All names have been changed.
It’s popular belief that death comes in a series of three. This past Friday marked the 3rd person I’ve known that has passed away over the last 3 months.
On February 25, my maternal grandfather died. Grandpa J was in his early 90s and had just come home from an extended stay in a nursing home.
He was a true jack-of-all-trades, fixing and building many things. When I was little and would go to visit, Grandpa J would always be wearing his work clothes: a navy blue button-down shirt and pants in either black or dark blue. His hair was a thick shock of white and his eyes were a cool blue-grey. He scared me a little, but at the same time, I would talk to him about his life and he would always answer my questions. Momcat remembers when, at the age of 5, I cornered Grandpa J for an inquisition. “You asked him all these personal questions,” she said. “I wanted to crawl under the table.”
He wasn’t very good with interpersonal relationships – family connections were often strained and tense. But during the icy cold Michigan winters, he would go out of his way to ensure that poor families had heat and that their pipes didn’t freeze. He was also a volunteer fireman and injured his leg on the way to fight a fire that had started at a local mill.
In his last years, he softened up a great deal, but still struggled to connect with family. Pops went to see him in the nursing home a few months before he died. “Don’t ever get old,” Grandpa J told Pops. “It’s awful.”
On April 25, Momcat & Pops’ next-door neighbor died. Fifty years ago, Margaret Woods built a house next door to my paternal grandparents. Even after my grandparents retired to Florida and Momcat, Pops & I moved in, she stayed on.
Mrs. Woods worked for the police department for many years – she would pronounce it poh-leece. She’d seen and heard a lot of crazy stories by working there and as a result didn’t put up with much foolishness. I think she chased away some mischievous boys with a broom once – I could be making that up, though. I remember sitting in her air-conditioned rec room for a couple hours while she talked about all sorts of things. I considered writing mysteries based on our relationship. In these tales, I would be the Nancy Drew to her Jessica Fletcher. I never did write anything, though.
Her garden was phenomenal – my best friend Deena and I often referred to her place as “Better Homes and Gardens.” I think Mrs. Woods’ well-manicured lawn was viewed by many neighbors as a challenge to make their yards look just as nice. But she wasn’t one to lord her gardening skills over anyone. She just loved to work in the dirt, and she was happy to offer suggestions and advice to anyone that asked.
On May 4, my cousin Sasha’s grandfather died. Dr. Y was Estonian and had come to the U.S. during WWII. After the Nazi occupation of Estonia, he lived for a while in a displaced-persons camp with his young son Ned, who later married my aunt Gigi.
Dr. Y lived near Pops & Momcat, so when Uncle Ned & Aunt Gigi came to town, we would all get together for pizza or a barbecue. At one of those gatherings, Dr. Y cooked one of the best porterhouse steaks I’ve ever eaten. Remembering it now makes me long for a juicy slab of meat, perfectly grilled, with some A-1 sauce.
Dr. Y always had a gleam in his eye and a quick laugh. The last time I saw him was Christmas 2005, at Ned & Gigi’s house.
“Moxie, psst!” I heard Sasha’s husband, Mark, whisper. He gestured at a bottle on the kitchen counter. It was time for the drinkers in the group to surreptitiously enjoy a shot of Estonia vodka that had been infused with jalapeno pepper.
I headed for the kitchen. Uncle Ned poured the shots. Dr. Y’s eyes gleamed and he grinned at me. “In Estonian, the word for vodka is the same as in English,” he said. “You just pronounce it wad-kah.”
“Wad-kah,” I repeated. “Any way you say it, it’s good stuff.”
He laughed. “That’s right!”
We lifted our shot glasses and toasted – to what, I don’t remember. A good year ahead, perhaps. All I remember is the burn of the vodka down my throat.
“Gaaack,” I sputtered. “Good – stuff.”
“Yah!” Dr. Y laughed.
Three deaths, three very different people. Yet their acts of beauty, integrity, kindness, and generosity made an impact on the world. Grandpa J would refuse to charge people for fixing their furnace, if he knew they couldn’t afford it. From what I understand, Dr. Y was pressured by the Nazis to work for them, but he refused, showing incredible courage. And Margaret Woods beautified her corner of the planet by making her garden a lush, gorgeous sanctuary that would literally make people stop and stare.
I can’t really quantify the influence that these 3 people had on my life. But there’s a Randy Newman song that I’ve been listening to a lot lately, and I have a feeling it’s resonating with me so strongly because of these three people:
Bright before me, the signs implore me,
Help the needy and show them the way.
Human kindness is overflowing,
And I think it’s going to rain today.