Aaron Jacob Wolfson

Remembering Zayde

My Zayde was a man of many passionate interests. Obsessions, you might say, in the best sense. He squeezed every drop out of life, and he put his whole heart into everything he did, and especially into the people he loved. He taught me the pleasures of chess, and gin rummy, and golf. Every summer weekend that we headed out to the course, he would declare, triumphantly, “Aaron, I’ve finally figured it out!” And invariably, we had our ups and downs, but without fail, near the end of the round, no matter how miserably we had played, he or I would hit a brilliant shot, and he would cry, “That’s what brings you back!” For my Zayde, there was always something in life to come back to.

He liked to say that he never graduated college, and it’s true, but as for many of his generation, life got in the way. He would have been a classic English professor, but I’m here to tell you that my Zayde went to school every day of his life. He was absolutely fascinated by it, always curious, always thirsting for knowledge. He was a lifelong learner, but also a lifelong teacher. As a boy, he gave me a gorgeous illustrated hardcover of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which I treasured. He was seldom happier than when he was expounding on an insight that he had just gleaned himself from the book he was reading, or from the latest issue of The Smithsonian or Popular Science or National Geographic. Every time he visited my house, he brought us a magazine article, one for each child, with the relevant portions already highlighted.

My Zayde was a modern philosopher. He was one of the smartest and most well-read people I’ve ever known. He developed a massive vocabulary and an unrivaled love of language. Everyone here surely remembers a favorite pun or turn of phrase that he coined. When you said, “good to see you!” my Zayde would reply, “it’s good to be seen.” His expressions sounded simple enough, but he saw what others didn’t see. “The key to life,” he always told me, “is to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right information.” Life wasn’t all about luck, and it wasn’t random or capricious. It was about being prepared for whatever might come your way, and cultivating your God-given gifts.

Speaking of gifts -- more than even his books, and his beloved Spinoza, who believed that God was present even in the tiniest blade of grass, other people were my Zayde’s favorite subject. He approached anyone and everyone, always sweet, always generous, always interested. He believed that each person had his or her own unique set of skills to contribute to the word, was a genius even, and ought to be respected as such. Zayde took people at face value, at their word -- he had no use for games or ulterior motives. Life was simply too short, and too rich, for that.

It’s so easy today to move from one thing to the next, or one person to the next, just rushing on by. As long as I knew him, my Zayde never rushed a day in his life. He savored every flower, every new friend, every beautiful blue sky. I’ve tried here to somehow put into words what he means to me, and how he makes me feel. Maybe the best I can do is this: many years ago, before I was born, my Zayde had a heart attack. He wasn’t expected to live much longer. I can’t even imagine. But my Zayde was a strong, strong man, a survivor, and he persevered. He gave me 28 years, glorious, wonderful years. It was a gift, one of the greatest I’ve ever received in life, and a gift that will never die.

Thanks for reading! If you want more like this, I send out a short newsletter once a week (here's a good issue) with reflections, new stuff I've written, and links to the best stuff I'm reading.

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