IMG.jpeg                                                       Yours truly in the third grade

Born into a family of unusual names, or so I proudly felt in my early years, none of us ever had to concern ourselves with others possessing the same fore or last names.  My parents, Sol and Jacqueline Urdang, named us Stephanie, Melanie, Nathan, and Gretchen, in that order.

In the third grade, a few weeks after the beginning of school, without understanding her impact on my vanity, a friend at lunch said, “There’s a new girl and her name is Stephanie.”

“No, there’s not,” I said, naively confident since I’d never before met another.

“Oh, yes there is, and she has long black hair all the way down to her waist.”

“I don’t believe you,” I said, staring at the floor of the cafeteria.

“Whether you believe me or not, it’s true.  She’s from California and her hair is beautiful.”

“What’s her last name?” I had a bad haircut but I knew for sure she was not an Urdang.

“Shush, here she comes.”  I saw the blanket of glistening hair swinging in the wake of the new girl, and so did everyone else.  At eight years old, she was a force of nature.  My friend turned in the direction of my ear and whispered. “Stephanie Cassandra.”  I left the cafeteria furious at I didn’t know what.

The third grade was many decades ago and since then, I’m relieved to say I have met a few Stephanie’s without one ego collapse.  The latest was in October of this year.  I was at a doctor’s office and when I heard my name being called, as I followed a Latino girl in her thirties to her desk, she looked over her shoulder and said,  “My name is Stephanie too.”

“Oh,” I said, “what a nice coincidence.”

We sat at her desk as she was filling out papers to prepare me for my time with the doctor.  Without asking if I even had any siblings, she said, “What’s your sister’s name?”

“Melanie,”  I said, purposely avoiding mentioning Gretchen because she died twelve years ago of smoke inhalation.  Memories and words on the subject don’t come easily, especially to a stranger.  Stephanie didn’t respond so I said, “What’s your sister’s name?”

“Gretchen,”  she answered.

All kidding Aside

“In the presence of eternity, the mountains are as transient as the clouds”

Robert Green Ingersoll


No kidding.  Last week one of my friends wrote to say she was sorry my father was gone from this world.  She said eight years later, she still wants to talk to her dad.  I wrote back that my dad wasn’t much of a talker with me, although we really tried the last ten years after he was forced to slow down.  And I told her how sad it will be that I can’t call him anymore.  Then I wrote,  “It’s like he was a mountain that was always there, and now there is a big hole in the landscape of our family.”


Only a shadow where a life was lived.


But one that’s so close, I only need to take a few illusive steps to find the path to wholeness.


Years ago, a friend went to visit her mother in India because there wasn’t much time left and they’d been on different continents for years.  The first night they stayed up and talked; they remembered; they brought their past to life through language and stories.  She said when she left her family home three weeks later for the last time, she backed out the door to fill her eyes with as much of her mother as she could.  And when she walked away, my friend told me, she knew she was that much closer to the mountain of mortality.

No kidding again.  Soon, dear readers, I promise to stop writing about mortality.  But right now, I wouldn’t be paying attention if I wasn’t.

Another Horizon


When my sister, Gretchen, died in a fire, the family immediately gathered in Springfield, Missouri.  Since I had just received a new certification as a reverend, I was the designated moderator of the memorial.

The night before the service, my dad came into my hotel room and said, “Steph, there’s something I want you to read.  You know I don’t ask for much but I’m asking for this.”  He pulled out his wallet and thumbed through decades of precious little pieces of soiled papers, unfolding, reading and folding them back up.  I never saw him as an old man until that moment, slow and broken because his youngest went before him.  Finally, he came to THE one.  “They read this at my friend’s funeral, Steph, and I want you to read it tomorrow.  And don’t argue with me”  He handed me the faded limp text, I took it from him, squinted at the type, and unbeknownst to either of us, it was the same poem I had brought with me to read.

Once again, it’s time to read it, this time for my dad, Sol Urdang:

June 21,1923 – July 19, 2013

Poem. The Ship, by Charles Henry Brent
What is dying?

I am standing on the seashore.
A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze
and starts for the blue ocean.
She is an object of beauty and strength and I stand and watch her
until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud
just where the sea and sky come down to mingle
with each other.
Then someone at my side says: ‘There! She’s gone.’
Gone where? Gone from my sight that is all.
She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she
was when she left my side,
and just as able to bear her load of living
freight to the place of destination.
Her diminished size is in me, not in her;
and just at the moment when someone at my side says:
‘There! She’s gone,’
there are others watching her coming,
and voices ready to take up the glad shout
‘There she comes!’
And that is dying.



May Dad’s journey be met with loving arms.

I’d like to think the woman in the red dress that Dad saw on his ceiling Thursday night was Gretchen, waiting for him, as he began to sail to the other side.

Dad& KU portrait 2011 copy

in red copy

The Longest Day

Today is June 21st, 2013 and it’s my Dad, Sol Urdang’s, 90th birthday.  His girlfriend of many moons, Lynda Owings, was born on the summer solstice too.  She is… well, considerably younger.  Each capable of filling a room with the brightest light or the darkest night, I like to fondly remind the two sets of Gemini twins on their common birthday, ‘it’s the longest day of the year.’


