The familiar stench of cigars fills my nose as I walk into Grandpa’s apartment in Manhattan. Though he hasn’t smoked in months, nothing can remove the odor, and the once white walls are stained a permanent yellowish-brown. It is May 2007, I am 12-years-old, and though I should be doing homework, it is more important that I am here tonight to say goodbye. Grandpa’s caretaker, Ella, greets my parents and I warmly when we walk in. She brings us into his room, where he lies on something resembling a hospital bed, asleep. “He’s not doing so well,” she says. She doesn’t have to tell us. Grandpa barely responds to our presence. Tubes hang from his nose, and his flesh is loose, sagging around his bones from the 75 pounds he’s lost. It’s been three years since he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which has now spread to his bones. A once large and imposing man, who worked six days a week and didn’t believe in sick days, he now relies on Ella, and sometimes Mom, to change his diapers and wipe away his excrements. I can’t think of anything he would have wanted less. I walk out of the room and wait on the couch for my parents to finish their visit. An air of anticipation hangs in the apartment as we wait for him to die.
“I’m glad he’s dead,” says Mom.
I am 22-years-old, a senior in my last year of college. It’s been 10 years since I last saw my grandfather. My memories of him exist in fragments, though he still evokes a certain affection in me. Now, as my family recalls the man that he once was, I realize I may be the only one who harbors any love for him.
“Mom! Stop!” I glare at her, angry at her cold-hearted words. It seems rude, wrong to speak of Grandpa this way.
“What? He was a horrible man,” she says.
“He was horrible. You know that, right?” my older brother Nick says. I don’t respond. I am irritated that they are slandering a man who cannot defend himself, a man who I have only fond memories of and loyal affection for—he was my grandpa, after all. At the same time, I was aware that I was one of the few who knew him, maybe the only one, who never witnessed his rage, his bullying, and his cruelty. My Mom says he adored me like no other. I was the highlight of his life, especially towards the end when he had no friends left, no other family who he spoke to. When I knew him, I was too young to do anything to shame or abandon him, and he was too old to carry the fury that engrossed him as a younger man.
Nathaniel Goldrich was born January 20, 1920, in a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx to Austrian immigrants. Although not particularly religious, his father designed the local synagogue as well as the house they lived in. Growing up, Nathaniel’s parents were cold, treating him as the least favorite amongst his older brother, Stanley, his older sister, Ruth, and his twin sister Silvia. When his parents died, they split their money amongst his siblings and left Nathaniel with nothing.
Though Nathaniel would later break off all communication with his siblings, in his youth he sang in a band with his brother Stanley. He also excelled academically, graduating high school by age 15 and dental school by 21. At 20 he met a woman named Lillian Shainebloom, while working at a summer camp. They went on a date, rowing on the river for hours. They were so engrossed in conversation that neither of them realized they had never unhooked the rowboat and were still attached to the dock. They married shortly after. It is the only positive story about their relationship that my mother can remember.
After a couple years of working as a dentist in the Navy at a Virginia base, Nathaniel returned to New York and moved into an apartment in Stuyvesant Town, Manhattan. At the time, his one-bedroom apartment cost $31 per month. When his first son, Fred, was born, he had a nervous breakdown. He refused to eat anything but sardine sandwiches and lost a lot of weight as a result. He suffered from panic attacks, depression, and was barely functional. After a couple years of this, he finally went into therapy and recovered. Although he did not want another child, his wife did, and soon my mother was born.
With two children, Nathaniel and Lillian decided to move to a larger apartment in the Bronx. At the same time, Nathaniel opened his own dental office in Manhattan. He seemed to hate everything about his life. He always claimed to hate being a dentist. When my mother was an adult, he told her he never cared for her brother Fred. This wasn’t a huge surprise to anyone. Nathaniel loved golf and basketball and couldn’t relate to his son, who was weird, nerdy, and not the least bit athletic. In Nathaniel’s eyes, Fred was a failure. When Fred was a child and asked his father why he wasn’t allowed to do something, Nathaniel replied, “Because I’m the King and you’re nothing.”
Although Nathaniel’s dislike for Fred was clear, he doted on my mother. As a child she could do no wrong. On her route to school, my mother walked by a Catholic school, where one of the boys would always taunt her. “I hate kikes,” he’d say, and then he’d spit on her. When my grandfather got word of this, he found the boy, twisted his arm behind his back and said, “If you ever spit on my daughter again, I will rip your arm off.” He did the same thing to another kid who put stray dogs in shopping carts and sent them into traffic.
Although Nathaniel was almost always kind to my mother, he had neither the patience nor the devotion for his wife Lillian. He had a collection of over 20 watches that he kept in a drawer, each one given to him by a different woman who he cheated on her with. Once, in need of gold, he melted their wedding rings to use for tooth fillings. When Lillian was 45, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After she was released from the hospital for the first time, she and Nathaniel walked out holding hands. It was one of two times my mother saw them display physical affection towards each other. The other time was when they were in a car and my mother saw him put an arm on her shoulder. It blew my mother away. In a few years, the cancer spread to Lillian’s lungs, killing her at 52 years of age. Although she wished to be buried, he had her cremated instead. When the crematory told him it would cost twenty-five dollars to dispose of the ashes, he asked an acquaintance to pick them up and throw them in the nearest garbage. I never had the chance to meet her, and Mom says she’s been dead so long she can’t even remember what her voice sounded like.
