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Revisiting memories of grandpa

A study released earlier this week from Concordia University in Montreal found that when recalling memories of identity-shaping negative events, people tend to downplay feelings of fear and anger, choosing instead to remember only positive emotions.My Grandpa Teddy never needed to suppress any pessimism. Living his life through rose-colored lenses was something that came as naturally to him as breathing. He passed away Monday at the age of 92. Following are excerpts from a column I wrote in February: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. He turned 92 last November, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he had been working as late as last week. He was with the same company practically forever – 68 years – and still received sporadic calls from recently bereaved friends or acquaintances looking for assistance or advice with memorials and burials. Since his work history far predated the computer age, he also fielded occasional requests for help in remembering plot locations, cemetery names and deed particulars. Fortunately, Grandpa’s memory far exceeded any of the collective computers which he preceded, so not only did recalling names, dates and locations pose no challenge, one of the last times I saw him he was reciting lines from the school play in which he performed in ninth grade. Over the years the only thing Grandpa took more seriously than work was 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 expanded exponentially over the years. He took such a heartfelt interest in the many people who passed through his life that his honorary kids, grandkids and great-grandkids are too numerous to count. For the time and attention he gave to others, they were always eager to reciprocate in the form of school pictures, birthday cards, invitations to holiday dinners – all of which decorated the dining room in his Bronx apartment.When Grandma Anne passed away nearly five years ago, Grandpa Teddy was the talk of blue-haired ladies from Fort 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, was a rare and highly coveted commodity among 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 remained something at which Grandpa Teddy excelled until the bitter end. 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 assumed he created the same exact game solely for the purpose of their entertainment. He delighted for as long as I can remember in making an affectionate noise that was often 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, almost without exception, maintained a disposition brighter than the lights in Yankee Stadium the last time they won the World Series at home in 1999. In fact, his most consistent complaint through the years was about the Yankees when their seasons 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 his grandson 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 and homebound since mid January, as recently as last week, Grandpa Teddy was more than happy to blow a kiss over the phone, brag about the birth of his newest great-granddaughter and report that he was “hangin’ in.” Not that anyone who knew him expected otherwise.E-mail questions or comments to meredith_cohen@hotmail.com.


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