Wednesday, November 11, 2009


As most people know by now, my grandpa passed away a few weeks ago. For those who missed the levaya and shiva, and for posterity, here are a few thoughts and anecdotes about him. Firstly, the personal from the JC:

"MAISEL. Avrem. A kind, gentle, sharp-witted and principled man. Sadly passed away Saturday, October 31, aged 93. Much loved by all the family."

Having been a bit feeble for most of the week, but still lucid enough to recount some stories of his childhood to Mum and see his friends Michael B and Doreen, Grandpa took a very bad turn on the Saturday morning. At the time, my parents and cousin Claire were visiting Hilly and Al in Zurich, leaving only Helen back in the UK. The care home could see he was in his final hours, and managed to get hold of Julie in Zurich, who called me, and I got to Helen, just as she put her mobile on and got the awful news that it was too late. Julie sent Phillip down to shul to get Mum and Hilly, and as we all digested the news and booked planes home, Mum found some immediate comfort in the turn of events that saw us grandchildren deal with things first.

This was swiftly reduced by my inadvertent leaking of the news via Facebook before any other relatives had been informed. Oh well. Shows what a powerful medium it is, and Grandpa would have been chuffed to know he got his own status update - although he wasn't comfortable with t'internet, he understood it was something he had to learn, and had only recently got a computer and his own hotmail account.

When I got back to London, one of the first tasks was for me and Dad to go to the care home and sort out his possessions. I had been giving some thought to whether I wanted to see Grandpa "doing a Lenin" or not, given that my last contact with him had been back in the De'Ath Ward of Northwick Park (that's the ward on floors 1 to 16 for those who have not heard of it), and I was not sure if I wanted that to be my final image - a frail if stubborn man perched in a hospital bed.

In fact, staunch supporter of universal free healthcare that he was, even he was so underwhelmed with his experience there that at one point, he took a bit of a stand. When they had delayed a minor operation for the third time (the second being entirely the hospital's own fault, having fed him breakfast despite the surgeon requiring nil by mouth for 24 hours before the op), the orderlies told him he may as well go and have some lunch, as they wouldn't be able to fit him in until the following day. He said no thanks. They said whaaat? He said he was going to refuse all food just in case an opening came up for surgery and he missed it because he had eaten something. When they understood he was actually going on hunger strike - a 93 year old diabetic with a dodgy foot and a solid 15 years of mileage on a heart bypass - they miraculously found an operating theatre and a surgeon.

As it happens, the decision was rather abruptly taken out of my hands, when we went to Grandpa's room, the nurse pushed the door open - and there he was, still in bed! In fact it was strangely reassuring, once I got used to it. The cliché was definitely true - he was lying there looking so peaceful, as if he was finally getting some decent sleep. The sun was streaming in through the window, and his room was really very nice (I had not seen it before as he went from hospital to care home only after I moved to Tel Aviv), with his favourite paintings and family pictures around him, and a lovely garden view outside.

This was the first moment when I realised that there might be certain items of his that I might stake a unique claim to - I have inherited his round shoulders and barrel chest, and am a pretty good fit for a whole range of rather nice jumpers, shirts and coats. Special mention must go to the stunning sheepskin jacket - Motty eat your heart out. At the levaya on the Tuesday, it felt very right to be there wearing his fab Dunn and Co trilby, red and blue check scarf and very lush gloves with fur lining.

Over the course of the week, we shared some great anecdotes about him, and also had a look through the accumulations of his and Grandma's lifetimes in the flat on Harrow Hill. I was particularly thrilled to find his membership card for the Labour Party, and remembered him telling Mum he was only voting for Blair to get them in, then was hoping for "Real Labour" to emerge. How prophetic - and unfortunate for the rest of the family, who have not inherited his socialist tendencies!

