On December 31, 2012–New Year’s Eve–my grandfather passed away. Although he was 97, his death came as quite a surprise. After all, he didn’t look 97. He didn’t act 97. And he sure as hell didn’t think like you would expect a 97 year old to think. My grandfather was a sharp as a person gets, even from his hospital bed, hooked up to machines helping him breathe and keep his kidneys functioning. He was a fascinating man, always sharing stories about growing up in Montreal or his early years in business or his thoughts on politics, economics, sports–everything. We all joked at having to suffer through his lectures but really, they were a way of him getting to know us and us getting to know him.
Looking back, those lectures really were special (even if they were a little tedious at times).
While I learned a lot, intellectually, from my grandfather, what I’ll always keep with me are not the facts and figures he taught me (including the rules of hockey. Those left my brain the minute they went in) but the life lessons that he never intended to share but did anyway. Although he told a cardiologist that his key to longevity was dark chocolate (amen!), there really were other elements that helped:
Exercise. As a kid, I remember Nanny and Grandpa putting on their sneakers and going for their daily walks. Mostly to the post office, but anywhere would do. This was a practice that he maintained until just a few months ago. Yes, his walks were shorter in distance but he still took the time to do something for his body. This is a habit I’ve recently incorporated and I’ve never felt better. No wonder he made it to 97!
Keep a sense of humor. Not only did he have one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen, but my grandfather enjoyed laughing. He wasn’t a big fan of “low-brow” humor (he did not pass this on to me. I still think farts are funny) but he loved his puns and he was quick to come up with them, too. And I recently found out, Grandpa was also kind of a wise-ass. At least now I know the start of that genetic trait.
Find a community. After my Nanny died (and to say that my grandfather loved her would be an understatement), Grandpa found solace in his friends at the Suffolk County Y-JCC. He went there often, to talk with friends, listen to lectures, give talks and forge relationships. He continued to engage himself and find a place where he belonged. That engagement, that activity, that something to look forward to–I believe this is what helped keep him going for so long.
Never stop learning. If you asked my grandfather for his most sage piece of advice, he’d probably tell you to always learn. He was always encouraging all of us to further our formal education, to read, to research, to expand our minds. He practiced what he preached, too. Grandpa read voraciously. He was inquisitive. He loved learning new information and then passing that information along.
Love your family. Nothing—and I mean nothing—meant more to my grandfather than his family. He adored his wife, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His brothers were his best friends. He attended bar mitzvahs and weddings of children of distant relatives just to be able to spend time with them. And the way he cared about every member of the family was genuine, not “hey, we’re hanging out because we’re related and we have to”. I wish I could be that nice.
Live financially modestly. My grandfather did well, financially, but he never felt the need to show it off. He lived in a modest apartment in Queens for most of his time in the United States and then spent the last part of his life (after my Nanny passed away in 1997) living with my aunt and uncle. He didn’t have flashy clothes, cars, or take expensive vacations. He was generous, sure, but he never felt that he had to flaunt his money. I think we can all learn from that.
Have a passion. Grandpa liked a lot of things. But one of the things he loved most was words. And he was so good with them. And he appreciated others who were good with them. Up until a week before his death, he was still writing poems and doing the NYT crossword puzzle. He wrote acrostics and a column for the Y-JCC’s newsletter and thinking pieces. He even composed a song that was recorded. Writing might not have been his career but he always had a love for it. His life was brighter because of this passion. All of our lives should be enriched by something we love that much.
Be eclectic. My grandfather’s interests ran the gamut. He loved books, sports, politics, economics, philosophy, Jewish culture (I’m Jewish, for those who don’t know), movies, music (especially opera)—you name it, Grandpa probably knew something about it. And would take the time to talk to you, too. It’s what made him so likeable and interesting to talk to. Plus, being eclectic is fun. Who wants to just like one thing?
Find words that inspire you. At his bedside in the hospital, one of my cousins, one of my sisters, my father and I read to my grandfather his favorite poem, Invictus, by William Ernest Henley. I’ve never been one for poems but Grandpa loved them, and when we were done reading, he, through very labored breaths, explained why the poem was so meaningful to him. It was a powerful moment for a number of reasons but these words will inspire me the rest of my life:
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Those words capture the essence of my grandfather. I hope that I, too, can live that way and honor his memory.
And Grandpa, if you’re reading this, I hope Nanny enjoyed the jelly beans.