I'm not sure what I can say about a man that turned 55 six days before I was born. I never knew the man that escaped Nazi Germany, returned in secret to visit his ailing father, and came to the United States where he met my grandmother and parented my mother. The only memory I have that's directly tied to his working years is visiting him at work one day in a giant warehouse or factory of coats -- I must have been no more than 5.
I say what all of you present undoubtedly know, that he was a kind and wonderful person, exceptionally considerate, polite and generous to charity. He liked to see pretty women, and wasn't shy about saying they were pretty.
While my grandmother was alive, he always seemed in the background -- she was the one that fussed over me, and that wanted to hear every little detail of my childhood. He was the driver, only occasionally participating in the conversation, and usually then to try to cap the ridiculous amount of praise my grandmother would give.
She died just as I was becoming an adult, and so it was during my adult years that I got to know my grandfather.
The man I knew was a retiree who lived in Daytona, and who liked to gamble, whether that meant playing poker with friends, or taking one of his countless trips to Las Vegas. Probably my fondest memory of him was when I went to Las Vegas with friends about a decade ago, and he happened to be there at the same time. We got together for a few hours, during which time we went to the casino. His eyesight was gone by then, so mostly we played slots. Still, I never felt closer to him -- there was a gleam in his eye as we played, no doubt because he could share with his grandson one of the joys in his life, though it somehow seemed more that he felt he was showing me the family business.
He also enjoyed travel. Every summer, while he could, he would leave Daytona for a couple of months to escape the Florida heat. I believe the last summer he did this was in 1997, when he fell and broke his hip. I was the first family member able to go up and visit him. Later complications clouded his memory of that time to the point where he couldn't remember I was ever there. But I remember. I remember talking to him when he was awake, reading while he slept, and helping him to the limited extent I could. I learned a bit more of family history, but more than that I learned of the effort necessary to keep going, and the hardships of aging.
He was never the same after that. Heck, that was the first time he almost died. After a while, I think we lost track of how many times we figured he was about to die. So when the call came on Tuesday, I think it surprised all of us that this tough old man was finally gone, and that it had happened so suddenly. He had outlived two wives and just about all the family members of his generation. He had lived a full life, but was ready to die, something he had told us many times. That he died so peacefully is a blessing, and a relief to all of us who loved him.
My grandfather was able to attend virtually all the important events in his grandchildrens' lives. A picture of him sharing the celebration of my law school graduation with me and my father sits even now in my living room. He went to all of his grandchildrens' weddings. He even made it out West in 2001 for Josh's and Kim's wedding, and last year to meet Lauren, his first great granddaughter, when she was one month old. It meant a lot to me that he was able to come to Kathy's and my wedding, and doubtless my siblings feel the same way about him being at theirs. Sadly, he wasn't up for joining the rest of the family for Thanksgiving in Atlanta last month, and so he never got to meet his second great granddaughter.
The last time I saw him was for his 90th birthday party this past July -- it was wonderful that so much of the family was able to be there, and that we got to share one more happy occasion with him. He was beaming the whole weekend, especially during the party. One of my favorite parts of the weekend was watching Lauren's continued fascination with her great-grandfather's nose. She won't have memories of that weekend, but I imagine the rest of us there do -- we remember the youngest person there reaching out to the 90-year-old man, and their connection that spanned generations and included everyone in between.
I don't believe there's a Heaven, but if there is such a place, I have no doubt my grandfather is there.