Today is your birthday. And in lieu of a traditional gift of a tie, a sweater, or anything from the SkyMall magazine, I decided to finally write you The Letter. I had the idea to write you a while ago but I was afraid the words just wouldn’t come out right. Not that they’d be the wrong words – but I wanted the message to convey so many feelings, so many thoughts – I kept getting wrapped up in something else to keep me from trying. I wasn’t confident at the time that I could pull off the task I set for myself. I’m still not. But now that it’s your birthday, well, it feels like the right time to try.
Grandpa, there is a small photograph of us on my desk at work which I look at constantly. Mostly because it’s conveniently sandwiched between the telephone and computer monitor, the two devices I use the most. Whenever I answer a call I see us. We’ve got small red and white striped bags of popcorn from the Farmer’s market in our laps and Grandma has caught us mid bite. Well, me at least. I must be about 6 years old and I’ve got a handful of kernels in my hand just about to enter that wide child’s smile. But you, though you’re half leaning on the dining room table like a teacher leaning on a school desk, your back is erect, your face poised. You do look absolutely grand. I love looking at you this way. You’re wearing that shirt with a paisley print, a shirt I can remember tracing with my eyes during Shabbat dinner on Friday nights, slyly staring at you across the candles’ golden glow trying to figure out where the patterned loop configuration would begin again.
A long time ago, while Mom and I were looking through family photographs, she picked up a picture of you and made a comment about how handsome you were. Movie stars were handsome, I thought. But Grandfathers? Really? It’s funny how clearly I see now what she meant. There’s that distinguished mustache you’ve never been without – the square jaw, the kind eyes. You’re a handsome feller Grandpa!
But there’s another reason why your family came out so beautifully. You’ve nourished your family with your actions – helping Uncle Steve build award winning Hanukkah decorations when he was a kid – buying mom a horse though it tried to bite you multiple times, taking me on a hot air balloon ride after I wrote a story about wanting to go up in one. And then, you have a way with words – though it’s true you use them sparingly. Sometimes, at the dinner table, while telling Grandma about my day at school I thought you weren’t listening. She would fire off question after question and you only asked me to pass the salt. But then, all of a sudden you would ask me a pointed question or offer a helpful thought. You never seemed angry or upset, you never raised your voice, you never criticized or blamed. The only time your blood pressure seemed to rise was if you thought I’d been treated unfairly. You were my advocate, my cheerleader, and always on my side. After an evening together Grandma would call me later and tell me what your thoughts had been about what I said – I was often surprised by the careful response and analysis you had crafted.
The words you used that touched me most you might not even remember. I was saying goodbye to you after a normal Friday night visit – giving you a hug on the way out the door. You stopped me with your hands on either shoulder, and said with conviction. “You’re a good girl, Natanya. You’re a good girl.” I can’t tell you why, but those words meant the world to me then and now. I return to the simple thought when I feel at a loss, when I feel unhinged. You’re there like a touchstone when I need to be reminded of the most basic fundamental truth. I’m a good person.
And your stories! Grandpa your stories are so precious in their familiarity. My most favorite came about when I started to apply for college. Each Friday with the family gathered around your dinner table, we would review what new colleges I had discovered. Perhaps Mom would ask about their academics, Grandma would ask about student life, and Dad would of course, ask about the price. After I answered that I would finish paying off my tuition when I was your age, you would gasp. Then say, “When I went to school at UCLA a semester cost $26…” You would pause while I gasped, and then add loudly, “And that included the football tickets!!!” By the time I actually went away to college we all knew this line so well we would say it aloud with you.
When you had open heart surgery some years ago, it was the first time I ever saw Grandma really scared. Her face drained of color, and her voice often cracked. Then when you were diagnosed with diabetes of course she took it on as a personal mission to make sure your diet changed to exclude all the stuff that we know we’re not supposed to be eating anyway. Your house became a ‘white-free’ zone. No white sugar, no white flour, no white rice, no white potatoes! Sometimes for desserts, grandma would even make you something separate, something special just for you. You were cute to ask shockingly, is that all mine? But I wondered how excluded it made you feel. And I wondered why the rest of us were still eating the stuff that led you to heart surgery and diabetes in the first place.
And now, with your ninth decade approaching, I thought about how long a life you’ve led, much longer than many others. I thought about your stories, the dinners, the holidays, the precious words, the thoughtful acts done in silence, the photograph. So, I’m glad that Grandma is fierce in her resistance to all foods white. It’s just that, I want you around for a lot longer, Grandpa…
That made me think of the grandkids I’ll one day know. And I the impact I hope to have on them. I want to be around for my granddaughter’s wedding, and her child’s first birth. And for all of it, I want to feel fully alive without the threat of invasive surgery or disease. More than the nutrition nut mother, more than the health books or the yoga classes, you’ve taught me that what I want is a life I’m fully present for. And that means being conscious of what I eat. This is the impact you’ve had on me.
I wanted to tell you this because I didn’t want you to feel left out at the dinner table. I wanted to tell you that all the way across the country your picture sits on my desk. On the other side of the continent, a young woman is making healthier choices because of the life you’ve chosen. And she’ll be able to tell her great-grandchildren all about it.
Because of you.
Happy 89th Birthday Grandpa! I love you.