He was a Sequoia amongst us. He climbed Kataadn twice in his ’60s, and was a welcoming presence in Portland, Maine. He pronounced “Thoreau” correctly.
Michael had imposing physical authority and a quiet but certain dignity. He was concise and definitive in his remarks and could never be accused of rambling.
Despite this authority he was kind and not overbearing. Early and late, he lived through troubles that would have crippled lesser spirits. But he never hinted at being a victim of circumstance. He was in charge; he moved with dignity, grace and without complaint.
He had sly humor. At 76, below his trademark white beard, he wore Chuck Taylor low-cut Green sneakers everywhere.
I arrived in Portland in March not quite two years ago flying in from a teaching post and personal relationship in Israel. I’m a choralista at heart and got into Choral Arts before I owned a car. Bob Russell auditioned me and asked Michael if he could offer the new guy a ride to rehearsals. We met the next day for lunch on the Hill at the Blue Spoon.
I knew he was a retired humanities professor and a singer, and I now learned he was also a cello player. I was happily recruited immediately for string quartets and for the State Street Choir. I was happily inducted into the Bachem-Smith “After Church Club.” The initiation at Sea Squall was finishing off a broccoli omelet, toast, and two mimosas. I passed.
For a gorgeous year and a half, we flourished as if we’d known each other all our lives.
Besides embracing music and German Romanticism we had been runners and cut our teeth on Anti-Vietnam protests on the way to becoming professors.
When he arrived at Miami-Ohio as department chair, Michael stepped into a mess. He said later that it was good mothering that smoothed things over. I liked that in him.
His was a helping hand, a generous spirit. Church was a place where he could be generous to others. Home was a place where he could be generous through masterful cooking. He delighted in feeding friends, spreading kindness among them, and spreading love to his daughters and KE. He gave generously and never kept score.
A full year older than I, Michael was the big brother I never had. His voice still answers the phone. He never fussed, was never anxious, never rushed. He was the most stable person I’ve ever met. He survived, in style, with five older siblings, his mother, and friends, the harrowing instability of the bombardment of Germany, then of the Russian takeover, and then of the extreme poverty of the post-war years.
Michael loved music: Bach, Haydn, and Mozart; music without show, without needless virtuosity, or bombast. Music of simple energy and beauty. He’d plan his trips abroad around available concerts. No amount of chamber music was too much, whether to play or to hear.
I wondered if music’s gentle comfort was perhaps an antidote to childhood discomfort – the discomfort and anxiety of hearing bombs, seeing flames, just a few miles away over Dresden. Perhaps. But some are just born with acutely sensitive ears. In a restaurant an infant two booths over burst into wails. This was no more than annoying to me. To Michael it was visceral attack. He flinched, his head snapped forward, as if from a blow.
He knew how to give and also how to be prompt. If he was driving me to the airport or to Thursday Choir, he would be there — on time. I’d glance out as the Red Volvo pulled up – not a minute late, not a minute early. If I was returning to Portland from “away,” he wouldn’t ask IF I needed to be picked up. He’d ask WHEN my bus or plane arrived. It was understood he’d be there. He’d be there for you, through thick and thin.
Life is full of unexpected slams and sadness – full of irredeemable loss. Life is full of sadness and also full of gentle kindness and unexpected human goodness. We are here in the fullness of kindness and love, and of sadness and mourning.
Loving life ardently, as Michael did, he neither covered up sadness, nor denied sweet surprise. He took in the bitter and the sweet. Without pretense or fanfare, he showed we could triumph over troubles and be better, more generous, less judging. We could be kinder, more appreciative. We could love life more, and not become bitter.
Who could know that the last year of Michael’s life would be so precious in my life? Michael was once in a lifetime. Unique and unrepeatable.
In this sanctuary, we have the bitter sweet of love and life, togetherness and apartness, solidarity and loneliness, comfort and grief. We know fullness of love and grief in every real signing off, every real goodbye. This is goodbye, but not the end of a kind and vital spirit. Michael, You’re a gift for which I am, and for which we are, forever grateful.