My grandfather, Pop Pop, passed away last week. He was 96 years old.
He was the youngest of seven children, born in Philadelphia in 1919. Woodrow Wilson was president. This was the year that Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity was proven true; that dial telephones were introduced; that short wave radios and the pop-up toaster were invented.
Pop Pop’s high school yearbook dubbed him a “very versatile young man.” He dreamed of being a big league baseball player, but he was also a known scholastic superstar and an aspiring engineer. It was the Great Depression, and his mother sent him off each day with one apple for lunch.
He went on to study engineering at Drexel University while also working for a water heater factory that was then called the Pennsylvania Range Boiler Company. As the company’s purchasing agent, he was “always on the lookout for better products at the most economical price,” said his college yearbook. He relished a challenge — the yearbook also referenced his impassioned discussions with professors and his knack for scoring top-notch tickets to ball games.
Pop Pop worked his way up the ranks at the factory until eventually becoming president and then co-owner. He had two sons — my dad and my uncle — and eventually, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
His relatives and friends knew him for his indomitable drive and spunky smarts, but also for his loyal devotion to family. In his personal and professional pursuits alike, he was nothing if not perseverant. He lost his first wife, my dad’s mother, when she was merely 61 years old; but he went on loving everyone lucky enough to enter into his circle, again and again, up until the end. He was our patriarch; our mentor; our anchor; our source of studied wisdom on everything from the Phillies to the stock-market to self-development.
On his last days, Pop Pop said that he could not have asked for a more fulfilling life.
“Life is too short,” we say, when we order the fries, or ditch the day job for the dream job, or forgive.
We say it without stopping to think about what it means, because we’ve heard it hurled haphazardly into conversation so many times. It’s a sort of occasional excuse for taking action that we worry is unwise or indulgent, or a justification for joy that stems from a scarcity mentality, as if we only have a few small years to scarf down our share of goodness before it’s too late.
But the average American lives to be 78 years old. If you decided at age 25 to see the sunset every day from now on, and you lived until age 80, you’d witness more than 20,000 sunsets. Even if you chose to watch just one sunset a week, you’d get 2,800 skies melted like technicolor sorbet, and each one slightly different.
For most of us, generally speaking, life is not short.
Life is long. Life is too long, too broad and deep with potential, to hold only rare drips of occasional goodness and significance.
Maybe life’s overwhelming immensity of possibility, not its brevity, is the reason to pour it to the brim with fries and dreams and forgiveness and all of the other good stuff. If we want fulfillment, we have to fill life’s length fully. We have to resist the urge to rush around and choke it all down. We have to stop acting like we’re perpetually overflowed with unwanted responsibilities or else running on empty. We have to be more persistent in pursuing whatever makes us feel whole.
When Pop Pop first applied to Drexel, he was rejected, despite his impressive honor roll record. Rather than taking “no” for an answer, he asked the Dean for an explanation.
The Dean told him that he was missing some necessary credits for the mechanical engineering program, since he had taken a pre-industrial track. He would have to repeat high school if he wanted to be admitted.
In order to support himself and his family in the midst of the Depression, Pop Pop needed employment. And so he took a job as a floor sweeper at that water heater factory while redoing high school in night classes over a span of six years. After he was eventually accepted to Drexel, it took eight more years of night school at the university before he earned his mechanical engineering degree, and many more years at work before he went on to become the company’s president.
Life is long, but limited.
It’s a container, with birth as its base and death at its spout. It arrives half-filled with sloshy circumstance, with glugging gifts and wishy-washy inconveniences. The other half, the empty half, is ours to fill.
But we too often neglect to take initiative for remixing what we’re given. We debate and postulate and worry about the bittersweet cocktails we’re served — a cup half-full, or half-empty? — as if our interpretive ability is our only mode of influence.
We forget we can take the half-serving and top it up to our taste. We can walk away from the table, dump out the stale and lukewarm stuff, and refill the glass with whatever fluid realities we choose.
For every single birthday and every single Christmas, Pop Pop gave me the same present: a check in a neatly licked envelope, folded inside a card signed “xoxo” in handwriting as lanky as his physical frame. He was consistent in his combination of generosity and practicality.
