A Eulogy for Somersaults

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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…

12 Responses to “A Eulogy for Somersaults”

  1. jen says:

    Deepest condolences to you and yours.

    Wonderful post.

  2. stephen szilagyi says:

    What a gift your dad gave to all who knew him. As a father myself now, I hope for another 30 years, and my daughters feeling like you along with my grandchildren. With the fondest of memories, Stephen

  3. Donna says:

    Paula, I am so sad to hear about your dad, but glad to know that he truly lived a long, wonderful life. My dad is 85 and has Alzheimers. Be grateful that until the end your dad still knew who you were. I had to comfort my dad who was crying hysterically holding his stuffed animal dog while visiting him in the facility where he lives now. It was heartbreaking. I never thought our roles would be reversed. I think it’s incredible that you could stand there and read his eulogy. And you must be so proud of Julia for writing it. I have been asked to write my dad’s eulogy when the time comes. Even though I have nowhere near the literary talent you have, I am the family writer. Hugs go out to you and your family and thank you for sharing such an emotional part of your life with us.

  4. What a beautiful and loving appreciation of your father, from both you and your daughter. You are keeping alive his gift, a love of life.

  5. Patrizia Rossi Mark says:

    First, receive my condolences … it’s tough
    losing our parents; aren’t we all on that
    same road? The eulogy is beautiful and so
    touching. I think I’m going to try BopBop’s
    somersault!! E’ una parola! I’ll be lucky
    to raise my legs!! Thanks for keeping me in
    your address book! Yesterday, when I was at
    work at the RF Library, someone checked out
    KEEPING THE FEAST!! I told the patron they
    were in for a treat! Un abbraccio, Patrizia

  6. edith frazee says:

    Paula, when you mention kindness in your attributes to your dad, he sounded so much like my own. I offer you my heartfelt condolences and must tell you about my father.
    He was not a rich man in wealth, but would never miss the opportunity of giving a dollar to any children of any families he visited. At one point, my sister told me he would wait for the children to get off the school buses and give each of them money to get ice cream. (Those were what I call “innocent days”–can you imagine if he tried to do that in today’s world?) He was waked for 2 days when he passed away. A governor could not have received a better sendoff. The same people, including children, came both nights. I always loved his generosity and mostly, his patience. He was always a hardworking man who provided for us, his family, with his bountiful gardens. He was left a widower very early (in his 40′s and with 7 of us children”)
    never remarried. Rest assured, we will remember them always. Love, Edith

  7. Maria Ucchino says:

    Paula:

    I am so sorry to read about the passing of your father. While he lived a very long life, it makes his absence even more profound. Thank you for sharing such an emotional tribute, as it reminds us all that family and friends are the only thing that makes this life worth living. May he rest in peace and may his memories be the light that guides you through life.

    Sincerely,

    Maria Ucchino

  8. Brenda says:

    Dear Paula,
    My sympathies on your father’s passing, and thanks at his long life and enduring spirit. Hoping also that you have comfort at your folks’ being reunited at the table. Blessings to you and your family.

  9. Larry Chance says:

    Dear Paula:
    What an endearing tribute on your father’s passing. So sorry to hear the news. I think about my own late Dad on a daily basis since his passing in 1989. Keep him alive in your heart.
    Pace e Bene
    Larry

  10. Thanks to everybody who wrote back to me in response to the news about my father’s death. I think that there’s just no good way to lose a parent. But your messages helped.

  11. Grace Bower says:

    Lucille first recommended your book but then when she visited with you I finally got to read your amazing book. Thank you.I see you wrote this post on Sept 2nd 2010 – the day I turned 65. I feel that I came alive in 65 (for many reasons) so it is very poignant to see you wrote this eulogy that day. I hope I get a chance to talk/visit with you some day. Thank you for your contribution to the world. From New Zealand.

  12. Grace,

    Thanks ever so much for getting in touch, and all the way from New Zealand, a place where my father spent time during WWII. When he came to visit me in London 40 years later, his comment was, “London looks just like New Zealand” rather than the other way around. I guess it just depends which one you’ve seen first… Please do get in touch if you find yourself bound for Paris.

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