Remembering Grandpa: Through the Window
It’s hard to believe that Grandpa is gone. Just last Saturday, my 3 year-old son Charles and I looked out the window. We saw Grandpa sitting outside, and walked over for a sunset visit. We chatted, I chased Charles around the patio, Grandpa hugged Charles, and we went back home for bedtime. It was just another typical weekend.
Then the world changed.
Friday night, I got in the car with Elizabeth and drove home from the hospital. We had come to see Grandpa, and we ended up saying goodbye forever. When I got home, Charles asked me, “Where is GG?”
I didn’t know what to tell him.
Here’s what I’d like to say to him now.
Grandpa knew how to make people feel special. When I was 10 years old, Grandpa surprised me with a visit to Philadelphia. Baseball was our favorite sport, and he came with tickets. The World Series. Yes, the Phillies lost, as they usually did. But Grandpa made it a wonderful memory.
Grandpa had a special combination: a sharp tongue, and a soft heart. You couldn’t fool Grandpa. On Friday morning, when the doctor shouted, “Gene, can you hear me?” Grandpa spoke, quietly but clearly. “No!” His humor was intact, even on his final day.
Still, this was a man who had infinite patience and love for people around him, and especially for his grandchildren. Deborah remembers that he taught her to swim, and in recent years, how she treasured her weekly “Shabbat shalom” calls with Grandpa. Corky and Nicki remember Grandpa as the man who babysat their American Girl dolls, who listened carefully as they told Grandpa and Stephanie all about the dolls’ food allergies, and who complied with their instructions to let them watch their favorite TV shows.
Grandpa knew how to lead by example. As each grandchild came of age, he set up charitable Foundations for each of us. He wanted to teach us how to give. So every birthday, he would make a gift to each Foundation, with simple instructions. Find a good cause! Just last Monday, he took Jack out to dinner, one-on-one, to talk about ways to make meaningful life choices.
More importantly, he taught us how to get involved. The summer I graduated from college, I went on a roadtrip. But it wasn’t the typical roadtrip. I went with my Grandpa. We went to Szarvash, a Hungarian camp that the JDC had created, to help kids in Eastern Europe rediscover their Judaism. Grandpa derived great joy from spending time with these children. We slept in camp barracks, we talked to kids in my broken Hebrew and their broken English, and we had a Shabbat full of ruach. Later, for his 70th birthday, he brought the entire family to Israel, to enrich our experience as a family. Jack and Lauren turned 13 that year, and Grandpa decided it was time he became a Bar Mitzvah, too. So up Masada we hiked. A torah service on top.
Grandpa was really a giant, in our family and in the world. All these personal memories were a microcosm of what Grandpa did on a big stage. At the JDC, among his many accomplishments, Grandpa ran the Trans-Migrant Program, and helped to resettle hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews. This was a 20th century Exodus, a modern-day miracle. And two weeks ago, there he was in Palm Beach, leading the family Passover seder, speeding Grandpa-style through the pages, to Next Year in Jerusalem. L’dor va dor. From one generation of Exodus to another, all linked by Grandpa.
Grandpa was my role model. I wanted to learn from him, so much so that I followed him twice. In 1995, I moved to Boston. One big plus was the chance to spend time with Grandpa, and with Grandma Corky. We celebrated family dinners, we went to Red Sox games, and we debated how to fix CJP and the world. I would show up, Grandma would give me a hug and tell me to use Rogaine, and Grandpa would ask me if I had finally found an apartment that wasn’t a four-story walk-up.
Ten years later, I finally found a ground-level apartment, when I followed Grandpa again and moved to Palm Beach. Elizabeth and I wanted to spend more time with Grandpa, and with Grandma Stephanie. So we bought the home next door, I started a business, and Elizabeth and I started a family. Nighttimes, Grandpa would sit outside and smoke a cigar, and sometimes I would walk over to join him on the patio. Grandpa never gave me unsolicited advice. But when I asked, he always had a good insight that cut to the point. Just last month, I looked out the window and saw Grandpa. He asked about my business. He told me not to hire a partner with character doubts. He even coached me on being nicer to Elizabeth.
We had a special time. Three generations, all next door. Sometimes, Charles would look out the window, point outside, and say, “Let’s go see GG!” Some of Charles’ loudest giggles came from those visits with his GG.
So what will we tell his great-grandchildren, Charles, Mia and Noah? Where is GG? I would say this: that GG is everywhere. In his love and commitment to the Jewish people, and to humanity, GG’s values are forever imprinted in us. GG was someone who always knew what mattered most. Someone who made you feel special. Someone who listened like you were the only person in the world. Someone who was full of suggestions, but who only told you when you asked. Someone who was brimming with love. Someone with a great legacy for all of his 10 grandchildren and great-grandchildren to continue.
That dreary Friday in the hospital, I held Grandpa’s hand. After he passed, I said “We’ll miss you, Grandpa. We’ll make you proud, Grandpa.” We will.