I know no one lives forever, but I thought my Papa had a shot. An unmovable force, the metronome keeping all of time. Absolutely constant. With all the words available to describe him, the one that will never seem to fit is “was.” My Papa runs the world. A world without him in it doesn’t make sense.
There are a lot of perplexing moments during childhood, but none were more confusing than when I’d hear a friend say she only saw her grandparents once or twice a year. That’s such an alien thought to me. What do you mean you don’t see them five times a week? What do you mean you don’t have dinner with them every Friday night? What do you mean you don’t play in their backyard all weekend? They don’t call you six times a day? That’s weird.
We saw and spoke to our grandparents so often, it’s hard to believe there was ever much need to leave a message on an answering machine, but when he did, my grandfather always began with one phrase: “This is your Papa!” Just in case there could be any confusion. He was easily the most recognizable male figure in the world, identifying himself was hardly necessary. But there it was, every time, “This is your Papa!”
There are parts of his life I am too unfamiliar to talk about with any authority. I don’t know what his life was like as a Jewish child in Germany, during a time simply being a Jewish child in Germany was a dangerous thing to be. I can’t tell you what immigrating to the United States by boat was like. I can’t tell you what it was like to work for, or with him, in the meatpacking industry, I can’t tell you what it was like to be his child. In his lifetime he wore countless hats, especially in our Jewish community, but from my perspective, he didn’t like any of them half as much as the one reserved for grandfathers.
One of my earliest memories happened one night during Hanukkah, I was maybe six or seven years old, sitting on my grandparents’ living room floor, waiting to open my presents along with my brother Scott and cousin Jodi. Jason, if he was born yet, was a baby. In our family, we opened all our presents on one night, but not a single present could be opened until after dinner, and beyond that, after Papa finished doing the dishes. For those of you unfamiliar with my grandfather’s work, this was during the phase of our family’s history when he washed the paper plates, too.
I remember sitting on the floor watching and waiting impatiently for him to meticulously load the dishwasher, when a very clear thought entered my head. “I get that grandparents love their grandkids, but Papa really loves us.” In addition to an endless supply of hugs, kisses, and constant ear-pinching, there was an almost confusing amount of pride. I never thought I did anything to warrant it. I might have looked around wondering if there was another group of kids doing something remarkable like curing disease or ending homelessness, for how proud Papa was just to have us.
When my grandmother died my sense of shock was too strong to form coherent thought, much less take an accounting of the minutiae of her. Being older and able to recognize what has happened I can clearly grasp every trait and memory of my grandfather that I want to catalog.
Monogrammed shirts. His steps on marble floor in good shoes that meant it was time to go to shul on Friday night. His separate phone line. Jars of iced tea steeping in the sun. The way he insisted on reading or singing every single word of the Hagadah, and us skipping five pages ahead every time he’d leave to wash his hands. Giant white Cadillacs. Four grandkids and three seat belts in the back of giant white Cadillacs. He was an excellent cook. Praying too loudly and a second before everyone else. His famous hot sauce (salsa) in countless glass jars that used to house pickles or other kitchen necessities. Boxes and boxes of emptied out and saved glass jars waiting for their turn. The fact that he was always happy to see me, even if he’d seen me only hours before. He could fix anything with nothing more than tape, string, and sticks.
Losing any family member changes who you are together. Losing the head of your family feels like you’re lost. It was Papa’s job to raise and take care of us, a profession he more than excelled at. Now it is our job to figure out who we are without him. I know how to be a Jew because of him. I know how to give to others because of him. I know how to be a family member because of him. I think we’ll be fine.
My grandfather, Harry Simon Kahn, passed away on Monday and left an unfathomable void in our family, and a confusing, incomputable truth in my mind. I have to tell myself he is still here, because we are still here, and we are very much an extension of him. I don’t care if we can’t live forever, or keep people forever. I’ll tell myself anything I want, anything that makes this reality bearable. This is the gift he gave you. This is your family. This is your Papa.