Life is too hard without a refuge
Reflecting on 10 years with, and 25 years without, my grandpa, Deda Shulim
This year marks a quarter century since I’ve been without Deda (Russian for grandpa) Shulim. Quarter century! When I think of my current life dilemmas in comparison to that block of time, they seem positively insignificant, like flits in the ocean water. So much has happened in 25 years.
It feels strange to be writing a piece about Deda in English, a language he did not know. And it feels good to be writing this. How did those ten years affect me? How did they shape the next 25?
Deda was 88 when he died, at our home in Buffalo. He only lived in that house for a few years, and they weren’t the best years. He would mostly stay in bed all day, with a giant radio that could pick up Russian stations. He was becoming less mobile those years. Spending more and more time in bed. Going up and down the stairs was getting harder with each passing season.
He said our house was a “Zal,” which roughly translates in Russian to “gymnasium.” By US suburban standards, the house was normal-sized, not extravagant, but it was unheard of to have such a large house in the USSR.
I’ll always remember that he made me feel safe. I was bullied in elementary school, and I would come home from many tough days, crawl into the crevice between him and the bed, and just read. In 3rd grade I read 40 books. I’ve never read that many in any year since. Pretty much all of them, I read in that crevice.
After Deda died, I divided time into two parts: Before and After. I would especially cherish the physical items from Before, as if they were imbued with Deda’s spirit. After the funeral, I returned to his bed and lay there in the crevice, but it was different without him there. Still, I smelled him on the sheets and that made me feel calm.
I thought with sadness that as I got older, more and more things would be from After. This was true of physical things, but it was true of memories too. As I got older, those memories of him would become less used, and smaller in proportion on the hard drive of my brain.
I strived to keep the memories of him alive after he died. For many years, I had a ritual of going into his room and saying “spokoynoy nochi” (good night in Russian) to his empty bed, as I had done the night before he died. I would visualize his face to remember him before I fell asleep.
As the years progressed and I got busier with high school affairs, I would still go into his room and wish him good night, but I would do this in a perfunctory manner, saying “spokoynoy nochi” from the door quickly, and then get back to my homework. I was getting farther from my youth.
As the years progressed, we re-modeled his room, gave away his bed, and I stopped the doing “spokoynoy nochi” ritual.
Deda had spent his entire life being frugal and saving, only to lose his life savings in the runaway inflation that happened when the USSR collapsed. In the US, he was still frugal, saving pennies in a yogurt cup in his drawer. He would eat all the leftovers, making a soup that to me seemed unpalatable, a mix of things like carrots, fried potatoes, and hot-dogs.
For exercise, he would do morning calisthenics and squeeze a rubber O to work on his grip. But mostly, he’d walk. At one point, I remember him losing balance and scraping his face on a solo walk. He started to walk less after that.
He’d go to the Shul on Shabbat and pray. I loved going with him, to both the Shul and long walks around Buffalo. Our walks would last hours. We’d see and experience so many things: hills, sumac trees, his friend who was missing a leg. And we’d talk. I felt the same sort of feeling talking to my grandpa as in that crevice between him and the wall: fully accepted and supported.
One of my first memories is walking in the woods with my grandpa, back in Moldova before we left. There was a burned car in those woods, and a dirty stream that someone was swimming in. I remember a green pocket knife that I lost.
Lately, I’ve been getting into meditation, and one of the things that I’ve been playing with is finding a mental refuge, a place that makes me feel safe. I think that Deda was my first refuge. I feel grateful that I had him in my life for 10 years. He gave me a space where I felt safe and supported.
My childhood was filled with difficulties, but it was made bearable by having Deda around. When he died, this was a huge loss, more than I realized at the time.
Now that I am an adult, I feel the need to return to this crevice between Deda and the wall. I feel the need to start saying “spokoynoy nochi” again. I’m realizing that even though Deda is gone, I need not go through life with an attitude of steely toughness. I can have a refuge once again. In my mind, I can always return to the crevice in Deda’s bed, between his body and the wall, whenever I feel lost and exposed in the world.
Deda passed away on 9/29/1996