This is what I said at the memorial service for my grandfather Sam Seifter on March 1st, 2009. Find out more about him at the Albert Einstein College Of Medicine’s website. That’s more of a biography of an incredible life. What follows is just what a grandson said about his grandpa.
Hi everybody, if you don’t already know me, I’m Madeleine’s son, Jonathan Abrams. I am speaking today to represent the grandchildren. I’m not speaking on behalf of anybody else; I can only serve as the representative. Rebecca, Andrew, and Charlie can share their own feelings when the time is right for them. However, I will speak for us all when I say how deeply we loved our Grandpa Sam, how much we miss him right now, and how much we will always treasure the time we did have with him.
Grandpa loved all four of his grandchildren equally, without question, but I was probably the luckiest of us, in that, by chance of age and geographical proximity, I got to spend that much more extra personal time with him over the years. I grew up two blocks away from my grandparents’ house, so it would hardly be exaggerating to say that I was over there all the time.
In my early childhood, my little sister and I would look forward to weekend brunches personally cooked by Grandpa, with his individually-designed menus. I loved to listen to classical music, page through his stamp collections and his flower pressings, and to walk with him through his garden.
In my adolescence, I racked up several blue ribbons at the school science fair thanks to my grandpa’s help. Let it not be said that he did my projects for me – these collaborations were about the process of learning and teaching. I was always taught to understand and to be able to explain to others the concepts and experiments I was working with, and I always did all of the artwork, writings and presentations. He encouraged me to use humor whenever appropriate.
In high school, I got to work in my grandfather’s lab at the Einstein College of Medicine, alongside his colleagues and students. It was there that I witnessed the admiration that Grandpa had earned in his profession, and it was there that I learned to share his faith in science. There was never any pressure for me to follow in those footsteps, however. My interests in the creative arts were always respected and encouraged and even admired. Grandpa supported me, in every sense of the word, with my college education and choices, and later on, with my move to California. He was my sage. While my life has seen more than its share of mistakes and missteps and failures, believe me, none of them happened under his watch. Still, I should have all of the confidence in the world, because I know he believed in me.
In the year 2001, I was asked by Grandpa to take part in what will be for the rest of my life my proudest creative achievement: providing a bunch of black-and-white ink illustrations for a book of poetry that he had written over the years and was intending to publish. We spent over two weeks working on those drawings together. He brought me photo references, or had me find my own, or had me imagine what to draw for some of them. What I thought was most telling about the process was that he was not at all precious about it. The pictures I drew were the pictures he wanted to represent his poems. When one of my drawings wasn’t exactly right, he had me redraw it. When I wanted to redraw something and he liked it as it was, he wouldn’t let me. He encouraged me but never falsely, and his constructive criticism was just as encouraging. He treated me like a professional throughout. The result was my personal best work. He didn’t love those drawings because his grandson drew them – he loved those drawings because they were the drawings that he felt best illustrated his poetry. And because his grandson drew them.
In truth, my grandfather himself was poetry. He was calm; he was unbending integrity; he was accessibility, precision, and clarity; he was artful phrasing and unobtrusive persuasiveness; he was profound wisdom and meaning and subtle brilliance; and he was uncomplicated beauty. And if Grandpa was poetry, then it was a poem about love, and you can’t mention my grandfather without mentioning my grandmother:
My Grandma Eleanor, the love of my Grandpa’s life. They loved each other the moment they met as teenagers and they didn’t stop from that moment on. They shared the kind of love that books and songs and movies are written about. Young people wonder when such a love will happen for them, and old people wonder why it didn’t. This kind of a love story only actually occurs in reality so very rarely, and my grandparents knew it and remembered it and appreciated it. My grandparents are true soulmates, inseparable and inspiring and each the other’s best self.
