I didn’t get to say goodbye to you, Dedulya. I didn’t get to see you for over a year. I had to watch your funeral on a screen from 2000 miles away.
You were the most wonderful grandfather with the booming voice. You were always smiling (except in old photographs from the Soviet Union, where you always look thoughtful and brooding and very serious).
Whenever I would bring my girls to visit you, you would meet us in the hallway of your apartment building with your arms spread wide, waiting for them to run to you. And they would. Your apartment always smelled like food, and was meticulously clean, and a little too warm.
When I was about four, you taught me how to cross the street. Look left, walk halfway, look right. I didn’t want you to know that I couldn’t tell my left from right, so I would cross the street turning my head back and forth the whole time. You said that is not how you cross the street, that is how you get a sore neck.
One time right around then, your tv was acting up. My cousin went over and banged on the top of it with his angry little fist. You said, “Ilya! What are you doing? It will blow up!” I was well into my teenage years before it dawned on me that tv’s won’t actually blow up if you bang on them.
When I was maybe five, we were on a sleeper train. I don’t remember where we were going or why, but it was you, Babulya, and Ilya. We were playing cards on the top bunk bed and I dozed off. You and Babulya were sitting on the bottom bunk, getting lunch ready. You had a jar of borsch in one hand and sour cream in the other. As I rolled off the top bunk, you somehow, miraculously managed to stick your leg out and break my fall. All I remember was going from playing cards to sitting sleepily next to you on the bottom bunk. You always protected us.
When you came to America, you learned to drive. You would clear your throat very loudly while driving, over and over again, which I always found amusing. Babulya would sit in the back seat and you would chauffeur her around. You chauffeured all of us around.
You learned English and were not timid about using it. You found ways to communicate with everyone, language was never a barrier for you. I admired that and thought of it often when I was living in Israel and feeling shy and insecure about speaking Hebrew. You were my inspiration.
When I was a pre-teen, I lived across the street from the playground, but my mom wouldn’t let me cross the busy street to go there alone. You would drive 30 minutes each way to walk me across the street. Did I ever thank you?
You were incredibly creative. You made movies, you wrote poetry. At your funeral, my aunt, Lina, said that she had a rule in recent years that you had to call her when you woke up and give her a report on your health. You insisted on giving the report in poetry. What could be more you than that?
You were creative in your parenting too. When one of us was being difficult, you found ways to get us to cooperate. My cousin Natasha was a willful child. When she would refuse to shower, you would convince her that she was actually doing laundry, which she was not opposed to. I can’t imagine how you kept from cracking up as you helped her shampoo her hair over a basket of dirty clothes. You got her out of bed by telling her the phone was for her… she would bolt out of bed and grab it to find a dial tone. You would shrug innocently and say “I guess they hung up”.
You were a lifelong learner. I admire your lack of inhibition around new technologies and gadgets. You were more tech savvy than many people half your age. My kids were messaging and videoing with you on Facebook messenger up until the last days. Even my friend Suzi fondly recalls your wonder upon discovering Google – “I have question, it has answer!”.
You spent a lot of my childhood with a huge video camera on your shoulder. It was twice the size of your head. You documented everything and then edited it and made beautiful family memories for us. Then you would insist that we all watch them. You would make me crazy by having us pose for photos and then taking what felt like forever to snap the picture. You wanted it to be perfect. And it was.
The years that Babulya was sick, you threw yourself completely into taking care of her. You managed her treatments and learned new recipes, you traded the Russian grocery stores for Whole Foods, so you could make organic, whole meals for her. You dedicated your life to making her last years as pleasant as possible.
When she died, it literally broke your heart and you spent a year in and out of the hospital with heart problems. Your heart was never the same again. I will never forget holding your hand as you sobbed through her funeral. I had never seen a grown man look so helpless.
You were always cooking. Nobody makes plov or borsch or ragu like you. You especially relished watching us eat your food. A few weeks ago I called as you were feeling particularly energetic. You said you were making borsch. I was so glad you were on your feet. I miss your borsch. I got the recipe from you several times, but could never follow the complicated directions.
Dedulya, you were so giving and kind. I loved your stories and your jokes, even when you would tell them over and over again. You were so proud of all your grandkids and your great grandkids. You would tell things we said to anyone who would listen. You called each of us “chuda” – “miracle”.
I called you the morning of your seventieth birthday. You said, “I’ll call you back! I’m rollerblading!” I thought, I want to be like you when I’m seventy.
You had a zest for life. You loved going to your “kindergarten”. You were so loved there and you had so much love to give to all your friends. You and Babulya always made the most out of life. I admire your ability to build a community and a circle of friends. You loved parties and you loved costumes. You and Babulya would spend months planning elaborate New Year’s Eve getups.
On one rare occasion Solomon and I visited Chicago at the same time. We took you to the Russian store for a grocery run. You tried to sneak pickles onto the conveyor belt. You were not supposed to have pickles because of the sodium, but a meal to you was not a meal without a pickle and dark bread. Solomon and I tried to take the pickles away when you were not looking and the sales lady laughed and said to you, “you are so lucky to have such wonderful grandkids!”. You said, “I have five of them! And four great grandkids! You should see them all. I am the luckiest”. We were the lucky ones to have you, Dedulya.
In recent years, you had good days and bad days.
On good days, you would go sit outside and watch the deer. You would talk about coming to visit California again after Covid is over. You were lonely. Sometimes you would sit for hours hoping someone you knew would walk by. On bad days, you would say you didn’t know why you were still going through the motions.
You would say, “Don’t worry. I am not in danger of dying young”. You always had your sense of humor.
In March, when we began to see the writing on the wall about this new Coronavirus, I called to convince you to stop going to your “kindergarten”. I was worried about the exposure. I thought it would just be a few weeks. I convinced you to stop going before it shut down. I didn’t realize that would be the last time you got to go be with your friends. I didn’t realize it would keep me from seeing you again. I always thought we had more time. I don’t know why I thought that.
Some people get more set in their personalities as they get older. They get depressed, angry, resentful. You only became more and more kind and grateful.
When we called, you were thrilled and thanked us. When we visited, you were overjoyed. You marveled at every little thing our kids said or did. You never guilted us, even if we deserved it. You never tried to change us. You accepted and were proud of us just the way we were. I can only hope to one day be as wonderful as grandparent as you were. I miss you. I will miss you always, Dedulya, and your memory is a blessing to your daughters, grandkids and great grandkids. Baruch Dayan ha’Emet.