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A third grandfather?

My sons relate to my mom's partner as if he's my father, while my heart aches because they never met that man
Illustrative: A grandfather and grandson. (iStock)
Illustrative: A grandfather and grandson. (iStock)

There is nothing better than when my mother and her significant other, Paul, visit us in New York. There are certain highlights during this much anticipated family time, such as an exploratory mission to the local toy store and dinner at one of the boys’ favorite restaurants where french fries are served.

Whenever possible, one added bonus is pick-up at school, which is usually our babysitter’s responsibility. The boys love when Julie and I can meet them at the end of their long school day, so you can imagine their excitement when Nana Linda and Paul greet them there.

A few years ago, when my mother and Paul were in town, we did pick-up together. As soon as Joseph saw us all, his face lit up.

Walking quickly towards us with a wide smile, Joseph exclaimed to one of his friends, “I want you to meet my grandparents. They’re picking me up today!”

As soon as his sweet words reached my ears, my heart suddenly was captured by an emotional riptide.

“My grandparents.”

Technically speaking, our sons’ four grandparents are my in-laws, my mother and my late father, Yossi of blessed memory. By uttering the sacred words “My grandparents,” Joseph categorized Paul as his grandfather.

Truthfully, there are many good reasons for Joseph’s innocent comment. Paul and my mother have now been together for over 12 years, nearly all of Joseph’s life. For as long as Joseph can remember, Paul has been by his Nana’s side. And after a decade of being alone following my father’s death, my mother is happy in a loving relationship. Further, our connection to Paul is not just about my mother. Paul is a good man, a generous and patient soul, easy to talk to, and supportive of everyone in our family.

My oldest son had no idea how his words would affect me, for Paul had always been a fixture in his life.

During this same visit years ago, our youngest son asked “Who’s Paul’s Paul?” After some translating, we figured out that Benjy believed that Paul is my father and that “Paul” is just what we call my dad. If the boys can call their other grandfather “Papa,” then why not “Paul”?

So “Who’s Paul’s Paul” means who is Paul’s father? In many ways, this question wasn’t just about Paul. Benjy’s inquiry constituted a yearning to know where he comes from: his family history, his story.

Telling Benjy that Paul is not my father suddenly opened another emotional can of worms, and led to a discussion of how my father had “gone to another place.”

Benjy could understand that my father was dead, but what concerned him most is that I didn’t have a father anymore.

“You have to get a new daddy, Daddy.” As hard as I tried, this 4 year old could not accept that there is no replacement for our biological parents. And every attempt to explain this simple fact made me miss my father more.

Benjy has many great qualities, persistence being one of them. After some more thought, my little Mr. Fix-It suggested: “Paul can be your new daddy, Daddy.”

His suggestion, like Joseph’s words at school pick-up, underscores how they view Paul now and then, as someone they love, as someone we depend on, and, yes, as their grandfather.

Still, my heart aches when I hear the boys referring to Paul that way. It’s not because I don’t love Paul, because I do. It’s just that it hurts that our boys never met their real paternal grandfather. My father never even heard anyone call him zayde.

I guess I just miss what could’ve been — the walks on Old Silver Beach on Cape Cod, his asking them to recite “The Four Questions” throughout the year, catching both my sons and Zayde Joseph with their fingers in the cookie jar — if pancreatic cancer did not derail the trajectory of our lives. And I mourn that these encounters with their Zayde Joseph exist solely in my imagination.

Watching my sons hug Paul at pick-up, I ruminated if I somehow might have betrayed my father? I feared that he had been replaced.

But what was the alternative? Correcting Joseph about whom he can call his grandparent? Unthinkable.

My presumed disloyalty to my father assumed that we have a limited capacity of love in our hearts. While it is true that the physical heart has four chambers, our emotional heart is a palace with many chambers.

Zayde Joseph may not be here physically, but my boys know him. They can identify him in pictures, know his favorite jokes (the clean ones, at least) and are developing a deep sense of how they are living according to his cherished Jewish and American values.

What’s wrong with having someone else love us? Nothing.

The beneficiary of Paul’s love is my mother, our sons, and the entire family. Thankfully, all of our hearts have expanded to make room for new loves in our lives.

Paul is not my father, but he is certainly our sons’ grandfather. … You might even say they have a third grandfather. On Fathers’ Day and every day, this is a blessing for which we will always be grateful.

About the Author
Rabbi Charlie Savenor works at New York's Park Avenue Synagogue as the Director of Congregational Education. A graduate of Brandeis, JTS and Columbia University's Teachers College, he blogs on parenting, education and leadership. He serves as a volunteer fundraiser for Lone Soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces.
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