500 words of memory
December 08, 2004
Yesterday was the anniversary, on the Gregorian calendar, of the passing of my maternal grandfather Eppie (may his memory be a blessing). Tonight, the second night of Chanukah, marks his yarzheit on the Hebrew calendar. I'm not sure the two anniversaries have come so close to coinciding since his death in 1996. It's hard to believe we've lived eight years without him.
Born in New York in 1908, my grandfather was reared in smalltown Russia near the Polish border (his parents returned there shortly after his birth). Tapped at an early age for the rabbinate, he chose instead to attend a Russian gymnasium and then medical school in Prague. (That's where he got the nickname Eppie, which stayed with him the rest of his life.) There he met, courted, and married my grandmother. When their first daughter was three, they fled Prague, barely making it out before Hitler's troops took the city. Only the fact of his American birth certificate got them aboard the President Harding and onto our shores.
Once in America, Eppie learned English and passed the requisite medical exams so he could work as a thoracic surgeon. He joined the Veteran's Administration, and took postings in a variety of towns around the South. By the time I entered the picture, my grandparents had more-or-less retired to San Antonio, home of my mother (that daughter who'd crossed with them from Prague). I saw them often. When my parents travelled, I spent weekends at my grandparents' place. For years we had regular dinner dates at Luby's. They came to my piano recitals and plays, and sent letters when I went to summer camp.
My grandfather was a grand storyteller, and loved to regale us with tales of his Russian childhood, remembered medical school pranks (the colleague who removed the penis from his cadaver and slipped it into someone else's pocket), the Latin proverbs he remembered from high school and the Hebrew songs he'd learned in cheder. He spoke seven languages fluently. Throughout my childhood I was convinced that I would follow in his footsteps to honor him.
The threat of organic chemistry in college derailed my medical plan. (Well, that, and my discovery that religion and poetry classes were really fun.) I fall sadly short of his linguistic achievements, too. But I think of him often, and I like to think that my life honors him even though it doesn't match his. He could cobble together almost anything: doorknobs, meals, the handmade leather binders where he kept his stamps and his records. He read voraciously, and loved to travel. In the spring of 1995 when my grandmother died, he began to fade; by the time he died eighteen months later he was only a shadow of the man he had been. But I loved him fiercely, and still do; and as his Gregorian and Hebrew yarzheits collide this week, he is much on my mind. Thank you, Eppie, for shaping my world.