“I will never let anyone say anything bad about Jewish people. When I left Broken Bow to come to California, I had to borrow the money from Mr. Frank Yahtz, a clothier. He and Sam Adler– they were both Jewish clothiers in town, and whenever Mr. Yahtz or my daddy would run out of something at one of their stores, they’d borrow it from the other store. Mr. Yahtz loaned me the money to go to California, and when I came home and tried to pay him back, he said, ‘Your money’s no good here.'”
My grandfather first told me that story when I was 19, upon hearing that I had decided to convert to Judaism. (From Shylock and Fiddler‘s Motel to Frank Yahtz, I guess the Jews are always the moneylenders and tailors of the world.) He repeated it many, many times over the next several years, and he told me repeatedly how proud he was of my decision to enter the rabbinate. (He did, occasionally, think that that meant I was becoming “a Jewish nun,” but we can’t have everything.)
My grandfather died last night, at the age of 85. It was both expected and shocking, as these things can be, but he was ready for it in a way the rest of us never could have been.
Judaism has plenty to say about death and dying, but it has much more to say about life and living. It is my grandfather’s life on which I wish to focus, and the beautiful mark he left on the world that I wish to preserve in my memory.
My grandfather began life as “Cottontop,” so called because he was the lone blond-haired, blue-eyed son in a large family of Choctaw Native American descent. As a boy, he picked cotton under the Oklahoma sun and grabbed pigs’ hind legs to race them like wheelbarrows. His best friends were Junelle and Dibble, and he loved all his brothers but worshipped his eldest sister. When he came to California, he worked unloading produce trucks, selling suits, and doing any other job he could find. He always said that he married my grandmother for her children, and I didn’t know for many years that none of the same blood flowed through our veins. He told me that I, born a few weeks before he turned 60, was the best birthday present he’d ever received. When he retired, he couldn’t bear to be idle, so he did the landscaping in local shopping centers. He was proud of his garden, but not half so proud as he was of his family.
And when my grandmother, his “sweet wife,” died five years ago, the fight went out of my grandfather. It is a sad way to see the full force of love, but I have never seen a better testament to the power of partnership. Without his helpmate, my grandfather finally acquiesced to our insistence that he could no longer stay in the home they had shared for more than 40 years. His days devolved into television marathons and forgotten meals, and he gradually lost the ability to keep track of the settings and characters in the story of his life. He had been the youngest 70-year-old any of us had known; he became the oldest 80-year-old I’ve ever met. It is easy to read this as a sorrowful tale, but I prefer to look at it in reverse, to read into it the strength that my grandparents gave each other. I hope one day to find a love as enduring.
For longer than I can remember, I have called my grandfather every Sunday afternoon, and though I knew that he would no longer be able to answer me, I had intended to call tomorrow. The doctors had not predicted so sudden an end to this kind, patient man’s life, but he slipped the surly bonds of earth too quickly for me to be allowed one last conversation. Given that I will never have that chance, I will follow the example of my rabbi, who addresses his deceased congregants directly when officiating at their funerals. Here is what I would have said to my grandfather.
Hi, Ampaw. I know you can’t talk very well right now, but that’s okay. I’m so glad that we got to talk a few weeks ago, and I hope we’ll talk again soon. I love you so, so much, and I just want you to know how proud I am to be your granddaughter. I am just as happy in my life as you always wanted me to be, and I know you’re proud of me, too. You’ve always been on the front burner with me, and I love you a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck. I wish I could be there with you right now, but I want you to imagine getting a big kiss from me. All my friends and teachers say to tell you they hope you feel much better soon, and we’re all praying for you. I love you.
In the coming weeks and months, I’m sure that I will find comfort in the fact that my grandfather’s end was peaceful and even desired. For now, though, I am consumed by, if resigned to, my own grief, and my sense of isolation is overwhelming. It seems that I am destined to experience loss after loss this year, and though we have just left Passover behind us, I feel more in common with Job than with Moses.
Rest in peace, Ampaw. You are loved, and you are missed.