My beloved grandpa passed away this weekend at the age of 96. He lived an incredible life, surviving famine in Ukraine, fighting in WW2, coming to the US with us as a refugee in his 60s, together with the love of his life, my grandma, to whom he was married for 67 years.
I could fill a thick book with the life lessons I learned from him, but here are 5 that I want to share in his honor—during this challenging time, I feel our hearts need these reminders.
1). Happiness comes from being useful to someone else.
Two years ago I interviewed my grandpa and asked him what happiness meant to him.
“For me, happiness comes from being useful to someone. If I can do something that’s useful, help someone, bring something to someone, then I am happy,” he said.
He was peeling oranges for me as we talked and made sure I was eating my slices, just like he has peeled fruit for me since I was a little girl.
We didn’t have much fruit in St. Petersburg, in the north of Russia, where I grew up. So my grandpa, who with my grandma lived in Baku—in the south and rich with fruit—would often pack a box of fruit, bring it to the train station, and pay someone a bit of money to carry it with them on the train to St. Petersburg.
He would make sure I got vitamins and joy from eating fruit any way he could. He was also the one making sure I would have warm boots to wear in the freezing winters, finding them amidst the endless shortages that were the staple of Soviet life.
My grandpa took care of all of us, in more ways than I could mention, and he loved doing it.
2.) Count your riches in people you love.
Once, I took my grandpa to the doctor because his foot was hurting. He almost never complained but he said the pain was severe and I could see it in his face. We didn’t have an appointment and had to wait for the doctor for several hours.
Finally the doctor came in and the first thing my grandpa said to him, even before he mentioned his was pain was this:
“Doctor, I want to tell you that I am a rich man! This is my granddaughter here with me and I also have a great-granddaughter, too! I have a wonderful family and I am such a rich man!”
Family was the most important thing to my grandpa and his love for us was his fuel, until his last days. He always wanted to know what we were doing, reading, learning, eating, working on, what movies we had seen, what museum we had been to. When I started to paint a few years ago, my grandpa became my big fan and every time he came over he would walk around our house with his walker, looking for new paintings I had done.
The details of our lives were all important to him because each one was a thread of love that connected us.
3). Don’t skimp on ice cream!
My grandpa loved ice cream! Coffee was his favorite and we always made sure to have some in our house when we knew he was coming for dinner.
Watching him eat ice cream was pure joy—he savored every spoon and could eat a ton of it! In fact, watching my grandpa eat anything was pure joy because he loved good food and it was always a special experience for him, including regular weekday dinners he shared with my grandma for 67 years when they were together.
He would always set the table with a beautiful tablecloth, nice dishes and silverware, and a small vase with flowers. He didn’t need a special occasion because having dinner together with his wife or us was a special occasion: sharing a meal with family.
I loved coming up with different dishes to cook for him and some of my most proud and happy moments in life were when he really loved something I made. He was always honest—if he didn’t love it, he would tell me—so I knew when I really hit the spot and it brought me so much joy!
4.) Even if it’s a small thing, try to do it well and with care.
Everything my grandpa did, he did with care and his best effort.
When we were moving, he would come over to help us pack. The way he wrapped anything breakable was so impeccable that sometimes I had a tough time unwrapping it on the other end of the move! (Nothing he wrapped ever broke.)
My grandpa was the neatest person I knew and I got the neat habit from him. I loved proudly sending him photos of my drawers to show how well-organized they were. Even his handwriting looked like calligraphy and he used to iron the bed sheets so they would look impeccable!
“Whatever you do, try to do it well because if you don’t want to do it as best as you can, why bother doing it?” he told me once.
5.) You’re alive, dress up for it!
One time, my husband, my daughter and I went to visit my grandpa at the rehab center where he was staying. It was just a few days after his surgery, but he met us at the elevator dressed beautifully in a crisp shirt and tie, with a big smile on his face.
You’d rarely see my grandpa without a tie and he loved wearing cufflinks. Wherever we traveled, we tried to buy him a tie or cufflinks as a souvenir. He loved beautiful pocket squares, too!
When we knew we would see my grandpa or he was coming for dinner, we would all take extra care in getting dressed up, more than we normally would. It made every meal with him feel like a celebration.
It was a celebration: Celebration of being alive.
This was the essence of how my grandpa lived every day of his life—being deeply grateful for the chance to live it and finding as many ways to celebrate it as possible.
But the main way he celebrated being alive was with his huge, generous, warm, caring, and bold love for us, his family.
For my grandpa, love truly was a verb. That is his legacy that I hope to carry forward.
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