After Lillian died, Nathaniel asked my mother to move back into his apartment, but she was in her early 20’s and uninterested in living at home. Consequently, he stopped speaking to her for two years. Anytime a friend declined an invitation, or a family member refused a request, he’d say, “They’re off my list!” If he invited friends to dinner and they were tight on money, he would offer to pay. However, if they continued to evade his request, he’d never speak to them again. After two years of silence, my mother knocked on his door. He opened it and told her to wait for him in the lobby. When he came down, he said, “Alright, it’s alright. What do you want? A car?” and he bought her a car.
My mother says the women who dated Grandpa were even crazier than he was. Even though he believed that people should marry within their ethnicity, his most serious girlfriend after Lillian was a black woman from Haiti named Dolores. She claimed that the CIA was grooming her to become the next Mata Hari. Once while they were dancing in Puerto Rico, my grandfather’s attention wandered to the stage where the charming singer captured his eye. Infuriated, Dolores reached between her cleavage, drew out a ten-dollar bill and hurled it at him. “When you dance with Dolores, you look at Dolores!” she seethed.
Eventually Dolores too was diagnosed with cancer. During her month-long hospitalization, Nathaniel only managed to visit once due to his great distaste for hospitals. At the end of this month, Dolores left the hospital to gather the gifts of value my grandfather had given her over the years and delivered them to her daughter. My grandfather considered this a betrayal and was deeply hurt. He never spoke to her family again.
If Grandpa did have a redeeming quality, it was his sense of humor. He knew how to tell a good joke.
“A fellow comes home after golf one afternoon, and sleeps through the rest of the day.
His wife asks him why he’s so tired.
‘Well, remember Harry, my golfing buddy? He died today on the fourth hole.’
‘That’s terrible! It must have been awful.’
‘Sure was. For the next 14 holes it was hit the ball, drag Harry, hit the ball, drag Harry.’”
Mom says you have to be old and Jewish to find that joke funny.
Although Grandpa seemed to enjoy making others laugh, he never laughed at a joke that wasn’t his. He’d just stare with a slight look of confusion like the person was a moron for thinking they were funny. When a friend of my mother’s visited, he made the fatal mistake of telling my grandfather a joke with a sexual innuendo. “Damn it! Watch your mouth!” my grandfather yelled. He fumed, left the room, and didn’t say another word to that friend for the rest of the night.
Grandpa didn’t have the opportunity to say much to anyone after he cut them all out of his life. Fred can’t feed the cat this weekend? “He’s off my list.” Silvia and Stanley won’t come to the beach with us? “They’re off my list.” When my mother met my father and decided to drive out to California with him, she was off his list for 11 years. “How dare you travel unmarried with a man? You’ve humiliated me,” he told her. One might wonder who he had left for her to humiliate him in front of. He was 60 years old at that point. My mother tried calling him over the years to reconcile, but he’d hang up as soon as he heard her.
Before my parents married, my father went to Grandpa’s office and asked to have a word with him. Not knowing who my father was, Grandpa smiled at him, “Of course! Come in! How is everything going for you today?” He was always friendly with his patients.
“Thank you, I’m Bruce,” my father said. “I just wanted to introduce myself because in June, I’m going to marry your daughter.”
My grandfather’s face darkened—a complete 180, my father recalls. “If I had known that’s what you wanted to see me for, I would never have given you the time of day.” Needless to say, Grandpa did not attend their wedding, and years passed before he talked to her again. Through his silence, he missed his daughter’s progression into adulthood and the birth of his grandson.
When my brother Nick was four years old, he wrote our grandfather a letter, asking him to come to his school for Grandparent’s Day. “I’ll come,” he said to my mother, “but don’t expect any kind of relationship in the future. I could never respect a man who would do that,” referring to my father and the premarital California trip.
The reunion was awkward, to say the least. It was also shocking for my mother to see her father, now 71; he was an old man. Although Grandpa promised that this would be his only visit, he gradually loosened up and became a part of my family’s life again.
It may have been my brother who reunited the family, but it was me who Grandpa fell for. “He really got a kick out of you,” Mom remembers, “and he was always kinder when you were around.” When I ran to him, he called, “Kooky, kooky!” and I kissed the beard on his cheek. I made him birthday cards and drawings. We spent Thanksgivings at his apartment. He took me to the diner, where he stuffed his pockets full of the free mints at the register. “Yeah, I take extra,” he said to the owner. In his apartment he had bowls overflowing with these mints. Eventually, the owner started hiding them when he saw us.
Grandpa didn’t care much for the rules, especially the rules of his apartment. There were no pets allowed; he had two cats. There was no smoking allowed; he smoked cigars all the time, wherever he wanted. “Your cigar stinks,” said a woman riding the elevator with him. “Well you’re ugly,” he replied.
