Everyone has four grandparents. Some known and some not known. I knew only one. My mother’s father and mother died in the same year, six months apart from one another when she was only ten years old. She, her sister and two brothers were raised by their aunt, their mother’s sister.
Her mother’s father was a chief rabbi in Nemirov, in the district of Lwow (Lemberg) in Galicia (Austrian Poland) and her father’s father was a rabbi in the Lithuanian city of Kupiskis (Kupishok). My mother was raised in orthodoxy. And I was deprived of two grandparents who died decades before I was born.
My father’s mother died on the second day of Pesach in 1921 in Dereczyn in the Russian province of Grodno. He used to tell me that on the evening of the Pesach seder as his mother lay dying on her death bed she cried out to her family at the seder table “zing haicher; es vet zein meine letzte Pesach”…. Sing louder; this will be my last Pesach”. And she died the next day.
The only grandparent I was blessed to know and to love was my father’s father. Not my “saba’ but my “zaideh”. He read his prayers fluently in Hebrew but spoke only Yiddish. Very sadly for me, I knew him only few short years. He died when I was eight years old but I remember him clearly each day of my life as if he were standing next to me.
I remember when I was four years old and he took me to the zoo. I was frightened by the lions’ roar, by the size of the elephants’ feet and by the teeth in the occasionally open mouth of a hippopotamus.
Zaideh clutched my hand tightly and I felt safe and secure. Back at home he opened his prayerbook for the evening meditations and I would run from one room to another.
Although he died 80 years ago when I was only 8 years old, I still hear his voice calling to me” Kum aher. Tataleh. A vu laifst du? Kum, zetzich bei mir”. Come here, my dear child. Where are you running? Come and sit next to me”.
And run to him I did as fast as my small feet could carry me. I jumped eagerly onto his lap and he stroked the curls in my hair and kissed me with his wet lips on both of my cheeks. All of this was prelude to the song he sang while bouncing me on his knees. “Hop Hop Hop, a gezunten kop. A gezunten kop ein wieder a gezunt auf allen glieder, a gezunten kop, gop hop hop”.
Decades have passed and I sang his song to my own three children and to my three grandchildren and they always reminded me to sing “your zaideh’s song again”.
In three more months, in early July, my grandson will become father to his first child, a baby boy. And I have requested not to be called saba-raba, but to be called only zaideh. The love which is eternal will continue as long as I live. And I look forward eagerly to sharing it with my first great-grandchild.
Zaideh was the only grandparent I have ever known. I look at his large framed photo hanging on a wall in my home and I throw him a kiss each day as I begin my morning prayers.
Always, as I sat on his lap, he would take his small pocket-knife and peel me a slice of an apple or an orange and sometimes a small bit of a chocolate bar which he fed lovingly into my mouth.
All of his holiday melodies, particularly on Chanukah and Pesach, have been preserved and I, my children and my grandchildren sing them loud and with gusto. Dead for eighty years, his tunes, words and melodies remain alive in my family. And with them, the only grandparent I had ever known lives on.
When I was younger than I now am I would visit the graves of my four grandparents once a year before Rosh Hashanah and recite the kaddish prayer in their memories. I would light a memorial candle and mention their names and pray for them to intercede with the Creator of the Universe for blessings for me and the members of my family.
The two greatest loves in my life were my zaideh and my sainted wife. Thinking of both of them I recall the Yiddish words which zaideh used to call me: “zeesen neshoma” (Sweet soul) and “mein lichtige welt” (Light of my life).
Because of my present advanced age I will not live long enough to know my yet unborn great-grandson nor will he ever know me but I hope he will be told as he grows up that he had a zaideh, not a saba nor a saba- raba. In that way, the zaideh tradition will go on living while the zaideh himself is no longer.
Grandparents, known and not known, are treasures to be preserved in memories. Mine are. And I hope yours are also.