My Coming of Age
I think of my Grandpa Willie as a Yiddish-speaking
Santa Claus. He was a round man with thick white
hair, flushed cheeks, and a hearty laugh. Hed
come to America in 1920 from Poland, in a harrowing
escape from the pogroms, when he was just 16 years
old. He passed through Ellis Island, then nestled
into Brooklyn for the next half-century, raising a
family and running a string of small
As a kid, one of my favorite times was our
familys regular pilgrimage to pick up Grandpa
Willie at the airport. Hed fly in from New
York to spend Passover with us in Michigan. In
those days, you could wait in the gate area for the
passengers to disembark. My parents, siblings and I
craned our necks in anticipation as Grandpa came
off the jet-way.
We could usually tell it was Grandpa even before
we saw his mischievous grin. He was the waddling
man toting shopping bags full of food: foot-long
salamis, whole roasted chickens, fresh bagels.
I have two brothers one older and one
younger and the first move Grandpa made upon
coming off the plane was to line us up, left to
right, and call us to inspection. Let me see
those muscles! hed declare. The three
of us boys struck our most brazen Jack LaLanne
poses, bending elbows and pulling up shirt sleeves
to exhibit six pebbly biceps.
I recall one special visit that Grandpa made in
1970. I remember the exact year because it was on
that visit that Grandpa bestowed upon me what I now
affectionately call my shotgun Bar Mitzvah.
My parents were secular Jews, and had not
prepared me for this rite of passage into manhood.
But Grandpa was Orthodox, and he couldnt have
faced God knowing that I had turned 13 without it.
So with my fathers permission though
not his presence Grandpa drilled me day
after day on the Hebrew prayers that I needed to
know for the ceremony.
Anyone who has tried to learn Hebrew in a
fortnight will understand Grandpas need to
scale back his expectations. And yet, on the
morning of my 13th birthday, he decided that I was
ready. He took me by the hand and walked me to the
nearest synagogue. In an anteroom off the
sanctuary, a quorum of elders watched as I took the
mantle of manhood.
In that anteroom, I felt embarrassed,
disconnected from the alien syllables I was
muttering. Nonetheless, I still remember with
fondness Grandpas soft palm on mine as we
strolled together toward the temple.
Years went by. I grew up and Grandpa grew old.
And in 1984, now in my mid-20s, I had the chance to
move to Miami Beach, just a few blocks from where
Grandpa had set up his retirement home. He was 80
now, and a widower, but still flushed with life. In
the decade since my grandmother died, he had
married and divorced twice.
About once a week, we spent an afternoon
together at the beach. Afterward, we tramped to his
apartment, where he cooked a succulent kosher meal
of brisket or roasted chicken. After dinner, I
plied him with schnapps and pumped him for stories
about the old country. These were among our closest
Then one day, shortly after one of these
dinners, I received a phone call at home. It was my
grandfathers doctor. These were his exact
words: "I'm sorry to tell you this, but your
grandfather has had a heart attack, and he has
The statement took my breath away. The next day,
my father flew to south Florida from his home in
Michigan. I met him at the baggage claim, and we
drove to the hospital to identify Grandpa's
Later, at Grandpas apartment, we began
sorting the material remnants of the old mans
life. We found curled photos, key-chains,
matchbooks, and in the bedroom closet, a shocking
array of pastel leisure suits.
We kept at it until the glow of the afternoon
sun began to wane. Even as the apartment darkened,
however, neither of us flipped on the lights. We
just kept sorting until we could barely make out
the items in front of us. Thats when my
father and I poured scotch over ice and collapsed
in Grandpas heavily pillowed living-room
chairs. We shared memories for awhile, then
Finally, as the room faded into near-total
darkness, I heard a guttural moan. At first, I was
alarmed. Then I realized what was happening.
It was the first time I had heard my father
After a few minutes, his sobs abated. Then he
made two statements that have stayed with me for 22
years. First, he said: "I am crying not only for my
father, but for me. His death means I'll never hear
the words I've always wanted to hear from him: that
he was proud of me, proud of the family I'd raised
and the life I've lived."
My father paused, and made a second
pronouncement, this one directed to me. "So that
you never have to feel this way too, he said,
I want to tell you now how proud I am of you,
of the choices you've made, of the life you've
Any residual pain from our previous relationship
struggles dissolved for me in the calm resonance of
that blessing. And in the months that followed, I
felt stronger, more confident. It was as if my
father represented not only himself but the larger
world of men, and I had been accepted into it.
Up until that point, I had sometimes wondered
why my father didnt attend my Bar Mitzvah
back in 1970. Those statements he made to me in the
wake of his fathers death helped me
understand. Indeed, his direct expression of pride
in me that day, served as the closing prayer in
that long-running rite of passage.
* * *
years, Neil Chethik has made it his goal to find
out what men really think -- about family,
relationships, fathering, aging, sex, and more. He
is the author of two best-selling books,
(Hyperion) and VoiceMale
(Simon & Schuster). Hes been a nationally
syndicated columnist, a big-hall speaker, and now,
the national medias go-to guy for what men
really think about their everyday lives. Contact:
Neil Chethik, P.O. Box 8071, Lexington, KY 40533 or
859.361.1659 or E-Mail
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