I’m a very lucky boy. I had all four of my grandparents until I was 25. And I had one until this year when I was 41. Now that they’ve all passed away and I’ve become a grand-orphan, I wanted to honor their memory by reflecting on the lessons they’ve taught me. To paraphrase the great physicist Richard Feynman, “By the time they died, a lot of what is good about them has rubbed off on other people. So although they are dead, they won’t be completely gone.”
My Bubbie died in January. A couple of months before she died, she told me, “I’m a fighter.” At the time I didn’t want to tell her that the fight wasn’t going well. That an 87-year-old with heart and kidney failure was not winning the battle to live forever. She could hold on a little longer but eventually, as with everyone, death will win. Looking back, I realize she was fighting for something else. She wasn’t fighting for everlasting life, she was fighting to live a good life. It would have been easy for her to just go with the flow and coast off into the sunset—being that woman who just plays bingo and watches Jeopardy until she dies. But to really try to lead a good life—that takes effort.
David Foster Wallace gave a commencement address called This is Water (or more fully This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life) where he tells the following story:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”
And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
To me, this story is about fighting against the current of the water to live a good life. All of my grandparents showed me where the water is, how to separate myself from it, and how to focus on what’s important.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from my mother’s parents, Nana and Papa (Florence and Barney Liebman), and my father’s parents, Bubbie and Zaid (Connie and Norman Schlaff).
My grandparents were never afraid to learn new things. I remember when my Zaid, Norman Schlaff, decided to become a kosher deer farmer. Dairy farming was too labor intensive and unprofitable. So he learned he could raise New Zealand fallow deer on the farm and sell the meat to kosher restaurants. No one else was doing this so he needed to figure out where to buy the deer, how to make it kosher, and how to sell it to kosher restaurants.
The koshering piece was particularly tricky. While deer were mentioned in the bible, no one had raised kosher deer for quite some time. I remember Zaid had to work with the heads of the kosher authorities to understand how to do this. Deer were relatively small compared to cows so Zaid wanted to make sure that he could get as much meat from the animal as possible. He even worked with the Rabbis to remove the sciatic nerve of the deer so he could make the hind leg kosher.
My Nana, Florence Liebman, was always an ever-smiling, sweet, and boisterous personality who never let anyone else tell her what to do or think. I remember visiting her in Florida when I was a teenager. She was well into her 70s and finally decided to learn to swim.
I asked her, “Nana would you learn this now when you hadn’t done so for the rest of your life?”
She said. “I’ve always wanted to learn to swim so I figured, ‘Why Not?’ I’m also learning how to read Hebrew. I’ve always wanted to do it but when I was little it wasn’t something they taught the girls.”
Grandparents may have the purest form of unconditional love. While parents love their kids and want more than anything for their kids to be happy, grandparents are there to spoil them. All of my grandparents treated each of their grandkids like they were the favorite. This was difficult as Nana and Papa had 7 grandkids and Bubbie and Zaid had 9. I remember when we were visiting Nana in Florida about a year before she died. I was pushing her in a wheelchair and she started crying.
“Why are you crying?” I asked.
“Because I have the most wonderful family,” she said.
Bubbie and Zaid loved us so much. They used to visit us once a week before Zaid died. They would bring us kosher deli because with babies at home it was hard for us to go shopping. At the time we were showered with too much food love and our conversations went something like this.
“You’re bringing too much food. We don’t have enough room for all that food,” I said.
“OK,” Zaid would say, “next week we’ll only bring the deli meat, chicken soup, and one chicken. Not two.”
Work Hard and Have Fun
My Zaid used to tell me, “I’m lucky because my avocation is my vocation.” It was his way of saying that his hobby was his job. He loved tinkering with televisions and started an electronics business, Norcon, out of it. He eventually grew it into a prosperous business and worked on the training vehicle for Apollo 11 and the security system for Depository Trust, which held certificates for stock exchanges.
I didn’t realize it, but Zaid never took a day off of work for decades. Until the day he died, he would spend the week at Norcon and on the weekend he would travel up to his deer farm and work as a farmer. This was what he considered a great use of his retirement years.
Be Kind to Yourself . . .
It’s hard to grow old gracefully. As Bubbie got older, she couldn’t see and needed a walker. But when she was with us and things went wrong, as they often did, she would just laugh with this hearty, raspy guffaw.
There was this one time when we were trying to make lunch plans in midtown. Though a series of miscommunications, Bubbie ended up in Queens. But she’d gotten the cab driver to take her into midtown before he left her about 2 avenues away from where she needed to be. She was getting out of the car with her walker on the side of the street just as we’d arrived. But we made it down those two avenues as a family talking about the adventure we were having. And she laughed.
The last time she visited us, it was raining and there was a sizable river in the gutter between her and the Uber in the street. I looked at her feet and saw she was wearing very non-waterproofed shoes. So I told her, “We’re going on another adventure!” And I picked her up her frail body and placed her in the cab. And she laughed.
. . . And Be Kind to Others
My Papa loved the book How to Win Friends and Influence People (Audiobook) by Dale Carnegie. In short, the book says that if you’re nice to other people, they will like you. When I listen to the audiobook, I can hear him giving me the same advice. Much of the advice is still relevant today like smiling, being genuinely interested in other people, and actively listening to what other people have to say.
Papa was an incredibly caring and loving man. You could really see this as he got older. As Papa grew into his 90s, he had a pretty bad case of Alzheimer’s. While this was horrible because he couldn’t remember us, it was a wonderful lesson in understanding who he really was.
I remember one day my mother went to the assisted living facility to visit Papa. He was jovial and very well dressed. She said, “Do you know who I am?”
“No,” he said.
“I’m your daughter Susan.”
“Oh my goodness,” he said, “I’m so lucky to have such a beautiful daughter.’
Another day, we were visiting him and we were passing one of the workers. He smiled and said to her, “You’re even more beautiful than the last time I saw you.”
She smiled and said “Oh Barney!”
He turned to me and quietly said, “I don’t know who that is.”
As a side note, Papa’s memory loss gave him a bit of a reward at the end of his life. His favorite foods were hot dogs and chocolate ice cream. Each day at lunch, he would read the menu and be happily surprised at what he saw. He’d ponder the menu and say, “I think I’ll have the hot dog and chocolate ice cream.”
The Magic of Grandparents
Grandparents are these magical people where the rules of the real world didn’t apply. When we were together, we all turned into kids and had lots of fun doing whatever we wanted—whether it was going to Disney World, eating sugared cereal for breakfast, or playing gin rummy for hours. We attacked the world together—their Sancho Panza to my Don Quixote. Whenever I think of them, I can conjure up the courage to be a better (and more fun) person. Though my grandparents are no longer living that doesn’t mean that they’re gone.