My Brush with Greatness

Me and Pop 2015

Grand Magazine

My grandfather remained in his living room’s Lazy Boy beside my grandmother asleep in a hospice bed where her twin recliner once stood until she took her final breaths.  They shared the space for sixty-five years and would not have had it any other way.

A few hours before my grandmother died, I talked with my grandfather for what felt like the first time.

With poor hearing and an often fiery spirit, I spent most of my forty plus years watching Pop share his World War II experience and debate about the political climate of the day from a distance.

Yes, we connected over old movies, late night cheese and crackers, Sunday afternoon football and his enthusiasm for teaching me about gadgets, opera and gymnastics but I did most of the listening.  Any of my thoughts were voiced through my grandmother.  She didn’t require me to repeat or clarify, knew how best to communicate with her husband, and preferred to be in charge.  The arrangement seemed to work best for everyone.

Sadly my grandmother was now unconscious; breathing aided by machine, pain numbed with morphine.  And although I was convinced she could hear us, it was clear my buffer was gone.

There Pop sat.  Face heavy: heartbroken, devastated and confused.

“The world is different today.  There is no goodness left,” he said.

I held his hand.  “No.  That’s not true.  There will always be violence, war, corrupt governments, and terrible decisions but most people are decent and good.”  I pointed to my resting grandmother.  “Like her.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

The family, who had gone outside for air, made their way back into the apartment.  Late into the evening as I said my goodbyes Pop looked up from his chair.  “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“No, really.  Thank you.  Stay how you are.  She would have wanted it that way.”

The moment redefined our relationship and revealed the essence of my grandfather.

It has been one year since my grandmother’s death.  I relied on her to shape my experience with my grandfather and I assumed Pop leaned on her in the same way.  Alone, I was sure his flame would extinguish.

Instead, he got up every morning and made himself coffee and eggs.  He learned how to launder his clothes, vacuumed the floor, stopped drinking wine and scotch for fear of losing his balance, and eventually opened the curtains in the bedroom.  Pop spoke openly about his grief and need to work through it on his own terms.

He accepted an invitation to a Veterans’ lunch at his grandson’s middle school and found himself unexpectedly and for the first time recounting his World War II experience aboard a ship that fought in the Battle of Normandy and Okinawa to a classroom of tweens.  When a student asked, What were you afraid of the most? Pop’s eyes filled with tears as he shared with these young people what it was like for an 18 year old boy to witness death.

He sent me an email after Bubbe left for sleep away camp to see how I was coping with the separation.  He stressed the importance of letting our children go and commended me for giving him a chance to spread his wings.  “Let your boys have their space to play, but always watch,” he advised.  “Just don’t let them know you’re doing it.”

He questioned the owner of my CrossFit affiliate as to why we do tribute workouts to honor fallen soldiers from recent wars.

“You honor one guy?” Pop asked.

“One at a time.  It’s a way for the CrossFit community to remember the ultimate sacrifice they made,” the owner explained.

“And you don’t know them?”

“No.  Not personally.”

Pop furrowed his brow and stared at the group photograph gym members took after one of the Hero WODs.  It was as if he was recalling the 400,000 American soldiers who died during the war in which he fought, remembering the 2,500 soldiers who lost their lives in one day on Omaha beach where his ship was offshore, adding up the 5,000 Americans who were killed at sea during the battle of Okinawa, and thinking about friends who saw combat but never came home.

“Okay.  But a lot of guys died.”

He stocked his refrigerator with ice cream and chocolate sauce so he was always prepared to build sundaes with Skootch, crouched on the carpet and shot marbles with Bubbe, and devoured the cannoli I brought him on Grandparents Day because according to him they help people “live to be one hundred.”

At the end of each visit he said, “Be happy.”

Perseverance.  Sacrifice.  Honesty.  Humility.  Empathy.  Patriotism.  Simplicity.  Optimism.

Greatness.

Pop embodies the mindset of his generation, The Greatest Generation; a group of ordinary men and women who survived the unimaginable.

These folks were staples of my childhood and young adulthood.  When I am with my grandfather in the quiet of his apartment today and am flooded by memories of afternoon stoop parties, Saturday night card games, Sunday dinners, holiday gatherings and family celebrations, it becomes quite apparent his generation is almost gone.

Pop strolled over during Skootch’s recent birthday as I pressed the candles into the cake.  “How are you all grown up?” he asked.  “You were only a toddler not long ago.  It went by so fast.”

My laugh lines smiled back at his and I thought, He’s right; now it’s my turn.

I only hope I do him proud.

In the meantime, I plan to relish in grandfather’s greatness for as long as God wills.  He has a lot more to give and I have much to gain.

One, Lucky Granddaughter

Gram and me as a baby

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Two weeks ago, I lost my grandmother to cancer.  The disease engulfed Dot’s body almost as quickly as she learned the diagnosis.

When the doctors assured she still had a few weeks, I returned home, gathered my notebook, and made big plans to capture my grandmother’s talkative mood.

My mind raced with possibility; perhaps, as Jewish tradition teaches, Dot could fulfill the 613th mitzvah and write a Torah, a personal 10 commandments thus sealing her life scroll or perhaps, as a member of her church’s quilting guild she could share patch ideas for a memory quilt.

But by the time I got back to my grandmother’s bedside, she was already in a final sleep.  Weeks whittled to hours.  Before sunrise, she was gone.

