MY COMING OF AGE
Copyright 2008 by Neil Chethik www.NeilChethik.com
I think of my Grandpa Willie as a Yiddish-speaking Santa Claus. He was a round man with thick white hair, flushed cheeks, and a hearty laugh. He'd come to America in 1920 from Poland, in a harrowing escape from the pogroms, when he was just 16 years old. He passed through Ellis Island, then nestled into Brooklyn for the next half-century, raising a family and running a string of small businesses.
As a kid, one of my favorite times was our family's regular pilgrimage to pick up Grandpa Willie at the airport. He'd fly in from New York to spend Passover with us in Michigan. In those days, you could wait in the gate area for the passengers to disembark. My parents, siblings and I craned our necks in anticipation as Grandpa came off the jet-way.
We could usually tell it was Grandpa even before we saw his mischievous grin. He was the waddling man toting shopping bags full of food: foot-long salamis, whole roasted chickens, fresh bagels.
I have two brothers one older and one younger and the first move Grandpa made upon coming off the plane was to line us up, left to right, and call us to inspection. Let me see those muscles! he'd declare. The three of us boys struck our most brazen Jack LaLanne poses, bending elbows and pulling up shirt sleeves to exhibit six pebbly biceps.
I recall one special visit that Grandpa made in 1970. I remember the exact year because it was on that visit that Grandpa bestowed upon me what I now affectionately call my shotgun Bar Mitzvah.
My parents were secular Jews, and had not prepared me for this rite of passage into manhood. But Grandpa was Orthodox, and he couldn't have faced God knowing that I had turned 13 without it. So with my father's permission though not his presence Grandpa drilled me day after day on the Hebrew prayers that I needed to know for the ceremony.
Anyone who has tried to learn Hebrew in a fortnight will understand Grandpa's need to scale back his expectations. And yet, on the morning of my 13th birthday, he decided that I was ready. He took me by the hand and walked me to the nearest synagogue. In an anteroom off the sanctuary, a quorum of elders watched as I took the mantle of manhood.
In that anteroom, I felt embarrassed, disconnected from the alien syllables I was muttering. Nonetheless, I still remember with fondness Grandpa's soft palm on mine as we strolled together toward the temple.
Years went by. I grew up and Grandpa grew old. And in 1984, now in my mid-20s, I had the chance to move to Miami Beach, just a few blocks from where Grandpa had set up his retirement home. He was 80 now, and a widower, but still flushed with life. In the decade since my grandmother died, he had married and divorced twice.
About once a week, we spent an afternoon together at the beach. Afterward, we tramped to his apartment, where he cooked a succulent kosher meal of brisket or roasted chicken. After dinner, I plied him with schnapps and pumped him for stories about the old country. These were among our closest times.
Then one day, shortly after one of these dinners, I received a phone call at home. It was my grandfather's doctor. These were his exact words: "I'm sorry to tell you this, but your grandfather has had a heart attack, and he has expired."
The statement took my breath away. The next day, my father flew to south Florida from his home in Michigan. I met him at the baggage claim, and we drove to the hospital to identify Grandpa's body.
Later, at Grandpa's apartment, we began sorting the material remnants of the old man's life. We found curled photos, key-chains, matchbooks, and in the bedroom closet, a shocking array of pastel leisure suits.
We kept at it until the glow of the afternoon sun began to wane. Even as the apartment darkened, however, neither of us flipped on the lights. We just kept sorting until we could barely make out the items in front of us. That's when my father and I poured scotch over ice and collapsed in Grandpa's heavily pillowed living-room chairs. We shared memories for awhile, then quiet.
Finally, as the room faded into near-total darkness, I heard a guttural moan. At first, I was alarmed. Then I realized what was happening.
It was the first time I had heard my father cry.
After a few minutes, his sobs abated. Then he made two statements that have stayed with me for 22 years. First, he said: "I am crying not only for my father, but for me. His death means I'll never hear the words I've always wanted to hear from him: that he was proud of me, proud of the family I'd raised and the life I've lived."
My father paused, and made a second pronouncement, this one directed to me. "So that you never have to feel this way too, he said, I want to tell you now how proud I am of you, of the choices you've made, of the life you've created."
Any residual pain from our previous relationship struggles dissolved for me in the calm resonance of that blessing. And in the months that followed, I felt stronger, more confident. It was as if my father represented not only himself but the larger world of men, and I had been accepted into it.
Up until that point, I had sometimes wondered why my father didn't attend my Bar Mitzvah back in 1970. Those statements he made to me in the wake of his father's death helped me understand. Indeed, his direct expression of pride in me that day, served as the closing prayer in that long-running rite of passage.
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Neil Chethik is a writer and speaker. He is author of FatherLoss: How sons deal with the deaths of their dads (Hyperion) and VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think of Their Wives (Simon & Schuster). Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.NeilChethik.com .
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