When I saw today’s date, the subject for this week’s post became immediately clear. You see, today is my grandfather’s – Zaydie’s – ninety-fourth birthday…
It’s difficult to think and write about Zaydie without including Baba – my grandmother – in the conversation. After all, that’s how everyone knows them. Friends and family alike have always referred to and treated them as a matched set – Baba and Zaydie. And that’s how I think of and see them; a cohesive unit. So, although it’s his special day, Zaydie will have to share his birthday spotlight on this page with Baba.
As the eldest of nine grandchildren, the breadth of my relationship with my mother’s parents spans across fifty years. But the depth of it is rooted in the three summers and the first semester of my freshman year of college when I lived with them. It was during those times (and on the drives back and forth to my college which was an hour-and-a-half away), while I had them both to myself, that we talked about everything under the sun. I have wonderful memories of hanging out with them – of Baba making something in the kitchen and Zaydie playing cards with me at the table; of sitting with them at restaurants; and of driving with them in the car as we talked, and talked, and talked.
The love, trust, respect, and honesty we share have always enabled us to talk openly. For example, as a teen I solicited Zaydie’s opinion on the ideal age for me to have sex with my boyfriend. When I was in college, he asked me if I thought his niece was a lesbian. Later in life, Zaydie and I discussed the difficult relationship he had with his mother and the profound effect it had on him. Sprinkled through the years, Baba offered ongoing tales of family gossip and feuds; Zaydie regularly taught lessons through his rabbinic-like stories. And, as Holocaust survivors, they gave accounts of their youth in Poland, newly married hardships in Siberia, post-war challenges in Germany, and difficulties in establishing a new lives in Boston.
Baba and Zaydie are not perfect people. They still fight with each other over stupid things after almost seventy-three years of marriage. For years, they never said, “I love you” to their three children and probably would have received failing marks in parenting classes. They never took the grandchildren away on exotic or active vacations. They don’t email, text, or Facebook with the great grandchildren. And, unfortunately, they won’t have much of relationship at all with their ten-month-old great-great granddaughter.
They are, however, part of a generation with a strong affinity for traditions, family, and Jewish values. Their hopes for and expectations of us have been crystal clear. One always knows where one stands with them (i.e. if you don’t call them as least once every two weeks, you’re NOT in good standing!). They’ve managed to keep their immediate and extended families together in good times, as well as difficult ones. With only grade-school educations, their wisdom, insight, and intelligence test us all.
Baba and Zaydie are now in their twilight years. With difficulty they deal with various aches, pains, and health issues, but mercifully don’t have debilitating diseases. With sorrow they witness the departure of friends and siblings, but eagerly await our visits to them in Florida. With regret they can no longer travel, but optimistically look forward to the next simcha. With cherished independence they live together in their condo and Zaydie still drives (his license is valid until age 100!), but acknowledging the inevitable is terribly upsetting and painful.
But today, on Zaydie’s birthday, I just want to thank him – to thank them – for being WAY more than grandparents to me. Together we’ve learned, laughed, and cried about life. They’ve been my teachers, my role models, and my friends.
Zaydie, may you live to 120 – ahd meh’ah v’esrim. L’Chayim!!! I love you.