My grandfather died when I was four. I have few memories of him. I remember the smell of his cigar, his laughter as I sat on his lap and talked about the things that are important to four year-olds, the tired look on his face when I visited him the day before he died of colon cancer.
He always wore a bow tie, and it was always crooked. A fringe of white hair surrounded his freckled scalp . He had a huge hump in his back.
My grandfather owned the clothing store his father had opened in the 1850's. My cousin, whose father took over the store after Grandpa died, told me the following story.
One day, a young couple came into the store to buy their son shoes. My grandfather measured the little boy's feet, took down several boxes, and after trying on several pairs, finally found one that fit properly. After the little boy walked around to make sure they were comfortable, my grandfather asked if he wanted to wear them home.
The parents exchanged glances, and explained the shoes were too expensive. My grandfather told them they didn't have to pay for them that day -- they could open an account and pay a little whenenver they could. There was no interest, and as long as you paid a little every so often, your account would remain open.
They took the shoes off their son's feet, handed them back to my grandfather, thanked him politely, and left. My grandfather gave the shoes to Leon, who worked in the store, and said, "Put these in a brown paper bag. On your way home tonight, put them on their porch, knock on the door, and run."
Leon lived on "the other side of the creek.” One of his parents was white, the other was black. He was younger-- and faster -- than my grandfather, and he was less likely to draw the attention of the neighbors when he made "the drop."
A few days later, as my grandmother placed a plate of sliced bread at the dinner table, she said, "The strangest thing happened today. Someone rang the doorbell, but when I answered it, no one was there. I looked down, and there was a brown paper bag sitting on the doormat. This bread was inside."
From time to time, my grandmother answered the doorbell and found a brown paper sack. Sometimes it contained homemade bread; on other occasions it held fresh vegetables from someone's garden.
When my grandfather died, I was too young to attend his funeral. When I was older, my father told me about his funeral service.
"Your grandfather's eulogy was given by the Monsignor in the Kalamazoo Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church. He said, 'Had it not been for this man, I would not have been able to attend the seminary. My mother bought all her son’s clothes at his store, on credit. Please join me in the Lord's prayer.’"
My grandparents were Jews. They rarely attended services at the nearest Temple, because, according to my grandmother, it was simply too far to travel. My grandfather's explanation was a little different. When he was asked why he seldom joined others to worship, he always said, "My church is round.”
“Someone should write those stories down,” Phil said.
And so, I did.