My grandfather died last Sunday evening, and for me, this marked more than the end of one man’s life. It marked the end of Granny and Grandpa, the only couple I’ve ever known that loved each other so much and stayed together for so long, seemingly without ever fighting. Grandpa’s death also marked the passing of the last of my grandparents. Though I count myself lucky to have had grandparents well into my thirties, I was nevertheless deeply stung by the final disappearance of an entire generation of family.
Ernest Greene was actually born Ernest Greenberg, and his father changed the family name in 1918, when Grandpa was seven years old. I can only guess the name change was a safeguard against anti-Semitism or enmity toward Germans. He had a younger brother named Howard, a father named Abraham, and a mother I was lucky enough to know until I was four years old, Grandnanna Gertrude Greene. In photos I’ve seen of Grandpa in his youth, he was a striking young man with a full head of blond hair. He was a boxer, and he was also a jazz trumpeter and harmonica player. As I heard it, he met my grandmother, Helene Kupferman, at work; she was the boss’s daughter. Early photos of them show a playful young couple striking poses at the beach—him showing off his biceps and her kicking a leg to the side like a flapper doing the Charleston. When I looked through these photos with Granny years ago, she said, “Weren’t we cute?” They were.
I first met Ernest Greene when he was only 57 years old—a mere 20-odd years older than I am now. I remember him as a robust, jocular fellow with a quick wit and a humble but confident stride. I remember watching him work in the garden, play golf and tennis, and I remember him roughhousing me when I was only two or three. There are a few childhood memories I have of Grandpa that I’ll always cherish. One was the times he tucked me in and told me “Ynnad” stories. Ynnad was Danny spelled backwards, and Ynnad stories were simple adventures with morals at the end. I think one of them had something to do with a bicycle—either losing the bike or having an accident, and the moral was something like, “take care of what is yours and you’ll have it for a long time.” Grandpa certainly exemplified this in his dealings with family, his business, and even—all things considered—his health. I also remember silly things like when Grandpa played “This little piggy” with my toes, and when he told jokes like, “What did Shakespeare say to the bowlegged cowboy? ‘What, ho! What men are these, who wear their trousers on parentheses!’” I also remember walking up the steps to a country club for dinner with Granny and Grandpa when I was only about four years old. Grandpa was holding my hand, and he gave it a squeeze. He said, “You know what that means?” And I said, “No, what?” “It means,” he said, “that I love you.”
That wasn’t the sort of thing Grandpa would say freely after I outgrew my cute little kid phase, but I think it’s a nice insight into his softer, more vulnerable side that we all know he must have had. He certainly showed that side to my grandmother. Most of us know Ernest Greene as a successful businessman, but Granny didn’t marry him for his money. When she met him, he didn’t have a penny to his name. I remember Granny saying, “I kissed a lot of boys before I married your grandfather. I didn’t marry the first man who came along; I chose him.” They chose well. Together, they raised my uncle and dad, built a business into a very profitable venture, scrimped and saved, traveled the world, grew old together in their own home, and still had enough fortune to provide comfortable lives for their children and grandchildren. There are many opportunities I’ve had in this life that I never would have had were it not for the man we remember today, and for that I am forever grateful. In the long run, though, what’s important is not the money Grandpa made, but the family he created with his wife. His passing marks the end of Ernest and Helene Greene on Earth, and for that I am sad, but if there is a heaven after life, I am happy to imagine Granny and Grandpa reunited and rejuvenated, the way I remember them for the first 18 years I knew them.
It was very sad for me to see my once healthy and strong grandfather become frail and thin with age. He even began losing his memory the last couple of years, though he never lost his charm. A couple of Thanksgivings ago, at the end of the meal, Grandpa turned to Uncle Chuck, and asked very politely, “Do you have a place in your house where I might lie down to rest?” He might have forgotten it was his own house, but he certainly didn’t forget his manners!
I’ve been told you should always say, “I love you,” to the people you love when you talk to them on the phone, lest it should be the last time you ever speak to them. About a month ago was the last time I spoke with Grandpa, and thanks to some coaxing from my partner Andy, the last thing I said was, “I love you,” and the last thing Grandpa said to me was, “I love you, too.” I feel at peace with Grandpa, and I’m glad he is now at rest.
My best friend, Paul, lost his grandmother just two weeks ago, and I would like to share with you something he quoted when he eulogized his grandmother. The Native American Ishi people of the Pacific Northwest imagined that their dead spoke to them saying “When I am dead, cry for me a little, think of me sometimes, but not too much. It is not good for you to allow your thoughts to dwell too long upon the dead. Think of me now and again as I was in life, at some moment that is pleasant to recall, but not for too long. Leave me in peace, as I shall too leave you in peace. While you live, let your thoughts be with the living.”
I choose to remember Granny and Grandpa together, healthy, active and always in love. Granny and Grandpa are gone now, but their marriage will always be an inspiration to me as I go on to create my own family. Goodbye, Grandpa, and as a contemporary of yours once said, “Thanks for the memories.”
Those who are interested may make contributions in memory of Ernest Greene to the following charities:
- Animal Welfare Institute
- The Humane Society
- Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind
- Help Hospitalized Veterans
- Anti-Defamation League of B’nei Brit
- The 52 Association, Inc.
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