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Saturday, November 05, 2011

Remembering My Grandpa, Bernard Beller, OBM

I don't think there is ever really a case of "being ready" to lose a loved one. Your phone rings in the evening, you pick it up and even with the preface of "I have some bad news to tell you," it seems impossible to fully brace yourself for the blow that is about to come. This past Wednesday, my Grandpa passed away in a hospital near the apartment he and my grandmother shared in Florida during the cooler months. They had arrived in Florida just over a week prior. I had spoken to him Thursday morning the week before as he and my Grandma prepared for Shabbat the next day.
August, 2011
I was blessed enough to spend a day with my Grandpa this past summer. He most often went by "Ben" and "Ben's Kosher Deli" was one of his (and my) favorite places to eat near my grandparent's home in New York.

My Grandpa and Grandma celebrated 60 years of marriage this past September. There are many things to admire about him and many gifts he shared with me through the years. His own life story is an incredible one, but I will share that at another time. For now, I feel it's relevant and important to say that my Grandpa and Grandma are two of the most influential people in my decision to become a more observant Jew. His love of Torah, learning and mitzvos were at the core of who he was and who I strive more and more to become.

Living in Washington state while my family is all back east means that in times like these, it's not possible to be with them physically. The distance would feel overwhelmingly isolating were it not for the incredible friends I have here, my Jewish community and the power of technology. I was able to view the funeral via live telecast, and my mother kindly volunteered to read on my behalf the following words I wrote about my Grandpa:

As a very little girl, I am told I was a little slow to warm up to Grandpa—particularly if it involved hugs and kisses. He still smoked a pipe back then. I can remember him telling me to come smell the loose tobacco he carried in a Ziploc bag--that it smelled like chocolate. I knew then we had a very different opinion of what chocolate should smell like. I did not like the crust on my challah at Shabbos dinner and Grandpa told me “eat it, it tastes like cookies!” I knew then we also had a very different opinion of what a cookie should taste like. In those days, he referred to me affectionately as “Peanut.” I knew I had begun to grow up when he starting to refer to me instead as “Darling.” It was also around that time I began to realize that aside from our differing views on what constitutes a proper dessert (and I still won’t touch pistachio flavored ice cream), that Grandpa and I had a lot in common.

Since moving across the country 8 years ago, it’s been difficult to visit my grandparents often. Years have even passed in which I don’t get to see them and that pains me. However, the highlight of many weeks has been Friday morning when I’d call and hear Grandma’s or Grandpa’s voice on the receiving end and could say “It’s Michelle; I just called to wish you a Good Shabbos.” The phone calls are never long and often we'd only talk about the weather—but for a few minutes that erased the 3,000 miles between us. In just a few hours, the sun would set in the east coast and a few hours after that, in the west coast. Somehow, a warm greeting over the phone has brought us together for Shabbos each week.

Sometimes, despite my better intentions, I’ve missed a week. Then there is often a message on my phone come Sunday. My favorite message was one in which Grandpa said “It’s your Grandpa and Grandma. The time in New York is now 6:46. No, the clock just changed and now it says 6:47. Anyhow…we didn’t hear from you…” I think that’s the first time I realized that our little phone calls meant as much to him as they did to me.

Last year, my rabbi here in Spokane, WA made a trip to Florida. While he was there, he met my grandparents for lunch. He made a point to contact me from Florida right afterward and tell me what special people my grandparents are and how lucky I am to have them. He is absolutely right. When he got back to Spokane, he said that again, and added that I am a lot like them and that I look like my Grandma. It was a huge compliment as I so greatly admire the kindness, warmth and generosity of my grandparents and Grandma is a beautiful woman!

For years now, my grandparents have mailed a note to me every month. I’ve saved nearly every single letter. Like our phone conversations, they are short and sweet. Often, there is vital information about current weather conditions. This year in September, Grandpa wanted to know if I’d made any new friends at school. I’m 26 years old, but knowing how important that is to him, I got right on it and joined a club on my college campus. Usually the letter comes after the first of the month. Given that they were traveling and how sick Grandpa had been feeling, I really didn’t expect to get one at the usual time this month. However, the letter came early. It was dated October, 28 and in addition to the usual greeting, Grandpa added at the end: Thank you so much for your phone calls. I hope he knew and that Grandma realizes how much it means to me to hear their voices and to feel for a few minutes of the week like I’m not 3,000 miles away from them.

My hope and prayer in this time is that my Grandma feel and know the love and support she has, that my family will heal and grow from this loss, and that I may live my life in a way that would bring honor and remembrance to the incredible man my Grandpa was.