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Summer Thunder

Summer Thunder

For more than 20 years I’ve wondered when the right moment might be to tell this story—and now that moment has arrived.

It happened on a sweltering midsummer Saturday, the kind of triple-digit Sacramento Valley scorcher that transforms sandals from footwear into safety devices. At the children’s swim meet we were attending, every racer would emerge from the pool and make straight for the relative oasis of shade offered by the tents and canopies blanketing the lawn just outside the fenced-in pool deck.

The deck itself was lined on two sides by strips of shade produced by aluminum awnings painted an optimistic white, as if the absence of color might shave an extra half-degree off the sun’s relentless exertions. One strip shadowed a line of three-tiered bleachers where parents watched their children race before thrusting water bottles at them and leading them back to shelter. The other side held a row of folding tables manned by parent volunteers, the organizational nerve center of this end-of-July, six-team championship meet.

As the parent of three swimmers, I was obligated to work at least one shift that day. As I headed over to the volunteer check-in table my mind was already on the job I’d signed up for, my favorite: timer. Stand a few feet behind the starting blocks, listen for the horn, click, approach the pool’s edge, watch the swimmer’s hand (or head) hit the wall, another click, report your time, rinse and repeat. I had just drunk roughly a half gallon of water, reapplied sunscreen, given my own swimmers last words of encouragement, kissed my wife Karen, and donned a floppy beach hat.

Approaching the check-in table, I began searching for my name on the list there as the woman behind it—another volunteer, around my age, no doubt the mother of a swimmer or two somewhere on the premises, maybe even one whose race I was about to time—stepped away from another conversation and asked for my name.

I give it and she starts to look down at her list, but then hesitates. Looks up at me again, pondering something. And asks:

“Are you related to—THE Warburgs?”

A voice in my head lets out a sigh.

Am I proud that, on my father’s side, my roots lie in a Jewish family that in the early 1900s was well-known among a certain segment of New York society for both its prosperity and its philanthropy, making a sizable fortune and then giving most of it away? I am. They did a lot of good back in their day. But—fully owning the privilege inherent in the following statement—the assumptions that are often made by people who focus on the first part of my ancestors’ story, rather than the second, are not a lot of fun to correct.

“Yes,” I admit, even as I catch the sudden intensity of her gaze.

“The banking Warburgs, from Germany?”

There is something in her voice, some upwelling of emotion that removes her from consideration as an eager fan of Our Crowd. Still, I’m off-balance, unsure where this is going.

“Yes—three generations ago,” I reply. My great-grandfather Felix Warburg emigrated to New York from Germany in 1895. I am about to explain this, but she interrupts me, and that’s when I notice her lips are trembling.

“Oh my God,” she blurts, voice breaking, eyes filling. “Oh my God, your family—the Warburgs—they got my mother out of Germany!”

I am thunderstruck.

“They saved her life! Oh my God!”

There are people around us, volunteers checking in and other volunteers checking them in, but the rest of the scene has melted away. Inside of this moment there is only—Susanne, I see her name badge reads—and me. She continues, weeping now, choking out her words between sobs.

“Anna Warburg—we visited her on a kibbutz in Israel—years later—she had pictures of my mother as a child—she took my family in—she helped them to escape—”

“Yes,” I say, straining to remember the details of our family tree. “Yes, Anna—I think—I think she was my great-grandfather’s sister-in-law.”

“Oh! Oh! I have goosebumps.” Susanne shows me her arm, studded with pink bumps like the surface of a raspberry, tears rolling down her cheeks one after another from eyes like little moons.

“So do I,” I reply as they break out all over.

I apologize because—we are both laughing through tears at the intrusion of this absurdity—I have to run and start my shift, or I’ll hold up the entire meet. Susanne grabs two blank name badges, the only means close at hand for us to trade contact information. After scribbling names and phone numbers—on hers she adds the names of her grandparents, who escaped with her mother—and completing the exchange, I reach out with both hands to shake hers. She takes my hands, steps around the table and pulls me into a hug.

It’s a big one.

As we release, I glance around, wondering if anyone nearby has taken note of the unusual scene down at the end of the volunteer check-in table. Everyone appears oblivious. Susanne and I promise to be in touch.

It isn’t until I’m standing at the end of lane six half an hour later, resetting my timer for the next heat, that I pause long enough to fully grasp the odds involved in what has just happened. Our family almost skipped this swim meet. Karen almost worked this shift instead of me. I almost didn’t bother to check in. And when I did, there were three women working the check-in table… but I ended up in front of Susanne.

Goosebumps all over again.

The epilogue to this moment consisted of a handful of warm phone calls and emails and the discovery that our kids went to the same middle school—and then, life moved on.

Still, this indelible memory left me with a question that often lingers after I’ve experienced moments like this, rare and distinct moments where everything stops and it feels like, just for a split-second, out of the corner of your eye, you catch a glimpse of the gears of the universe itself, turning in their mysterious circles.

The question is: What does this mean? What am I supposed to do with this?

For more than 20 years—the above scene took place in summer 2000—I didn’t have an answer. In fact, after a certain amount of time had passed, with the notes I jotted down that same night safely tucked away in a file, I forgot the question. And then, two decades later, in the midst of writing the book that I’ll begin talking about in this space very soon, I remembered.

I remembered that moment, that thunderclap of connection that only the universe itself could ever explain. And I understood the answer.

Comments (2)

  • John Sheehan

    Excellent, Jason. The odds were against such a meeting, which serves to increase the belief it happened for a reason. Much of life is that chance encounter, a right turn instead of left, an impulsive change can make all the difference. To see that played out across generations, on the other side of the planet, it special. Thanks for the story. I'll remember it. Cheers, John

    • Jason Warburg

      Thanks, John - glad you enjoyed it. There’s more to come soon! Best to you and Laurie.

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