Dot’s death was beautiful; swift, pain free, and at home surrounded by loved ones.  Her last days, passing, and funeral were a fluid waltz.  Everything fell into place as if she was the choreographer.

Without her words, I stretched my accordion memory file in search of tucked away treasures.  Two stepped forward; Sweet 16 and Oh Definitely.

Each birthday, my grandmother would caw over her candles, “I’m sweet sixteen and never been kissed.”  Sixteen was her forever age; the age at which she liked to see herself.

Pic of Gram sweet 16

Any time Dot emphatically agreed with a point, she broke her silence with a high pitched, “Oh, definitely!”

More memories began to surface.  My notebook soon filled to form Dot’s Sweet 16 of Definite-lys.

Definitely…

1.     Listen for understanding.  When conversing with others, don’t uh-huh, right, or yes them.  Take it all in.  Dot was everyone’s ear; mine included.

2.     Visit the sick.  My grandmother was not afraid to go into the fray.  She recognized that one’s comfort was more important than personal or situational anxiety.  The key to helping those failing feel alive, she recently told me, was to talk about old times.  Present day connections are less meaningful to a lost mind.

3.     Create a warm and inviting home.  Dot raised three daughters on the second floor of a modest, two-family house.  Even as the family grew, her apartment was the place to be; men congregated in the living room, ladies packed around the dining table.  A full home filled my grandmother’s heart.

4.     Keep an open door policy.  Dot always left an empty plate on the table.  Crowds of cousins, neighbors, and friends traipsed through the door in search of company and my grandmother’s eggplant parm, kielbasa, spareribs, and peanut brittle.  No appointment needed.  Guests knew when Dot’s Westminster doorbell chimed, she would welcome them.

5.     Talk to everyone and do it with respect and genuine interest.  My grandmother was well versed in the art of chit-chatting and boy, could she work a room.  From store clerks to politicians, children to commuters, she never categorized or judged.  In recent years, however, she became increasingly disillusioned with technology.  “No one stops to talk anymore,” she said.  It made her sad.

6.     Be a good time Charlie.  Cut a rug, laugh, quip, banter, sing.  Dot loved to tell tales of old boyfriends and reminisce about her young and single watering hole shenanigans.

Gram in curlers

7.     Send cards.  I’m convinced Dot single-handedly bankrolled Hallmark.  My grandmother sent a card to every grandchild, great-grandchild, in-law, daughter and cousin regardless of age for every birthday and holiday, Jewish, Christian, secular or otherwise.  Enclosed was always a personal check and for the little ones, an additional side of cash.  Relatives can’t help but smile when they talk about Dot’s cards.

8.     Watch your television stories, but limit the news; it is depressing and redundant.  When my grandmother told Mac she had to check into a quiet hospital room to escape Fox News, ISIS, and Ebola, he couldn’t help but laugh.

9.     Take advantage of an opportunity but own up to its responsibility.  My grandmother didn’t get her driver’s license until she was a mother of three in her thirties.  She loved to drive.  With a dashboard pat for luck and a tank that never fell below the half way mark, Dot was always on the go.  As her housemate until age five, I don’t remember ever being home before supper.  But when her eyes weakened a dozen years ago, she didn’t hesitate and returned the keys.

10.   Forge ahead.  My grandmother’s limited eyesight was exacerbated by arthritic knees, a temperamental heart, weekly doctor visits, and piles of medication.  Not once did she complain.

11.   Volunteer in your community, house of worship, schools or wherever floats your boat.  My grandmother’s obituary noted her occupation as Homemaker.  More so, she was a chauffeur, troop leader, lunchroom aide, caregiver, church elder, and neighborhood sentinel.  You name it, she did it because for her, the making of homes took a vested village.

12.    Say “I love you.”  Dot had a hard time doing this; showing love was easier.  The last time my grandmother heard me say I love you, she still flicked her wrist and squawked, “I know, I know,” trying desperately to fight the tears.

13.    Avoid self pity.  Dot was a Depression kid from a broken home who left school in the 10th grade.  These experiences never stopped her from embracing life.

14.    Communicate.  My grandmother didn’t speak to her sister for thirty years and regretted the lost time.  “Put all the cards on the table now,” she advised.  “Grudges are worthless.  Life is too short.”

15.    Keep the faith.  Dot had an unwavering commitment to prayer and church; attending and sharing a pew with the same senior ladies each Sunday, often offering the young ministers words of kindness and encouragement.  She held fast to what spoke to her in this universe and at the end, wasn’t afraid to let go.

16.    Love well.  During my grandmother’s final hours, her apartment was filled with family giving to her and my grandfather what she had always given to us: attention, care, support, strength, and comfort.  At her funeral, it was no surprise to hear that strangers approached my grandfather saying, “You don’t know me, but I knew Dot.  She was a special lady.”  My grandmother left an imprint on the hearts of many because above all things, she valued love.

Three days before Dot’s death, The Skootch said goodbye to his great-grandmother.

He stood at the base of the hospice bed and said, “I love you, G.G.”

“You do?” she replied.

“I will miss you when God comes.”

God came; all too soon and all too suddenly it seems and I miss her.

People speak of rocks; Dot was mine.  My grandmother was an exceptional lady who, during the era of her teenage crush, Frank Sinatra but long before Derek Jeter did things her way.

This way, her spirit, and legacy fill me today and always.

I am one, lucky granddaughter.

Most definitely.

Gram and me wedding picture