and will always be part of me.

Your loving mother,
Rita

3 thoughts on “Unauthorized Biography

  1. Dear Rita Gollin,

    You will likely not remember me, but I did an extensive interview with Michael a few years ago that resulted in an article in Bostonia, BU’s alumni magazine. At that same time, I spent a while with you and your husband as we awaited Michael’s return from a doctor’s appointment. I learned so very much about your family, about your beautiful affection for your son, and of course about Michael himself. And, since I read all of Michael’s posts, I feasted on yours this morning. What a truly wonderul set of memories and the even deeper layer of Michael that emerged. He is blessed indeed with a marvelous family, all generations, and this showed it, enormously, again. Thank you for it, and thank you, Michael, for letting us read it.

    Reply
  2. Hi, Rita! I LOVE this piece. You really captured the Michael I remember. I hadn’t realized we were both alums of those observation rooms at Strong! I didn’t go to the preschool there, but my dad used to take us to that room to have med students observe us as part of the human development class he taught. When we were little, we played; when we got older, a resident would interview us while we sat in a row. At one of these sessions when I was in high school, Al Lefore reproved Lisa Lasagna for not skipping lunch, as he did, to fit in an extra class. “There are more important things than lunch,” he said, to which Lisa retorted, “Yeah, but my lunch is important too!” We could hear the med students laughing behind the mirror. Faculty kids have some unusual experiences.

    I’m plenty smart, but I’ve never been in a league with Michael. He has always been remarkable and continues to be so. What a great childhood you give your brood!

    Reply
  3. In fact, the title is misleading–this biography’s comments are Authorized, by both Michael and Rita. Its memories and reflections serve family, friends, and all who read Michael’s blog. Thank you, Mom.

    Reply

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