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The Montpelier Bridge Review of "Snapshots of a Life"

December 5, 2023

By Bernie Lambek


Ken Libertoff is at the tail end of his 70s, and he is reflecting back on his life. The 25-plus short essays in this volume are windows illuminating episodes from his childhood in Queens to his present life on a backroad in East Montpelier, Vermont. They are beautifully written, poignant, sometimes nostalgic, often humorous.


As he writes in one essay — curiously enough, about his love of balsam trees:


"With my 76th year having arrived in the gloom of January, I ponder not only my past but, with resolve mixed equally with trepidation, my future. . . . This process has unleashed memories of many achievements along with disappointments and moments of despair and sorrow. Some stories capture a most fulfilling career as a mental health advocate in Vermont, tales of love and loving partners, recollections of my childhood on the streets of New York City, athletic endeavors through high school and college, and now tennis. Memories also include family traumas, including my father’s death when I was twelve and a one-of-a-kind mother who battled major mental illness all her life." 


Yes, Ken’s mother is featured in a few of these pieces. He recalls clothes shopping with her when he was 13; as they looked at the pants on the racks, she proclaimed that he needed “plenty of room in the crotch area.” In another story, he tells of coming home from high school basketball practice — which “gives shape, form, and meaning to my young life” — and finds his mother locked in the bathroom threatening to slit her wrists. He was 14. It was 1959 in Rockaway in Queens, a blue-collar Irish and Italian community, where he worked during the summer at Boggiano’s Bar and Grill. Ken would bike the 34 blocks home after midnight. 


Ken’s grandmother appears as well. Grandmother Libertoff was “a stern, unhappy, divorced woman” who lived in a basement apartment in Brooklyn, where the freight elevator opened into a back room of the apartment, where Ken slept when he stayed over. Their “one endearing connection and bond” was mutual devotion to the Brooklyn Dodgers. She would take Ken to Ebbets Field, where the fee (in 1955) was 75 cents on Ladies’ Day. Ken writes:


"The green grass down on the field was a beautiful sight to behold as our heroes performed. While Jackie Robinson stole bases with reckless abandon and Duke Snider blasted home runs over the wall into Flatbush Avenue, noted fans like Hilda Chester entertained the masses with her cowbell, and organist Gladys Gooding serenaded the loyal fanbase. And when a Dodger hit a grandstand home run, I beamed with pride when the radio announcer proudly reported that the team was donating cartons of Lucky Strike cigarettes to Veteran Administration hospitals around the country."


Ebbets Field was demolished when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles 1957, a “heartbreak” for young Libertoff.


Basketball was central to Ken’s life. He played three seasons of varsity basketball for the UConn Huskies. After that, he would join men’s leagues wherever he lived. In 1968, at the YMCA basketball league in New Haven, Ken’s locker mate was Mike Katz, the reigning Mr. America, who sometimes needed Ken’s help lacing his sneakers. (Katz later lost his crown to Arnold.) Starting in the early 1980s, he played in the Montpelier Men’s Basketball League at the old Rec Center on Barre Street, and in pick-up games during the lunch hour. In one essay, Ken describes a heart-stopping drive down North Street in a blinding March snowstorm to get to an evening game.



Ken may be frugal, but he has created a long and vigorous life of riches.

A job as director of the Washington County Youth Service Bureau brought Libertoff to Montpelier from Cambridge. Later he became a mental health services advocate and consultant. The consultant part brought invitations from groups and governments around the world. In 2004, he was invited to Johannesburg, South Africa. Preparing for his first morning meeting with 50 or so mental health professionals and political leaders, he aimed to make a great first impression. Instead, the hotel elevator got stuck between floors on his way down from his room. Rescued by hotel personnel, he had to crawl through a dirty elevator shaft, and appeared late for the meeting, with ripped pants, a filthy shirt, covered with grime.


A couple of days into the South African meetings, Ken was invited to visit a game reserve in Botswana. His hut was furnished with an outdoor bathtub. After a dusty day in the bush, he decided to try the tub. He lay soaking for ten minutes in bliss, looked up, and found himself surrounded by baboons, 40 or 50 “gathered in an arc around my bathtub.”


Ken has shared the last 15 or so years with Sarah Hofmann. In 2010, while visiting Ken’s son and grandchildren in Albuquerque, they stayed, at Ken’s insistence, at a low budget motel with a sign on the wall that listed the cost, item by item, for any room article stolen or damaged: bath towels, two for $15, alarm clock, $15, and on down. Sarah, who clearly would have preferred more upscale accommodations, did not despair; she released “an uncontrollable fit of laughter that rolled out like a sudden thunderstorm.”


Ken may be frugal, but he has created a long and vigorous life of riches. I hope he keeps reminiscing and writing.


“Snapshots of Life,” Rootstock Press, publication planned Jan. 16, 2024. Advance copies of “Snapshots of Life” may be ordered through Rootstock Publishing at rootstockpublishing.com/rootstock-books/snapshots-of-a-life, or may be pre-ordered at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, either in person or at bearpondbooks.com/book/9781578691579


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