(Although I published a version of this story last year in response to the prompt about grandparents, my grandfather was truly an unforgettable person. And it is a family tradition to tell stories about him over and over again….)
Throughout my childhood, Grampa Mike was always there : birthdays, holidays, ordinary days...and he used to show up with a flat of eggs and maybe some roses that were a little past their prime.
His obituary doesn’t say very much. It’s written in a tiny font and takes up about a square inch of newsprint. I keep the yellowed square of paper in my jewelry box, the one I took with me the day my house burned down in 1991.
The obituary states when he died–June 11, 1977– but not his age; it lists the names of family members who survived him, and mentions that he was a former leader of the Jewish Educational Society of San Francisco. His name was Morris, but I never heard anyone call him that. He was Mike to almost everyone, and Grampa Mike to me and my cousins. His own children rarely called him Dad: he was Chief, Father Citrus, Pater Familias, Moishe, and Mike. Mike was his nom de saloon in the days when he owned a bar on skid row in San Francisco. My dad and my uncle were enlisted to work at the bar too, and they all had “bar names.” This was way before my time, of course. By the time I came along, the bar was long gone and had become part of the family folklore.
The obituary didn’t mention the box of stale bread my grandfather always carried around in the trunk of his car.
It was his go-to entertainment source for his grandchildren when we spent the day with him. We could go to any park and be ready to feed the ducks and the pigeons. Hours of fun! The aroma of stale bread always reminds me of him. So do flats of eggs, fedoras, and ice cream.
Unlike many other Russian immigrants at the time, my grandfather did not leave the old country to settle in Petaluma and raise chickens. Instead, he sailed to New York, then moved to San Francisco and started his own business as a wholesale egg distributor–he bought the eggs and sold them to restaurants, bars and hotels. He was the Egg Man!
Throughout my childhood, Grampa Mike was always there: birthdays, holidays, ordinary days…and he used to show up with a flat of eggs and maybe some roses that were a little past their prime. He goofed around with us and mugged for the camera. He bought us ice cream and pretended to scold us when we stuck out our tongues to lick our cones. When we sat next to him with food on our plates, he’d look surprised and point at something behind us. We’d turn around to look, and he’d have taken a bite of our sandwich. His big blue eyes gave nothing away–he was innocent!
I wish I still had the letters he wrote to me. He loved to write letters and he especially loved to receive letters from his grandchildren. His penmanship was full of flourishes: with curlicues and swoops, the words danced across the pages of the onion skin paper they were written on. He wrote in several languages sometimes, mixing English and Russian, Yiddish and Polish. From the time I learned how to print, he encouraged me to write letters and stories. When my family moved away from San Francisco for a time, my grandfather wrote long letters to my dad. Luckily, I have those letters. Although he wasn’t formally educated, my grandfather wrote knowledgeably about art, the state of the world, philosophy, literature and so many things. He signed one of his letters “Your padre.” In a postscript, he wrote a note to my sister in response to a letter she had sent him: “According to your letter you sound as if you were walking on high heels like a ballerina and you must have some makeup on your face. One thing my darling, give me a pledge that you will not start smoking, not even Lucky Strike. Otherwise, to me you are tops.” Keep in mind that my sister was 8 years old at the time.
My grandfather died while I was pregnant with the first of the great-grandchildren, so he never got a chance to meet a member of the next generation. But he lives on through the stories we tell about him. I bet that every great-grandchild can tell the one about the time my grandfather concluded an important business meeting with a potential client, reached into his breast pocket for a handkerchief– and pulled out a sock instead. It’s a classic. At any family get together, someone would start with the Grampa Mike stories, and we would laugh until we cried. All of his bad business deals, the odd guys down on their luck that he hired as handymen, the load of oranges he drove over the Grapevine that got cooked under the hot sun, the red-light district motels he unwittingly invested in, his insistence that he came from a place called “Minsk and Pinsk,” and how he was convinced that his business partners thought he was Swedish because of his blond hair and blue eyes–even though he spoke Eastern European-accented English.
One day when I was in my twenties, I held his hand as we walked down the front steps of his house on Turk Street in San Francisco. Though he had some trouble walking by then, his grip was still very strong. He said to me, “It’s a terrible thing to get old.” I remember looking at him and saying,”No, Grampa. you’re not old.” I wasn’t used to hearing him sound serious and it scared me.
He was a wonderful grandfather, full of fun and tricks to entertain his grandchildren. I’m glad he felt like singing “Sunrise,Sunset” at my wedding. The rabbi, a family friend, gently admonished him at the time: “Mike! Shush…”
It was a joy to have such a thoughtful, impish grandfather. I think of him every time I swipe a french fry from one of my grandchildren’s plates.