Wednesday, January 31, 2007

From Fields of Ashes to California Sunsets

My father's father is now at the end of his days, unconscious in San Diego where he has lived for the last couple decades with my grandmother. I have been thinking this week mostly about the miraculous arc of his life. He turned 19 in Augsburg, our family's ancestral city, and was sent to Dachau the pit of our families despair, following kristalnacht. Somehow, exactly how I may never know, he got out the camp and made it to New York via England. Desperately poor he journeyed to meet his older brother who had made it through a PhD program in Germany before Jews were thrown out of the school system. My grandfather made it to Walter's place in Salt Lake City. That's where Eric and my Grandma Bunny raised my father and uncle. Eric primarily worked in the meat byproducts industry. As it happens, he used to be a Teamster. The jobs he held originally involved using harsh chemicals and long hours but eventually invovled bookeeping but still long hours. He worked hard and moved through the hierarchy. despite being thrown out of middle school in the mid-30s he managed to prove highly effective at his company. until the last time i visited a few weeks ago, Eric could multiple four digit numbers by three digit numbers quickly in his head. He was meticulous and kept extremely careful notes. He used a variety of bookkeeping techniques to insure precise records of all financial matters; not just for his family, but also the synagogue, the Rotarians, and several other organizations to which he belonged. I had a hard time making heads or tails of his notes as his handwriting was minute, but he seemed to know exactly what was what. The last time i was in San Diego, though, things seemed to unravel. He was nearing the end of his cancer fight and he took a double dose of his pain meds by accident in the middle of the night. It triggered a variety of symptoms and all were debilitating. He made some bizarre claims about his condition and which doctors saw him when. He was convinced that he hadn't seen a particular doctor in months who he had seen the week before. He made this assertion when we were walking, very slowly, back to his apartment. He looked at me and asked which hotel we were in. I reminded him that this was his building and he slowly accepted that thought. When we got in he looked at his appointment book but couldn't make heads or tails of it. This was a guy who used to be able to tell you who won a scrabble game we played during the end of the Bush I administration (not me incidentally). He kept records of everything. With a glance at his books he could tell you most anything about any transaction of any sort he had been a party to for several decades. Now he couldn't tell me the name of his doctor.
In 1938 he was sent to Dachau but in the next few days he will die in the california sun nearly 70 years later. It has been a very painful end to the journey, but what a miraculous life.
My father often says that his greatest political coup was convincing his parents to move to the same retirement area that my mother's parents already had chosen. They lived about a mile apart for a decade. They played bridge often. Sam, my other grandfather died earlier this year, and i happily imagine that they will soon get to play bridge toghether again. I know they missed each other.
Most of our family never made it out of Germany. Eric did, and he had kids. They went to college and got married, succeeded professionally, and had children. Eric already got to see a grandchild marry and a few days before he lost cognitive clarity, he happily received the news that another grandchild successfully defended his PhD. Eric lived to see so many things that seemed bafflingly impossible in his youth. What a beautiful continuation of a life which started out with so little hope.


At 2/11/2007 , Blogger rokhl said...

Wow, Teamster and accountant rolled into one, what a beautiful jewish contradiction.

Maybe it's PMS, but reading this entry just brought tears to my eyes. What an incredible, miraculous life your grandfather had. And you are so lucky to have had him.


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