It has been almost thirty years since my mother’s father finally succumbed to the cancer that invaded his body. I remember visiting him in the hospital before he died. I remember how the pain and the circumstances conspired to strip him of his dignity. And I remember how he fought back.
When I look at my children, Phillip and Jennifer, I think of my grandparents. Both kids have the beautiful red hair of my mother’s mother. There is no other red hair in any of our families. And Phillip was named in fond memory of Phillip Davis, my papa, who died when I was eight years old.
Phillip Davis had been born in Wales. He came to this country as a young man, but he retained throughout his life the poise and stature of a proper Englishman. He was tall (6’3”) and handsome and well aware that he stood out in any crowd, but especially in the Jewish neighborhoods of the turn of the century where he towered over the newly arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe. That confidence was displayed when he called upon a beautiful redhead for the first time. Her mother came to the door and he addressed her as Shviger, the Yiddish word for Mother-in Law.
I watched him come home from the Tip Top Bakery plant that he managed in Columbus, Ohio. He was so tall. So erect. And my parents would tell me that the way I was growing that I, too, would be tall like Papa one day.
Early on I noticed his reserve. It wasn’t a lack of warmth. It was more an internal switch that he controlled. Oh, when he was really provoked, he didn’t keep it a secret. But most of the time he kept himself in check.
When I was four, I asked to take Papa his tea. He had been an American citizen for over thirty years, but he still drank tea like an Englishman. Just as I was about to hand him the cup and saucer, I tripped on the Oriental rug and poured hot liquid right on his lap. He leaped from the chair and my mother and grandmother ran into the room. I stood there in shock. Before I could apologize and tell him how badly I felt, I heard them screaming. “Tell Papa you’re sorry. Well, tell Him!”
I couldn’t speak. As my ears rang with the voices of my mother and grandmother imploring, then ordering me to apologize; as I watched the person I loved more than anyone else in my world dry himself off; as I felt all of the guilt in the world land on my little shoulders. I stood there silently. I could not say that I was sorry because now that they had ordered it, my apology wouldn’t have appeared to have been from me. It would have simply been me following orders. I stood there, holding my ground, hoping that I would one day have the opportunity to explain all of this to the man staring at me.
I don’t know if my grandfather ever understood. But I learned something very important. If I want to eliminate any misunderstanding, I have to communicate my thoughts and feelings to everyone involved. My writing has become my vehicle for expressing myself. Not just this column, but everything I write is in memory of that afternoon many years ago and in honor of Phillip Davis, my grandfather. May he rest in peace.