Because he had my grandma, Grandpa always had hope. He never once had it easy but still he made a good life for himself. He had a life that mattered. He didn’t want to leave it; he fought longer and harder to continue it than the rest of us can comprehend. And I know that his persistence proved rewarding to him: He saw his two children – my mom and my uncle – grow up to become brilliant teachers themselves, thoughtful people of integrity who continue to be the best examples of what human beings can be. He saw my mom and my uncle start families of their own, families full of people he loved. He lasted to see the new century; he lasted to see strides made in social tolerance and cultural equality; he lasted to see a multicultural president elected; he lasted to see science return to the national discussion. Best of all, he lasted to meet his great-granddaughter Jessica, whom he loved so much it almost hurt. He didn’t get to see the Yankees get it together… but he always kept those things in perspective anyway.
When a great man like my grandfather passes, people like to enlist descriptive phrases like “giant” or “legend,” or they will emphasize what the world has lost with his passing. I am confident that I am joined by thousands in my knowledge that my Grandpa is an uncommon person, and that the world is in fact a far darker place without him in it. There is not just a massive hole in my own life with him gone, but a hole in the entire universe, because such a consistent source of kindness and decency has left it. Grandpa was just such a brilliant, loving, lovable, generous, and honest human being that it is honestly unimaginable to picture life without him.
All of that said, Grandpa would not like me to go on and on about his greatness, in fact he would certainly have hushed me off the stage by now, so I’d better hustle to bring this home. Grandpa didn’t like pomp and circumstance. He was the most humble genius I have ever witnessed. He loved people, and he treasured his relationships, his friendships, and his mentorships, and he appreciated being appreciated, but he was not one to bask in the platitudes that he nonetheless warranted. He was content to live in the same lovely blue-shuttered house that he lived in with my grandmother for decades, next to his carefully tended garden and two blocks away from his daughter, a couple hours from his son. He was unquestionably a great man, of the kind history books are written, but he didn’t need it to be known.
Grandpa was a great mind and an artist, a gardener and a chef, a humorist and a humanist, a poet and a scientist. He was the only hero I have ever needed in my life. I find myself struggling to know what to do without him.
I think that, when our heroes leave us, in a way it falls upon us to become them. For thirty-one years, I sat at the knee of the greatest man I’ve ever met. It is my most sincere hope that I learned something during that time. I can’t expect to be remotely close to the man he was, because he was truly one of a kind. But I can ensure him some measure of immortality by working that much harder to do as he would have done, to be that much better. Just by knowing him, he influenced me immeasurably. I can encourage within myself those influences.
I can say for sure that I already see it in the others – I see Grandpa in Charlie’s love of nature, and photography, and in his generous spirit. I see Grandpa in Andrew’s love of sports, and travel, and in his love of an intelligent, feisty, educational conversation. I see Grandpa in Rebecca’s love of music, and family, and in her dedication to social justice. And I even already see Grandpa in Jessica’s love of books and in her hearty laugh and her world-brightening smile.
It’s not for me to discern which aspects of Grandpa I was gifted with. All I will do is revisit those years of proximity to him, and thereby conclude these words in the way that he himself would:
Grandpa wouldn’t want us to feel so sad. He would understand that we are devastated by his loss, but he wouldn’t want us to spend too long in that misery. He would want to see us cheered. He would put a hand on our shoulder, or make a clever pun, or offer us something to eat, or even blow a kiss, as he did so many times when he saw Jessica cry.
He would be thankful. He would thank everybody for coming here today to honor his memory. He would thank my Grandma Eleanor for being the reason why he held onto life, and enjoyed it, for as long as he could. He would thank my Uncle Julian for being the warm and charming and brilliant person who he was so proud of, whose pictures and writings he kept on his nighttable. He would thank my aunt and my dad and my cousins and my sister and my niece, and especially my Aunt Esther in Cleveland who couldn’t be here today. He would thank all of the caretakers who looked after him in his later years, all those good people who I will not name individually because I don’t want to leave anyone out, but who were so important because they talked to him and held his hand when he needed it. And he would thank my mom, his daughter Madeleine, who was his engine over this past decade, who cooked and cleaned and wrote and sang and tirelessly raised his spirits when they were at their darkest, and whose heart rivals his own in size. He would want us to look after her now, to appreciate her, and to appreciate all of the people who we love, because that’s what he did.
We love you, Grandpa.