From 1977, off to the  inauguration of Missouri Governor Joseph Teasdale.

Dad in the early 40’s Coast Guard, going to war and making Sal Mineo eyes before I was even a little twinkle.

IMGAt the end of September, 2001, in NYC for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera. Most people were afraid to fly in the immediate days after 9/11, but he was determined to show the terrorists they could not stop him.  That’s my dad.

IMG_0001Rather than being referred to as our father, he prefers to be called, The Producer.’  That, too, is my Dad.

To read more about the man who keeps saying, “Steph, did you ever think I’d live this long,” please read The Tower of Sol by scrolling down a few posts, or continue here reading Ol’ Fuzzhead, one of my first entries.


In the fall, my eighty-nine year old father ended up in a rehab center in Kansas City with another cardiac issue.  There was only so much normalcy that one could bring into that room.  So I did my version of what our family is known to do in tough times: get in the car.

But there was no way to lift him safely into any vehicle by myself because as frail as he is, he is still very dense.  Instead, I put a jacket on him and rolled him in his wheelchair through the door of his room, down the hallway, past nurses, doctors and other ‘inmates,’ into the elevator, down another long series of hallways, right by the front desk, and out the sliding doors.

Hitting fresh air like we’d just dug through a mile long tunnel, we quickly crossed the parking lot into the vast acreage of the surrounding hills.  Going up, I pushed with every ounce of strength I had, arms stretched way out and body at a total slant.  “Steph, you’re panting down my neck,” Dad said.  “I hope you don’t die of a heart attack doing this.”  Downhill was even more labor intensive.  Keeping him in his chair and a good grip on them both involved more strength than my life normally requires.

Twice we made variations of the same rounds, but the third day I decided to cross Nall Road, a six lane major thoroughfare.  From there we went into an upscale neighborhood.  As I pushed, we talked, more than usual.  We talked because we weren’t face to face and it was easier to communicate through the grief that hung between us like a wet wool blanket.

“I miss Gretchen, Steph.  Do you ever think about her?” Dad said.

“Every day, Dad.  I miss her too.”  Gretchen, my youngest sister, died eight years ago in a fire.  Even from behind him, I could tell Dad was softly crying.

“Getting old is not for sissies,” he said for the hundredth time.  “But that’s life.”

“Yeah, I guess so.  What else can you do?”  I could feel my heart breaking in two.

By then we had reached a small man-made lake.  When we came to a little footbridge, I nearly dumped him in the gap between the sidewalk and the wood planks.  Halfway onto the bridge I thought to myself, I need to document this one.

“I’m going to take your picture, okay?” I said, stopping.

“Make sure I look good.”

“It’ll be from the back, Dad.  Your face won’t even show.”

“Okay, but take one from the front too and be sure you get my good side and don’t make me look toothless.”

I took the two photos under his direction.

“Ol’ Fuzzhead,” he said when he looked at them on my camera, images his eyes could barely see.

“Yeah, Ol’ Fuzzhead halfway there,” I said, through a sheet of blinding tears.


The Tower of Sol


On the descent into Kansas City, Missouri, to see my father for what he thought would be a final goodbye, I felt my backbone soften into a column of meringue.  What was before me could very well require more fortitude than a lifetime supply.


My dad can be a harmless bovine, skipping through life with great charm and a convincing dose of masculinity.


Or one of his other characters can hit the stage and suddenly the comedy turns tragic, or  childish and petulant.  One can never be sure.   The only thing about him that’s flexible is his mood.  And his idea of humor is only funny if one is cruel and unusual.


Barking orders, Dad commanded me to dial a phone number for him.  The recipient, Mick, is an old friend in his late eighties and in a home for Alzheimer’s patients.  When the front desk asked who was calling, my dad said, ‘His father.”  With his old man voice and New York accent it sounded like he said ‘his farther.’  Confused already, Mick had the switchboard  operator ask again who was calling and Dad said, “Tell him it’s his father!” Then to me he said, “Jeeze, these people, Steph.”

For fifteen minutes, he attempted to converse with Mick.  As they talked,  Dad covered the speaker with the receiver in his lap, shaking his head.  “Steph, this is so sad,” Dad said.  “He’s in really bad shape and  doesn’t know who I am.”

“Just tell him your name, Dad,” I said.

“Mick, it’s Arnold,” Dad said into the phone.  Dad’s name is Sol: Sol Urdang. In all honesty, he and Mick called each other Arnold for years.  But from Dad’s end of the conversation, it didn’t sound like Mick ever comprehended who he was talking to.


My Dad’s health is failing but his mind is as sharp as ever.  He despises being old because it doesn’t fit into a lifelong model of physical vanity.  Where I like to think I will age with grace, his approach waivers between rage and utter despair.

Everywhere I looked during this trip to Kansas City, towers were in my view.  Like the lyrics of a long ago song playing over and over in my head, noticing towers in a town not known for them spoke to me.  As old and sick as my dad is, he’s still standing tall, if not strong, in  his idea of what it means to be a man.  On Junes 21st, he will hit ninety, and the only thing I know for sure is, I can’t imagine what that’s like.