Ben ‘Boozie’ Zlepper was my grandfather. That’s the only way I knew him, which is to say, I knew hardly nothing of the man and absolutely all I needed to know.
He had a life before I entered it, of course, but only the barest bits and pieces have made their way to me through the years. An immigrant from Russia who came to the US in 1922 at the age of 8. A solid athlete who boxed and played baseball. A working-class man, impoverished for much of his life, family hit hard by the Great Depression. Ran a neighborhood clothing store while my mom and her brother were young, barely making ends meet. Enjoyed some modest success as an insurance salesman later in life, pushing product in some of the poorest sections of St. Louis City. Stuck in a volatile, love-hate marriage.
Those are the facts I know. Mere fragments of a long and active life. Insufficient. Unrevealing. A poor snapshot unworthy of the dashing young man you see to the right. The full story worthy, I’m sure, of a more complete telling, but that is not the one I have to tell.
I can only talk about the man who was my grandfather, my Zeyda, and hope that will be enough.
In my last post, I talked about aging, and discussed at length the kind of old man I hope to become. It would have been much simpler to have just written, ‘I’d like to be my grandfather.’
For I remember my Zeyda (the only one I ever knew – my dad’s dad died before I was born) as a supremely gentle, fun-loving man, who rarely spoke ill of others, hardly complained about anything, and loved most of all to dote on his kids and grandkids.
I remember the way he would shuffle slowly into our house. I remember kissing him on the cheek, enjoying the feeling of his stubble on my skin.
I remember his clothes, the classic older man getups – the polyester plaid pants, the velour shirts, the white shoes, the thick heavy coats, and always the smooth brown packer hat.
I remember his laugh, a melodic tone that alluded to a bit of mischievousness and had just a touch of the gravel that comes from a lifetime of smoking.
And boy, do I remember his smell. A musty, masculine odor, like the smell of clothes that have been hanging in the closet too long, mixed with a tinge of the stale cigar smoke that coated his clothing long after he gave up the habit (well, he gave up the smoking but never stopped chomping on those unlit cigars). Tough to describe, his smell is probably the memory that lingers most strongly, seems to rise up out of nowhere whenever I try to conjure up those days.
I remember the way he would always immediately try to sneak me a $20 bill when my Bobba wasn’t looking. Twenty dollars was a windfall for a young kid, especially back in those days, and I always felt guilty about taking the money (though never guilty enough to refuse).
I remember the way he would either go sit on the La-Z-Boy recliner in our den, often eventually falling asleep while Wheel of Fortune or the ballgame played on the TV, or he would go downstairs and ask mom to put on the Kenny Rogers album while he sat on the couch and there, too, inevitably end up asleep (‘The Gambler’ was his favorite song and I can’t hear it today without thinking of him).
He was there for me whenever I needed him, offering advice – but only when asked – encouraging me at every turn, so obviously filled with nothing but love and pride for me and his other two grandchildren. I remember a lot about him, but I wish I remembered so much more.
At my Bar Mitzvah, the cameraman passed a microphone around my family’s table, offering everyone the chance to speak. But my Zeyda was a shy man, of few words, and on the video you can only see the back of his bald head shaking as he declines the opportunity. I wish I could go back in time and force him to say something, anything. Maybe I’d even get a laugh.
One day when I was a freshman in high school, I came home on the verge of tears because I had found out I had been cut trying out for the baseball team. Zeyda called and we chatted for a bit. He told me my coaches ‘don’t know shit,’ which made me laugh despite myself. We didn’t talk long; he never was one to overstay his welcome.
But something also seemed off on that call – his sentences were often incomplete, his thoughts scattered. I didn’t think much of it until later that night when my parents called to tell me Zeyda had had a bad stroke.
I didn’t know what that meant, having a stroke, so I wasn’t prepared for what I saw when I went to visit him. That certainly wasn’t my grandfather lying there in his bed, wrapped up in wires and tubes, staring blankly into space as my family gathered around. He barely moved or made a sound, except to offer up the occasional grimace, arising from some mysterious source of pain or discomfort. I sat near his bedside, unsure of what to do or say. Should I touch him? Did he recognize me?
Near the end of the visit, my dad started giving a rah-rah speech, telling Zeyda that he was OK, that he’d get better if he was willing to work at it. I know he meant well, but the optimism seemed out of place and made me even sadder. I looked at my grandfather, who displayed zero response to what my dad was saying. I understood on some level that for the first time in my life I was staring at death and all of its implications, and it was too much for me. I started bawling. Not just a few tears, but total waterworks, to the point where I couldn’t see anything out of my eyes.
And then all of a sudden, in the midst of this, I felt a rough finger brush against my eyes. It was my grandfather, reaching across his body, over the bed, futilely trying to wipe away my tears. The gesture, of course, made the tears flow even harder, and I felt – but couldn’t see – my grandfather take my hand, bring it to his lips and kiss it. By this time, everyone in the room was crying.
The gestures, his first meaningful acts of recognition since the stroke, gave us a sense of hope that things would one day return to normal.
They never did.
Through the sheer persistence and devotion of his wife, who seemed to prefer the silent, compliant and needier version of my grandfather, he lived for about another 10 years, shuffled off from one dreadful nursing home to the next.
I know it’s totally selfish, but I feel those last ten years blurred and irrevocably damaged the images and memories I have of my Zeyda, at least of the one I preferred to remember.
It is true that occasionally and especially early on, there were moments of relative lucidity, when he would remember our names and seem happy to have his family around. Even later, near the end, there’d be rare glimpses of the old Zeyda, like the time he tried to grab the gams of a particularly attractive waitress at a St. Louis Bread Co. restaurant.
Mostly, though, he would sit uncomfortably in his wheelchair, his face scrunched up in a perpetual scowl, and displaying a temper I had never seen before with his nurses.
He no longer wore his hats. He no longer had that smell. And the laugh, of course, was gone for good, in its place only an echo of happier times, growing fainter and fainter with each passing year.
I can still hear it sometimes, but only barely.