Pioneer spirit part of family

The day after tomorrow, my great-nephew Tommy will turn 11. He’s the usual pre-teen boy: energetic, sports-loving, sometimes confounding his parents.
But he is also a gentle soul, kind to his younger sister, already a voracious reader and a thoughtful, unusually serious student. I think he inherited this love of learning from two of his grandparents.
My sister’s husband came young and alone from India, with just a few dollars and a treasured document of admission to a graduate program in mathematics at the University of Chicago. My son Sol, now a grandfather himself, was just about Tommy’s age then, when he used to explain to people that “My uncle is a turban Indian, not a feather Indian.”
Their mutual dedication to education, and the desire to share each others cultures, were what drew Ruth and Damu together. He, an honored graduate of the University of Poona, would go on to earn both a master’s degree and doctorate; earlier, she had already accepted the challenge of teaching American history in the very non-academic atmosphere of a vocational high school. When he finished his studies, the two married and moved to New York.
On her first visit to India, Ruth met Dr. Dheckney, professor of commerce, who had been Damu’s treasured mentor during his undergraduate years. When she returned, she wrote about him for TransIndia, a publication welcoming personal experience stories from Americans with close ties to the land of her husband’s birth:
“He spoke in that precise speech which was the British legacy to generations of educated Indians,” she began. “He asked me, ‘How do you find India?’ I couldn’t answer, because he seemed to be demanding more than simple platitudes. I mumbled a few inadequate phrases…”
Damu had no religious affiliation, always calling himself “a Jewish sympathizer.” But in Ruth’s honor, Dr. Dheckney had arranged for the couple to attend a Jewish wedding in Bombay.
“I said to him, jokingly,” my sister wrote, “‘I have come to India to see for myself if my husband has another wife!’ It was precisely the wrong thing to say. He was shocked, and hurt. We had fallen into a cultural gap. ‘How can you even suspect this? So — you in the West believe in marriage as an economic alliance? Did you know that Brahmin women used to incinerate themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres, because they believed their spirits were inseparable?’ He had taught me his lesson well: When time is short, one does not joke with wise men …
“Dr. Dheckney was old,” she then continued, “as frayed and worn as his black jacket. Fifteen dollars a month pension and one threadbare suit — hardly a reward for a lifetime of instruction. But he had also arranged for my husband to meet with a group of academics, and requested that I attend. And there, he spoke to me: ‘Your husband has fulfilled my greatest desire as a teacher,’ he said. ‘For is it not true that a teacher’s reward is to be surpassed by his students?’”
My brother-in-law, now retired after many years as a West Point professor, has also authored the most respected, best-used college textbooks in econometrics. From this grandfather, my great-nephew Tommy, one-quarter Indian, has inherited his questioning mind and tenacious pursuit of learning. From my sister, his Grandma Ruth, came this second quarter: the same drive to overcome obstacles that strengthened our beleaguered Eastern European forebears when they chose the difficult journey toward a new start in America. And a full half of Tommy’s legacy was bequeathed by his father’s parents; theirs was the pioneering spirit of the English colonists who in 1664 wrested from the Dutch the land that was to become Delaware, the first of the United States.
As an advance 11th birthday present, Tommy received this special date: Jan. 28, 2018. That day, he will become a bar mitzvah. God willing, I’ll be there to kvell with the whole family!

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