A Life Well-Lived: Memorial to my Grandfather

I sat down on the chair across from my grandpa’s wheelchair. Grandpa was 97. He was smaller, more stooped than he had been, but the eyes were the same: alert, focused, interested. His hands, rested on the arms of the wheelchair, were those of a man who had spent his life working. He had just been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, a diagnosis that he had not been told but somehow intuited.

“So,” said Grandpa, “how you doing? Alright? Alright.”

I smiled. That was Grandpa.

Over the past twenty years, his thick Brooklyn accent was unmistakable over the phone when we would talk: “How are you? Alright? Alright. How’s school/work? Good, okay, let me talk to your mother.” I had grown up thinking everyone had a Jewish grandpa from New York; it was not until later that I learned that not everyone was so lucky.

We began to talk. The usual exchange: the weather is nice, it’s a beautiful fall, etc. My wife and I talk about our trip to Paris, knowing that Grandpa loved to travel in his younger days. Grandpa looks up.

“Paris, huh? I spent a little time there.”

Let me explain. Grandpa spent more than a little time there.

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In 1944, Grandpa’s military police battalion off-loaded in Normandy just after the taking of Paris. They loaded up on trucks and drove through the French countryside, the men nervously manning the .50 caliber machine guns on the trucks – nervous, because they had no ammunition. “We were trying to look tough,” Grandpa had remembered. This situation remained unchanged when the battalion arrived in Paris. Small clean-up operations were still going on around the city and the soldiers pulled guard duty with the officers’ .45 pistols – the only weapons they had ammo for.

I’d heard about this only about eight years ago, when I was headed off for basic training. This was the only time Grandpa had opened up about his time in World War II. He was always reticent on the topic. But today was different.

“Yeah, I was in Paris. Had some really good times there.” Then the stories began. My fingers fumbled for the voice recorder on my phone as Grandpa talked, describing the often dangerous and seedy life of an MP in wartime Paris. My wife and I listened in rapt silence as he described the work that he and his buddies had to do to curtail black market operations that ran rampant in the city.

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“Did I ever tell you the story about the .45?” asked Grandpa. I shook my head. “Well there was this guy who was stealing gas, siphoning it off convoys, you know. An American soldier. These convoys kept running out of gas so the CO called me and three other men into the office. They issued me a .45 pistol and told us to go arrest this guy. So we went down to where he was and started looking around, and there he was. So we went to arrest him and he took off.”

He paused to catch his breath.

“So I shot him.” His eyes grew wide, maybe remembering that feeling from seventy-one years ago. “My friend tried to shoot with his rifle but it didn’t go off. But I shot him! I shot him in the shoulder and he kept running, so we chased him down into the Metro tunnels, tracking his blood, you know. And there he was, he’d collapsed, so we arrested him. I was a witness at his trial.” He shook his head.

“War is crazy. So stupid.”

Other stories followed, some funny that caused him to chuckle until he coughed- like helping a soldier coming off the front lines find a night of love in Paris and receiving a thank-you note from the soldier later – some less so. Like the night he was on guard at a checkpoint and did not stop a shipment of cigarettes – used as currency in the Paris black market – because he felt his life was not worth losing over a bunch of smokes.

Grandpa was born in 1919 in New York City to Jewish immigrant parents who had come over from eastern Poland shortly before the Russian Revolution. Like so many children of immigrants, he left school early to go to work to support his family. He was drafted in 1942 – which happened to be the same year he met his wife. He got leave to come home and marry her, but the day happened to fall on a Jewish holy day, so they were unable to be religiously married. Being always pragmatic, Grandpa and Grandma got a civil marriage at a courthouse. Upon finding out, my Great Grandpa was less than pleased, warning Grandpa that although he was married according to New York, he was not married in the eyes of God, and so they shouldn’t do “things.” Well, things were done, and my mother was later born.

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Grandpa and his first wife

Back in Grandpa’s room at the assisted living facility, his memory remained as sharp as ever.

“You know what a Luger is?” I nodded. “Well, I picked one up off a guy who wasn’t authorized to be carrying a weapon, and they let me keep it.”

That much I knew, since my mother had shown me the paperwork he had from his commander saying that Grandpa was allowed to carry a Luger. I had been wondering what happened to it, and if maybe it was buried in one of the many boxes we took out of Grandpa’s apartment.

