Vin­cent van Gogh, Shoes, 1888

The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, Pur­chase, The Annen­berg Foun­da­tion Gift, 1992

I’m a per­son with very few regrets. I make deci­sions quick­ly and eas­i­ly, and rarely won­der what might have been. But in my almost fifty years on the plan­et, there have been exceptions.

In the fall of 1989, my par­ents and I drove the four hours from our house in north­ern Westch­ester to Itha­ca, NY, for the start of my fresh­man year at Cor­nell. I remem­ber lit­tle to no fan­fare asso­ci­at­ed with that day, espe­cial­ly as we pulled up to my dorm, a big brick boxy thing that was the def­i­n­i­tion of noth­ing spe­cial.” A cou­ple hun­dred kids were stuffed into care­ful­ly planned units” which, when tak­en alto­geth­er, formed a giant caul­dron of under­grad­u­ate life. Its name reflect­ed its sophis­ti­cat­ed vibe: Low Rise Six. Years lat­er, Low Rise Six — along with its looka­like neigh­bor called, yes, Low Rise Sev­en — was sin­gled out by the New York Times as one of the worst indi­vid­ual dorms in the country.

The dorm was a sol­id forty-minute walk to cen­tral cam­pus; the odd patch­work of res­i­dence halls on North Cam­pus were akin to what my Brook­lyn-born dad used to call girls from Queens: Geo­graph­i­cal­ly unde­sir­able. Most fresh­men, and most of the action, were all the way down at the base of Cornell’s famous slope. But life moved a lit­tle slow­er at Low Rise Six and it suit­ed me. A fel­low Low Rise Six-er and I became fast friends and, as it turns out, life-long best friends. Ten years after we met, he signed my ketubah.

My prospects for a qui­et, anony­mous move-in were dashed when my dad locked his keys in the car and cam­pus secu­ri­ty inter­vened to deal with our her­met­i­cal­ly sealed Jeep Chero­kee. I calmed my nerves by set­ting up my room. I spread out the navy quilt my mom had made and cov­ered the far wall with a pale pink tapes­try and my trea­sured Annie Hall movie poster. On the desk, I plugged in my fan­cy state-of-the-art word proces­sor and placed a pen­cil cup dec­o­rat­ed with pas­tel sand art, a farewell gift from my five-year-old cousin.

Before my par­ents took off, there was one last task. They said we had a cousin on the Cor­nell fac­ul­ty who lived only about a mile up the road from Low Rise Six. His name was Ephim Fogel, a high­ly respect­ed poet, lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor, and for­mer head of the Eng­lish depart­ment. He and his wife Char­lotte — they actu­al­ly went by Ep and Chip to my end­less teenage amuse­ment — had invit­ed us over for cof­fee. This wasn’t com­plete­ly out of the ordi­nary, as I had cousins up and down the east­ern seaboard. My grand­fa­ther came from a large close fam­i­ly whose jour­ney mir­rored the famil­iar East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish expe­ri­ence. Born on the Low­er East Side to Russ­ian immi­grants, grand­pa was the youngest of sev­en. He squeaked through pub­lic school, raised his fam­i­ly and his busi­ness in Brook­lyn, then, thanks to hard-earned suc­cess­es, enjoyed lat­er snow­bird years. He passed away on Christ­mas Eve 2000. My grand­pa was beloved, and our extend­ed fam­i­ly – Grandpa’s three sur­viv­ing sis­ters, plus all his sib­lings’ chil­dren and grand­chil­dren – was always present in our lives. But Ep was grandpa’s cousin, not his sib­ling, and, as such, on a slight off-shoot of the broad­er Oringel tree. The few times I heard grand­pa talk about Ep and his broth­er Robert, he used one word: Educated.

I became quick­ly engrossed in every facet of Cor­nell, except my stud­ies. I didn’t stay in touch with Ep and Chip, and I didn’t once vis­it for Shabbat.

It was a sun­ny, gor­geous, and decid­ed­ly un-Itha­ca-esque day, as we took the nine­ty-sec­ond dri­ve from Low Rise Six to the small, tidy Fogel house. Greet­ing us warm­ly at the door was Chip, a short, viva­cious woman with close-cropped dark hair and a sim­ple dress. Chip (or Chip­pie) resem­bled the arche­type of the Jew­ish grand­ma, as she beck­oned us inside for cof­fee and cake. We were seat­ed in the liv­ing room when Ep joined us. He was soft-spo­ken with white hair and kind eyes. A Russ­ian immi­grant him­self, Ep and his par­ents left Odessa for New York when he was just a tod­dler. His broth­er Robert was born eight years lat­er. Both boys were stel­lar stu­dents and, after a stint in the army, Ep joined the Cor­nell fac­ul­ty back in 1949 and helped rebuild the Eng­lish depart­ment post-war into one of the finest in the country.

I wish I could say that I had a deep and mean­ing­ful exchange with this amaz­ing man; that he gave me a sin­gle piece of advice that I car­ried with me through­out my aca­d­e­m­ic career and writ­ing life. Or that I think of him when­ev­er I hear a cer­tain word. On the reply card for my bat mitz­vah, my grand­pa wrote that he wouldn’t miss such an aus­pi­cious” occa­sion. I didn’t take any­thing aus­pi­cious” away from that day with the Fogels. Instead, I remem­ber being thrilled that it was rel­a­tive­ly quick. My par­ents were thrilled that Chip asked me to stay in touch and invit­ed me to join them for Shab­bat dinners.

