When I visited Grandpa one afternoon in August, soon after he moved into the nursing home this summer, I walked in and introduced myself as “one of Sol's grandchildren.” His roommate said, “Oh, one of the 42, huh?” I laughed and said, “well, 32...but who's counting?” Grandpa said, “32? Oh, OK!” Even if his memory were flawless, you can't blame a 94-year-old guy for making a minor error like that, with so many grandchildren to keep track of.
I'm “number six.” My earliest memories of Grandpa begin somewhere between the ages of five and 10. I remember countless visits and parties at Grandma Doris and Grandpa Sol's house in Morton Grove, and the new feat of being able to count that we cousins numbered a total of 10... The Original 10: David, Ira, Rachel, Larry, Esther and me, (number 5 and 6, two months apart, right in the middle), Aaron, Jay and my sisters. This was easy to remember, because whenever we were over, the kitchen was off-limits to kids, while Grandma was cooking so we were always corralled into the basement to play, all together. Sometimes Grandpa could quell the noise momentarily. With bribes: sticks of Doublemint gum. The basement was filled with tons of things that they were given as gifts, or got while traveling...things that they loved, or at least, lots of treasures of the '70's to occupy the Original 10: Russian dolls that got smaller and smaller as you opened them; Chinese checkers; a weird wooden triangle game with wooden pins in it, that I still have no idea how you'd play; and someone brought a Battleship game down there. (Probably one of the older, roughneck boy-cousins.) The most difficult game, to me, around age 10, was this big bowl of nuts-in-the-shell that someone put down there on the coffee table, with a 2-pronged nutcracker that I could never work. The cashews, walnuts and almonds would always crush into tiny little pieces, and I could never eat any. It took years before I got to eat the whole inside of a walnut, in that basement. To this day, I wonder whose bright idea it was to put that bowl of nuts down there. (I'm actually inclined to believe it was Grandma, since she was the original nut-cracker in the family.)
And hanging over the sofa in the wood-paneled basement, were five pictures, always there. Smiling graduation pictures...of the engineer in the good suit and tie...the Nurse...the Teacher, also in suit and tie...the high school cello player-turned-Food Expert...and the girl with pigtails, holding a giant candy sucker in front of her face, from performing in one of her plays, who would become the Occupational Therapist-turned-Businesswoman. Grandma and Grandpa opened their home and hearts to a foster child to whom we were affectionately introduced as “Auntie Leslie.” Her class pictures hung there every year, too.
On Passover, at the appropriate time during the Seder, Gramps urged us all to find “the A-fick'-o-men,” for the prize of a quarter, after dinner.
But, Chanukah parties at their house were the stuff of legend...not only because they showcased their endless parade of loving friends, and zillions of siblings on both sides, but, mostly, because of Grandpa's famous latkes! We were again corralled in the basement, and, this day, once a year, Grandpa disappeared into the kitchen.
After what seemed like hours of the intoxicating aroma of Grandpa's magic potato latkes wafting through the house, suddenly, great platters of them would appear, with all the fixings. We were called to eat dinner, hocking Grandpa to reveal the secret ingredient: “What made his latkes so good?!?” He just smiled his sly smile, and chuckled, and wouldn't tell...and dumped some more golden potato goodness on our plates. Then, the entire crowd would retire again to the basement for the main event: Presents! We'd try to wait patiently, as each aunt and uncle handed out the precious Chanukah loot... Aunt Sara smoking in the corner, Aunt Rose being...Aunt Rose, joined by Great-uncle George and Aunt Sylvia, Millie and Joe Kaplan, Lee Podgers, Goldie Ettinger, and countless other friends of theirs looking on. All the action was in the middle of the room, overrun by the Original 10, now ages 5 to 14. Amid the madness, wrapping paper, and the gold foil from chocolate Chanukah gelt flying everywhere, you'd catch Grandpa quietly rocking in a chair off to the side, his work as Latke Chef done, smiling, laughing, and basking in all that he had created.
He used to play a game with me (probably with others too, but it always seemed like he played it with just me): At any family gathering, when the phone would ring, and I'd go to answer it, he'd say to me, cryptically, “Tell Jimmy I say hello. Tell Ron I say hello.” I was in high school when the name suddenly changed: “Tell George I say hello!” I finally realized he was trying to tell me that the President was calling him. (You can see why it took me so long to get the joke for the first eight, long years...) Later, in college, I was able to turn the tables. The phone would ring, and I seized my opportunity: “Hey Grandpa, tell Bill I say hello!” And we would laugh.
Senior year, while other classmates went off to Cancun to party over winter break, I visited Grandma and Grandpa, who had retired to Florida. One day, we sat in their den, chatting. They asked me what I wanted to do after college. I told them I was going to work on the radio...that I knew it might be a tough road at times, but that I was going to do it. Grandma, sitting next to me on the couch, looked me in the eye and said, “Whatever you want to do, we'll support you,” and slapped her hand on the cushion for emphasis. Grandpa looked over from his chair, and chimed in: “Just do whatever makes you happy, that's all.” Grandma, always one for the last word, echoed with finality, “See? That's all.” That was all. Grandma and Grandpa said so. No questions, no doubt, no judgment. Just unconditional love and support. In that moment, I knew how those five people in those pictures on the wall in their old basement came to be as distinguished and successful as they were. I knew that I could, too; that I could try. As I left for a quick jog, the door closed behind me, and I could hear Grandma’s trademark affectionate cackle: “…Solllll-yyy!” and I knew she had found a new project for him to do. He’s probably hearing it already.
In recent months I visited Grandpa as much as I could at the nursing home. The cheerful, funny, go-getter, who, for about 92 years couldn't sit still very long, even to read the paper or a book, had been having increasing trouble walking in the last couple of years. But it was summer, so we sat outside on the patio, him in his wheelchair, me on the bench, and we chatted and people-watched all the residents and staff that came in and out of the front door. He gave me the low-down on his new digs. He had me wheel him around, gave me a mini-tour, and we went back to his room. We continued our conversation as I plopped down on the bed. Out of the blue, he sighed and said, “I just miss your Grandma.” (Not that you'd ever doubt it, but I had never heard him say that before.) Hiding tears, I said, “I do, too.” With that, a nurse came in to give him some meds, told us it was dinnertime, and he had me wheel him back into the dining room. Shortly after that, Grandpa's condition began to change. The next times I visited, all he wanted was for me to make his feet cozy in a cocoon of blankets at the foot of his bed.
While Grandma Doris made her presence known in their old house as the loud, bossy, 'tough-love' one of the pair, as I get older, I've come to view Gramps as the “Man Behind the Curtain.” With his quiet strength, work ethic, humor, and kindness, he was the beloved husband, father, brother, uncle, friend, and grandfather. He was a war veteran, taxi driver, bus driver, milkman, candy store manager, among other things, all because he followed his own advice: He created a huge family and worked tirelessly to nurture it, because he did what made him happy—even if that included being a Cubs fan. (Also, apparently, with the close friendship and help from several U.S. Presidents.) Their Original 5, and our Original 10 cousins, turned into 15 cousins, and a continuing legacy of 17 next-generation cousins…his great-grandchildren. He was the prolific teller of hilarious bad jokes, the consummate patriarch, and he was the Magic Latke-Maker. It doesn't take much to figure out that Grandpa’s secret ingredient, for latkes and life, was Love.