What I don’t know about my grandfather, and what it taught me about being a mom

I know so many wonderful tidbits about my grandfather, but it is what I don’t know that made me the mother I am today.

First what I know: I know he loved Chinese food, the Cantonese kind, and jalapeño peppers, the spicier the better. But most of all he loved salami and eggs, and whenever he ate this delicacy he launched into the story of how Great Grandma Anna used to pack him two salami sandwiches for his hour and a half train ride from the Bronx to his high school. I know that he was bald by 50, and my brothers and I would twist his wisps of hair into a cone on his head and giggle uncontrollably.

I know he taught himself to play tennis, and he taught me too. He would take a quarter and put it on the rim of the racket, his large hands on my small ones guiding my strokes. I know that in the days he wore shorts, his shorts were always too short and his socks too high, and it drove my grandmother crazy (which is likely why he did it because he loved nothing more than teasing my grandma). I know he looked handsome in a tux, and I know my grandma thinks so too. I know that even at 88 when he was always cold from the diabetes he hated “bully wooly sweaters.”

I know he was an old school patriot who loved America, especially suburban, “Leave it to Beaver” America, and most especially when it was Reagan’s America. I know he thought that “as long as a person has his health, he can do anything in our great country.” I know he only read non-fiction — history, politics and sports mostly. I know he waited to die until the Cubs won the World Series and a Republican was in the White House.

I know he had a wonderful deep voice, and put him near a piano and he would sing “the oldies but goodies” for hours. His repertoire always, always included “My Gal Sal,” the song Great Grandpa Julie used to sing to Great Grandma Sarah who I was named for and who he adored. I know he was a great ballroom dancer with a tight grip and strong grace. I know he was impossibly stubborn, though it never bothered me, and I know that once he made a decision there was no changing his mind, including the time he flew back from New York because he insisted on having emergency quadruple bypass surgery in his home town.

I know when I was a child we played chess in his basement with the narrow steep stairs, and he let me win (though I did not know that until much later). I know his nose always dripped and his eyes always twinkled with a charming, playful mischief. I know he walked me home from kindergarten, the long way around the block, never cutting through the yard, always teasing me about marrying the ickiest boy in my class named Derrick.

I know the names of his closest friends — the Pinnacle Group — Dave who he called David, Sylvia, Julie, Gail, Sue who he called Susie, and Ciggy whose real name I cannot remember and who had a trophy business. I know his best friends were Howard and Cathy, ten years his senior at least, who lived in smoke-filled house, were as Catholic as they come, had an overweight daughter and a garden out of a storybook. I know how he loved his older sister Pearl, whose name he said with an exaggerated New York accent, who looks exactly like him, and who he had not seen in a decade but talked to every week.

I know he watched TV too loudly (which was true even before his hearing started to go) and still marveled at the miracle of “the internet” though he never sent an email in his life and was only slightly familiar with google.

I know he used called me “pussy cat,” and I knew as a girl that he loved me like crazy. I know he drove an hour to see us multiple times a week my entire life, and when he wasn’t playing with us he was reminiscing with my grandmother about their parents, mostly, and I know how I loved nothing more than to listen. I know that once I grew up and moved away from home, he was always at the door in the kitchen at 1046 Pine Street to see me off, and I know he lingered there even after I was gone.

I know all kinds of other details, but here is what I do not know:

I have no idea what he did for a living. Sadie, my 6 year old asked me the morning when I first told her that Old Gramps was really sick, and I realized, maybe for the first time, that I had no idea. I think it was real estate, or maybe business, or sales I babbled…but she cut me off to ask if I thought he would play cards with her next time she took a trip to Chicago.

And I started to cry, not because I knew my grandfather was going to die imminently, though I did, but because I realized he taught me an incredible parenting lesson, and I would likely not be able to tell him in person. I know so many things about him, but I do not know what he did because it didn’t matter to him. My grandfather wasn’t proud when I got into Penn or was awarded a graduate fellowship or became a young Head of School. In fact, I do not think in the 16 years I have lived in Los Angeles, and the hundreds of times that we talked on the phone that he ever once asked me about work. Don’t misunderstand me, he was incredibly proud of me, and I always knew it. It is just that he was proud because of who I was. He didn’t care about my report cards or how well I did on the soccer field. He just wanted to be with me, and it would have been all the same to him if I never finished college and struggled to find a job.

Every year, I talk to the kindergarten class about my job. This year, my daughter Sadie who is in kindergarten took the liberty of introducing me (she inherited my grandfather’s mischievous twinkle): “This is Sarah Shulkind,” she told 47 of her peers and four of her teachers, “She has two jobs — being a mom and running a school. But her favorite job is being a mom. What she loves most in her life is to be with me.”

I know a lot about my grandfather. He has been a force in my life since I was born. But the most important thing I know about my grandfather is that he loved to be with me. If, at the end of my life my children and grandchildren say the same, I know he would have thought it is the best way to honor his memory.