Aron Bernstein: In Memoriam (Susan Goldhor)

Aron was as close as you can get to being self-made. He grew up in a financially, intellectually and culturally impoverished family. The things that he loved and that defined him: science, politics, hiking, mountains, music and more were absent from his upbringing. He discovered and mastered all of these on his own. Aron and I shared the same political views, but mine were handed down to me by my family; Aron worked his out for himself. His ability to do this was something I greatly admired.

His background was one reason why he loved MIT. He’d done a post-doc at Princeton, where the physics and his advisor were excellent, but where it was made clear to him that they’d rather give a faculty position to someone who was an inferior physicist but a social superior. In fact, Princeton finally did offer him a faculty position (at the same time that MIT had an opening), but MIT (and Vicky Weisskopf) really constituted his ideal. He actually had a dream about MIT where he was on the T and every single person in the car was a white-coated scientist. Unlike Princeton and Harvard, founded to educate the elite, MIT was founded to raise the sons of tradesmen and artisans into the first generation of engineers; for Aron, whose father managed a small facility that engraved thermometers, it was the perfect fit. 

Perhaps because he’d worked things out for himself, he was often original. His originality was one of the things that made time with him so pleasurable and exciting. A small example: we celebrated our first New Year’s Eve together by spending the entire weekend making glace de viande; a meat concentrate that’s a mainstay of classic French cooking. Aron had arranged for us to pick up sixteen lbs of meaty bones, which we roasted and then boiled all weekend until the contents of the pot barely filled an ice cube tray. Having spent a year’s sabbatical in Paris, Aron had become a Francophile in cookery, and glace is a key component of the cream sauces he loved. He was not, however, severely logical about this. I’d noted that he ordered rognons (kidneys) in Paris, so when I saw kidneys for sale in Cambridge, I bought them and repeated the Parisian recipe, whereupon Aron announced he didn’t eat kidneys. I reminded him of Paris. “I eat rognons”, he said, “but not kidneys.”

Our first date (chosen by him) was an overnight hike in the White Mountains. Our third date was a four day/three hut hike. For our honeymoon, Aron chose Vancouver Island and a cold, windy, beautiful set of hard-packed beaches, where more species of seaweed than I’d ever seen grew on huge rocks and where tide pools hosted assorted invertebrates; especially anemones. It was lonely and gorgeous and we walked for miles. How Aron decided on this particular area I never knew, but I loved it. And he was happy to come to places where I worked, which led us to Turkey, Newfoundland, Norway and Alaska. He even followed me to the Aleutians where we managed to kayak in the Bering Sea. And, because Aron had colleagues, who often became friends, I was happy following him not just to France, but also to Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Hawaii, Japan and Taiwan, while his semester at Balliol College, Oxford was a joy for us both.

Each of us was curious about and admiring of the other’s work and interests. Unfortunately, our brains were configured in ways that prevented mutual understanding. I loved hearing Aron talk about his physics but it was poetry in a foreign language to me. I told this to my nephew who really is a poet and he brought a poet friend over and requested that Aron explain his work to them. They listened with attention and admiration and no comprehension whatsoever, and agreed with me. Much of my work was much simpler to understand, but when Aron asked me to tell him about the liver (I was consulting on a new tool for liver surgery), I started by saying, “The liver is highly vascularized”, and Aron cried, “stop”. He had no stomach for blood and guts.

His curiosity went beyond work. Aron did the heavy political lifting in our marriage and I was the literary guide. When we first met, I was entranced by Proust, whose seven-volume novel, Remembrance of Things Past, I had recently (finally) finished. I talked about it so much that Aron asked me to read it to him. I did, and found that the long, rhythmic sentences usually lulled him to sleep. But sometimes he stayed awake. When we got to the part of the book where Swann — a cultivated, wealthy upper-class gentleman — meets and falls in love with Odette — an amoral social climber — Aron became really agitated, and started calling out advice to the hapless M. Swann. “Don’t fall for her,” he’d yell. “You’ll be sorry! Don’t do it!” The combination of the yelling at the exciting parts and the falling asleep at the quieter parts finally made me announce that I wouldn’t read any more. Of the seven volumes, we’d gotten most of the way through one. Shortly after I rebelled, we spent a weekend at a country inn, where the guests all ate at one large table. At dinner, Aron brought the conversation around to Proust. To my amazement, when people expressed interest, Aron delivered a coherent and fairly impressive lecture on this novel of which he’d read a fraction, leaving the other guests (who included a professor of literature at Wellesley) awed not only by his brilliance but by his breadth. A physicist who knew Proust!

Aron was far from intellectual snobbery, and he was happy to meet and befriend fishermen, boat builders, farmers, loggers, carpenters, etc. Some of these people became close friends but stayed awed by Aron’s position and research; it was difficult for them to accept that Aron was equally awed by their abilities. He was also completely unselfconscious. When we were among a couple hundred folks in the audience at a Tlingit tribal dance exhibition and the narrator invited audience members to join them on stage, Aron was the only person who got up, donned a ceremonial blanket and danced with the performers.

I admired and benefitted from Aron’s sense of adventure, but sometimes his fearlessness got to me. In mid-winter New Hampshire once, a neighbor organized a full moon ski outing. When the time came and Aron told me he was going, I pointed out to him that it was bitter cold; the surface was glare ice, and the organizer was a past member of the U.S. downhill ski team who might expect others to be at his skill level. Aron ignored me; went on the outing, had a great adventure and ended up friends for life with the organizer. On the other hand, he was terrified by my lack of fear about water, since I can barely swim, and would make me swear to wear a life jacket if I was going to be paddling without him.

Aron had a wonderful capacity for joy and for being contented with what he had (two different things!), with one big exception. On one of our first dates he told me that he wanted to buy a place in the White Mountains but he couldn’t afford it. This turned out to be a serious yearning, and a constant itch. Early on, I bought him a birthday present of a week in a cabin in the Whites. It was a crappy cabin, but a good hiking location, and we continued to rent it in succeeding summers during which Aron would secretly look at houses for sale; he was like an alcoholic sneaking drinks. We talked about buying a place but he always ended up agreeing with my practical objections, the most compelling of which was that we couldn’t afford it. This went on for a few years but, at some point, I had an epiphany and changed my mind. If Aron wanted this so badly, we should do it — even if it was impractical. Of course, when I told him this, he adopted all my earlier arguments. I told him that maybe we could afford it if we gave up our annual trips to Europe, restaurants, theatre, etc. Aron sat at the computer for what seemed like days, calculating budgets. The end result was that we bought a house in Tamworth, NH and — unlike what often happens when one gets one’s heart’s desire — we loved it. It was always a source of intense joy to Aron, who finally found the piece that slotted into his life and completed it. It was all he had hoped for. It took us a while to fix up the house and even longer to add on a screened porch where we could sit and gaze at Mt. Chocorua as it changed color reflecting the sunset. Aron took joy in so many things — hiking in the mountains, being on or in the water, dinners and parties with friends — but the porch was the finishing touch. He never wanted more except perhaps to live forever.