I never knew my mother’s parents. They both died, six months apart from one another, when my mother was only ten years old. Her father was the first to die at age forty-one. He was followed by his wife six months later at the age of thirty-nine. My mother and her three siblings were raised by an aunt (her mother’s sister) and an uncle. Both were childless and they took four little orphans into their home.
My father’s mother died before I was born. So I never had a bobbeh. Only her husband, my beloved zaideh. The bobbeh and my 6 year old father were in Bialystok consulting with a famous Jewish ophthalmologist (bobbeh suffered from glaucoma) on a tragic day in 1906 when an infamous Cossack pogrom swept through the Jewish quarter of Bialystok. Many Jews caught on the streets were slaughtered by Cossack swords.
My father and his mother were locked in a room. His mother hid him in the drawers of a wardrobe and covered him with sheets and blankets, begging him not to cry nor make a sound.
When Cossacks broke into the room, they ransacked it and beat my bobbeh so severely that she was left with a paralyzed arm for the rest of her life. But my father, well hidden, was not found and his life was saved.
So growing up, I had only one grandparent…the zaideh whom I adored. I called him zaideh because other than Russian the only language he knew and spoke was Yiddish. I was madly in love with him… a brennedigge lieb, as my father would say… a burning love.
While I understood that both of my parents loved me, they were firm disciplinarians and my body often felt the blows of a leather strap if I disobeyed them. As often as they kissed me and hugged me, I don’t remember them telling me that they loved me. They showed their love but could not articulate it in words.
Zaideh, on the other hand, could not refrain from hugging and kissing me over and over again while telling “mein zisser kind” how very much he loved me.
Of his thirteen grandchildren, all older than I, there was never a doubt that I was zaideh’s favorite. He would sit me on his lap, stroke my hair with his tobacco-stained fingers, pull me close to him and smother both cheeks with his wet kisses. Then he would adjust his false teeth and begin singing to me Yiddish songs.
Because he had been a diabetic, one of his legs had to be amputated. I never understood how he was able to walk until one day I noticed a large wooden stump from underneath his pants leg. And even in that condition he would walk with me outside, holding my small hand, humming softly a Yiddish melody.
I was nine years old when my zaideh died. When I was told, I threw myself on my bed and cried bitter tears. But I made a promise never to forget him, to sing his songs to his own melodies, to observe Jewish Sabbaths and festivals as he did, and to try to be like him when I was older.
It is seventy-five years since my zaideh’s death. His large photo hangs on my wall and each morning when I awake and each night when I retire, I throw a kiss to him and remind him “zaideh, ich hob dir nit fargessen. Zaideh, lo shachachti otcha u’l’olam lo eshkach. Zaideh, I have not forgotten you and I never will”.
My own three grown grandchildren never tire of hearing my stories about the love relationship between an old grandfather and a young child.
As if God has blessed me, my own grandchildren embrace me, kiss me and love me as my zaideh and I loved one another.
The flesh may wither and fall, the body may no longer exist, but the soul lives on and the beautiful memories add needed joy to my old age. Zaideh was seventy-nine at the time of his death. I am soon approaching my eighty-fifth birthday. And for me, my zaideh still lives within me. I talk to him but there is no reply. No more Yiddish. No more songs.
Only the melodies of love linger on.