Andrew L. Pincus: An inspiration, and an original
His one-inch death notice said: "Per Walter’s wishes, price of admission to his memorial service is a rhymed couplet." [Eagle, July 9].
What kind of man would wish a thing like that?
But that was Walter Bemak, poetry lover and provocateur to the end. The bare facts are that he died at 89 on July 7 at Kimball Farms. But always behind the facts are stories, and Walter’s was brave, colorful and irreverent.
He called himself "The
Poet Nauseate of Berkshire County" and lived up to the title with periodic contributions to the Kimball Farms newsletter, which he took pleasure in editing. Peri-
odically, he sounded off about topics of the day in letters to the editor of The Eagle.
I was Mr. Pincushion to him. He was Mr. Big Mac to me.
His stories made me think I should have been an English teacher like him. My stories made him think he should have been a newspaperman like me.
My memorial couplet is:
We loved to swap puns,
And it was a lot of funs.
A loving reminiscence could be written about anyone who died. Walter’s story is different, especially for anyone entering or contemplating retirement.
The formal obit (avail-
able online at Rochefuneral-
home.com) will tell you how he was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge and went on to become an English department chairman and textbook editor. It’ll tell about you about his 65-year marriage to Ruth (Rusty) Ruskin, their three children and their love of sailing, culminating in travels on a 32-foot sloop named Walrus (for Walter and Rusty, of course).
It’ll tell you that, reversing the usual tide of events, after retirement they sold their house and most of their worldly goods, including the boat, and bummed around Europe for a year. They came home when they missed their family.
Walter was crippled by a botched back operation but carried on for the last half of his life via wheelchair and motorized scooter. Drawn by classical music, the retired couple moved from Long Island to Pittsfield in 1998, and then to the Kimball Farms retirement community in 2007.
Those are the facts. Now for what it was like.
Kimball Farms is a caring place but it can be forbidding for a newcomer: all those white-haired and bald strangers who seem content with the leisurely pace of retirement while you’re still your old self and trying to figure out what you’re doing there.
My wife and I moved to Kimball, somewhat reluctantly, in 2012. We were soon drawn into the orbit of Walter and Ruth. He and I had many things in common: classical music, English language and literature, military service in Germany, wars of puns, impatience with mediocrity and a generally curmudgeonly outlook.
Over the dinner table, there were lively conversations. By email, we exchanged gripes, awful poetry ("poultry"), jokes and barbed observations about retirement life. He made me read "Bleak House" and listen to his Leonard Bernstein recording of Mahler’s "Resur-
Instead of feeling older in this old folks’ home, I felt younger.
"On the last night of his life," according to the obituary, "he was surrounded by his family expressing their love and singing, and reading ‘Bleak House’ by Dickens, his favorite novel."
Walter didn’t believe in an afterlife, so I’m not about to tell him I’ll meet him in heaven or the other place (which he preferred anyway). I’ll just say this man was an inspiration and an original, the kind you’re lucky to meet once in your life.
Andrew L. Pincus is The Eagle’s classical music critic.
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