Life & Culture

A love letter to two people

Kathryn Schultz's new memoir bucks the trend by focusing on happiness


The tail end of a pandemic, with millions mourning departed loved ones, is perhaps not an auspicious time to release a memoir about grief. For Kathryn Schulz, whose book deals with the approach and aftermath of her father’s death, this has been something of a concern.
But in truth, Lost & Found is a story about happiness, not tragedy, focusing on the love behind the loss of her beloved father, along with the relationship Schulz entered with her now-wife in the same period.
She describes the book as “a love letter to two incredibly wonderful people”. But beyond that, she says, it’s “about the families that make us and the families we make”.
Schulz, 48, a journalist, already had a Pulitzer Prize under her belt when she started this book, which spun out from a New Yorker piece about losing her father. Unenthused about writing a book solely about loss, she decided to write about gaining love too. But it was only when her partner casually used the phrase “lost and found” that she realised she was interested in what links the two.
The lost, of course, refers to her father, a bon viveur who escaped his turbulent early life to become a valedictorian, a successful lawyer and a much-loved family man.
Born in Mandate Palestine in the early 1940s, he spent his first years in a kibbutz until his mother — a Polish refugee from Lodz who lost almost her entire family in the Holocaust — took the family on an unlikely journey to live in post-war Germany (to escape the warzone of the Middle East, just months before Israel came into existence).
There, the family struggled financially, eventually emigrating to the US and beginning a new life.
Did his unsettled start make him the optimist he became? It’s a question his daughter constantly mulls over: what do our losses do? “Do they make our lives better or worse, more meaningful or less meaningful, do they reorient our relationship to being alive?” she asks. “My dad experienced a lot of poverty, violence, upheaval and unhappiness in his most formative years — and somehow he emerged as the most joyful guy you’d ever meet.”
If she had the answer, Schulz jokes, she’d be “peddling the secret to everyone” but ultimately she thinks her father made an active decision to side with hope. “Choosing over and over to fight the good fight for joy does tend to pay dividends. In my father’s case, he built an incredible community, people loved him.”
Unlike many memoirs, this is no misery story. Schulz’s childhood, growing up with a sister in Cleveland, was profoundly happy. “I was definitely mindful that I was bucking the memoir stream,” she says. But she is interested in happiness, in the texture of the ordinary. “And even when life grants you a lot of happiness, there’s no form of existence that doesn’t involve suffering, partly because death is inevitable, and partly because people can be very cruel.”
Her father’s slow demise, ending at a hospice, is relayed in excruciating detail, but Schulz’s mother has welcomed this telling of his story, joining every Zoom book event. “It’s been really rewarding for my mum to feel like my dad is in the world in this new way,” she says. Listening to strangers who say, “I just loved your dad, I wish I could have met him, I mourned him a little too,” and hearing people say his name has proved a comfort.
The family did not sit shiva, although they had for other relatives. “My father had an interesting relationship to his Judaism, some of which he passed along and some he left us to form our own relationships, but by the end of his life he was not a devout man,” Schulz explains. Her mother felt he would not have wanted one.
But Schulz, having contemplated bereavement at length, finds the tradition incredibly welcome. “It’s so sensitive to the nature of grief that you would create a structure where for this defined time you would be engaged in doing nothing but grieving, and you would sit with people who love you and loved the person you’re grieving. It’s in every possible way a kind and humane tradition. It protects people in their most vulnerable moments. The time boundary is wise, as so much about Judaism is.”
Like her father, she says “in most respects I’m not devout either but I very deeply love the traditions of Judaism, and I’m a little more invested in their practice than he was”. Yet having lived a largely secular adulthood, in an unexpected twist, her partner is a devoted Lutheran. Falling for C, as she is referred to (she is the writer Casey Cep) forced Schulz to reconsider her preconceptions about faith.
“There’s no question it has deepened my respect for the devout,” she admits. “We live in a difficult era for Christianity in the US, and it does not have the most burnished of reputations. Before I met my partner the combination of the cultural moment we live in and my own Jewish background did not leave me terribly charitable towards Christianity or even terribly confident in the existence of sincere and sincerely moral Christians, which shame on me, of course they exist by the millions.”
Falling for one was “life-changing”. It has been a pleasure “to think through deep questions with someone devout, for whom that is a lens that helps shape the answers” Schulz says. “Things like where did we come from, how should we treat each other, what does it mean to have a meaningful life? It’s like living with someone who speaks four other languages and has read entirely different books.
“She can draw on very, very different sources to answer the same questions.”
And it has deepened Schulz’s identity as a Jew. “Even in childhood some of my Jewish identity flourished in a sense of difference and of being a member of a small, historically imperilled minority, and the importance of being among the numbered who can say this is who I am and this is my history and these are my traditions.”
The couple now have a six-month old daughter, and are navigating questions about Christmas and Chanukah and Passover and Easter. To Schulz, it’s not a binary choice. “My daughter is being raised by a devout Lutheran and a secular Jew, and all that needs to be part of her identity,” she explains. “I’ve always loved the traditions of Judaism and I’m grateful to my parents for raising me in the synagogue and in the faith, I feel very strongly about doing that for my daughter even though I know it will be alongside this entirely other education.”
In keeping with her book, she sees it as an addition. “My child is not Jewish or Lutheran, she’s not even part Jewish and part Lutheran. She is just actually Jewish and Lutheran. As she grows she can make her own choices, but she’s going to grow up with the ‘and’ of those things.”
Lost & Found delves into the question of destiny and whether we should go looking for things or wait until they come to us. Schulz falls firmly on the side of the former. “There are all kinds of things we should actively seek out, and those include human beings and missing objects and of course ideas. I don’t think we should be passive.”
She wasn’t actively seeking a relationship when she met C, but likens it to a feeling “I was going to have to get struck by lighting and so I went out and stood in a field”. In other words, she chose not to close herself off. “Did I go looking for my partner? No. Did I say yes when a total stranger asked me to lunch? Yes, I did. It’s a kind of willingness to be open to discovery,” she says. But she knows people who found the one after 75 horrible dates. “Love is a special category of finding, and a really mysterious one.”
There’s a world where she didn’t say yes to lunch; she was on deadline that day. Would they have found each other anyway? “My partner and I ask us this all the time,” she says. “There’s a world where I wouldn’t have said yes, and it’s tragic to contemplate, it’s my whole life spinning away, including our baby daughter. How I live with that is with profound and daily gratitude that it did happen.”
Her book is, ultimately, about the reward of finding — and also the hardship that comes with loss. “It’s an effort to reckon with the way that our joy and our sorrow and love and our grief always coexist,” she says. “And I think ultimately to throw myself in on the side of love and joy.”
It’s bittersweet, of course, that her father isn’t there to see it published. Schulz says he would have been thrilled to be the star. “His only complaint would be, you had to wait until I was dead? I couldn’t be around to enjoy this?”

Lost & Found is published this week by Picador

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