“Time is the longest distance between two places.”
~ Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie
I mentioned my grandfather—my mother’s father—to a friend in a cycle class at the gym last week. I told her that he had been in great physical shape even when he was in his nineties because he walked everywhere. He walked several miles every day. (And yes, thank you, I do get the irony that I drive a car to the gym to ride a bike.)
Later I was thinking about my grandfather, and it suddenly struck me that he was born in the last decade of the nineteenth-century. Of course, I knew that, but now that we’re on our way to the second decade of the twenty-first century, the realization that I had known someone who was born in the nineteenth century—not simply the previous century, but the one before that—slammed into my brain like a thought-wave missile. Actually both of my grandfathers, as well as some other relatives were born in the nineteenth-century, so I’ve conversed and interacted with people who might even have known people who were born in the eighteenth-century. How wild is that?
Last weekend, my husband and I attended an honors and awards ceremony and dinner for our younger daughter, who will graduate from college in a couple weeks. I looked at her and her classmates, bright and glowing with that youthful radiance that does not last, but is oh-so-beautiful while it does. They are all so eager and fearful to face the world. Excited, trembling, and ready to vomit all at the same time. I imagine it is something like the feeling my daughter has when she is ready to make an entrance onto a theatre stage, only this time the stage is the real world.
I tell her it will all work out. Just decide what you want to do now; you don’t have to decide what you will do for the rest of your life. I want her to find success, but even more, I want her to be happy.
When my grandfather was about the age of these soon-to-be college graduates, he literally stepped onto a new stage, an unknown world. He crossed an ocean to do so, and never returned to his homeland. He was a Russian Jew, escaping persecution and hoping for a better life in America. He was one of about 1.75 million Jews who came from Eastern Europe to the US between 1900 and 1924, when tighter immigration restrictions were put into place. By 1920, Russian Jews made up the largest immigrant population in Philadelphia. Shortly after my grandfather arrived in Philadelphia, he was drafted into the US Navy, in what was not to be “the War to End All Wars.”
My grandfather was born before commercial air flights were commonplace; for that matter, before cars were common. (The first gasoline-powered cars were invented toward the end of the nineteenth-century. See .) However, he traveled in both. He did not have a telephone as a child. He died before computers were an essential feature of everyday life in the US. I suspect he would have enjoyed Facebook though and seeing photos of grandchildren and great-children.
My grandparents were practical people. College was for their son, not their daughter, who would surely get married, although secretarial school was an acceptable compromise. After he retired though, this practical man learned to paint and discovered the joys of ballroom dancing with other retirees in Miami Beach. When my husband and I got married, my grandfather attempted to dance with every woman, young and old, at the reception. I think he succeeded.
My younger sister and I saw my grandfather only once or twice a year. My cousins in Miami saw him regularly. The relationship between parents and children and grandparents and children is different. My mother was sometimes impatient and annoyed with her father—he was her dad, and he could be stubborn. My sister and I loved that he was the grandfather who had countless hours to play hide and seek with us, to take us on long walks, and to show us surprises like the duck pond that we did not know existed near our house. When I was in college he wrote letters to me—that to my regret, I did not keep. Each letter was one long run-on sentence. The words were spelled phonetically as he pronounced them in his accented English. I loved receiving these letters. He did not live to see the books I’ve written or to know my children.
When I was at college, I called my mom once a week. Collect. From the payphone in dormitory hallway. In contrast, I communicate with my college daughter through text, Facebook, email, and phone calls almost every day.
I only knew my grandfather as an old man. I look at a photograph of him as a young man, and I know he must have had the hopes, dreams, fears that we all have when we are young. He was born an ocean away and in a time that now seems like ancient history. Yet, he was young once. He sailed across a sea. He fell in love. He raised a family, and he lived to see his grandchildren grow up. Time and space separate and connect us.