My wife’s grandmother was one of those special people you only occasionally have the good fortune to meet. She was the kind of person who, when you hear about their life, you’re in awe of the hardships they overcame and the amount of energy, stamina and strength they possessed. Grandma was the senior chef at a hotel in the Catskills, and when I say “senior,” I’m not just referring to her age; although she worked until she was almost 90 years old.
In the kitchen, people listened to and followed her instructions, else they saw her wrath, which was not only expressed verbally, but, I’m told, on one occasion physically. In her later years, on birthdays, holidays and special occasions, members of our family would give her gifts, such as bathrobes, slippers and nightgowns, etc. – the kinds of things you would expect an older woman to want to relax in, but Grandma wasn’t a relaxing individual.
At 91, she came to Houston and cooked for more than 200 people, who attended our daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. Several years later, she cooked all the desserts for our son’s Bar Mitzvah. She was famous for her strudel dough, which, when stretched, was said to be so thin that you could read a newspaper through it.
Every meal she created and even her leftovers were scrumptious. At 102, after being sick for several months, Grandma said, “Eddieboy, getting old isn’t fun, being sick isn’t fun,” and then a short time later, she died.
When the family cleaned out her closet and bureau, 95 percent of the gift bathrobes, summer dresses, pajamas and nightgowns were found neatly folded with their tags still on and never worn. We attributed it to the fact that in Hungary, where she grew up, your possessions were few, and life was difficult. Because of that, we assumed it was natural for her to save things instead of using them.
However, a month ago, on my birthday, I discovered what I’ve come to think is a more plausible explanation. I don’t believe that her intent was to save money or to open up a lingerie shop. Nor do I believe that the cost or expense of the items she received for her birthday was of any concern, insofar as her happiness was concerned. I think something else, and I’d like to share that thought with you.
But first, let me add that over the 62 years I’ve been married, my wife has suggested on countless occasions, that I’m an awful lot like her grandmother. I have to agree, but not necessarily because of her toughness and energy; more because we both had a problem throwing out or wasting things. Harriet says that, during her youth, the only way you could discard anything was to disguise it by wrapping it in newspaper or an old bag before throwing it in the trash.
I shamefully confess, I’m about that bad. I’ll eat things that should’ve been discarded days before because I find it difficult to throw them away. I cook, but not nearly as well as she, and one of the greatest joys in my life is to see others savor the food I set before them.
It was the same for Grandma. The greatest gift you could give her was the opportunity to watch us consume the copious amounts of food she produced, in very short order and of a very high quality. Then, she’d stand back and observe us cleaning our plates. But, no matter how much we ate, she always looked at our empty plate and said, “ess ah bissel more.” That meant “eat a little more.”
But, Grandma’s “bissel” wasn’t little. It would have been a large serving for a truck driver. Nevertheless, no matter how full you were, you couldn’t help but feel guilty if you didn’t comply with her wishes. There is no doubt we’re similar there, as well. The truth is we both could be diagnosed as emotionally needy individuals.
However, I’d like to think there is something more. It’s that she learned years ago what I know, intellectually, but only gut-level felt on my last birthday. It’s that there is much more to life than nightgowns, slippers and bathrobes, as evidenced by the joy and satisfaction Grandma gained, by filling our stomachs, which filled her heart.
Let me elaborate about my birthday. I woke about 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning because I heard voices coming from the second floor in our house. Our bedroom is on the third floor, and I initially assumed that our housekeeper might have come in on the weekend. But, that didn’t seem plausible.
My next thought was that someone had broken in, but the more I listened, the more I recognized several of the voices. So, I put on a bathrobe and quickly descended to the second floor living area where I was greeted by all my adult grandchildren gathered in the kitchen with an array of kolaches, shouting, “Happy Birthday, Papa.”
It was without a doubt, the most wonderful birthday gift I’ve ever received. Their presence on a Saturday morning, when they normally would have slept late, was a gift that was priceless. No bathrobe, pajamas, tie, shirt or slippers could ever match the feelings I experienced that moment. It filled my heart.
You see, there comes a time when you no longer need or desire additional underwear or possessions. My drawers and shelves are figuratively and literally filled to excess, but I doubt that I will ever experience an excess of the joy and warmth I felt that morning. So, I now know the secret my grandmother and, I suspect, many of your grandparents also discovered later in their lives; that what is truly essential is invisible to the eye, but is food for the heart.
Consequently, the next time you see fit to give a gift, buy it and deliver it in person; not by mail, UPS, or a delivery service and don’t worry if they wear it or not. Your being there is all that really matters. It’s a lesson we all need to learn, not just intellectually but emotionally. Then, we need to share it with everyone we know and love.