My grandfather wasn't feeling well on Valentine's Day and ended up in the hospital. Fortunately, he's doing great, and it gave me an unexpected opportunity -- albeit under less than ideal circumstances -- to spend some quality time with him.
Everyone believes his or her grandpa is the best, as they absolutely should. And of course, I think no differently. Mine is so special to me and I have been so lucky to have him as a prominent fixture in my life.
What makes him so special? Great question.
First of all, his birthday is on Dec. 25. So as most Jews look forward to Chinese food, I too know exactly what my plans will be: Eating my grandma's delicious food whilst captivated by my grandpa's stories.
This is also the man that I have to thank for how incredibly handy my own father is. And my dad will admit he's not even half as handy as my grandfather. My grandpa built a summerhouse in Russia with his own bare hands, sauna included (trust me, it's key). There wasn't any structural challenge my grandfather couldn't solve or fix, and he did so as a highly demanded contractor until he was 75 years old (I can't even hang up a frame).
This is the very same man who's eyes swelled up with tears the first time he stepped foot inside a grocery store in America. He was so overcome with emotion, he ran out of the store. He was 60. He just couldn't believe that this plentiful food was so readily available to all (no matter your religion or political standing). My grandpa said that when they left Belarus in 1992, shelves sat empty and abandoned in stores. He farmed and harvested crops such as potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, dill, etc. He also planted cherry and apple trees at the summerhouse.
This is also the man who gave himself a tattoo at the ripe old age of 12. He inked his name on his arm; He says he was young and fooling around, that he didn't know any better. But I still say that's pretty badass considering I hate even getting blood drawn.
So I had a few random questions for this man, 85 years young and full of experience and wisdom. Without further ado, here's my grandfather:
What is your biggest accomplishment in life?
My family. Having a son and daughter and watching them build their own families. My grandchildren bring me such joy. There is a saying/proverb in Russia about what makes a real man. He has to build a house, plant a tree, and raise a son and daughter. I built a summer home for my family, planted cherry (and other) trees, and happened to have both a son and daughter. Proverb or not, that's an accomplishment.
What's the most important thing in life besides family?
Health. We take good health for granted. Health allows you the opportunity to enjoy anything and everything in life. I was a heavy smoker back in my day. This was before the true effects of smoking were known. I quit cold turkey one day and never looked back. That was 44 years ago and that is why you and I are having this conversation today.
How many friends do you have? Do you still keep in touch?
My greatest friend in life is your grandmother, bar none. But besides her and my brothers, I can count on (less than) one hand the number of true friends I consider I've had. One is a childhood friend who immigrated to Israel in the '90s. Another is a friend from my twenties who also immigrated to the U.S. and resided in NYC. Both are no longer living but they were what I consider friends for life. I've had many "friends" come and go; it's the natural ebb and flow of life. Circumstances change, people change, and life changes so I've always kept my circle small.
I know grandma was pretty upset with you that you ended up in the hospital on Valentine's Day. I'm sure she's since forgiven you. You and grandma have been married for 63 years. What is the key to a successful marriage?
Respect. Respect each other and always help each other. Your grandmother and I do things together because the goal is the same. It's not about what she's supposed to do or what I'm slated to do. It's about what needs to get done, or what we want to get done. And we work towards that together. It can be something as simple as cleaning. "And honesty" -- grandma chimes in. Yes, of course honesty.
What does it mean to be Jewish to you?
My family is Jewish. My grandmothers and grandfathers were Jewish; my mom and dad were Jewish; and so thus, I am Jewish. In Russia, it was something I knew and understood, but something that we rarely practiced mostly because it got lost in translation due to religious oppression. I'm lucky in that my religious beliefs hindered or affected me only a handful of times. There were two such moments in my life. One was the loss of my grandfather. My grandfather was a great person and he believed others inherently were as well. During World War II, my family fled. My father fought in the war and my mother, my grandmother, and my sister, brother, and I fled. My grandfather refused to leave his home, convinced that the Nazis would not harm them. After the war, my family returned to our home to find out that in 1942, 87 Jews from our town were gunned down, my grandfather being one of them. I was 14 years old so that is a moment that becomes engrained in your mind.
The second moment was when I was denied a job I worked so hard towards. I studied very hard all the while working through school and was very prepared and excited about this job opportunity. I was overlooked simply because I was Jewish.
Other than these two moments, my religion did not affect the success of my life. It is part of my identity and although I may not understand all the ins and outs, it is something I'm proud of.
Okay, last question. What is your favorite dish?
Anything grandma makes.
Good answer, Grandpa. Good answer.
As his granddaughter, I may be biased, but I have never met a man as modest and content with life as my grandfather. He is a man that gets the most enjoyment out of the simplest things that life has to offer. And our conversation showed me that those very simple things are the ones that stick. Everything else -- minutiae.
Thank you grandpa for your wise words.