Back in the mid-1980’s, the Freibergs, Mildred and Malcolm, looked at the Cann House on Gilmore Pond Road but decided to pass. They did us a favor – the house was still available when we stumbled upon it, and became its owner, in April 1986. The Freibergs decided, instead, to build a house on the other side of the pond. That was another favor to us. They became our neighbors and, over time, our dear friends.
That side of the pond has now lost two remarkable citizens in less than two years. First, Malcolm’s friend and neighbor, Harvard economics professor Jim Duesenberry. Jim died in the fall of 2009 at 91. And now Malcolm, who died on June 27, also at age 91.
Malcolm’s last visit to Jaffrey, a place he loved dearly, was on Memorial Day weekend, just a few weeks ago. Over the years, he attended lovingly to his vegetable garden, usually outwitting the critters and producing tomatoes that he enjoyed sharing as much as eating. We learned at the funeral that Randy Miller had the land ready, just in case Malcolm was up for planting this year.
Malcolm did more than tend to his garden. He tended to his family and his friends, with loyalty and great affection. They responded in kind. With him, unassuming person that he was, it was never about “me,” always about “you.”
He was nearly two decades older, but we shared quite a bit. We both went to Brown University, but he was there under the G.I. Bill to obtain a Ph.D. I’m not sure I ever heard him talk about his wartime service in Europe, for which he received a Bronze Star. Did I mention his modesty? Another thing we shared – we both married pianists. And we were of the same religion and held similar political outlooks. In other ways we were quite different, he with his mustache and mutton chops and restrained manner, I with none of those.
“Choose life,” the Old Testament directs us. Malcolm did so, and more. First as a teacher, and then at the Massachusetts Historical Society, he helped generations of students and scholars gain a better understanding of American history Life was not always kind. He suffered great sadness and loss – a daughter many years ago, and his dear Mildred in 2006. But he didn’t just choose life, he embraced it, and life reciprocated in kind, blessing him in his later years with grandchildren whom he cherished. On the one hand life takes, on the other hand it gives.
Near the end, just inches from death, Malcolm apologized that he was unable to get up and greet a visitor who had come to see him. I don’t speak Yiddish, but my grandparents and parents did, and I picked up a few words along the way. One of them is “mensch,” which is used to describe a person of integrity and honor. It describes Malcolm better than any other word I can think of.
We still own the “Cann House.” Even with a new paint job and a new roof, nothing can change the name of our house. Meanwhile, the house across the pond will always be the “Freiberg House.” It could also be called the “Mensch House.”