Dear Michael and Caroline,
He’d gone to college in the 1920s, Baruch at CUNY on East 23rd Street, the first in his family to reach higher education, and then he got married in 1927, and soon the Great Depression hit, and he went around to businesses in the Bronx – dry cleaners, auto-repair shops, anything – offering to do the books.
He’d eventually done well, well enough to drive a Cadillac, belong to a country club in Westchester, travel to Europe and Asia with friends.
But he always wanted to do better and seemed occasionally disappointed in himself. One time he told me about a residential property he bought along with some partners in the 1950s. As it happens, it was the very apartment complex in Fair Lawn where my mother now lives.
“I sold it too soon,” he said. “I wanted fast money. If I had held onto it longer, I would be a millionaire now.”
So that’s how it went with my Poppa. He shared himself with me, his dreams, his life, his love. He gave me a glimpse of how a man should act, at the office, on the golf course, at home.
He also showed me, without ever saying as much, how much life could hurt you, how your wife could annoy you, how a client could cheat you. He took me to a deli for dinner once, and after we ate he lacked exact change at the cash register. “I’ll owe you the penny,” he said, but the cashier refused, and my grandfather, scowling, said, “I’ll remember that.”
He usually wore a frown, the result of a mouth that naturally turned down at the sides. He had a jaw like a bulldog – see our photos of him – and a chest thicker with hair than any you ever saw, and he could whack a golf ball 200 yards, and talked in a deep, gruff voice, and now he was dying of lung cancer and I’d never lost anyone I loved before.
One night I saw the frown erased from his face. My Uncle Leonard held a 65th birthday party for him, and my grandfather had more than a few drinks. His face grew red from all the scotch, and he laughed more than I ever saw him laugh and, surrounded mostly by friends but also family, he broke into song, “The Man On The Flying Trapeze.” The only lyric I caught was, “He flies through the air with his balls hanging bare.”
It had to be the happiest I ever saw him, and it made me happy to see him so happy, even if he had to get drunk to get there.
Weeks before he went into Mount Sinai, I visited him at home. The doctors had already diagnosed his cancer and I had no idea what would happen or how bad it might be.
“So did you hear about the Mets today?” I asked.
We had always talked baseball, he and I, which teams won and who hit a home run.
“Ah,” he said, and waved his hand dismissively, a clearcut signal of resignation, maybe even disgust. It was then that I knew he might be far gone. If he had given up on baseball, he had given up on living.
And now a nurse came into his hospital room to say he had to go for tests and my grandfather said why more tests. He rolled over onto a gurney as instructed and the nurse wheeled him into an elevator and I went with him.
My grandfather – whose father was an illiterate peasant but who himself had sent his son to Yale Law school and bought his daughter a $21,000 house in 1954 and who could whack a golf ball 200 yards – then let out a wail, a wail keening and high-pitched and piercing, wailing his guts out, raging against the dying of the light. He could see the end coming now, just as I had when he stopped caring about baseball. I’ll never forget how that wail sounded, and I never should.
And after he died, weeks or months later, I wrote him a poem, called “Letter to Poppa,” imagining a conversation with him in heaven. And now he lives on in my heart, and in my son, who carries his name, “Benjamin.”
Nobody we remember with love ever really dies.