Essay: The Best Gift

Words by Sloane Citron

Words by Sloane Citron

I first met David Altman when I was five, both of us fresh kindergarteners at Temple B’nai Israel Sunday school at the small synagogue that served the Jewish population—what there was of it—in Amarillo, where
we lived.

David went to the next-over elementary school, though we lived five minutes apart and we would attend the same junior high, Stephen F. Austin. When we were in sixth grade, we both received guitars for Hanukkah, and along with Charles Ware, who received some drums for Christmas, we started a band, ultimately dubbed The Psychedelic Vibrations. Like thousands of other garage bands at the time, we played “Louie, Louie,” “I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone,” “Light My Fire” and dozens more. It was great fun.

David’s mother, Mrs. Altman, was our biggest promoter and fan. We mostly practiced in the Altman garage, and she arranged our performances, helped procure equipment and schlepped us around town in their company van (like half the Jews in Amarillo, they owned a clothing store) with our amplifiers, drums and guitars. I suppose we were cuter than we were good, but for a couple of years we played regularly, usually for $50 a pop, which we were happy to have.

While this was all happening, my own family was falling apart. My sister and brother left for school—my brother to prep school and my sister to college—and then my mother never returned from a concert tour (it’s a long story) before ending up in a major symphony orchestra far from Amarillo. It took a good two seconds for my Dad to find a girlfriend, who would eventually become my stepmother and move into our home, along with her three younger children.

But for a good two years, it was just my Dad and me in our home, and since he was attending to his new girlfriend, I was mostly left to fend for myself. I remember many nights, alone, opening cans from our pantry and making a dinner out of them. I was especially partial to mandarin oranges and smoked fish.

Soon after all this hazarai started, Mrs. Altman had David invite me for the weekend. I was too young and naïve to understand that she saw what was happening in my home and felt a need to help. A woman of valor, she was nothing but kindness, support and love. That first weekend turned into two years of weekends at the Altman home.

Starting from my very first sleepover, I was made to feel like a member of their family. At their modest house, I had my own bed in a large room that had been created for David and his two younger brothers. Mrs. Altman drove me around, made sure I was well fed and hugged me when she sensed that it was needed. I always dreaded Sunday afternoons when my Dad would pick me up.

Mrs. Altman understood my situation much better than I did, knowing that if I was not at her home eating a proper meal, I would be home all alone, or worse, dragged over to the home of my imminent stepfamily. Inevitably, I would get a thrashing after visiting the girlfriend’s home since—and this was and is still true today—I’m not one to mask my feelings. This “new” family was anathema to me, and I was rude and insolent and nasty to the girlfriend and her children. They weren’t bad people; they just weren’t my people and I wanted nothing to do with them.

Mrs. Altman showed the purest form of kindness—the type that doesn’t expect anything in return. Eventually, after my stepfamily moved in with us, my father told me that there would be no more weekends at the Altmans and that I was to stay at home and be a part of our new family. Blah.

It took me a few decades to understand what Mrs. Altman had done for me, offering her unflinching generosity and love. As I matured and had my own children, I came to realize the impact she had on my life. A selfless, maternalistic woman, she never thought about how she had rescued me. She just knew I needed some love, and she was the one to give it.

Through the years, whenever I returned to Amarillo to visit, I always made sure to visit her, and I also called her when memories of that time would pop into my mind. It was important for me to tell her how grateful I was to her. She, of course, scoffed at my praise, but I expressed my feelings, nonetheless. I last talked with her a couple of months ago, checking in just to hear her voice and to ask how she was faring.

There are people so ingrained into our lives that we can’t imagine life without them. But that is, of course, tomfoolery. Mrs. Altman recently passed away at age 92. It was a huge blow, and I am still grieving. I needed to recognize this good woman in these pages and thank her one last time for the gift that she gave me, a gift with no package and no contents, but perhaps the best I was ever given.