My Grandpa Max passed away this spring -- on his 93rd birthday.
According to Jewish wisdom, dying on the same day that you're born is a blessing. In fact, Moses was said to have died on his 120th birthday. The Talmud teaches us that God calculates and completes the lifespan of a righteous person.
Jewish scholars say that righteous people are charged with a mission at their birth: To live their lives to the fullest potential and finish their mission completely. The mission ends on the very same day it was begun.
So that means Grandpa passed away on the exact day he was supposed to.
My grandpa -- my dad's dad -- was a mensch who lived his life with dignity and integrity. A kind, humble, generous, and gentle soul with the driest wit.
It was the way he loved and teased my grandma for 68 years.
It was the way he would interact with people at the deli counter, Grandma's beauty parlor, or the convenience store where he bought his lottery tickets, how he'd disarm them with a joke.
It was the way he would rarely sign his paintings, because he didn't care to take credit for his work.
It was the way he served in combat during World War II on the beaches of the Philippines and in the jungles of New Guinea.
When he returned to Long Island after the war, he met my grandma, set up by their two sisters who dreamed up their shidduch (match) at a canasta game. Max worked long hours in the family school supply factory in Manhattan. He would bring home for his two sons -- and later his four granddaughters -- notebooks and pencils with our names etched on them.
He never went to college, but he read voraciously, and seemed to know just about everything. Every day, my grandma would do the crossword puzzle, and any time she didn't know an answer, she would enlist the help of her Max. Whether it was a baseball player, an obscure politician, or even the name of a 1990s boy band member -- somehow Grandpa knew the answer.
In his free time, he loved to paint, especially portraits of the people he loved; Max would capture not only their physical likeness, but their spirit too.
When I'd come to visit, we'd paint canvases with his special acrylics; I'd get frustrated when my artwork, unlike Grandpa's, looked nothing like the person I was painting. But Grandpa would always tell me they were beautiful. I knew that they weren't, but I also knew that Grandpa believed that they were because he only saw the good in his granddaughters.
In the summertime, Grandpa and I would stroll along the boardwalk near Grandma and Grandpa's home in Long Island. We'd sometimes chat about school and friends and other times just walk in silence, smelling the seaweed and ocean air, and listening to the soothing crashing of the waves. For my grandpa was a man who was comfortable with silences, and who only spoke when he had something to say.
Each one of us have our own Grandpa Max, people we miss every day, people that paved the way for us, who live on in us forever.
My other grandfather, Harry, died two weeks before my second birthday.
Even though I didn't get the chance to know Grandpa Harry, he always held this superhero status in my mind and heart. After all, my grandma, my mom, and other people who knew and loved him would constantly nourish me with stories about him, about his decency and his moral compass.
A Jewish socialist, he immigrated to the States from Russia in the early part of the 20th century. Here, he met my maternal grandma and they bought a farm in Wisconsin, where they raised cattle, corn, two sons, and a daughter. He and my Grandma loved Israel and he insisted on investing their meager savings in Israel's early days. Harry would say, "If this is worth nothing, then our lives are worth nothing."
Grandpa Harry died 36 years before Grandpa Max. These last few weeks, since Max died, I keep envisioning my two grandfathers, who had been fond of each other back when my parents were first courting, reunited with each other now. I bet that they, along with my late grandma, are enjoying each other's company and making each other laugh.
Death has this way of making us take stock of our lives. When our loved ones die, in the best of worlds, their passing makes those of us they leave behind want to live our lives with even more purpose and integrity. Like Grandpa Max and Grandpa Harry, the really great ones inspire us to live our lives to our fullest potentials, to complete our own missions.