In my (off-blog) recounting of my trip to the USA in February, I told you about a bittersweet encounter with my paternal grandfather, who I call Zadie (Yiddish for “Grandpa”). He died yesterday morning in his nursing home at the age of 90, and I want to tell you some more about him.
His name was Alvin (Al) Shames–Avraham ben Yacov Yitzchak v’Dina. He was born in Denver, Colorado, the only boy among three sisters. He didn’t tell me much about his childhood, but I know that his mother died when he was eight, and his father was away a lot, so he was basically raised by his two older sisters. Zadie’s family was traditionally Jewish, if not very observant.
He studied engineering at the Colorado School of Mines not far from Denver, and got his Master’s at Penn State. My Bubbie tells that her mother had a cousin living in Denver who was sick, and though my Bubbie’s family was very poor, her mother sent money to support this cousin. The cousin said that one day she would repay my great-grandmother’s kindness. Years later, when she had regained her health, she saw a young neighbor–Al Shames–waiting at the bus stop and asked him where he was going. He told her he was moving to Columbus to start his first job at Battelle Institute, and the cousin said, “Oh, I have family there!” (Just in case you thought “Jewish geography” is only a recent popular sport. 😉 ) She gave Zadie the contact information for Bubbie’s family, and when he arrived in Columbus, he gave them a call. Bubbie is the one who answered the phone and invited him to drop by.
I am blessed to be the granddaughter of two sets of couples whose lifelong romance is the stuff of legend. They celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary this June.
They look awfully serious in that photo, but they were a hilarious couple. He teased her constantly. (If you ever wondered where I got my mischievous streak…) On one occasion when they were still dating, he disappeared for a while, and when he finally showed up again my Bubbie asked where he’d been; he told her he’d been in jail, and she believed him! Another time, after they were dating for a while and it was clear where things were going, he took her out to go dancing, and on the way to the bus stop, he told her that he had a gift for her. He took out a jewelry box… and inside it was a watch. She thanked him and put it on, and they kept walking. A few minutes later, he said, “I have something else for you…” and handed her an engagement ring.
(Might I note that Eitan also used a decoy–a box of chocolates–to throw me off when he proposed to me?! Those tricky Denver boys! One of the things I liked about Eitan when I first met him was how much he reminded me of Zadie.)
Bubbie and Zadie raised four children–a girl and three boys, of whom my father is the second-to-youngest–in Columbus, surrounded by cousins, uncles, and aunts. They always dreamed of moving to Israel, and when my dad was 9 or 10, they got on a boat and sailed across the sea to live in Hertzliya. Unfortunately, life here was very hard on them, especially the distance from family, and after three years, they returned to Columbus. In the time they were here, however, Zadie was an engineer for the Israel Aircraft Industries and was involved in the development of the Kfir.
When my dad was a teenager, Bubbie and Zadie decided to send him to a religious Jewish high school in Cleveland. I recently found a letter Zadie wrote to him during that time tucked among old photographs. He wrote that it was very hard for him to send my dad away to a boarding school at such a young age, but that he was confident that it was the only way my dad would have a good Jewish education. My dad’s experience at the school was difficult socially, but he did absorb a great deal of knowledge and fondness for Judaism, and became religious, starting to observe kashrut and Shabbat strictly. Bubbie and Zadie followed his example and started observing kashrut and Shabbat, too.
Right after my dad graduated high school, they moved to Long Island, New York. My dad went off to medical school at Boston University, where my parents met, married, and had my older sister. Then they moved down to Long Island for my dad’s residency–and that’s where I was born.
Zadie nicknamed me “Different Kid”. He said at the time that it’s because I was so different from my sister; she was outspoken, full of energy, and in charge, while I was quiet, pensive, and shy. My family moved to Pittsburgh when I was still a toddler, so I have no memories of living in New York; but my dad says hardly a month or two would go by without one of us making the 8-hour drive (!) to visit the other. My earliest memories of Passover Seders are from their dining room, the table set with Bubbie’s fine china, Zadie leading the Seder in his white kittel, humming over his matzah ball soup. (He always hummed while he ate, and usually started off with “B’teyavon, gvirti!“–“Bon appetit, my lady!” in Hebrew–to my Bubbie.)
