Once upon a time, in July of 1926, a little baby boy came into this world. He was born to Jewish, Eastern European immigrants. They were hard working people who had fled persecution and, like so many others, were seeking a better life. This little boy had five other siblings—three brothers and two sisters. Mostly, they got along, but like many siblings do, they fought as well. Their father was a proud American. He left his wife in Europe and promised that when he had enough money, he would bring her too. A man of his word, he worked at a factory restoring burlap storage bags at a salary of $1 a day, for six days a week. After one year of work, the man sent his wife a ticket to America. This was the last boat out before World War I.
As the little boy grew up, he did what many little boys do—he rode his bike, played checkers and loved to buy a bag of candy for a nickel at the sweet shop. When he was big enough, the little boy would help his father and brothers in their backyard business. While the boys and girls worked, their mother washed and cleaned and cooked and sang as she went about her tasks. A woman with sight impairment, the mother wouldn’t always know when the food was ready and so sometimes the children ate meals that were slightly overcooked. To this day, the boy who was once little doesn’t mind eating burnt food. It reminds him of his mother.
The little boy lived in a small house. He shared a room and a bed with a brother or two. While the family wasn’t poor, they were frugal and the little boy and his siblings learned to live simply. They were happy and that’s what mattered. The little boy was extra sensitive. He didn’t like to hurt others and preferred to keep his pain to himself rather than be a burden. His mother had difficulties with the English language. She spoke in Yiddish as her children answered in English. The little boy saw that, linguistically, his mother was struggling and so to make her happy, he conversed with his mother in Yiddish.
The grandson today remarkably resembles the little boy of so many years ago and so the little boy kept looking and after a while turned and said, “That’s me.”
The little boy kept growing. He attended college, studied economics and political science. He was the president of the Hillel at the University of Minnesota. He earned his diploma in 1945 just as World War II was ending. At that time, there was a mandatory draft in the United States but the little boy was exempted because of he had flat feet. Yet if he had been able to, he would have proudly served his country.
The little boy went to work for his father in their family business. All the brothers and sisters still worked together. The little boy wanted to get married but it took him awhile to find the right one. He was a red head and on the shorter side and the Jewish girls liked tall and dark. He was handsome, though, and finally he was introduced to the woman he fell in love with. They say it was because she offered to visit his mother who was ill on one of their dates.
Four girls were born to the little boy and his wife. He continued to work hard and lived the American dream. While they seldom vacationed, he took his daughters on Sunday outings—to the lake, for ice cream or just somewhere fun. The little boy was a family man and did all he could to give his children a good life. They’ll all say that he is the world’s best Dad.
The little boy’s children had children of their own. His grandchildren became his life and the best gift you could ever give him was a picture of one of them. Although he sometimes mixed up their names, the little boy knew in his heart who each one was. He knew their unique qualities, their talents and their worries, and they were equally special.
The little boy got old. He stopped driving and it became harder to hear and sometimes people left him out of conversations. His knees began to hurt and he grew tired more frequently. People asked if he was OK. He didn’t say so, because he never did, but he probably wasn’t always feeling OK.
And then, the little boy saw a picture of one his grandsons. He looked at it closely and tried to decipher the face. The fast rate of the passing years and the intersection of the generations made it difficult to know with certainty who the person in the picture was. The grandson today remarkably resembles the little boy of so many years ago and so the little boy kept looking and after a while turned and said, “That’s me.”
This is the story of my grandfather and the story of so many other little boys and girls who become old. As we age, our bodies begin to slow down. Some of our brains remain sharp, some of them don’t, but all of them begin to become a little bit fuzzy.
Zeidy remembers the important things: He recalls, with sharp clarity, the Jewish North Side of Minneapolis and he can tell you on which street a particular synagogue was located, where the Kosher butcher was and he knows the route from Lake Calhoun to Lake Harriet way better than I do. He reminisces about his sisters and brothers and life with his parents and he knows that when I was born, he flew to New York to meet his first grandchild.
Maybe sometimes it’s difficult for Zeidy to remember: Maybe it’s hard for him to keep track of names and where in the world all his grandchildren are located and what they are doing in life. And maybe he doesn’t want to be asked if he remembers just to reassure us that he does.
But maybe when he sees one of his red-headed grandchildren being kind, working hard, caring about their families, eating their mother’s food (even if it’s burnt) he’ll recognize them in his heart, look into their eyes and say, “That’s me.”
Post Script: The little boy had a dream to be in attendance at the weddings of his grandchildren. I always prayed that dream would come true. My wedding was the first of eleven at which my Zeidy, G-d willing, will attend.