Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Attend to Your Work

When Linda, our I.N.K. guru, gave me my day assignment and it was September 21, I knew I would have to write about my grandfather. You know how certain dates (and even, for some of us, telephone numbers) are written in your memory with indelible ink? September 21 was my Grandpa’s birthday. His phone number: 432-6202.

I hope you will indulge me and let me tell you about him. I think it relates to what we are all trying to do here.

My grandpa, Hyman Rockmaker, was a lawyer. He was the kind of lawyer who fought for the underdog, defended people for little money if he had to, and was known and loved all over town. You couldn’t walk down the street in Allentown with him without someone coming over to thank him, shake his hand, give him a hug and kiss. When I was a teenager (and a budding feminist) I was offended that he called all the women, “Honey.” Wasn’t that horribly sexist? I knew Gramps valued everyone; he didn’t have a sexist (or racist) bone in his body; this Honey thing didn’t make sense. After a while I realized that he called the men “Honey,” too. I pass this on for those of you who like Hy (and his granddaughter) have a hard time pulling up names. A useful tool, Honey.

Grandpa always rooted for the underdog, not just in his law practice, but in his life, and especially in sports. I was reminded of this by my cousin Monroe. We grew up watching Grandpa root for the Phillies, listening to the game on the radio, smoking his cigar. I still love the smell of cigar smoke (an anomaly, I know) and without realizing it, root for the underdog. Just recently, watching the US Open men’s final, I found myself rooting for Djokovic even though in a previous match I rooted against him. I didn’t know why. Nadal is cuter (this is a requirement, right?) and is even from Majorca, a place I love. When Monroe reminded me about Gramps and the underdog, I realized this is such a big part of who I am, I don't even think about it. When I pick subjects to write about I try to write about the underdog, the underappreciated, the unknown, or the untold story.

Grandpa loved to walk. He walked to and from work every day, probably a mile. Even into his eighties. This made a big impression on all of us. I walk everywhere I can, bringing a notebook with me because I get many of my book ideas, and solve many book problems, while I'm walking (also while in the shower). My brother, who is now closing in on the age at which I start to remember Gramps, walks a lot too. He actually walks to spin class, teaches it, and then walks back. Can you say, overachiever? Did that come from Grandpa, Phil?

Grandpa gave me the love of the underdog, the love of walking (so did my dad), the love of Halls cough drops and the smell of eucalyptus, and card games. He also gave me his ability to multitask. Back then we called it “ants in the pants.” Thankfully he didn’t give me the penchant for going through red lights because he didn’t have the patience to wait any more. (Yeah, it was fun being a passenger in his car.)

Grandpa's living room was lined with bookcases; it was my most frequented library growing up. There was always a book I wanted to read. (And also always a dish of candy.)

But the biggest thing he gave me were his last words, and what preceded them. My grandfather always made me feel like I could do anything, that I was the most special person in the world, or at least in his world, and since he had such a big world, that meant everything.

Grandpa wrote me letters when I was at camp, and each letter made me feel as if he was letting me in on something, that something being his greatness, his ability to live life with gusto, with honesty, with a mission to right wrongs. In person and in his letters he made me believe that I could conquer all. Every child should have someone who does that for her. And I say her because in those days, in my little world, even a smart girl was encouraged to get married above all else. Not that marriage is a bad thing at all. In my life it has been the most important thing. But I needed someone to give me the message that I had the right to strive in my work life. Grandpa wanted me to strive because he knew I could, and should.

He was getting weaker and weaker my senior year of high school, but he followed every moment of my college applications with great interest, often from his sick bed (sick couch, actually, so he could watch golf, or boxing, and listen to baseball—while reading the newspaper).

And then he landed in the intensive care unit as I was packing to go to Brown, my dream. Leaving home was hard enough for me, leaving my Gramps near death was almost impossible. But he rallied just before I left, and I went into the ICU to say good-bye to him. Through tears I told him I was leaving the next day (how my mother was able to drive me to Providence is beyond me now). He could barely speak; he was hooked up to oxygen, IVs, but we held hands (I still know exactly what his hand felt like). As I was about to go, he looked me in the eyes and said what would be his last words to me: “Attend to your work.”

I nodded, tears streaming down my face, a little confused by those words. Not, "have a good time," or "do well," or even I love you, but “Attend to your work.” He died a few days later.

When Linda assigned me September 21st I realized that those words have been ringing in my ears ever since. “Attend to your work,” said everything he meant to say: “Do good work; work hard; you are worthy. I love you.” Every child should have someone who tells them they are good, they are worthy, their work is meaningful and they should attend to it.

Thank you, Grandpa.

11 comments:

April Pulley Sayre said...

Beautiful tribute. Glad to get to know your grandpa, Deborah.

Melissa Stewart said...

How wonderful that you have these precious memories of a very special man. You are right, "Attend you your work." can have many meanings. When I hear it, it reminds me of Jane Yolen's BIC--butt in chair.

Linda Zajac said...

What a heartfelt post. I am inclined to side with the underdog too, especially when a person or wildlife does not have the means to speak up for themselves.

LiznGlenn said...

So very lovely .... A heartfelt & colorful tribute from a colorful granddaughter with a huge heart.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Another reminder about the power of words.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

In championing the underdog, he helped create a family of overdogs. (If that's not a word, it should be.) "Attend to your work" is almost regal and the fact that it resonated with you at the tumultuous age of 18 is impressive. Thanks for sharing this.

Caroline McAlister said...

I just absolutely loved this post. My parents have moved close to me, so they can be part of my daughters' lives, and I hope my daughters have the same connection to my father that you had to your grandfather. And by the way, my mother bought my daughters Charles and Emma for Christmas, and they loved it, although they wept as they read.

Barbara Kerley said...

Loved this, Deb.

deborahfreedman said...

This is so lovely! Though it makes me miss my own grandparents terribly...

goldiebug said...

Aww. What a lovely tribute to a great man. Thanks for sharing part of him with us. And such a cool motto to have.

Tanya Lee Stone said...

You have made me cry again, my friend. Here's to your grandfather and all he gave you and the world.