Our Beguine: The Dance of Life

Our Beguine: The Dance of Life

by MD Joel M. Levin


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We all talk about life and death but in doing so use these words in a different manner. There before us is a table filled with many ideas and many beliefs or even a lack of belief. For some, this is all there is and there is no other life but the one we now own. For others, there is a strong belief in the hereafter. In today's world, there seems to be a coming together of religious belief and scientific thought processes, theories, and experimentation.

This memoir serves not only to tell the story of Donna's and my life together in music, prose, and poetry but also explores the latest concepts regarding the mystery of the soul.

We are all of humankind, and the quest belongs to all.
"The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our separate ways,
I to die, and you to live. Which of these two is better only God knows!"

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496959478
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 03/23/2015
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.72(d)

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Our Beguine

The Dance of Life

By Joel M. Levin


Copyright © 2015 Joel M. Levin, MD
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4969-5947-8


Our Very Beginnings

My dear, I've a feeling you are so near and yet so far you appear like a radiant star first so near then again so far. —"So Near and Yet So Far" by Cole Porter

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way ... —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens and a Tale of Two Cities involved England and France in the 1770s and our brave ancestors who dared to leave their old homes for a new life. It was not my intent to minimize the work of Charles Dickens. I just thought it would fit into the scheme of things to borrow the concept, as an analogy so to speak. The wisdom of this prose was a need to escape the bleakness of the Old World to other lands where streets were paved in gold. In a manner, it was the spring of hope.

Our tale was not a tale of two cities, but of one city and two youngsters who would come to know the best of times yet to come (and two moms, who were perhaps enduring the worst of times, during the Depression). It, as an analogy, depicts a tale of two mothers separated literally by a few miles of city streets while delivering their babies that night in April 1934. Two babies, unique to this story, were so close and yet so far. You could say that we were baby steps apart, yet years apart. That, to me, is incredible. It would be many years before Donna and I would reflect on this first interesting connection in our lives, and we would not even meet each other for many years. So it was not a tale of two cities but one city and two youngsters (and two moms, who were perhaps enduring the worst of times, as labor tends to go). For the moms, the pangs of labor are sometimes the worst of times. Please forgive this analogy; I am only a man who never experienced this kind of labor. I have labored in many ways but not in this physiological process. Vicariously, as a physician, I helped bring babies into the world. Would you believe that some moms honored me by naming their children after me?

To begin this tale, I have to start with my life story as I recall it. Each chapter will bring us closer to the start of my real life, when I met a wonderful lady who defined my life and captured my soul.

I was given the name Joel and the middle name of Merwin when I was born. What a moniker. And yes, my lifelong secret is out. I never gave out my middle name to anyone, as it had no meaning to me and seemed peculiar. Was my mother thinking of Merlin the magician or Merton, the boy who lived downstairs from us? She named me Joel because of her interest in the movie star Joel McCrea, but I don't know where the name Merwin came from. Of course, it was expected that I would carry the names of maternal and paternal heritage. That would be Vickar (maternal) and Le Vein (paternal). I changed the last name in grade school and became Joel M. Levin. My wife's name, Donna, means lady, and we all called her Bella Donna (a beautiful lady), as she was to everyone who knew her.

I grew up during the Depression years lacking for nothing in a household of parents, grandparents, and a few unmarried aunts. This was typical of many families in the 1930s. I had no knowledge of economic difficulty, as each member of the household contributed to the welfare of us all. I was oblivious to the motion and fast pace of people in and out of the house from dawn to well beyond dusk, working and sometimes enjoying some time away from our confined world. The baby Joel was assuredly content in his crib and was always the center of attention. This was my own little world.

That was until I developed asthma at a very early age. It is hereditary in my family, but living in a crowded apartment with a bunch of smokers certainly didn't help. I had many an asthmatic attack in those early days, and the medications in use today were not available then. Chicken soup, as a remedy, helped, and when the attack abated, the comic books my dad brought home helped me forget those episodes when I struggled with my breathing. It was super dad bringing me Superman.