They missed Israel dearly and visited it all the time, especially after we made aliyah. Zadie loved everything about Israel: the people, the language, the food, the sunshine, and of course, the sense of being at home.
He would take great delight in visiting the shuk, the open-air market in Rehovot or Jerusalem, sampling succulent summer fruits and Middle Eastern pastries.
I’m pretty sure he was the one who first made an acquaintance with Gloria Mound of Casa Shalom (who, as I’m sure you recall, passed away herself earlier this year). I believe he took an interest in crypto-Judaism and conversos even before I did.
He was an honored and well-loved member of his community in Long Island, serving for a while as president of the local synagogue. I have vivid memories of that synagogue–the scent of his cologne lingering in the wool of his tallit, mingling with the smell of wood varnish from the benches and old leatherbound books. He and Bubbie were also very active in Jewish and Israeli philanthropic organizations like the UJA, Hadassah, Yad Sara and Yad L’Kashish, contributing and volunteering. Judaism, the Jewish people, and the land of Israel were deeply, deeply important to him.
He began to suffer from dementia and other health issues several years ago, and was in a slow decline from that point forward. He and Bubbie had to move to Florida to an assisted care facility close to where my uncles live, and last year he was moved to a nursing home. The separation was very hard on my Bubbie. They’d been living together for almost 65 years.
The last two times I visited him he was not very verbal, and I was told he might not remember me. But when I walked in the room two years ago, he positively lit up and said, “It’s you!”
I wrote this poem shortly after my last visit with him in February.
To my grandfather
At Rosewood Health and Rehabilitation Center
I am the ghost of a little girl
With wide blue eyes and tangled blond hair
Doing cartwheels in the backyard
He searches me for her
As I ask him if he remembers
The copper tea set in the basement
“I don’t want to cry,” he gasps,
Reaching out to me
Through a fog of jumbled memories
But he cries.
I had never seen him cry before.
He is the ghost of a man
Who hummed while he ate his matzah ball soup
Who sneaked up behind my Bubbie washing dishes
And put his hands on her hips
And then walked away, shoulders shaking
In silent mirth
When she squawked her protest.
A man who made up songs
About his baby grandsons
And walking to the bank.
Now he lies in this nursing home bed,
Drained of color and joy and words and memory
Except the memory of love.
This he fights for with everything he has,
Clawing breathlessly through the fog
To make sure I know.
“I always loved you,” he chokes.
“Did you know that?”
“Did I show it?”
Of course you did.
I fill the silence with stories about Seder nights and succah decorations.
He listens with glistening eyes.
“My little girl,” he murmurs.
“I turned thirty last week,” I smile
As if that makes any sense
In this physical universe we occupy together
“You were special,” he says.
I hold his hand.
We bask in the Florida sunshine.
I tell him that in Israel
The anemones are blooming,
And the almond trees.
“Are you happy?” he asks.
I surprise myself by answering immediately:
“Yes, I’m happy.”
And I think I mean it.
My last glimpse of him,
In a nursing home chair,
Surrounded by sterile white walls
And with nothing but a curtain
To mark his privacy.
His eyes are sad.
I don’t want to remember him like this.
I want to remember him
Playing w a l k I n g v e r y s l o w l y
And holding comfy contests at bedtime.
I want to remember him pinching my ear
And growling “God love ya.”
I tear myself away,
A smile still plastered on my face,
And I walk swiftly down the hall
Not looking back.
I don’t think I really understood the depth or power of his love for me until almost everything else was gone. I realized then that that love is something that has nurtured me since before I can remember, and will continue to sustain me for as long as I live. Jews say of the deceased, zikhrono l’vrakha, “may his memory be a blessing”; his memory is one of the greatest blessings of my life.
ETA: The poem in this post was published in the Love Like Salt anthology along with another poem of mine, and I made a video of myself reading them: