On April 9th, I received a call from my mother that grandpa was on oxygen at the hospital. He had fallen a few weeks prior, and ever since was not recuperating effectively. After enough mixed signals, I purchased an emergency plane ticket for that Sunday 4/12 hoping, I would be able to see him one last time.
On SATURDAY 4/11, he passed. I never got to say good bye and I regret it deeply. He is the only grandfather I've ever known and am so happy he is finally at peace and together again with my grandmother. But I wish I knew him more. My whole life, I have always felt in the dark about my family history. I am so saddened at how little he knew about me, and how much I wanted to know about him, and never got a chance to learn. Until his passing, I knew this much: After serving in WWII, he met my grandma (love at first sight), married, and had my dad and my uncle. Then started a successful handkerchief imports business, sold it for a lot of money, and the rest is history.
Growing up, I never understood my grandparents. They never seemed too interested in getting to know me, my personality, and interests. And they seemed particularly hard on me because I was their first grandchild born into their life. I was kind of the "test run" in this new chapter in their lives called grandparenthood, and they made many mistakes during that period. For one, I rarely saw them except for the holidays, even though they were always invited to see my choral performances, or my soccer games, or award ceremonies. And I was never invited to sleep over their house or be babysat over the weekends, and the few times I was, I couldn't touch anything in the house. The furniture had plastic on it, and there were breakables all over the walls and crevices of the place. For a young tomboy (which I completely and utterly was), it was not the most inviting environment I could be placed in, and too often I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. In the back of my mind, I always had this constant unspoken awareness of expectations that I never felt like I measured up to. More then anything, I felt intimidated by my grandparents, but genuinely desirous to be loved and love in return.
Into adulthood, the mystery grew further. I have made decisions for my life that is perfectly normal in my generation and utterly baffling in theirs. I have NO desire to someday have children of my own, and the more people tell me I will probably change my mind later, the more I don't want them (this is actually something, my grandparents never new I decided). I didn't date until I went to college. I'm pretty sure they thought I was a lesbian growing up and blamed the fact that I bit my nails all the time, and for that, boys wouldn't want to date me. And, while I do want to someday maybe get married, it's not even in the top ten most important things I care about in achieving in this life. For my grandparents, that was maybe numbers 1 and 2 on their agenda. They did try at times. My grandmother would try and bond with me by talking about fashion, hair and nails, but unfortunately (if you couldn't tell by my naturally unruly sex hair, my love of yoga pants, and a desire to be a down and dirty photojournalist) these were not topics I felt connected to. More often then not, I put on the dresses and the makeup simply to satisfy. And thus, I did what any self respectful Jewish American Princess does: she goes to Hebrew School, has a Bat Mitzvah, and pretends to date Jewish boys. I gained their approval. And admittedly, I did love having it.
But then I moved to Chicago, and keeping in touch has been a struggle ever since.
Upon his passing, I was asked if there was any memorabilia that I wanted to keep, and the first thing I thought of was getting the chance to go through his photographs. My grandfather took THOUSANDS of pictures. He loved photography. He had been a novice photographer since the film camera since before it became a commercial commodity. And even before he could afford a camera, he collected postcards, admiring someone else's photography. It was a passion of his to document the world around him, and even into his old age, when he often could forget my name in conversation, he could talk about every photograph he took, the days events, the location, the context... everything had a story. Organized in bookshelves and containers in his office, and I was never allowed to explore or inquire.
Upon his passing, I broke the rules. I dug deep into his photo collection. I saw his life in panoramic detail.
In ONE day, I learned this much more: He was a Jewish-Polish immigrant that came to the USA with the Silverberg clan in a post WWI era. They passed through Ellis Island and struggled in poverty in NYC for the family to make ends meat (for a living, his father was a street peddler). Before that, he grew up in a Jewish ghetto called Lublin, just outside Warsaw, and didn't have toys, running water, heat, or electricity. And lived in a one bedroom home with three other siblings, and an array of other family members. For toilet paper, him and his siblings would play games to see who could collect the most newspaper clippings in the streets outside their home. WTF, right? I can't even fathom. He served in WWII as a gunner in the air-force, and later as a secretary to General Lucius Clay, and was a significant part in the logistical implications of cleaning up desolated cities and assisting the victims of war. This included helping the survivors of the death camps receive medical attention, food, shelter, and plans to find and allocate homes and missing relatives. Once he returned from Europe he met my grandma (love at first sight) at a mutual friends wedding. They later married, and had my dad and my uncle, started a successful handkerchief imports business, and the rest is history. He traveled the whole world with my grandmother; Egypt, Hawaii, the Caribbean, Europe, China (during the Communist years!), Russia, Israel, Bermuda, and more.
I also learned that he wanted to be an artist and a photographer, and that in the brief amount of time I have declared myself a professional photographer, I have made him proud. I have finally found something that we could've connected with, something he loved, appreciated, and respected. And I was too late in realizing that. I wish I could go back in time,and had grown up with a meaningful relationship with my grandparents. Instead of diving into his pictures, yearbooks, music collections, journals, anything that can give me hints about his life. It's a little sad.
From this experience, I simply want to divulge the lesson of my realization: If your grandparents and parents are still living, do everything in your power to find something that connects you together. Anything. Just one thing. When all seems hopeless, that one thing can be everything. Life is short, and we only have so long to learn what we can about each other. Do so before it's too late. Forgive and forget, no excuses.