Today would have been my maternal grandfather’s 112nd birthday.
He was living proof that the greatest of people need not be physically impressive. At just over five feet tall and just under a hundred pounds, my grandfather made people nervous with how fragile he appeared. His stick thin arms looked like you might be able to break them just by brushing against him. But he would carry me whenever I asked him to do so, usually on escalators which terrified me for some reason.
My grandfather emigrated to America from Russia in 1922 at the age of 19. He came here with his youngest sister after his own grandmother had passed away. His mother and other siblings came to America before him, but they didn’t have enough money for everyone, and so Grandpop stayed behind with Miriam and the grandmother.
Not that long after he arrived in America, Grandpop met and married Ida, my grandmother. They lived together with her three sisters and their spouses as well as her parents for many years until they were able to strike out on their own, at which point they lived in the misleadingly-named Strawberry Mansions neighborhood of Philadelphia, still known to be one of the most dangerous and economically-disadvantaged locations in the city. He made a living as a presser for a garment manufacturer. I can’t even comprehend how he had the muscles to operate the machinery, but he did that for nearly forty years, providing for his family and even managing to stash away some savings.
The story is a bit fuzzy, but at some point before my grandfather made his escape, the Bolsheviks were systematically destroying all of the Jewish villages, known as Schetls, and as they were going around shooting people, my grandfather hid underneath his grandmother’s bed to evade capture or worse. When they saw how old and sickly his grandmother was, one of the soldiers said to his cohort, “Don’t waste your bullets.”
Someone also told me the story of how my grandfather carried the body of his father in a wheelbarrow to the potter’s field for burial as they could not afford a proper burial. Prior to the revolution, they had some wealth, but that was all taken from them.
Grandpop never told me these stories himself. I was fascinated with the portrait that hung in his home, transfixed by the beauty of the clothing and the richness that emanated from it, but could only ever get him to share the names of those pictured, and sometimes a quick detail about their occupation. He would wave a tiny hand at me dismissively and say, “These were not happy times, no, let us not talk about them. Now are the happy times. We will stay in the happy times.”
I’d like to say that was possible, but having already suffered from the trauma of his youth and then later losing his only daughter suddenly, my grandfather could not help but succumb to his depression.
But on this day, the occasion of his birthday, I will remember the spry fellow who wrestled his dog, Shadow. Who got tipsy from half of a beer. The man who loved to play checkers with any worthy adversary, and who loved his family. The man who helped raise me.
I will stay in the happy times.