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Godfather of grandfathers

Meredith L. Cohen

When I was a kid, I was under the mistaken impression that my grandpa Teddy was in the Mafia. I was skeptical at first, but I became a believer when my cousin Jeffrey presented what I thought was fairly substantial evidence. Jeffrey pointed out that grandpa always carried a huge wad of cash and never seemed to pay for anything with credit cards. He conducted cryptic phone conversations at all hours of the day and night. No matter where we went, people knew and seemed to revere him. And oftentimes at family gatherings there were in attendance large men in dark suits who kept to themselves, said next to nothing and although not related to us, referred to grandpa as their uncle or godfather. Take into consideration his profession – funeral director – and in hindsight, it probably wasn’t such a stretch for an 11-year-old to have thought for a time that her grandfather might have dabbled in organized crime. Grandpa Teddy became an undertaker during the Great Depression because he said no matter the state of the economy, people will always die and need funerals. At the age of 92, he continues working. Well, sort of. He’s been with the same company practically forever – 68 years – and still gets sporadic calls from recently bereaved friends or acquaintances looking for assistance or advice with memorials and burials. Since his work history far pre-dates the computer age, he’ll also field occasional requests for help in remembering plot locations, cemetery names and deed particulars. Fortunately, grandpa’s memory far exceeds any of the collective computers which he preceded, so not only does recalling names, dates and locations pose no challenge, he can still recite lines from the school play in which he performed in ninth grade. Over the years the only thing grandpa has taken more seriously than work is his family. He mostly lost contact with his four siblings decades ago when his penniless, widowed father needed to find others to care for them. But when he married my grandma Anne, he fiercely and thoroughly embraced her family as his own. And his family has expanded exponentially over the years. He’s taken such a heartfelt interest in the many people who’ve passed through his life that his honorary kids, grandkids and great-grandkids are too numerous to count. For the time and attention he’s given to others, they’re always been eager to reciprocate in the form of school pictures, birthday cards, invitations to holiday dinners (although his actual family stubbornly insists he celebrate the major ones with us).Grandpa’s friends have also been like kin to him throughout the years. Grandma, grandpa and their friends would spend summers at Sylvan Lake in Hopewell Junction, N.Y.; travel across the U.S., Aruba and Europe; ring in the New Year; celebrate each family’s mitzvahs and mourn their losses. Grandpa had weekly poker and gin games until just a few years ago when too many of the players made their stays in Florida permanent. And while he might not get around as easily as he used to, he remains loyal to and active in the numerous charities and societies to which he and grandma belonged for decades.When grandma Anne passed away 4 1/2 years ago, grandpa Teddy was the talk of blue-haired ladies from Ft. Lauderdale up to Riverdale. An unattached man living on his own with minimal assistance, fully stocked with not only his wits, but a sharp sense of humor, driver’s license, car and a strikingly thick head of silver hair is a rare and highly coveted commodity amongst the shuffleboard set. But grandpa Teddy brushed them off. After 64 years of marriage (65 if the secret wedding they had 10 months before their public ceremony is taken into account), no one could take the place of his sweetheart. In the final years of her life, despite her deteriorating memory and health, grandpa made sure grandma was by his side, making whatever arrangements necessary to keep her out of hospitals, nursing homes and hospices. When she finally became too frail to leave home, he would bring the ladies from her beauty parlor to the apartment to make sure that her nails and hair were well-maintained because he knew it made her happy.Charming others remains something at which grandpa Teddy excels. When we were little, my sister, cousins and I assumed he invented the “which hand?” game, since he used to impress and dazzle us with it for hours on end, handsomely rewarding our astuteness with shiny quarters and crisp dollar bills. My nephew and niece presently assume he has created the same exact game solely for the purpose of their entertainment. He has delighted for as long as I can remember in making an affectionate noise which has often been likened to a squirrel’s chirp (though I’ve never really been sure if squirrels actually chirp). Despite dealing with death and grieving families for nearly seven full decades, grandpa has, almost without exception, maintained a disposition brighter than the bleached teeth in the mouths of the movie stars who will be on the red carpet at next week’s Academy Awards. In fact, his most consistent complaint through the years has been about the Yankees when their seasons have failed to yield championship rings.No, the man who lost his mother when he was in his early teens, buried his newborn son, his wife and a grandchild has never lost site of the joys in his life, including and especially the twinkling eyes of his great-grandchildren, the delight of watching his grandchildren grow up, graduate from college, get married, and the memories of raising his three daughters and watching them thrive as adults. And despite the two heart attacks and the bout of pneumonia that kept him hospitalized for the better part of the last month and a half, as recently as yesterday, grandpa Teddy was more than happy to blow a kiss over the phone and report that he’s “hangin’ in.” Not that anyone who’s ever known him expected otherwise.Meredith Cohen sends a big kiss to grandpa Teddy in apartment 4C. Questions or comments may be e-mailed to meredith_cohen@hotmail.com.


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