In the Jewish tradition, a headstone is not erected on a grave until a year or so after the burial. My understanding is that this is because people need time to grieve. When the family and friends come back to the grave a year later, they are better able to look past their loss and remember the happiness they had with the deceased. The last time I visited my grandfather's grave was when we dedicated his stone, about 14 years ago. I don't like cemeteries. Although I understand that many people need a place to go and visit their departed, it always seemed like a waste of land. Whenever I wanted to feel close to my grandfather, I just looked at pictures of us or thought about our time together. He's never been far from my mind, but in the last few months I've been thinking about him all the time.
A few months ago, I became very angry with him for not talking about his life before the war and sharing his family's stories with me. If we don't know the names of these people, how can we remember them and honor the lives that they led? I felt that he was selfish in sparing himself the pain of remembering them. At the same time, I could only sympathize. Who am I to judge his coping mechanisms?
I was also angry with myself. Why hadn't I asked more questions, pushed harder for answers when there was still a chance to get them? Instead, I led the typical life of an American teenager, running around with my friends (who often weren't friends at all) or feeling sorry for myself if a boy didn't like me. I could have spent more time with my grandfather all those years instead of squandering it with people who I barely spoke to a year later. Maybe he still would not have opened up, but maybe he would have.
After I spent the last week in my grandfather's hometown, looking for the lost first third of his life, I thought a lot about how much he sacrificed for his son, and then for me and my sister. He would do anything for us. I thought about all the Saturdays we spent in his care while my parents and Bubbe worked, and all the times that he took me for rides on the el train when I was a toddler, and how proud he was at my high school graduation. I thought about the pain I caused him when I became so deeply depressed at the age of 16 because my boyfriend broke up with me that I had to be hospitalized, which must have seemed so ridiculous to someone whose whole fucking family was killed, and yet he never seemed to judge me. I thought about the good things I said and the good things that I should have said. I thought about how kind and generous he could be and how he expected my Bubbe to wait on him and how he would yell at her if she displeased him. I thought about his jokes, which were often told in Yiddish so that I didn't understand them. I thought about how he worked at his friend's Eddie's show store and how much I came to hate buying shoes there because they were not cool. When I stuck my fingers in the dirt at Treblinka I thought about how I took a fistful of soil at his funeral and threw it on his coffin, and the dirt stuck under my fingernails. I thought about the hole that will never be filled in my life, and about how I would give anything to have one more day with him.
I don't really believe in an afterlife, but on Father's Day and every day, I hope he knows how much I miss him.