“People put up with him,” a friend of the family once told Mom as a young adult. “It was your mother who everyone liked.” The realization was as surprising for her at the time as it was for me when it seemed as though my family had turned their backs on him. When Mom was a child, and her mother said no to a request, she turned to her father, and he always indulged her. Good parenting? Probably not, but he earned his daughter’s affection. She thought he was good-hearted; he was her favorite and she was his.
What Nathaniel thought of himself is difficult to say. My mother thinks he thought of himself as a failure. “Jews want to be doctors and lawyers,” she says, half-joking, half-not, “and dentists and chiropractors don’t count.” Though he claimed to hate every minute of it, he worked as a dentist from the time he was 21 until his retirement at 80. His patients seemed to love him. One woman said she had never seen another dentist and was devastated when he retired. Another of his patients, who worked in television, became friendly with my grandfather and cast him in a commercial for Di-Gel, a medicine for indigestion. It went something like this:
Narrator: So, your mortgage is late (Grandpa frowns). Your car has been towed (he frowns more). You lost your job (frown deepens), and now you have heartburn (biggest frown). You need Di-Gel. It’ll make you feel better (he smiles). You’ll win the lottery (smile widens). You’ll discover gold (even bigger smile), and your mother-in-law will join the Navy (beaming smile).
It played before the 6 o’clock news. “He did such a terrible job,” Mom remembers, “but I think he was proud of it.”
One day when Grandpa was 80, he collapsed, hitting his head, unconscious. He didn’t believe in taxis, so he took the bus to the hospital. Nothing fatal was wrong with him, but he was getting old, and his body was beginning to fail. Shortly after, he retired. When Grandpa was 85 and diagnosed with cancer, Mom took him to the doctor. “This nut here thinks I need antidepressants,” he said, pointing to Mom. “She’s the crazy one; give them to her.” He left with a prescription for Prozac. Mom thinks it helped somewhat.
For the last year-and-a-half of his life, Grandpa had a caretaker named Ella. They watched Monk and basketball games together, laughing at their favorite lines and cheering for their favorite teams. He was taken aback by how sweet and caring she was. He may have trusted her more than any other person in his life. Maybe that’s what happens when you become so thoroughly dependent on another person. It was to Ella whom Grandpa finally opened up to, disclosing his misdeeds and confessing his regrets.
“Ella told me pretty much everything,” said Mom, “In more detail than I ever really wanted to know.” The origins of the watches were revealed; the late nights suddenly made sense. To me, it seemed disrespectful to break a dying man’s confidence like that. He was at his most vulnerable. He no longer had any privacy to his body or his life. I wonder if he would have been angered at Ella’s divulgence, or if maybe he wanted us to know.
I heard these stories over the years in bits and pieces, distorting the image of a man who I only knew a sliver of. As a child, like my mother, I only saw the benevolence of the grandfather who adored me. The realization that he was a misogynist, a racist, and a cheat took a while to sink in, and even when it did, it took even longer for me to realize that these things might actually indicate that he was not a very good person at all. It wasn’t until I was a sophomore in college that my mother confirmed to me that my grandfather was initially very much against my adoption because it crossed ethnic lines. I hadn’t been aware of that before, but by that point, like the watches and the late nights, there were enough clues so that it wasn’t a surprise. Today, even with this more equivocal image of what my grandfather represented, I still feel tenderness when I think of the roughness of his beard and the overflowing mints on his shelves.
Mom is calling me. “Liv, come back in. We’re leaving soon.” I get off the couch and walk back into Grandpa’s room. His eyes are closed. There’s little indication that he notices me. Even so, I walk up to his bedside and kiss him on the check. “Bye Grandpa, love you.” As I move away, he turns toward me, eyes still closed. “Mwah, mwah, mwah,” he kisses the air, head moving back and forth as if he’s trying to find me. We leave.
The next day Ella calls my parents and tells them to come as soon as they can. They leave right away. In Grandpa’s bedroom, with Ella and a nurse, Mom sits next to her father and holds his hand. “Are you in pain?” she asks. He shakes his head no. She tells him not to be afraid; she’s there for him. My dad is there for Mom. Ella sings “Amazing Grace.” They are there for hours into the night. The nurse tells my mom that sometimes you need to tell them it’s OK for them to go. Mom tells him, and within twenty minutes he is dead.
When Grandpa died, Mom couldn’t stop crying. When we cleaned out his apartment, she grabbed some of his smoke infused socks and stuffed them in a Ziploc bag to preserve his smell. When the pain of his absence hit her hardest, she unsealed the bag and inhaled the scent of cigars to bring her closer to his memory. “The smell lasted for three years before it began to fade,” Mom tells me now, “But it’s OK. I don’t need the smell anymore.” She sounds a little bitter, but also a little sad.
Olivia Wolf is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. She was raised by a Jewish family in New York. From the Western Wall of Jerusalem to the Great Wall of China, she enjoys observing and experiencing the world.