This picture is my grandfather, Zadie, aka Bennett Nesson’s, dry cleaning shop ‘Bennett the Cleanser.’ He went to work there every single day until he was 88. I often imagine this little spot, set back on a curve in the road in an old mill town in Massachusetts, just like this: warm, glowing, and alive in contrast to the texture of the town outside. I have memories of hanging out there growing up.. playing with the cash register, sitting on the counter swinging my little legs as he showed me how to fold the right way, helping him water his plants, the smell of mint gum and cleaning chemicals.
Last week, at 90 years old, Zadie passed away. I'm still emerging from the whirlwind of the experience. Zadie was a pretty incredible man. He was insanely good at tennis. Grew tons of food that was never edible. Despite this his love of the earth and tending it was huge. So was his love of Andes candies and Klondike bars. His story was one of many layers, all wrapped around a huge, compassionate heart. Russian Jewish. World War II medic in the Pacific Theater. Ladies man. Married to his high school love, my grandmother, for 62, yes 62, years. Community organizer. Lover of stories and strangers.
On the way to his memorial service last week, I drove with my brother and sister-in-law under huge, impending storm clouds. We put on The National and breathed instead of talking, absorbing a reality we knew was coming for awhile. I have a pretty healthy view of death. I would say I’m less afraid of it than most people. Despite all this, the whole day its presence tied stones to my heart and lungs. During the service I kept looking at my cousins and siblings, all of us lined up in one row set to the side of the service, logging how each and every one of us was somehow carrying his legacy.
The next day my family went to my grandparents’ house with my mom. As we stood on their back porch, my sister picked apples from Zadie’s trees so we could all grow his less than edible fruit in our own yards some day. My mom watched and said quietly to me, "I keep wondering, what is a life? When it has come to this. Uncut trees. An abandoned business. An empty home. A void in the breeze."
So what is it? This life. What is it when we leave this world behind? I thought about this over and over and a quote I'd come across just before I found out Zadie had passed. Words about living the width of life, not just the length. In Zadie’s case, his life is now breathing in and out in me, my brothers and sister, my cousins. We each have slices of him. Some of us givers. Others hard workers (sometimes too hard). Others too humble. There are his blue eyes in my brother. The thick glasses in a few of us. The ladies man is there. The adventurers and the gardeners are also thriving. And I definitely got the ‘talking to strangers’ gene.
Fresh from the weight of the weekend, I came back to Colorado and hung a windchime of Zadie’s on my porch. When the wind blows through it, it's a reminder that each and every life we touch is the legacy we leave. Each story we take the time to hear. Each hug we give. Song we write. The story we create is our life… and it endures in those who are woven into it.
So here’s to living length, width, and height, and doing it all in the name of love.