I was very lucky to grow up with my great-grandfather. He passed away when I was in high school, which seemed completely tragic at the time. Now I know what an incredible gift it is that I had 16 long years to get to know him and grow close to him.
Since my grandparents were quite young when I was born (just in their early forties!), he was the one who felt like a traditional grandparent to me. He was old and frail and fell asleep anywhere he was sitting if you left him for more than a few minutes. And he was a wonderful grandfather. He would play with me on the floor and follow all of my directions. We used to race down the hall to the elevator to see who got to push the button first. And he would parade me around his retirement center pool and tell everyone I was his great-granddaughter.
He was no saint, mind you. He was a gambler, and not a very good one. He was a drinker. He shunned his gay son. But as a grandfather, he was incredible. He was gentle and loving and patient. And he would tell me stories. He could talk about stories from his life for hours on end. I would listen to tell me about being the 12th of 13 children at the turn of the century – how he grew up playing with his nieces and nephews (some of them were older than him!). And he talked about coming to America because his siblings told him, “The streets are paved with gold!” He took them quite seriously and was very disappointed to find out how much garbage was on the ground here.
The one subject my grandfather could speak about endlessly was his wife, Rae.
The one subject my grandfather could speak about endlessly was his wife, Rae. He would tell me how beautiful she was, “The prettiest girl that worked at the factory.” I loved his stories about picking her up on his “motorbike” and all the girls were wild with jealousy. He spoke about her like she was an angel and a princess and a movie star and a saint all in one. There was no end to his description of how much he loved her.
Grandma Rae passed away when I was two years old, so I have no memory of her. As I became a teenager, I began to realize that Grandpa was the only one who told stories like that about her. My dad and his brothers told stories about how Grandma would steal things from restaurants like sugar and silverware. She would open her purse and just stick things in.
My mother loves to tell the story that when she and my dad were first married, they would go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for Sunday night dinner. At the end of dinner, Grandma would bring out dessert, which were stale old cookies she had stuffed in her purse from the Shabbat oneg (reception after Sabbath services). She was famous for lining her purse with napkins and filling it with treats from the synagogue tables.
Everyone in the family loves to tell the stories of Grandma passing out everywhere they went. She was diabetic most of her life but absolutely refused to eat any differently than others around her. So, she would have diabetic episodes and pass out at the dinner table. She was stubborn as a horse, I was told.
And as for her beauty… My grandfather spoke about her like she was an angel put on this earth, the most beautiful person he had ever laid eyes on. I’ve heard endless wonderings about that from my family. We look at the old photographs and just don’t see it. But what I seemed to always understand, even at a very young age, is that it didn’t matter that the rest of us didn’t see her as a great beauty. It didn’t matter that anyone in the whole world saw her that way. Because he saw her that way. To him she was the most beautiful person to walk the earth. Isn’t that how all husbands should see their wives?
My great-grandfather loved his wife as much as any person who loved another person.
My great-grandfather loved his wife as much as any person who loved another person. Years after he passed away, I asked my grandmother (his daughter) about what her childhood was like. One of the things she remembers clearly is how much her father would do for her mother. She remembers him saying things to her like, “Let’s clean up, now. We wouldn’t want your mother to have to do that.” In an era of clearly-defined gender roles, men worked and women took care of homes, my great-grandfather would go out of his way to take care of all kinds of home responsibilities for his wife because he wanted things to be just a little easier for her.
I’ve heard murmurs among some family members, wondering if my great-grandmother loved her husband as much as he loved her. I’ve heard the murmurs of how blind he was about her. I have no idea what the answer is because I never got to know them as a couple. I only heard about his memories, which were deeply colored with extra rosiness after she passed away.
Today, when I look at my own marriage, I wonder how these stories influenced my life. Sometimes I wonder… did he subtly prepare me for a great love? Maybe these stories, whether or not they were accurate, painted a picture for me of what was possible. A husband who paid no attention to societal pressures of “manhood.” A relationship that blinded itself to all the other beauties in the world and fell deeply in love with just each other.
It’s impossible to know, of course, which stories from your childhood influence who you become. But I do wonder. Their story was my one great example of a lasting and beautiful love. Most of the other adults in my childhood were either divorced or on their way to divorce. But I remained extremely positive about the possibility of love and marriage.
When they look at their parents, do they know they’re growing up in an epic love story?
And what does that mean for my children? When they look at their parents, do they know they’re growing up in an epic love story? I remember once when my daughter’s friend “caught” us kissing and said to my daughter, “Look at your parents!” And my daughter, just four years old, rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, they always do that.”
I suppose it’s my responsibility now to tell these stories. I will have to tell them about how their great-great-grandparents were the models of love and relationship. I will need to tell them how magical my relationship is with their father. I will need to wear the rosiest-colored lenses when I tell these stories. I will make them believe that this kind of love is more than possible; it’s waiting for them just down the road.
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