“I brought that home with me,” said Grandpa, drawing out a handkerchief and blowing his nose. “After the war I was running the hat store.” That he was. He and his brother had been working at a hat company after the war, and Grandpa had realized they could sell hats for $3 rather than $9 if they used glue rather than stitching on the interior. They eventually took over the company after the owner retired, and Grandpa related how they would rush to push out new hats every holiday.

“Well I had fifty people working for me. And one of my men came to me and said, ‘Bill, I’m going to Israel, and I want to get a gun. Do you know where I can buy one?’” This was the 1950s, and the State of Israel was in its very dangerous infancy. “I told him, ‘Don’t bother to buy a gun, I have one for you.’ So I went home and took out the Luger, taught him how to take it apart, how to use it, how to clean it. And he went to Israel with the Luger.” Imagine that; a pistol that was the image of Nazism, an image of genocide and the Holocaust, where Grandpa’s relatives still in Poland had disappeared – now going to protect a Jew going to a Jewish state. The ironies of history.

“I’ve had a full life, you know?” said Grandpa. “A good life. I’ve had three wives, how about that, eh?” He glanced over at my wife and winked. It sounds sordid, but really, it was a tale of sadness and lives cut off too soon. His first wife – the one he married in the war and my mother’s mother – died in 1965. He remarried, but Grandma Muriel – who used to write me lovely letters as my pen-pal when I was little – passed away in 1994. Grandpa was a man who loved life, and hated being alone. So he remarried several years later. But again, his wife passed away, just a few years ago when I was in Afghanistan.

Did I mention that he loved life? He and Grandma would hold parties at their house, dancing late into the night, keeping my mother and uncle awake. They traveled – to Greece, to Europe, on cruises, and fishing trips all over the country. He loved spending time with family, telling jokes – often of an earthier flavor. And he had a passion for hot dogs. No matter the family occasion, there was always a small grill going with hot dogs for Grandpa. When I got married back in 2009, we made sure we had hot dogs for Grandpa.

I remember standing next to him during family pictures a few years ago at my cousin’s wedding. I was one month back from Afghanistan and wearing my dress blues. He looked them up and down and said proudly, “You look sharp, very sharp.” I still have his Eisenhower jacket that he wore in World War II, and as skinny as I am, I cannot even button it. He himself knew a thing or two about looking sharp, as I think about the pictures we have of him walking proudly through the streets of Paris with the gendarmes.

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“I don’t know how I got so lucky,” said Grandpa, shaking his head. “I’ve outlived my wives, my family. It’s just me now. Why was I so lucky?” I hazarded that it was perhaps because he was so kind. As a product of the Depression, Grandpa could not resist a deal – or an all you can eat buffet. But he was so generous with his money and time, handing out dollar bills to his grandkids whenever we saw him. There was always the excitement of receiving the Hanukkah checks from Grandpa as a kid, when $25 (later $50 and even $100!) was a lot of money. It wasn’t until I was older, however, that I realized just how kind he had been to my family. Every car we had for over a decade was one of his cars that he gave us rather than trading his in. The house that I grew up in – that I had cried in thankfulness for when we moved in when I was 10 because it meant I would have a bed and a room of my own after having neither for years – was a gift from him.

Yes, his kindness was a mitzvah.

We sat together – Grandpa, my wife, and I – sharing stories for a while. He was growing tired so we stood to leave.

“Gimme me your paw,” he said, reaching his hand out. I shook the hand of the man who had started work when he was 10, knowing there was little I could do to ever repay him for his kindness and for the mother he had given me.

“Love you Grandpa, we’ll see you soon,” I said.

I missed seeing him soon by two days. Three weeks almost to the date of our visit, his condition deteriorated rapidly. The old soldier was marching home: home, to his parents, siblings, and his wives; home, to dances that never end; home, to fishing lines that are never slack; home, to peace.

He passed away in his room, with no pain, having taken the goodbyes of his children and some his grandchildren.

His funeral was small, but moving. At the graveside close by two of Grandpa’s wives, the rabbi talked about how the final act of the burial – where mourners place three shovel fulls of soil over the casket – was considered a mitzvah because it was an act of kindness that could never be repayed. In the beautiful sun-drenched morning, I thought about all of the kindness Grandpa had shown in his life, all the joy he had brought those who knew him, all he had endured.

“Thank you,” was all I could think of as the soil fell from the shovel blade.


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