The patriarch, my grandfather, was a journalist and a scholar, who took an early retirement because of a heart attack and what was called hardening of the arteries. Who at that time knew about cholesterol, gluten, fat, and all the modern stuff regarding healthy lifestyles and prevention of illness? We only knew that we ate what we ate, never bothered by warnings on labels or blood tests for everything. We only knew and were thankful that if it tasted good, it must be good.

I learned to play chess with my grandfather and did so until I was able to beat him. He then seemed to lose interest. I also remember that he was very religious but never pushed it on us. We were free to make our own choices.

One amusing anecdote about Grandpa goes like this. We had an old-fashioned telephone in our house, which required a slug equal to a nickel to make a call. A collector would come by regularly, determining how much was owed by the number of slugs. About the time I was growing up, the telephone company switched from a real operator to an automated one. I remember him listening to one of those early messages, swearing under his breath, and saying, "Madam, shut up and give me a chance to speak."

My grandmother was the love of my life, and as I grew up, we did many things together. She was the matriarch and handled the role as well as any queen might do. She had things under control (all under her thumb), argued well, and usually won all battles with the king of his castle (grandfather) with diplomacy but at times with an iron hand. Margaret Thatcher might have been related to her or it seems a kindred spirit to my grandmother. But as long as I was the prince in the palace, I was quite happy with her (her loving hand and her wondrous creations in our tiny kitchen). As to supplying the kitchen, we would walk to the nearest shopping area on Roosevelt Road in Chicago. We would make several stops, including, as I recall, two of the smelliest places on earth: the fish store and the butcher's. My reward was to carry these bundles home. I wonder if any of you remember carrying home that warm package that once was a living chicken. It's a wonder I eat chicken today.

On occasion, Grandmother and I went to the local cinema, where they highlighted many Russian and other ethnic movies as well as American cinema. I would usually fall asleep. I do remember one specific time when the Hunchback of Notre Dame was playing. I was so frightened I had my head in her lap with my eyes closed. I recently saw the same movie this past year. Sir Charles Laughton was a magnificent actor to carry that part off, and Maureen O'Hara wasn't too bad to look at, if I may say so.

My father, an insurance man, worked very hard and was perhaps the most giving and caring person I have ever met. He was a great writer and a motivational speaker. His mentor was Norman Vincent Peale, most notably the authority on the power of positive thinking. He also was a member of the Masonic Order. I write more about my father in the next chapter.

My mother was multitalented, a homemaker, an artist, an actress, and in her own right, a writer and contributor to a book on our family origin—a memory of a small group of Jewish pioneers who left their homes in Europe and South Africa and, with a remarkable degree of courage and determination, founded the colony of Edenbridge in Northern Saskatchewan, Canada. The land of origin of her family was Lithuania. She also was the contributor to my many neuroses as the rest of the story depicts. As an example, she was in a play called The Lost Soul. There was this strange man on stage touching her and even kissing her. (This made me quite anxious and jealous, and I cried.) Many people thought my mom looked like Norma Shearer, a well-known actress at that time. I even got to see Paul Muni in our local playhouse before he became a famous Hollywood star.

In the early days of my life, unbeknownst to the infant me, my mother developed fainting spells, sadness, and an inability to bond with me in an essential act called breastfeeding or holding me to her chest. Many years later, this condition, which is very serious, has been labeled postpartum depression. Again my grandmother, the wondrous matriarch, came to the rescue. It is possible that my early excessive dietary intake fed by Grandma led to eczema and eventual asthma. This all resulted in a form of guilt anxiety, another one of my troublesome features. Was I at fault? Was it my doing? Was it that I was sickly with asthma? But Mom often told me that the pain of giving birth to me convinced her to never have another child. (She rubbed it in, and that stain persists to this day, as does my yearning for a sibling.) Eventually, Mom got well with old-fashioned doctoring (iodine drops), plenty of bedrest, and her resilient, strong nature. I'm not sure I recovered from her malady. My guilt continued to be an early anxiety. Was it that the pain I caused denied other children the chance to enter into the world? So I had several forms of angst. You betcha, as a famous politician would say.

