Friday 12 December 2008

A Search for the Meaning of Life

December is with us once more and it seems to spring upon us more rapidly with each passing year. When I was younger, the year seemed to last a full 12 months. Nowadays, it appears to go by much more quickly. When it reaches this time of year, it always brings back memories of my late Bobbie and Zaida. My Zaida's birthday was in November, and Bobbie's birthday was in December. She liked to have a big fuss made of her for her birthday, and the family usually ensured that she was the queen for a day. And because her Hebrew birthday fell during Chanukah, she often managed to squeeze out two birthday celebrations for the price of one.

What I find quite strange is that, even though my own children are already teenagers and almost adults themselves, it doesn't seem to change the way in which I remember my own grandparents. It is often said that one sees ones parents and grandparents in a different way when you have children of your own. I am sure that this is true for many people, but not really for me. I was one of those kids who was immensely fortunate to have known all 4 grandparents. And even though my paternal grandfather died when I was quite young, it was my great privilege to have 3 grandparents present at my barmitzvah, and both my grandmothers alive to witness the birth of my own children. For now, my thoughts turn to my maternal grandparents who had a tremendous influence on my life especially during my teenage years.

Quite how a young Lithuanian man found and married a lady from the northern English town of Hull, both of whom were immigrants to South Africa, is something of a mystery to me. Besides the Jewish blood which ran through their veins, they appeared to have very little in common. She was a strong-willed domineering figure whilst his personality was less domineering. Despite this fact, he was equally as strong-willed and as stubborn as anybody you could ever meet. And yet, they had a happy marriage whilst leading a simple and hard-working existence. The notion that opposites attract was surely proven by this couple. After raising and marrying off three daughters in the heart of rural South Africa, my grandparents retired and decided to move to live around the corner from where my family was living. For me, this was the start of a wonderful period in which they both had a tremendous influence on me.

My Zaida was the first person to start teaching me to read some Hebrew. There was no Jewish school or Cheder where I lived, so it was my Zaida who started guiding me in this direction. I used to go to shul with him each week, and he always seemed to know all that there was to know about Judaism. As the only Kohen (descendent of the Priestly clan of Aaron) of the community, he had the honour of being called up to the Torah each time it was read, and had the responsibility of duchening (saying the Priestly Blessing) on the high holidays. My Bobbie would insist that he duchen with the correct socks - the ones that she knitted for him (the blessing is made before the community by the Kohanim without their shoes on). And I will never forget the pride that he felt on the day of my barmitzvah. My Bobbie was the one who always had a secret supply of biscuits at her house, no matter when we turned up there. She made our favourite potato salad and lokshen pudding when we went there for Friday evening supper. Their house was an extension of ours.

My Zaida suffered a lengthy illness which took it's toll on him and gradually weakened him. Although I was only 16 years old when he died, his mark had been indelibly made on me and my life. In fact, I was present with him when he took his last breaths. This event is forever carved in my memory as moment when a young boy suddenly grew up.

Following his death, Bobbie's fighting spirit came to the fore. She was also not in the best health and spent many years in a wheelchair and bedridden. But she refused to give up and her strength of personality was always obvious. She was ever eager to do a crossword, play a word game or show her vast general knowledge. And, of course, she loved to be made a fuss of for her birthday in December and on the the third light of Chanukah. And, as life sometimes dictates, she made sure that I was there too when she died. I arrived for a short visit from Israel bringing my own son with me just before his barmitzvah. She held on to whatever life was in her, awaiting our arrival.

It was my son who made the kiddush at her bedside on the last Friday night that she was able to share with us. We had the short opportunity to share some thoughts with her before she quietly slipped away having seen 90 unbelievable years.

Although they are no longer with us, I frequently feel their presence and their influence over our lives. My wife feels that it was no coincidence that we viewed our present home for the first time on Bobbie's birthday. She seemed to be there guiding us to somehow see things into a house that were almost not there to be seen. And yet, having moved in and made it our home, there is no doubt that this is the right place for us. My Zaida always seems to be close to me, particularly when the Kohanim duchen at shul. I can almost feel him there. And we are reminded of him each Friday night when his kiddush cup is used by my younger son who is named after him.

It is hard to know if there is any significant meaning to be derived from any of this. It surely is a source of comfort to me, and a provider of fond memories. It often makes me think what sort of a grandparent I might be in the event that I am, one day, blessed with grandchildren. I feel that it would be hard to emulate their fantastic example, and yet I would like to try. Perhaps this is the meaning of life.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very well written, with lots of memories, chills and smiles.