I became quick­ly engrossed in every facet of Cor­nell, except my stud­ies. I didn’t stay in touch with Ep and Chip, and I didn’t once vis­it for Shab­bat. When Ep retired the fol­low­ing year, I was liv­ing in my soror­i­ty house, the only loca­tion on cam­pus clos­er than Low Rise Six to his house. Still, I didn’t reach out.

Then, lat­er in my senior year — and a whop­ping three miles away — my par­ents heard from Chip that Ep had passed away. He was 71. Ep wasn’t in par­tic­u­lar­ly good health when we had met, and, in my teenage-cen­tric uni­verse, he was an old man. I don’t remem­ber hear­ing about or cer­tain­ly not attend­ing any kind of memo­r­i­al. I’m pos­i­tive I didn’t give it much thought.

After grad­u­a­tion, I willed myself into a writ­ing career, but the next decade and a half was a blur. I start­ed adult­hood as a free­lancer in a thin-walled stu­dio, then became half of a cou­ple in a fifth-floor walk-up the size of a dog crate. Soon, we were a fam­i­ly of four in a lit­tle red house in the coun­try. I learned new words like mas­ti­tis, escrow, breast pump, sump pump. I was for­tu­nate and depleted.

As I approached my for­ties, and our two kids achieved some sem­blance of self-suf­fi­cien­cy, I start­ed ask­ing myself where I want­ed to focus my cre­ative ener­gy. My hus­band and I were rais­ing Jew­ish daugh­ters in a non-Jew­ish town in a very non-Jew­ish world that was becom­ing increas­ing­ly hos­tile to Jews. The answer was clear. I became immersed in the world of Jew­ish media. I wrote cul­ture pieces for the For­ward and served as edi­tor of an inde­pen­dent lit­er­ary Jew­ish pub­lish­er. I felt a con­nec­tion with the peo­ple I met and the sub­jects I stud­ied. I par­tic­u­lar­ly leaned into hear­ing and doc­u­ment­ing Holo­caust sto­ries and even con­sid­ered pur­su­ing a master’s in Geno­cide Stud­ies, which my daugh­ters pro­claimed to be the sin­gle most depress­ing thing they’d ever heard. I dis­agreed. We con­vert­ed our for­mal din­ing room into a library and installed a pock­et door in the mud­room which became my office.

Then, a few years ago, the Cor­nell Adult Uni­ver­si­ty pro­gram released its sum­mer course sched­ule. Teach­ing a week-long class on Mod­ern Jew­ish His­to­ry were revered his­to­ry pro­fes­sors Glenn Altschuler, a Cor­nell insti­tu­tion unto him­self, and Ross Brann. I enrolled imme­di­ate­ly and in mid-July head­ed back to North Cam­pus. This time my tem­po­rary home was a brand new, high-end set of dorms. The huge glass build­ings dwarfed Low Rise Six and ren­dered North Cam­pus unrec­og­niz­able to my mid­dle-aged eyes. My old­er daugh­ter decid­ed to join for the week with one of her dear­est friends, who, in a beau­ti­ful bit of sym­me­try, was the daugh­ter of my old Low Rise Six ketubah signer.

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, I was the youngest in the class by a sol­id three decades. This was actu­al­ly part of its appeal. In my writ­ing and per­son­al life, I am nat­u­ral­ly drawn to old­er gen­er­a­tions and have spent many hours hear­ing, record­ing, and shar­ing their sto­ries. I find their expe­ri­ences fas­ci­nat­ing. Not many oth­er peo­ple I know would pre­fer to work in an assist­ed liv­ing res­i­dence than a kinder­garten classroom.

On the first day of class, Glenn stood in front of the class­room and deliv­ered clear instruc­tions that we were not to inter­rupt with ques­tions until the end of each class — a direc­tive I end­ed up dis­obey­ing only twice, much to my end­less pride. He also laid out the cur­ricu­lum for the week ahead which includ­ed lec­tures with titles like Jews and Base­ball,” Woody Allen,” and The Immi­grant Expe­ri­ence.” I was absolute­ly enthralled.

As part of one of the post-World War II lec­tures, Pro­fes­sor Altschuler ref­er­enced a spe­cif­ic read­ing, as he often had through­out the week. It was a poem known as one of the most impor­tant, and ear­li­est, lit­er­ary respons­es to the Holocaust.

It was called Ship­ment to Maid­anek,” by Ephim Fogel.

Some­how in that moment I man­aged to adhere to Glenn’s no ques­tion rule. Ephim Fogel? My cousin Ep Fogel had writ­ten this sem­i­nal work of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture? I inter­ro­gat­ed Glenn after class, long­ing for more infor­ma­tion. And quick­ly strug­gled to piece togeth­er details from that sin­gle one-hour vis­it in 1989. Glenn had actu­al­ly been quite close with Ep and his fam­i­ly and told me how respect­ed he was by stu­dents, as well as inter­nal­ly among Cor­nell fac­ul­ty. I was floored, elat­ed, pro­found­ly moved, and more than a lit­tle wist­ful. If only a sev­en­teen ‑year-old me had known that forty ‑some­thing me would want noth­ing more than to talk to Ep about this poem, his expe­ri­ences, and his life. An entire rela­tion­ship that could have been” was imag­ined, then scut­tled in a mat­ter of moments. I had no choice. What a loss.

So, with pride, and enor­mous regret, you can find the poem Ship­ment to Maid­anek” by the late Ephim Fogel here.

Amy Oringel is a com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­sul­tant for risk advi­so­ry firm K2 Integri­ty, as well as a free­lance writer whose work has appeared in The New York TimesBusi­ness­Week, and The For­ward.