We sat in the kitchen, my parents, sister and me, on the last night together at home, and talked about our favourite memories. The kitchen table was already gone, so we balanced disposable plates heaped with kosher Chinese food on our knees as we reminisced about bar and bat mitzvahs celebrated in the dining room, Jewish holidays spent together and the din that wafted up from the basement on Saturday nights during band practices (a fond memory for me, at least). But the truth was, there was only one thing we really wanted to talk about.
My grandfather – my mother’s father, whom we called “Zaizy” – passed away 15 years ago this week at the age of 79, but his memory – dare I say, his spirit – never seemed to fade while we were in that house. When he died, we had all been living together for 18 years, first in his home after my grandmother succumbed to lupus, and later in this house, which was now filled with boxes the movers would arrive for in the morning. The wedding portrait of him and my grandmother had hung on the wall above his bed all those years. Now it was packed away somewhere.
When I think about my strongest memories of that house, they’re almost all about him. The sound of his electric razor whirring every morning at five as he prepared to go to the early minyan at shul. Lying on his bed watching wrestling shows, his muscles twitching with every choreographed blow. His quiet composure the day the film crews arrived to tape his testimonial for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah project. Skipping school and lunching on falafels together. Our stunned silence on 9/11 as we sat frozen on the couch, staring together at the unbelievable images on CNN. Watching Canada win Olympic ice hockey gold for the first time in 50 years at Salt Lake City in 2002. He was nearing the end by then, in constant pain and discomfort, but even so he still managed one of his famously contagious smiles.
He was more than a grandfather. He was the brother I never had, a third parent for my sister and me, a close confidant and a best friend all wrapped up in one. Looking back, it’s hard to believe how lucky we were to grow up with him as a constant presence in our lives. He had survived the Holocaust and come to Canada to build a new life, only to lose his partner just shy of her 55th birthday. But despite all the hardship, he never stopped smiling. He was, it really seemed, happy to be alive, content to take life one day at a time (“I never make plans,” he was fond of saying). I hope we were able to return to him even a fraction of the joy and comfort and stability he gifted us for so many years.
As we said our goodbyes to that house, I felt like we were also saying goodbye to him. It didn’t feel like he would be coming along to the new home. He was staying put, and we were, for the first time, on our own. — YONI