A week ago my calendar reminded me of a holiday called “Grandparents’ Day.” It’s not that I don’t believe my trusty calendar, but I can’t recall any such holiday in my childhood days. I was crazy about my grandparents, and as far as I was concerned, every day was Grandparents’ Day. Despite my suspicions that the day is being marked as a means of generating revenue for Hallmark and other tchotchke mongers, I will mark the occasion by sharing some of my standout memories of my years with my maternal grandfather.
I was always closer to my mother’s parents than to my father’s parents, both emotionally and geographically. When I was really young, we all lived in the same apartment building, us on the fourth floor, my mom’s folks on the ground floor. I barely remember my grandmother; she died just before I turned six. My grandfather remarried and moved to another building about a block away. We moved to the suburbs the same year, but even then, we were only about 30 minutes away from Grandpa R. As for my paternal grandparents, they lived two hours away in Connecticut until they moved to Florida when I was ten.
To my cousin, he was always Grandpa Gus, but I don’t think he’d mind me calling him Grandpa R. After all, he did wear a belt buckle with a big R on it. In his younger days, I am told, he enjoyed singing, playing the mandolin and harmonica, and telling jokes. He was a big fan of Jack Benny and Jackie Gleason. The telling jokes part stayed with him into his later years.
Several months might go by without us seeing each other, but this did nothing to diminish our special bond. Even after he stopped driving, if there were a family event in the offing, I knew he’d be there. We’d make arrangements to trek down to the Bronx and pick him up. He traveled to upstate New York with us to attend my high school graduation and my college graduation. My Florida grandparents lived too far away to attend.
Grandpa R came over on the boat from Poland in the 1920s. Fifty years later, his speech still bore a distinct Eastern European accent and was peppered with Yiddishisms. This made his jokes funnier, particularly when he punctuated the punch line with a spirited “woo-hoo!”
Many of Grandpa’s jokes were more along the lines of witty observations than what you might expect to hear from a comedian. For example, he enjoyed drinking seltzer (a habit I continue), which he always referred to in Yiddish as greps-wasser (“belch water”). To this day, I can’t pour a glass of club soda without thinking of that.
Unwrapping a fresh loaf of rye bread from the corner bakery, he’d feign a serious look and tell me “if you eat bread for a hundred years, you’ll live a long time.” Groaners like these were his stock in trade. I thought they were horribly corny, but even as I rolled my eyes, I couldn’t help but crack a smile.
I can no longer remember all the details of an extended shaggy dog story he would tell me about a man who came over from the Old Country with extremely limited English language skills. Even though the man ate out in restaurants most days, he was sick of being served the same meal every evening, regardless of which restaurant he visited. It turns out that he thought the English phrase for “food” was “epple pie und coffee.”
Grandpa had a small scar on his forehead in the shape of a circle. As a kid, I would ask him how he got that hole in his head. He’d say he didn’t know what I was talking about. “The scar,” I’d clarify, thinking he didn’t understand what I was asking. “A scar?” he’d ask, feigning shock, “I need a scar like a hole in the head!”
“How do you know when it’s time to go to the dentist?” he asked. “I don’t know,” I’d reply, more than a little annoyed. “Tooth hurty!” he’d shout with glee. He could see by my face that I was clueless. “Tooth hurty!” he’d repeat. Blank stare from me. Then, real slowly, he’d say “Twooooo thirty!” Oh geez, I’d think, I should have known. That’s Grandpa for you.
Grandpa R has been gone for 33 years now, but I don’t need a special holiday to remember him by. His birthday was September 7, and I never fail to think of him and relive our wonderful times together every time that date rolls around, year after year.
Happy birthday, Grandpa. Yom hu’ledet sameakh.