In memory of Neil Salkind, who died today.
We sat at a small table in La Prima Tassa on a spring day filtering sunshine across our table, sipping tea and updating each other on our children. “Hey Pal, the thing is,” Neil said, “I want them to be happy. My job is simply to love them. That’s what we do as parents: we love them and want them to be happy.” I had just been inventorying my long list of anxieties about my kids when Neil’s words stopped me in my tracks. Yes, he was right, and I remembered his words a thousand and one times, reminding me how simple, and also at times, difficult it can be to love our children without any expectation but for their happiness.
I met Neil I-don’t-know-when through the Jewish center, probably in ’83 or so, and we immediately connected. We were both from Jersey, and the tone of his voice and his sense of humor felt like home to me. I looked for him during services and the annual Blintz Brunch, happy to simply be in his good humored company, laughing about whatever we could laugh about, which was almost everything, and occasionally sneaking in short in-depth talks about what matters in life, and what doesn’t. Neil wasn’t one for gossip, and instead directed his big energy toward what he loved: his work, his community, and especially his wife and children.
Neil was over the moon and past this solar system in love with Leni, his wife of over 49 years. They were the most affectionate couple I saw, whether sitting side by side for High Holidays, holding hands, leaning in to share a thought or memory, or around their home where Neil specialized in amazing cooking and baking (oh, his challah!). He adored Leni – her style, her stories, her art, her way of being in the world, and through his adoration he modeled for us a way to always show gratitude and wonder toward our beloveds. He also was enthralled with his kids Micah (and Micah’s husband) and Sara, and he reveled in their adventures, friendships, and accomplishments.
I also knew another angle of Neil: he was my literary agent before he retired from the grind, hustle, and thrill of making deals. He got Needle in the Bone, my non-fiction book about Lou Frydman and Jarek Piekalkiewicz, published by the University of Nebraska Press, and he also tried valiantly to find Stephen Locke and me a publisher for Chasing Weather, our storm poetry and photography book. In the years we worked together in the book biz, he was consistently cheerful, supportive, and upbeat. We would do what we could, and he would bring great enthusiasm to the literary agenting, which he did.
He brought such enthusiasm to all aspects of his life, from setting out (with two other families) a huge spread for an annual Rosh Hashana community gathering held for years in his home to swimming competitively and in friendship with a long-time group of friends.
Then there’s Neil, the printer. Neil bought some old presses Ken’s dad, also a printer, collected, and he printed gorgeous letter-press broadsides with hand-set type. Recently, he did an beautiful and limited editing printing of a poem by Beth Schultz about the Jewish cemetery in Eudora. He printed my poem “Entering the Days of Awe” to sell as a fundraiser for the Jewish center as well as my poem “In Gratitude” as a fundraiser for the Transformative Language Arts Network.
Thinking of his work in printing “In Gratitude,” I’m struck by how Neil embodied a grateful life: he truly relished his connections with his friends, his community, his work (which was vast and off-the-charts successful as a professor, writer, literary agent, and many other roles), and especially his dearest beloveds. I’m grateful for what he showed me about living a grateful life, and for each conversation over coffee, lunch, or in the back of the synagogue, each hug, each time he called me “pal.” Here’s the poem he set and printed, which speaks of Neil’s legacy:
The wind thanks you, unfurling over the worn
horizon so it can billow into night. The stars too,
whether talismans of light dying or just being born,
behind the small birds arriving or staying behind,
who balance gratefully on thin branches of coming winter.
The squirrel in the field, the hidden fox, the mammals
under and overground. The world is composed,
is composing itself anew even in a narrow time:
just before the red-winged blackbird folds
back in silhouette. Whatever act of kindness flies
lands in the heart of a moment, a seasonal marker
to illuminate why we live, a song of gratitude.