We had many political debates over a Shabbat table, at their flat and at Eastglade, over the years. Grandpa always enjoyed the intellectual rigours of it, even though he knew I would not be persuaded. Right until the end, he was reading the Guardian or having someone read it for him, and although he was a proper leftie, he wrote to them when he felt they crossed too big a line on the Israel thing (or in fact, dictated to Grandma who wrote off in her lovely bubble handwriting).

I was sitting with him in early July 2005, having his usual lunch of Ryvita and crackers and listening to Radio 4, when they announced that London had won the right to stage the Olympics. He switched off the radio and said "well, that will be a disaster. Thank God I'll be dead by then!" I don't think he can have envisaged cutting it quite so fine...

He did manage to come to one sporting event though - the FA Cup Final, when Cardiff played Portsmouth:

Somehow he managed to still get in his traditional afternoon nap during most of the second half, despite 80,000 spectators cheering all around him.

One of our favourite moments with him was on a weekend in Christchurch, not long after Grandma died, when we had a lovely suite together at the Captain's Cabin. After dinner, he had got into bed, and Mum asked him if he had brushed his teeth. He said "not tonight". On further interrogation: "I'm 93 and I don't feel like it." What a geezer.

I also remember being on the Bessies' balcony in Zurich playing Scrabble with him at dusk. As it got darker, he was struggling to see the board, so he said "let's shed some light on this" and whipped out a pocket torch to shine at his letters.

He generally kept in good spirits and set himself new targets to live for. Not least of these was to see his first great-grandchild. When Yosi was born, he and Grandpa seemed to be taking it in turns to be ill, but Grandpa hung in there for long enough to meet him once, on a sunny afternoon in the garden of the home, just a week before the end.

Perhaps because of this final achievement, I don't think any of us were massively shocked by the timing of Grandpa's passing. Mum has been saying  to Dad for about 30 years that Grandpa was on his last legs, and this time might be the last she would see him, but after her visit to him last week, when he was so enfeebled but still felt the urge to tell her some of his life story, his early childhood memories (which Mum, in a homage to her day job, took thorough notes on), she really knew.

And I think so did he. A few days earlier, Dad had been visiting him to discuss some financial matters, and although Grandpa was really feeling under the weather, he wanted to hear my news. Dad read him my latest blog entry (luckily there was no autopsy so nobody can prove that this was what killed him), the one about my nascent love affair with Tel Aviv. Afterwards, Grandpa insisted on calling me, despite Dad feeling he was too weak and that I would be able to tell he was poorly.

Although he could hardly speak in more than a small, croaking voice, he managed to tell me he was so happy that I had "found love". Those were the last words he would ever say to me.

I cannot help but feel profoundly uplifted by his incredible dignity, knowing that he was in his final days, and that even when he was so tired in every way, he reached across thousands of miles to give a parting blessing. He must have guessed that my only real guilty feeling about leaving the UK was the sense of abandoning him, and I had felt, deep inside, however much I tried to repress it, that back then in the hospital in August, as I kissed his forehead and walked away, it would prove to be a final goodbye. I am sure he knew too, but - in a homage to the legendary stoicism of Grandma - he just gave me a classic Grandpa grin and wave.

As I return to my Altneuland, I have this strong sense that I am bringing his indomitable spirit with me. All I can hope for is to carry myself for even a fraction of my life with his humility, integrity and humour in the face of whatever adversity I am faced with.

Rest in peace, Grandpa. Even if Labour lose in May.


The Meyersons said...

thank you for writing this! he was such a special man even the little bit that i knew him. also, i'm beginning to read your other wonderful you are in tel aviv!! :) hey, are you on facebook? sharonne from the US (shulamith's granddaughter)

The Meyersons said...

if you are on facebook - sharonne meyerson - or email me

Ehud Gavron said...

Well said, well written, and a good tribute to a man who inspired others.

I met my great uncle Avrem as a pre-teenager (three decades ago) and his love of life was infectious and inspiring.

(Sharonne's brother)
(Avigdor's son)
(Shulamit's grandson)
on facebook as אהוד Gavron