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.

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From Sidelines to Service

photo credit: Sarah Fedorchick

photo credit: Sarah Fedorchick

Veterans Day 2014 started out no differently than any other; with good intention and marginal action.

Each November 11th, I’d think about my grandfather Joe, a World War II Navy Veteran.

The thought was typically followed by an appreciative email or indebted Facebook post.  Some years I’d even make the old fashioned phone call.  Soon distracted by child rearing logistics and household priorities, I’d call it a day and opt out of making the 45 minute drive to pay a visit.

This time however, I had left Skootch’s red accordion at Joe’s house a few days before and much to the child’s dismay, had only the purple one at home.  So in an effort to temper a peppering five year old, the boys and I piled into the Outback and joined my grandfather for lunch.

Joe greeted his great-grandsons at the door, offered respective kisses, and held them on the landing.

“Did you see my American flag?” he asked.

It was no surprise and nice to see that despite having recently lost his wife of 65 years, Joe remembered to dress the pole he had raised between a patch of hedges adjacent to the front stoop to commemorate the holiday and a defining time in his life.

“Do you know how to do a soldier’s salute?”

My grandfather faced the flag, modeled the salute, and instructed the boys to pay the toll.  “Now you do it.”

Bubbe smiled shyly and gave it a go.  The Skootch puffed his chest, cupped his palm and looked at it.  Joe helped the effort along.  The group crossed the threshold and stopped in the front hall.

“Do you fly one at home?” he asked.  Joe didn’t wait for an answer.  “Here take these.”  He snatched a pair of parade flags from a collection stored in a nearby bucket.

The Skootch marched up to the second floor apartment, waving his new toy.  The parade was short lived.  Toddler sized penguins and a Santa Claus were performing center stage in the living room.  He dropped the flag.

My grandfather rescued it.  “No.  Never let it touch the ground.  Out of respect and honor, the American flag should always point toward the sky,” he explained.  “Let’s put it in a safe place.”  He tucked the base into a puffy coat curled up on a Captain’s chair.

Bubbe followed suit; partially to secure the flag but mostly to search for his great-grandpa’s Kindle Fire and Oreos in a nearby hutch.

On route to the cookies, he noticed a glass display case perched near the front of the hutch shelf.  It was filled with mounted, decorated ribbons laid out like a Holland tulip field.

“What are these?”  Bubbe wiped away the dust.

“Those are my war medals,” Joe said and went on to explain them one by one.

“American Campaign…

European, African, Middle Eastern Campaign…2 bronze stars

Asiatic, Pacific Campaign…2 bronze stars”

There were six in total.  He circled back to the top row.  “These are my dog tags.  I wore them around my neck the entire time I was away.  Do you know why soldiers wear two tags?”

“No,” Bubbe said.

“If a solider dies, one stays on the body; the other gets sent home.”

“Oh.  I get it.”

Eavesdropping from the kitchen I thought,

Will he ever really get it? 

When my children are grown, what will service, sacrifice, and country mean to them?

It is wonderful that we have a proud, willing veteran in our family to share experiences but unfortunately, I can count on one hand the number of service men and women we know.  Outside of my grandfather, Bubbe and The Skootch have had only the opportunity to interact with veterans or those in active duty during elementary and religious school programs.  And as Op-Ed columnist, Maureen Dowd recently noted, with “one percent of the population voluntarily enlisting in the service,” it is likely that in the future, my boys will be exposed more regularly to comic book heroes than to everyday ones.

Thankfully sacrifice, service, character, and citizenship are still being communicated in schools, through extra-curricular activities, at houses of worship and in our homes.  Still, teaching young people the value of contributing to the greater good feels piecemealed, fit in, and a vehicle for resume padding.

The potential for further disconnect in these formal settings seems imminent now that such lessons are being muscled from the spotlight by college, career readiness, English Language Arts requirements and STEM.  In my state, there is even a motion to de-emphasize Social Studies.

Israeli citizens get it.  Out of necessity, conscription exists for most of the country’s Jewish Israeli population.  Upon turning 18, men and women are obligated to serve in the military for three and two years, respectively.  As a result, my 65 year old friend can relate directly to the experiences of an active soldier as well as identify with the five year old who knows he will one day fill those shoes.  There, generations of citizens connect through collective responsibility and common experience.

In 2010, my husband Mac’s Letter to the Editor was published in The New York Times in response to the article, “The Way We Treat Our Troops” which in part offered support for a mandatory draft.  The guy was onto something.  He wrote:

“If the good problem arises where we have an abundance of young people in the military during peacetime, they could be deployed toward other national services like helping the elderly, the indigent and the disabled or for cleanup after national disasters, mentoring children and so on.  America is a terrific place to live; if young people gave something back and worked alongside other Americans from all walks of life, it would tie us closer together as a country.”

In February 2013, New York State Congressman Charles Rangel introduced a most recent version of the Universal National Service Act to the House of Representative’s Armed Services Committee.

The bill requires all persons between the ages of 18 and 25 living in the United States, citizen or otherwise to perform two years of national uniformed or civilian service.  Those choosing uniformed service may also be inducted during wartime, a national emergency, or a contingency operation.  This CrossFit junkie would add that prior to selecting a service type; able-bodied participants attend basic training in cohorts.  There is something to be said for intense, group exercise.  It fosters camaraderie, physical and emotional growth, and team pride.

To date, the bill has not moved in Congress.

Yes.  I realize the devil is in the details and that bigger government doesn’t necessarily translate into better outcomes.  Yes.  We do have a responsibility to teach our children in our families and community about service, sacrifice, and selfless giving.  And yes, I too wonder about the mandatory component of such a program in a free society.

Regardless, I think it is time to take meaningful action.

Perhaps a national service requirement will shift expectations for and alleviate pressure on high school students, change the way the college admissions process is managed, reduce some of the direct financial burden on families trying to pay for higher education, and offer guidance for college graduates looking to take the next step.

More importantly, perhaps it will build awareness and understanding for soldiers and veterans suffering trauma, make care and reentry a priority for when they return home, and simply bring us closer as a nation.

“Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women

in the service of our country can never be repaid.

They have earned our undying gratitude.

America will never forget their sacrifices.”

-President Harry S Truman

There is a way to repay veterans like Joe.

Poppie in the navy

Let us step away from the sideline to work in tandem with those on the front line in an effort to strengthen and preserve the solidarity of an already great nation.

Let us pay the toll.

Six ways to 65 years; Relationship Advice from a Platinum Couple

Grandparents' wedding picture

At my grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary party, my new fiancé, Mac gave an impromptu toast to the happy couple.  Fifteen years later, we never imagined we would once again be celebrating with Joe and Dot for their 65th anniversary.  Last month, we were lucky enough to do just that.

My grandparents are part of The Greatest Generation.

He, a World War II Navy veteran saw The Battle of Normandy in the Atlantic, Okinawa in the Pacific, and lost his parents and almost his own life in a tragic accident all before the age of twenty-one.  A devoted husband and well-meaning father with a strong work ethic who can fix anything, Joe greets life with a smile.  My grandfather is a youthful, spirited song and dance man, musician and opera lover who has serenaded and entertained generations of children.

She, a family and community matriarch who experienced divorce, fierce sibling rivalry, and an alcoholic, estranged father during her youth is a compassionate but no nonsense lady with strong opinions who keeps emotions close to the vest.  A church elder, domestic financier, caregiver, therapist, hostess, Frank Sinatra enthusiast and rabble rouser, Dot has raised, fed, housed, guided and knit elaborate sweaters for generations of children.

Joe and Dot are salt of the earth folk who grew up only a few miles from each other.  They met at work after the war, fell in love and married in four short months.  In their hometown, they raised three children in a modest, two-family house where they still live today.  Now in their late eighties, while the rest of us are busy reading up on which way to lean, they are quietly leaning on each other; much more now it seems than days long ago.

Grandparents 65th anniversary picture

And so with sixty-five years of couple hood under their belt, I asked my grandparents to share six pieces of relationship advice, one for each decade of marriage.  Here is what they had to say:

  1. Have your own friends, take time to socialize individually with them, and be supportive when your partner does as well.  Trust each other; jealousy is not love.
  1. Swallow your pride.  Even when you know you’re in the right; let your partner think he is the right one every now and again.
  1. Let the person who is committed to and better at saving money be in charge of the finances.  Then try and save as much as you can.
  1. Life is a bowl of cherries; some picks are sweet, others rotten.  Always try to keep a cool, level head when snacking.
  1. Sing to your child if you have one, especially as he awakes in the morning.  If singing isn’t for you, create a daily ritual; he will always remember it.  And when your child does something wrong, don’t always tell your partner.  Sometimes too many cooks in the kitchen complicate things.  Work it out one on one with your kid; he’ll remember that too.
  1. At the day’s end, take time to decompress and give your partner time to do the same.  Be thoughtful and aide the process; have a cocktail ready for her when she gets home from work.

6 ½.   Follow your heart, stand by your love, and keep promises to each other.  If you have second thoughts or believe you can’t keep your word, don’t get married.

As the eldest grandchild who lived with them until I was five and then again at twenty-two with countless visits in between and thereafter, I had a ringside seat to much of Joe and Dot’s relationship.  My take away from watching them?

Flirt, dance, sit outside, visit, celebrate, play cards, laugh, argue, reconcile.  Life is a fast and fleeting ride so keep the relationship as interesting as you collectively see fit and be sure to have a good time.

Couple hood is complicated work; everybody has their stuff and it’s not all moonlight and canoes.  But if you go by Joe and Dot, trust, compromise, balance, communication, support, love, honesty, commitment, cocktails and a song go a long way.

Gram and Pop dancing