Every time he came to visit, we went out to dinner at the same nearby Italian restaurant, where he managed to slyly sneak his credit card to the waiter without anyone catching it. He always ordered the same veal dish.
Pop Pop knew himself and knew what he liked, but he was not a picky person. He was not one to whine about what he was served, food or otherwise. Even when he did talk about what ailed him — his aching back, his near-blind eyesight and near-deaf hearing in his later years — it wasn’t so much a proclamation of injustice as a statement of fact, an admittance of surrender to circumstances he couldn’t control.
He was very aware of the plights of aging, but I wonder whether he found secret comfort in those discomforts. Perhaps after pushing past obstacles for so much of his life, he was content to simply settle back and soak in the small blessings of the world he had built around himself and the thriving family he had fostered. While he was the only one of his seven siblings to complete college, his children and grandchildren all have college diplomas, plus many graduate degrees. None of us ever had to be sent off to school with only an apple for lunch.
At our Thanksgivings and Christmases and birthdays, he sat at the head of the table, quiet, just being there, listening to the soft buzz of familiar voices, watching the hazy outlines of friendly faces chewing and chatting cheerfully. He was unable to keep up, but he never seemed to mind. He was eager to experience whatever he could.
Life is long, but unpredictable. It is delicate and fragile. That’s the reason why, sometimes, it turns out to be short, the way it was for my Pop Pop’s first wife, my dad’s mother, whom I never got to meet.
We need predictabilities for grounding, to balance the sloshy fluidity of reality with something solid. We need tender rituals to soften the hard stuff.
We need simple pleasures to keep our hearts warm.
But besides, a truly meaningful life is meant to be rich in both comfort and discomfort. There’s no easy, cozy way to uncover our greatest strengths — we have to tackle the hurdles and stumble past the blocks if we ever want to grow into the parts of our personalities that might otherwise lie dormant. The moments of small but sturdy sweetness make the work worthwhile in the end.
A sincerely jovial “hiya” was my Pop Pop’s go-to greeting. “Hiya, Leah,” he would say, almost singsong, while propping his hands on my shoulders to plop a kiss on my cheek.
His skin was like tanned leather, his outfits always dapper: neatly pressed shirts, khaki pants, sometimes a corduroy cap. Instead of silk ties, he favored bolos that he apparently picked up during mid-life trips out West, with their engraved silver clasps inlaid with turquoise. At his funeral, his grown grandson wore one of those bolos, while his six-year-old great-grandson wore another.
He loved strawberries, but he pronounced the word “straw-burries.” In his earlier years, I’m told he was famous for his homemade strawberry ice cream, made only with fresh-picked plump fruit.
He studied the stock market like a sport. He had a skill for catching foul balls at baseball games. His favorite color was blue.
“You take care, alright?” was his go-to goodbye, paired with a gentle pat on my shoulder.
Life is long, but temporary. But unpredictable. But limited.
Fill it fully.
Say “I love you.” To the world outside your window. To someone who’s going to respond with uncomfortable confusion. To someone who’s going to say it back. To your pet. To a stranger on the subway. To yourself. To a painful memory or an awkward embarrassment. To a person you haven’t talked to in a while. To your succulent or houseplant that seems to be perishing despite your best efforts. To your Facebook feed.
Let love hurt you, as it’s wont to do in one way or another. Love again anyway.
See the sunsets while you can.
Get to know yourself.
Do what you have to do for what’s important. Be patient and persistent, even when settling seems easier. But learn to recognize when settling is okay, too. Sometimes, just being here is enough.
Just be here.
It’s all so very temporary, and yet, so very expansive in its temporariness. Life’s vessel stretches to make space for boundless, bottomless, limitless love — of family, of baseball, of strawberries, of bolo ties. Don’t let that room go to waste.
Dump out the stale stuff, the tepid and the bitter. Fill the space with ounces of optimism and pints of play and gallons of gratitude. Pour to the brim. Serve chilled. Sip slowly — slowly enough to see the signs that the world is gushing with goodness just waiting to be drunk.