It’s been an emotional few days around the Burdy house. I feel like some portal has opened, like the veil between me and the rest of the world is membrane-thin right now and everything is flowing in unchecked.
My earliest memories are of her gingerly lowering herself into the pool, careful not to wet the line above her abdomen where a colostomy bag nestled hidden behind her classy bathing suit. She was always dressed to the nines. She spoke perfect English, but still pronounced certain words with a thick German accent. She sliced the crusty, round loves of Portuguese bread she bought from the Ironbound section of Newark against her body and stubbornly refused to use a cutting board. She introduced me to the heady smell of carrots freshly plucked from the back yard and the addictive properties of tomato gardening. She made a mean goulash. She told me very little about herself, just that she’d had a hard childhood and that I should be grateful for my parents who loved me.
My dad’s mom had a heart attack quite suddenly on a weeknight. Our family was always struggling financially and my dad had to ask for gas money from my baby-sitting fund to get to the hospital. He was agitated and impatient with me when I protested. He didn’t tell me that his mother was dying.
My dad’s mom, in the tradition of my family, was a great storyteller. She had a memory like my dad does; every moment of the day was an opportunity to tell the story of what it was like back when she was a kid. My dad’s mom taught me how to crochet. She had a whole room in her house piled to the ceiling with different colored yarn. She must have loved being near the water like I do because she fell in love with my grandfather at the community pool when they were teenagers.
The year my grandmothers died was also the year my uncle was married. I was only eleven years old, so of course what I remember was how perfectly my hair seemed to react to being blown out by a hairdryer for the first time, and how I got to wear a comb of baby’s breath with my pink dress and matching shoes. Years later, when I asked my mom about what she remembered about that wedding, she said she couldn’t remember much at all because those deaths were still fresh on her mind.
My mom’s dad passed away two months before September 11th. He was a complex man who was also an incredible storyteller. My dad’s dad passed away shortly after I was christened. I never knew him.
At my grandmother’s funeral, it rained. I rode for the first time in the back of a limo. When I stepped from the car, I remember feeling like my mom was Jackie-O, and all eyes were on us, the brave little children, dressed in mourning black and walking like ducklings behind her.
A few months after my grandmothers’ funerals, a friend of the family’s mother passed away. We went as a family to the funeral. I cried and cried then, unable to stop. I surprised even myself. The friend, maybe in grief, maybe because both of us couldn’t understand how I was capable of expressing so much sorrow for a stranger, knelt down beside me and told me “You don’t have to do this. It’s okay”. But I couldn’t stop. That membrane between me and the outside world was thin, then, too, and every death at that age felt personal and devastating.
Somewhere in that same stretch, our neighbor died. He must have been struggling with some kind of illness. His wife, a former NYC Rockette, her feet twisted from years in toe-shoes, ran over to our yard in just her housecoat, yelling over the gate as she ran, “He’s gone! Oh, God! He’s gone!”
Burdy’s dad, who I called “Poppi”, lived a long life. Burdy details some of it here. His father’s name was Stanley, too. He became a father to Burdy late in his life. He was 55 when his second son was born. His first was born in Ukraine, to his first wife, and he didn’t know she was pregnant at the time. He had to flee his native country, the threat of imprisonment looming large for having deserted the Russian army during the war. He left with the classic immigrant’s fare of two dollars and the shirt on his back, literally. When he got to America, he knew almost no one and he didn’t speak the language. He built himself up from nothing. He worked his way up from lineman to foreman in a factory, impressing his superiors with his quick command of the language and his proclivity for hard work. He smiled a lot. He was a classic charmer; he turned, in his lifetime, bushels and bushels of lemons into gallons and gallons of lemonade.
He was a hard man to get a straight answer out of sometimes. I believe his life necessitated this. He grew up in an era where expressing national pride was dangerous. Hard work was the order of the day and standing out in a crowd was frowned upon. He came of age in a time of great upheaval and change. I mistook his dismissive attitude towards negativity as denial, but I learned over time what a necessary thing that attitude was to his survival, and I learned to appreciate it. Poppi was able to put in its rightful historical place all the events of his life and not hold a grudge. He had a way with a dirty joke and a wink. He was a brilliant chameleon, a true survivor, and a master of adaptation.
I learned a lot from Poppi.
At Poppi’s funeral, there was no carrying on, no rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. It was all very civil and simple and beautiful. This was quite the departure from my childhood funeral experiences. I couldn’t fully comprehend it at the time, so I talked to Burdy about it. “He’s had a very full life, sweets”, he explained to me patiently. And it hit me then: this was the difference. Poppi wasn’t taken in this dramatic “before his time” sort of way like everyone in my life. He lived till he was eighty-eight years old. He needed drugs to keep his heart ticking and his blood thin, but he was still lucid. He still wore a pressed shirt and dress slacks. He made his own breakfast and still sat the bar of the restaurant he owned with his wife. He did not suffer at the end of his life. He was able to reflect on the bounty life had offered him and smile at his luck. He had owned airplanes and luxury cars. He’d bought and sold property. He had managed a restaurant for forty years. He’d traveled. He had gambled and lost and gambled and won. Most importantly, he’d produced three wonderful children, two of whom, at least, I have gotten to know in my lifetime and who carry his same lust for life.
Towards the end of his life, Poppi was on so much medication that it was, even to him, almost comical that it took so much to keep him alive. He would line the dozen or so orange pharmacy bottles up on the kitchen table with his glass of water in the morning and would tell us with a sad smile, as we poked at our eggs and bacon, “It’s nice to get old, but it’s not nice to age”.
Poppi was a man who wasn’t much for the rules. Against his doctor’s orders, and with a wink at the bartender, he’d order a shot glass of wine with his dinner. “Just a little bit of grape juice”, he’d call it, showing us with thumb and forefinger an inch apart. “Nothing wrong with that, right?” he’d ask. And there wasn’t. You couldn’t deny the old man his grape juice.
Last night, Burdy and I had a shot of “grape juice” in his honor. We toasted “To Poppi” and downed the wine. There were no tears. Just smiles twisting into puckers as the acidic liquid hit our tongues and smiles again as the warmth settled inside us.