I didn’t mean to take the summer off from blogging. But my father — the one who read to me every night as a child, who taught me to throw like a boy, to swim, ice skate, to play a killer game of badminton, who tried to teach me his beloved game of golf, who taught me how to clean the fish I caught (he did NOT like cleaning fish), how to cook, how to eat, how to get through what seemed like an endless period of bad times, the man who taught me how to live, and finally, how to let go of living when his time had come — died at the beginning of summer.
And even though he was nearly 92, and had had cancer for nearly twenty years, it caught all of us a bit by surprise. He’d been spending his winters with us since 1991, and though it was clear he was fading fast last winter, he was hanging on and utterly buoyed by the publication of Keeping the Feast last February. He made it to my talk at our local library and was as thrilled as I was to visit with so many old friends who came out to hear about the book.
At his funeral mass, I read the eulogy that our daughter, Julia, helped me write and which gives a rough idea of what he meant, not only to me, but to the little world of which he was such a vibrant part. Here it is:
Our 13-year-old daughter, Julia, wanted you all to know why she loved her grandfather, who every winter used to climb aboard an Air France plane to spend three months with us in Paris. This is what she wrote:
“One of my absolute favorite stories about Bop-Bop was that when we were eating supper, and there was bubbly water on the table, whose brand name was ‘Badoit,’ (pronounced ba-dwah) I would try to teach him how to pronounce it correctly in French. But it always came out as Bad-oooo-it. And despite the whole family’s effort to correct that, it stayed Bad-oooo-it and became a family joke. And now I can’t see a bottle of Badoit, without thinking of Bop-Bop.
“Until Bop-Bop was about 88, every morning he would get down on the dining room rug and would do, without too much difficulty, three backward somersaults. My mother said he thought they were good for his “regularity.” I liked to watch, and he’s the one who finally taught me how to do them. And I could always impress my friends when I would tell them how my 88-year-old grandfather could do three backward somersaults and how their 60-year-old grandparents were walking around with canes and generally being grumpy — things that never happened with Bop-Bop.
“When my friends would come over during the winter and Bop-Bop was there, they always liked it because a lot of them didn’t have grandfathers any longer, or they were the grumpy, don’t-bother-me kind. So my friends Douce, Colombe, Anna and Elizabeth sort of adopted Bop-Bop and he became their substitute grandfather. They were constantly asking “Quand est-ce qu’il vient, ton grandpere? (So when’s your grandfather coming?) That made him happy too.”
I just want to add that an enormous number of people adopted our father in some way as he got older and older over the years. It wasn’t because of his age, but because of his genuine kindness.
A French friend of ours, who sat around our Thanksgiving table with him for many years, wrote to say that she could still picture “his light-colored eyes, his sparkling look, so deep because so full of generosity, something that was spontaneous and came straight from the heart, and which expected nothing in return.” She marveled about how when he would ask her how her life was going, he was absolutely attentive to her response, and how her response always mattered to him. We all know how rare that gift is.
Another old friend, who is one of his pallbearers, only got to know him very late in life. He wrote a brief message that captured him: “Your father was a wonderful, welcoming and gentle spirit, and the world is less because of his loss.”
When we first moved to Black Rock, back in 1960, our parents were the youngsters on the block, and as our elderly neighbors aged, our mother used to make and bring them big kettles of soup. Over the years, as our father somehow morphed into the oldest man on the block, his young neighbors — a vast army of them — have been helping him in countless ways — bringing him food, mowing his grass, shoveling his walk, checking to make sure his shades went up each morning, inviting him to neighborhood cookouts and wine-tastings, letting their children get to know him. Until recently, when he grew too frail, he used to love to pay them back for their endless kindness by making them an occasional pot of spaghetti sauce. I just wish I could make all the people who took such good care of him — his most neighborly of neighbors — a huge pot of thank-you soup.
A rabbi I know, who only “met” my father by reading about him, gave me great comfort yesterday when he sent me the words of the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead: “May His Soul Be Bound Up In the Bond of the Living.”
Our father’s soul was bound that way throughout his life on earth, and I know it will be bound that way in his new life beyond. Julia and I just wonder if he is doing backward somersaults in heaven…