I am fortunate.
I grew up with grandparents who lived, at most, within a twenty-minute drive from my house. My brother and I had “Mimi and Papa Thursdays” where our grandparents would pick us up from school, and spend time with us all afternoon. We would go to Demetrios and eat white pizza – Papa couldn’t eat tomatoes, so we did not eat tomatoes. Papa would make French pancakes whenever we slept over, and even made a stack for us to keep in the freezer and eat at home. Mimi and Papa took each of the grandkids on a special trip for our 10th birthday. We went out to Sun Valley, Idaho in the summers with Mimi and Papa. We would stay in these big houses and go fishing, hiking, and ice-skating.
Thanksgiving was always spent with Mimi and Papa. One year, we started going to Busch Gardens on Thanksgiving. All ten of us – Mimi, Papa, my parents, brother, aunt, uncle, two cousins, and me. We would drive up to Busch Gardens on Thanksgiving Day, and have dinner at Ruby Tuesdays on the way home. We would then do a more formal Thanksgiving the day after. After many years of this, we started a new tradition where we spent Thanksgiving on the beach where the kids could swim and play games, while the adults could relax.
This year was the first Yom Kippur without my Papa.
I decided, as a way of honoring him, to read his autobiography. This autobiography is just a word document that he saved on his computer to be read by his kids, grandkids, etc. I laughed when he wrote that one of his best memories as a “good Jewish boy” was when his parents set up a Christmas tree, and his Grandpa showed up dressed like Santa. This story is followed by my Papa sharing that he is angry his parents let him opt out of becoming a Bar Mitzvah. He went onto remediate this by becoming a Bar Mitzvah at age 48.
I was both proud and upset to read that he and my Mimi were active in Jewish organizations. In the 1980s, Mimi fell in love with Israel and helped to found The Sarasota-Manatee Jewish Federation’s Chapter of The Lion of Judah. She went on to be the Chairperson of the Women’s UJA Campaign, and President of the Women’s Division of the Federation. Papa joined the The Sarasota-Manatee Federation Board in 1982. He went on to build the sister city program at The Jewish Federation, became Chairman of the General Campaign, and Treasurer. I wish I had known this when he was living and could have talked to him about these experiences. Today, I work as a Jewish communal professional as a fundraiser, and I would have loved to ask my Papa his best solicitation stories or tips.
But, the part of my Papa’s biography that was the most difficult for me to read was this: “The birth of our Grandchildren opened up a whole new world to [my wife] and me. We thought we knew what happiness was before the grandchildren arrived, but it was nothing compared to the pleasure and love that we have received since they were born. As the saying goes, “If we knew what pleasure we would get from our grandchildren, we would have had them first”. With the birth of the grandchildren, I spent less and less time at [The Jewish] Federation because they became the most important thing in my life…I’m truly blessed to have such loving and caring children, and the same can be said for their spouses. The crème de la crème to the whole wonderful family that I have are the grandchildren. I only hope that [my wife] and I will be blessed with at least four score and ten so that we can be around to hopefully see [our grandchildren] graduate from college and get married. Maybe some great grandchildren!”
Growing up, I assumed that my Mimi and Papa were just like every other grandparent. Recently, I have realized how truly fortunate I was. Not every grandchild is blessed to have grandparents who want to have such an active role in their lives. I had grandparents who called every year on my birthday, most years with my Papa starting each call by singing the “Happy Birthday” song. I had grandparents who attended my performances and school graduations. I had grandparents who had a very active, meaningful role in the first quarter of my life.
This past year has been difficult for me. I remember judging my peers who posted tributes on Facebook about their grandparents, not fully understanding they hurt they were feeling. Now, I feel ridiculous for even thinking that – I mean, here I am writing a public blog doing the exact same thing.
When my Papa passed away, I was angry that Judaism didn’t consider me close enough to him to be a “real” mourner. I mean, I don’t follow other Jewish laws like keeping kosher and observing Shabbat, but I was mad that I was not obligated by Jewish law to mourn my Papa in the same way my Mom was. I was in need of a roadmap for how to deal with this deep loss. I wanted to figure out how to make it hurt less.
There are still some days I will be driving home and all the sudden, I start tearing up because I remember a funny moment with Papa. Every time one of the grandkids has something special going on in our lives, I think of how proud Papa would be. At the unveiling over Thanksgiving this year, the Rabbi shared that the one-year anniversary – which is typically when the unveiling occurs – is a great moment when our painful grief turns to beautiful memories.
This article will never be good enough. It will never adequately share how special my Papa was. I just hope this article can serve as a transitional moment for me to take the next step on my mourning journey from grief to fond memories.
And there are many fond memories that I will carry with me and frequent reminders that I have some “Papa” in me. Whenever I track a flight for a friend of family member, I remember every time he would watch my plane on his computer flying back to Sarasota from wherever I was traveling. Whenever I am ten minutes early to plans because I am so anxious I will be late, I remember when he would arrive everywhere SO early – up to 30 minutes early – because he always stuck to his schedule. And my favorite reminder of all – when I order a corned beef sandwich with mayonnaise and people freak out because Jews do not that. I just smile and respond, I am my Papa’s granddaughter, so eating a corned beef sandwich with mayonnaise is a must.
About the Author: Marisa Briefman is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you. She is a recent DC transplant who was born and raised in Sarasota, Florida – likely where your grandparents live. Her love of all things Jewish began at overnight camp and continues to thrive in her role at JSSA. She is coffee addict, lover of Mexican food, and on a permanent mission pet all the adorable dogs in DC (if someone is in need of a dog-sitter, email me).