“I never thought I’d live this long,” my grandfather told me as we sat in his little Brooklyn backyard with the purple irises and old pear tree. My Papa was approaching 90 years and he just couldn’t believe it. My grandmother had died and so had all his friends. How could we know that he would soon develop dementia, as my grandmother did, yet still live another few years?
We loved spending time together, often walking to the nearby park. We also would ride our bikes, play handball, find pennies and other treasures, tell stories, make jokes, and be silly. He often reminded us to stand up straight: heels together, shoulders back.
He loved to walk and he also loved to take a break from walking, so we would sit on a bench, wherever we could find one. And we would sit, talk, then not talk, then kibitz about people going by and other goings-on, and all of it was so easy and comfortable. Just being together was enough.
Being a social person, Papa would often speak to strangers. Hearing some guy who wanted to do something — almost regardless of whether Papa thought it was a good idea or not — he would typically respond: “You’re your own boss!” As long as people weren’t bothering anyone else, it was fine with him. In fact, he thought people’s differences “make life interesting.”
When we weren’t together, we were pen pals, writing postcards and letters to each other frequently.
Marching to his own drummer and not one for small talk, Papa always got right to the point, whatever that happened to be for him at the moment. Reminiscing about old memories — whether jobs or girlfriends — Papa let me know that most were “gathering dust,” while a few were “still running marathons in my mind.”
Largely self-educated — he earned his high school equivalency degree — he realized that “Time & tide waits for no man — the clock does not stop ticking for young and old dudes,” adding that “my advice is simple, but may be hard to follow — just don’t worry.” Of course, “Fault finders will find faults,” he wrote, advising me that “You’ll meet some people that are nice — also some crushers,” his term for annoying people. “That’s life. You gotta cope Dan.” Abi gezint, he would often say in Yiddish, as long as you’re healthy.
Recommending his “replacement therapy,” he suggested finding the good, because “The human mind is not capable of thinking of two activities at the same time,” so when we enjoy the good, we don’t worry about anything else. Especially for his family, but also for everyone else, Papa believed that “Whatever happens, it should only be good.”
But it wouldn’t always be good, sometimes due to bad luck, other people, and ourselves. After criticizing someone else for breaking their promise to him, he turned the criticism on himself, philosophizing that “We are all victims & villains of broken promises.”
Papa would often remind me that nothing is forever, though we subsequently agreed that love is forever. And as Papa signed off on one of his letters — differently and often humorously most times — “love unlimited.” And with his love, he always had faith in me, and was “semper fidelis,” a great gift that keeps on giving.
Papa died twenty years ago — on June 30, 2001, exactly eleven years after my grandmother — but they are far from gone. As long as we remember someone, they are still with us. Socially, biologically, emotionally, cognitively, and otherwise, my grandparents are inextricably part of me and always will be. Love is forever!
Dan Brook grew up the proud grandson of Samuel Weiss in Brooklyn, New York and now teaches sociology at San Jose State University in California.