Mother had a nighttime job at Sears Roebuck and would have to walk home each night. This is complex number two. I would nervously peer through a windowpane until she finally came home. Unfortunately, many who have suffered from separation anxiety know the intensity of this neurosis, and none was more intense than mine. My grandmother would pull me through each crisis until we were all safe and sound around the kitchen table.

My mother, in addition to contributing a chapter to a book reflecting on her family's saga and journey from the old country to South Africa and ultimately to the wilds of early Canada, always reminded me that in their journeys back and forth, my grandmother gave birth to her in New York City. She then had dual citizenship in Canada and the United States.

My aunts, those who lived with us until they married, worked in retail jobs of all sorts. They were once dubbed secretaries, but today, with political and social correctness, would be known as administrative assistants. Given a chance to do things differently, they could have had careers that were not readily open to them then.


Oh! My Papa

Oh, my Papa, to me he was so wonderful
Oh, my Papa, to me he was so good
No one could be so gentle and so lovable
Oh, my Papa, he always understood
—"Oh! My Pa-Pa"

"O mein Papa" is a German song and was adapted into English by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons under the title "Oh! My Pa-Pa."

This song certainly fits my dad to a T. My father was special in so many respects. As the saying goes, he would give you the shirt off his back. My dad worked very late hours, and I would see him every night at 10:50 p.m. working on his debit books, as he called them. Although I did not see much of him otherwise and we never had heart-to-heart father-to-son talks, my love for him burned deeply in my heart.

He left a Ukrainian village at the age of three and settled in Omaha, Nebraska. At one point, he moved to California, made a fortune, and lost it overnight because the boss's daughter was involved. Without a nickel to his name, he called upon a dear friend to give him passage to Chicago. While in Chicago, he worked at many jobs, initially as a sheriff's bailiff, ultimately transitioning into the insurance business. My dad's family came from a small village called Linevski, and most of the family became Lehnofsky or Lehnoff in this country. When my grandfather Joseph came to this country with his poor English, the immigration officer at Ellis Island, pulling a name out of the air, named him Levin. This is reminiscent of an old Jewish joke: When an immigrant was asked his name, he replied in Yiddish German, "Ich hab schoen vergessen" (I have forgotten), so he was cleverly named Sean Ferguson.

My dad's nature may have been tempered by the toils and troubles of his early life. Both of his parents died at the early age of forty-five, his mother from a toxic goiter and his father, an inner ear infection that led to meningitis. He also had a brother, Samuel, who was injured at birth by being dropped on his head. I remember visiting him in a home in Dunning, Illinois. Uncle Samuel was a wonderful musician and was able to pick up any song by ear. I wonder if this may be the genetic connection to my musical talent.

My parents wed on a leap year. There is an article, which appeared in the Saturday edition of the Herald American 1932. Let me quote it verbatim. Mom states: "Here's how the leap year pressure is properly applied according to my mind. When those midnight whistles started blowing, I realized that opportunity was knocking. She who hesitates is lost. So I popped the question." My dad's answer: "I was caught in a weak moment. I blushed, murmured, 'This is so sudden,' and coyly rested my head on her shoulder." That, my friends, is typical of my dad's nature. They were married January 10, 1932.

My mom had been writing to my dad for months, and I recently read some of her steamy love letters to him.

"Love Letters"
Heyman/Young Composer
Sung by Elvis Presley
Love letters straight from your heart
keep us so near while apart
I'm not alone in the night
when I can have all the love you write.

It seems that in that gentler time of life (technology had not yet become so pervasive) letter-writing was common. One could not tweet, email, or fax. There was no Facebook or passive communication. It was in-your-face direct communication, and it was common where distance separated two people, such as my mom and dad in their courtship days. As we refer to it today, it was regular posting by snail mail or, if you had one, a standard telephone.

At this point, my father was spending time on an uncle's farm in New Jersey. He probably had some life crisis or depression based on his loss of a fortune in California. It was not his fault but that of a partner who cheated him.

