My mother’s father passed away when I was only six years old; he left this world way too soon. My grandfather sucked the marrow out of life and derived pleasure from the simplest of things. He was a playful man with a fierce passion for life. He had a gift of presence and lived each day as if it were his last. He ate the foods he loved up until the end of his life, despite the associated health risks. He preferred to enjoy the moment regardless of the future implications of his choices. Impulsive and carefree, he gravitated towards adventure and radiated charisma.
My grandfather was a true character, magnificent and larger than life. He wore stylish fedoras, smoked cigars and drove a Cadillac. He played the piano, bet on horses and charmed women. One of many children born to Russian immigrant parents, my grandfather was a baby when he arrived at Ellis Island with his family. He worked his fingers to the bone as furrier, chemicals burning his fingers as his passion for life burned deep inside his soul. His pockets were always empty, yet he carried himself like a wealthy man. When diabetes and heart disease descended upon him, my grandfather ordered a hot fudge sundae with a side of cheesecake. He then threw back his head and laughed, his big rosy cheeks glowing and a trace of mischief dancing in his eyes. Through my grandfather I learned how to harness the joy of the present moment.
My mother’s mother lived to see the ripe old age of ninety two. She was a solid and sturdy woman who survived many hardships including the great depression and prolonged, intense poverty. She saved her pennies and asked for very little in the way of material possessions. She cried once because she was too poor to afford new hangers for her clothing. During her youth she cried often because life was a constant struggle. Yet through it all, she prevailed and raised her children in the face of adversity, finding pleasure in the simple things, like a good night’s sleep or a fresh piece of meat from the butcher. She loved to dance and smile and often reminded me that “no man is worth a woman’s tears.”
My grandmother never owned expensive jewelry, rarely traveled and lived a quiet life with my grandfather. They loved to take long drives, exploring new neighborhoods and laughing together over silly things. Despite her lack of material wealth, my grandmother was a rich woman- a true survivor and a pillar of strength. She taught me about the beauty of a smile and the importance of fortitude. She has been gone over four years now, but I still feel her constant presence as a guiding force in my life.
My father’s father was a creative and playful man with a remarkable sense of humor. He was a chameleon of sorts; a writer, painter, and a salesman, in addition to many other hobbies and endeavors during the course of his life. With my grandfather, imaginary fleas came to life with unique names like Feelix and Feeli; they liked to dine in Chinese restaurants and march to a comical theme song called “The Flugal Flea.” I eagerly awaited his surprise tickle attacks and enjoyed watching him draw animated pictures with pastel crayons.
I have often heard it said that the loss of a grandparent reflects the loss of childhood. Just as little Jackie Paper kept a lookout perch on Puff the Magic Dragon’s gigantic tail, I maintained my own childhood perch inside my grandfather’s enchanted world of fantasy images until he, like puff, fell ill and ceased his fearless roar. My grandfather left me with the wonderful gift of creative inspiration.
Several times each year I drive south to visit my final surviving grandparent- my father’s mother in Clearwater, Florida. Seated at grandma’s kitchen table or in folding chairs on her cozy back porch, our visits typically entail card games and Rummy-Cub challenges interspersed with laughter, witty banter and nostalgic conversation.
As a small child visiting my grandmother I enjoyed long leisurely bubble baths, chocolate kisses hiding at the bottom of my milk glass, and Sunday morning pancakes. Grandma taught me to needlepoint, sing songs and float on my back. When I burst into tears at the top of a Ferris wheel, she was there at the bottom, ready to comfort me. When my ice cream cone fell into my lap, she dried my tears and surprised me with a new one. With grandma I always felt adored, cherished and unconditionally loved.
I admire my grandmother for her refined demeanor, enduring patience and flawless integrity. She has always been my rock and my compass; a trusted and soothing backdrop resting quietly against the rugged terrain of my life. Despite all of the changes in my life beginning in middle childhood and continuing through early adulthood with my parents’ divorce, frequent geographic relocations, the college years, professional challenges and romantic woes, grandma’s home provided a peaceful oasis amidst a sea of chaos and loss.
Moving through adolescence and into adulthood, grandma’s home has been the only place in my life capable of satisfying my constant yearning for a sense of connection to the past. My childhood photographs and mementos have remained in fixed locations through the years. Like a lighthouse on a foggy night, the familiar sights, sounds and smells of my grandmother’s home provided a sense of integration and comfort when my life felt splintered and fragmented. She taught me the value of family ties, patience and integrity.
Presence, fortitude, the beauty of a smile, creative inspiration, patience and integrity are my legacy; the six prongs of wisdom I carry with me as eternal gifts from my grandparents. If you find yourself in troubled times, facing a challenge or battling inner turmoil and despair, I encourage you to go back to basics and reacquaint yourself with your roots. Close your eyes and experience a spiritual visit with your own parents/grandparents. Dust off the old photo albums, find your departed loved ones and look deep into their eyes. What unique gifts have they left behind for you to claim?
Even in the toughest of times when you feel most alone, you are not an island. Rooted firmly in your own heritage, these gifts are your birthright. You are forever connected to a long line of those whose shoulders you stand on, and those who will follow in your footsteps. If you are familiar with the story of Puff the Magic Dragon, you may recall that “a dragon lives forever but not so little boys.” You are not a magic dragon, but your fearless roar-the voice of your soul- can last a lifetime. What legacy would you like to leave behind after you have gone?