My grandfather died an unromantic death. The last time I saw him was during winter break of my senior year in college, just over a month before he passed away. His Parkinson’s had been getting exponentially worse the previous few years, and every time I stopped by his house I always felt like it could be the last. As a strict proponent of organic and natural food decades before pseudo-scientific terms like “trans fatty acids” entered the vernacular, the bitter irony of his fate must have been that much harder to take. A lifetime spent obsessively avoiding the marvels of American food-processing technology, only to end up immobilized in his den, left alone but to bear witness, in full mental facility, to his own physical impotence.
Whenever I’d visit I would try to engage him as best I could. Now I’m hardly a paragon of merriment, but I’d put in an extra enthusiasm so that I might momentarily coax him out of his cocoon. Rarely would he budge. At the time, it seemed strange. After all, weren’t wise old men facing down death practically overflowing with pithy quotes to bestow upon us? I’ve never read any Mitch Albom, but that’s what I imagine his books to be about. If Tuesdays With Morrie can sell millions at the counter in Starbucks, surely it must speak to people’s common experience. Perhaps, but not in this case. My grandfather wasn’t interested in enlightening me with some universal truth on life and its vagaries; he was too preoccupied with not choking on his liquefied dinner at 3:30 pm. He was just sick.
Sometime in the late 40’s, a man named Erwin Mendel showed up at my grandfather’s small machine factory in Baltimore. He had arrived with his wife, Tula, from Germany. They were not Jewish, but my grandfather was. Before being held in a Russian POW camp, Erwin was a draftee in the Nazi army. “If he had done anything bad,” a longtime employee at the factory recounted my grandfather saying, “they wouldn’t have let him into America.” He gave Erwin a job.
As I sat uneasily across from my grandfather in his den, I sometimes felt cheated by the hollowness of our conversations. I was on the cusp of graduation and in desperate need of answers; who better to provide them than him? But the rapture never came to pass. I was left with no eternal truism to tack up on my wall; no profound maxim to fall securely back upon in hard times.
Looking back on this, I believe that true life-affirmation doesn’t arrive from a quote. A person’s example is far more a meaningful legacy, and something to seize inspiration from, time and time again – not some clever turn of phrase fashioned in a moment of fleeting lucidity. It turns out my grandfather had taught me. He just didn’t say it.
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