February 10, 2008

The Undiscover'd Country

I've been quiet the past two weeks as my family faced the illness and passing of my grandfather. I was fortunate in my life in that while I only had 3 living grandparents when I was born, those three remained a big part of my life until well into my thirties.

So much of what I've learned about how a family works when it's working, I've learned from how mine deals with hardship. Friends and family flew in from across the country and across the world this week to celebrate the life of Lester and comfort my grandmother, dropping everything because that's what you do, period. And not because we have to, but because we genuinely want to be there during times of need.

I thought of writing a blog about my grandfather, but decided instead to post my eulogy for him, read at his memorial this afternoon. If you hadn't met him, you couldn't possibly get a sense of his spirit through a measly blog post, but I wanted to offer up something for those of you who had met him.


Standing in the kitchen of the restored old apartment, the tour guide directed our attention to various aspects of early 20th century city living. She described the icebox, and how that impacted food preparation, she talked about ventilation, and the meager windows, and how the people lived in the years before electricity was run throughout the lower east side tenement buildings. And she pointed out a device high above us on the kitchen wall. “It’s for the gas,” she told us. “You’d pay as you used it, and every week or so, someone would have to climb up there and put in another coin for more.” Grampa leaned over to me conspiratorially at that point, and whispered in my ear – “that was my job…”

It was hard for me to imagine a young Lester, as to me, he was always Grampa; silver haired, tender, an easy laugh and mischievous twinkle in his eye. A toast to the family on the high holidays, the head of the table. A gentle giant of quiet dignity, this man who never learned to drive, yet who during the war taught air force pilots to navigate by the stars, and then later pointed them out to his young grandson.

Last October a friend of mine from California was visiting, and we planned to spend the weekend enjoying New York City. “Only one thing” I told her. “I promised my grandparents I’d come up and help them out for a bit on Sunday.” I didn’t want to presume that on her vacation my friend should spend her time visiting my grandparents, so I suggested I drop her somewhere, or otherwise leave her be while I ran my errand. But she insisted she wanted to come along, and the next thing I know, Tina and I are in the Bronx helping with some chores around the apartment, chatting with Martha and Lester, and before too long, of course making jokes at my expense. It was 90 minutes or so later when she and I were back in my car, that Tina told me she had wanted to accompany me because she had grown up without any living grandparents. “But that’s exactly how I always imagined it would be” she said.

Many of us here had the opportunity to praise, and roast, Lester last summer at his 90th birthday party, and even the complaints were affectionate. Seymour pointed out that Lester had an unpleasant habit of pointing out when Seymour was making up his facts, and I remember mentioning how despite his difficult time navigating the world in his old age, we never heard Lester complain. At that Martha guffawed, but I stand by my statement – if he had complaints, the rest of us never heard them. Like his enduring love for his wife, his complaints too were a special gift he shared with her alone.

The years weren’t kind to his ears unfortunately. It was a tragic irony that this man who so loved telling stories so rarely got to hear them, though he never gave up trying. While driving my grandparents to Sedona in 2000 for Heather and Shayne’s wedding, as we raced down the highway, from the backseat Martha was commenting on how lovely the desert was. At one point, she drew our attention to an oddly-shaped cactus as we drove by at 75 miles an hour. “Ohh, look at that cactus” she exclaimed. “Say again?” Lester asked, not having heard her. “The cactus” she repeated. “Wha?”“The cactus, Les” grandma replied. “One more time” pleaded Lester. “The CACTUS” Martha yelled. A confused look crossed his face. “What cactus?” was his baffled reply, looking out at the barren desert not realizing that the object of our attentions had long since receded into the distance.

Lester passed away after a brief illness; just two weeks before his death he was climbing into a helicopter with Shayne and I for yet another adventure, which only his height – and as we later found out, pneumonia - forestalled. Until then he was healthy, lucid, living at home with a wife of sixty four years who adored him, with children, grandchildren, and a circle of friends and neighbors who cherished his wisdom, intelligence, and most importantly, his company. Save for the unrealistic and short-sighted wish that no one ever have to die, that’s the way to do it, no? 90, active, happy, and satisfied; a life well-lived.

As I was posting the announcement of Lester’s passing in his building earlier this week, a young Latino man entered the elevator. Reading my notice, he grew visibly upset. “Aw, man, Lester’s gone?” he cried. This guy, who was easily 60 years Lester’s junior and someone whom I would have assumed was an unlikely fan, then turned to me and said “Damn. He was cool.”

I’ll think of my grandfather often throughout the rest of my life, and when I do I’ll recall a man of wit, gentle grace, and deep love; but most of all, I’ll remember that first and foremost, Lester was cool.


At 10:21 AM, Blogger Mari said...

Dan, what a lovely eulogy! And what a fine man your granddad must have been!

You were gifted with over 30 years of having this wonderful man as a mentor and a model of how to live and how to love.

The greatest memorial to him would be if you could make some part of his life-wisdom yours.

At 9:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful, Dan. You captured a portrait of a vital and affecting man.

At 1:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That was beautiful. Thank you for sharing. And I am so sorry for your loss.

At 3:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry for your loss. Your grandfather sounds wonderful, and it's clear how much he meant to you. I'm sure he knew that, too. Blessings to you and your family.


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