The following is from a letter written by my mother to her love, my dad, dated August 14, 1931:

Received all your letters this morning, for which I thank you. It sure made me feel much better since I received the picture of my handsome Adonis. The cards are so cute and only you would think of sending such adorable sayings to me.

Don't worry about me cheating. I told you in front of mother last Saturday night that I won't exchange you for all the money and riches in the world and that is a broad statement to make. I mean, it's from the bottom of my heart; the boys here are real nice but none as nice as you. You know your own song "in my eyes."

Another letter from my mom, dated June 16, 1931, reads:

Dearest Marty:

Although I have been warned against writing to members of the male sex, the temptation is so strong that I cannot resist. I am therefore taking this dangerous step by writing to an experienced correspondent, who no doubt has taken many such chances himself. Truthfully, I haven't had many dealings with men through correspondence (nor in any other way) that is not saying that I ever intended to.

Where formerly I would have had to be subpoenaed to enter into a written document, especially with one of the opposite sex; now, seemingly, it is second nature to me since meeting up with the aforesaid party of the second part. Then my vocabulary was a hidden virtue and words failed me. But since then thought and ideas, with unceasing regularity, flow like the proverbial stream.

I can see a lot of nice things. If as in my dreams, a certain party were in close proximity, the moon was suspended in its entire splendor on the new heavens above and shining down lighting the way to thrilling romance. But wait a moment. I'm getting ahead of myself and can't be held responsible for everything I said.

Well, being an amateur in the art of letter writing. I believe I made enough commitments for one of my tender age and so I will take my pen out of hand to continue when the second installment shall have been written by the party of the second part.

Wow! I had no idea that this was such a steamy romance and that my mother not only did write in a teasing manner but that she was out to capture her mate. I thank you, Mom, for your persistence, your humor, and your outright campaign to capture your mate.

There is a similarity here because I too was not very aggressive and needed a nudge to follow my dreams. I knew that my dad was very handsome from pictures I've seen. Women are persistent. History repeated itself in my courtship of Donna (or vice versa), albeit we went around it in a different manner. We did not write to each other; we used the telephone a lot, met somewhere for a soda or ice cream, and visited each other at our homes. In some manner, we communicated with our hearts. It was a mutual knowing that we were meant to be. And much like my mother did to my dad years earlier, my wife proposed to me.


Excerpted from Our Beguine by Joel M. Levin. Copyright © 2015 Joel M. Levin, MD. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, xi,
Preface, xiii,
Part 1 The Story before Donna,
Chapter 1 Our Very Beginnings, 3,
Chapter 2 Oh! My Papa, 10,
Chapter 3 Donna's Origins, 22,
Chapter 4 My Roots, 27,
Chapter 5 My Quiet Room and Quiet Life, 35,
Chapter 6 My Yesterday, 44,
Chapter 7 The Music Man, 52,
Chapter 8 Early Years in Medicine, 61,
Part 2 At Last The Real Dance Begins,
Chapter 9 How I Met My Soul Mate, 71,
Chapter 10 The Bells Are Ringing, 76,
Chapter 11 The Army Goes Rolling Along, 81,
Chapter 12 Children, 99,
Chapter 13 A Change in the Rhythm of Our Life, 105,
Chapter 14 Jarlath at Last, 111,
Chapter 15 Smiling and Sailing through It All, 121,
Chapter 16 Travailing on Together, 129,
Chapter 17 The New Road to Travel, 146,
Chapter 18 Looking for Peace, 155,
Chapter 19 Regrets, We Had a Few, 164,
Chapter 20 Leaving, 175,
Chapter 21 Revival, 183,
Chapter 22 More Stories of the Road, 197,
Chapter 23 Hello to Europe, 201,
Chapter 24 Back Home, 224,
Chapter 25 After the Dance Is Over, 236,
Chapter 26 You'll Never Walk Alone, 241,
Chapter 27 Final words: Notes to Family and Friends, 249,
Epilogue, 273,

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