Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Lessons From My Grandpa Charlie

One of the biggest influence on my life was my Grandfather, Charles Brown. That wasn’t his real name. It was changed when he came over from Russia at age 14 at the turn of the century. Grandpa Charlie, as my cousins and I called him, was a formidable presence. Only 5’6” inches tall, he was even, in his late 60’s, nearly 200 pounds of pure muscle. Rumors of his physical strength surrounded. That he could swim a mile out to sea from the beach at Rockaway. That he could bend a steel bar with his bare hands. That he was a strong arm man for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union who beat strikebreakers senseless. That he could go to work and then dance all night If you had an image of Jews as weak, scholarly and law abiding, Grandpa Charlie broke the mold. He spoke English haltingly and could barely read and write in any language. He had, in his youth, been a bartender and bootlegger, before eventually setting into his full time occupation as a presser in the garment trades. And Grandpa Charlie was a dandy. He rarely went outside except in hot weather, without a jacket and tie, where he sat in a folding chair or stood on the corner with the other retired me And Grandpa Charlie was dark, so dark that when students or colleagues saw his picture, they said things like “Is that Paul Robeson” or “Is that some guy who played for the Howard football team?” But tough as he was, Grandpa Charlie never showed me anything but love. He always gave me a pat on the shoulder and a piece of candy when he saw me, and would sit with me for hours watching television without saying a word. He never asked me about my grades, never quizzed me about me teachers, never talked about what was on the news. Unlike almost everyone else in my family, he just let me be. And he cooked. Oh how he could cook! Fried steak with onions. Fried onions with chicken fat, cooked to a crisp. Huge thick French fries which he made fresh for me and my cousins, topped with sea salt, ten pounds of them in a sitting. And we all grew up big and strong, each of us reaching 6 feet and more than 200 pounds I learned something about love from Grandpa Charlie. That it could thrive without words, in acts of kindness and generosity. And through food. And he also taught me about courage. When Grandpa Charlie was hospitalized with terminal cancer, through some act of superhuman courage, he pried open a window 4 feet off the ground and jumped out an a 8 floor hospital window, saving him and his family months of excruciating pain. Some people were embarrassed. I was proud. Grandpa Charlie died as he had lived. On his terms In some respects, I could not be more different than he was I am professor, an intellectual, and author, a person who cherishes ideas, who lives through books. But I am also a person who sees value in the unspoken, in the multiple ways people give and receive love, And I cherish the example of courage and fortitude that he left for me, and the model he provided of the dignity and power of working people who created a life for themselves with few of the world’s advantages. Whenever I fight for justice, Grandpa Charlie is right there with me. And with him in my corner you can be sure I won’t back down.

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