Isaac, absent-minded about the physical world but fluent in six languages, loved to read, casually cracking the spines of paperbacks as others might lobsters. He imparted a fierce intellectual appetite to his daughters that pulses through these pages. (Schulz’s older sister, Laura, is a professor of cognitive science at M.I.T.) Polymathic if not polyglot herself, the author revels in the specificity of figures: We lose an average of nine objects a day, she reports, and spend six months of our lives searching for them; contemplating the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, she notes without shudder that 180 billion planes could nestle comfortably on the bottom of the Indian Ocean.
Sometimes old-fashioned in her syntax, using phrases like “set about” and “I suppose,” Schulz likes to turn parts of speech over and examine them, like stones. “Cosmopolitan” describes her girlfriend, “in that beautiful root sense of the word: a citizen of the cosmos.” The couple’s more affectionate cat is “exceedingly thigmotactic.” The rest of us procrastinate; Schulz “circumjoviates.” And you might know Venus and Hermes from ancient mythology, but have you been introduced to the more obscure figures Tacita, silent goddess of death, and Anteros, god of requited love?
Isaac, along with modeling erudition, seems to have been a warm and fascinating man, all the more grounded for his considerable itineration: born in Tel Aviv and raised in a kibbutz as the Holocaust decimated much of his mother’s family in Poland, detouring improbably to postwar Germany and then Detroit, selling used clothes in Illinois, jerking soda in Manhattan and deploying to Korea before settling in Cleveland as a lawyer. “He had a booming voice, a heavy accent, a formidable mind, a rabbinical beard, a Santa Claus belly and the gestural range of the Vitruvian Man,” Schulz writes in a model of effective eulogy: homage to the vanished corporeal form; placement in culture’s eternal pantheon. “Collectively, the effect was part Socrates, part Tevye.”
Against such a colorful character, made more vivid by his absence, others can’t help fading.
Schulz strains to describe the state of bereavement, whose scudding emotions are presented as curious novelties but will be familiar to anyone who’s been there. “To be prepared is not to be spared,” she writes, as if needlepointing a pillow. In death’s wake, Schulz finds herself clumsy, anxious, Kübler-Ross angry (“albeit thinly”); she is OK and then not-so-OK and then OK again. “Like anything that goes on for too long,” she admits, “grief is (I don’t know why people don’t talk about this aspect of it more often) unbelievably boring.”