There were a lot of defining moments in my grandpa’s life, but only one made it into history books. Lester Weiss, my grandpa, was a soldier. They all were. But on that day they were men. Soft, scared. Not prepared for the deaths that they would see, the atrocities that would come to be known as D Day. When they found the shore in their waterlogged boots and damp olive jumpsuits, they had no idea what they were up against. They had no idea of what they would become.
He died December 25, 2012. Early morning, before breakfast. In his sleep, I guess. Not quite peaceful. Just because decades, oceans, continents separated him from war didn’t mean that he wasn’t reliving it. He was haunted, at least to me, by a suffering unknown to those who followed him. He fought so we’d never have to bear that burden.
He didn’t talk about the war for a long time. A long time. When I was in eighth grade and had to write an essay about a veteran, he was eighty-four. And suddenly, all of the stories he’d held on to for sixty-three years shot out of him, quick and sharp and painful like shrapnel. My mom and I sat with him at his kitchen table, listening. It was about all we could do.
Lester Weiss enlisted in the United States Army at the ripe old age of twenty-one. The child of immigrants, he wanted to fight for his country’s freedom. They were so proud of him, glad he loved the country to which they had worked hard to get. He was proud, too; he wore his uniform smartly, showed off his toned muscles, and perfected the positive but serious face for photos. He summed up his reason for enlisting bluntly: “Hitler wanted the world, and Mussolini wanted an empire.” Lester wouldn’t let that happen. He shipped off to Fort Custer to train. They gave him an ’09 Springfield rifle, a sniper rifle. Another proud moment. He and his unit, headed by an Italian guy named Sergeant Morezza, bounced around the United States before being shipped abroad.
They saw the world together. His unit went to Fort Niagara, Scotland, England, Cherbourg, Saint-Lô, Cologne, even North Africa. In Italy they went to the town where Sergeant Morezza’s cousins lived, “but nobody was there, and Sergeant Morezza cried.” That was how my grandpa began to explain death to me.
Here’s the secret to coping with war: the enemy out there, they’re not real people. You shoot where the officers want you to shoot. The nights are the worst. You see the shellfire silhouetted against the stars, wonder which is which. Reddish flames lick the clouds, add their own smoky shapes to the sunrise. But then it’s day again, and you get up, and you shoot where the lieutenant points, and you don’t stop and wonder how many men you killed or how far you’ve come to die.
During the war, Lester and the other soldiers ate K Rations, supposedly complete meals packed into tiny cans. “You couldn’t get fat off of them,” he said. After WWII Lester became a butcher, a kosher butcher. He would bring home the meat that didn’t sell, the lean cuts that were less delicious, yet cheap and much healthier; Rose, his wife’s mother, would cook it up into something amazing. Bernice didn’t cook—she was terrible at it, while Rose more than made up for her daughter’s shortcomings with kasha, soup with marrow bones, fish lasagna. She would bring dinner out to the big table at which they all ate. There were always plenty of mouths to feed: Lester and Bernice had three kids, and the youngest, Stu, was quite the eater. Sometimes there would be aunts, uncles, cousins, and other straggly family members sitting there with them, dining together in their Long Island home, safe and content.
Lester loved Bernice. Loved her, so much that he’d paint the living room a different color whenever she asked. It didn’t matter how many coats it took. One night she would say, “I think yellow would look nice in here.” The next day he’d swing in with a can of paint and a brush. Soft, sweeping strokes. She would smile. That’s why he did it in the first place. The powder blue, the terra cotta, the eggshell, crème, enamel–it was always worth it.
After Bernice died, Lester seriously dated two women. I don’t know how much he loved them, how he managed to after Bernice, but he wasn’t the sort who only loved once. He was fun; he was feisty. He had a lot to offer. The first woman he loved after Bernice, Hannah, died too. The second, Janet, outlived him. They never got married but they did have a very large, very stupid dog together. His name was Chopper. He enjoyed eating flies and Lester’s unattended dentures.
Every time I visited my grandpa he gave me the same two pieces of advice: vitamins can cure pretty much anything (have you heard of that CoQ10? Great stuff. Got an ache? CoQ10. Cold? CoQ10. Bad breath? How about some CoQ10?) and, “Don’t get old.” It became a mantra, repeated after every complaint of aches or pains, every sore, every test, every ragged breath. Don’t get old. Don’t get old. Don’t get old. Pretty soon my dad picked it up too. Maybe someday I will.
We made the familiar trip to Bay Lea Assisted Living and Nursing Home in New Jersey. We used to go into the first building to see my grandpa, but now we had to enter the second. He had been moved a few months earlier, once he stopped being just able enough to sleep in the assisted living beds. Nothing new was wrong; he had just gotten old. He had a roommate here. I think his name was Joe. Grandpa swore he was stealing the clementines we brought each visit.
“Dad,” my mom would say, “nobody is stealing your clementines.”
“Yes he is! Check his suitcase!”
Sure enough, there they were, still in the wooden crate and everything. No shame, that man.
Joe was sleeping now, or at least pretending to. The curtain between his bed and Grandpa’s was drawn so we couldn’t see the person we’d come for until we were further inside, until we couldn’t leave.
He lay on his side, knees drawn towards his chest, arthritis keeping them at a distance. He tossed plenty. Mouth slightly agape, he screamed the whole time, moaning, crying, suffering in a way my mom and I had never experienced before. She stayed by the head of the bed, holding his hand, crying, promising him that it would be okay, trying to comfort him somehow. He couldn’t hear her, though; he just kept calling, clutching his thin felt blanket, leaking tears and spittle. I felt like a child frozen at the foot of the bed, weeping openly, unsure of what, if anything, I was capable of doing for either of them. I focused on liverspots and stray hairs. I found the agonizing core of the screams and tried to understand what death meant.
The look on his face, the tightness in his muscles, the pain that was somehow radiating out of him, his eyes screwed shut, changed the meanings of verbs and nouns and anguish in my vocabulary. I didn’t know how to say it. I don’t know what words I could peel away from my schema to attach to that moment. I wondered what he saw as he cried out.
D Day was different from any other battle. When their ships landed on Utah Beach in Normandy, Lester’s unit realized that the Germans had built obstacles to keep landing tanks from reaching the shores. So they swam for it. Drenched in salt water, already exhausted, they found themselves in the heat of a gruesome battle. There were “casualties, so many you couldn’t count them.”
Lester and some of the other men in his company were digging foxholes with their helmets. Dirt flew almost as fast as bullets, spraying the air with a mudded mist. The first lieutenant found them there.
“You’re doing it wrong!” he shouted, demonstrating. Lester just kept digging, kept fighting. There wasn’t much choice. No time to slow down. Dig or die. Shoot or die. There was no middle ground. Chaos commanded everyone. Between Lester and the lieutenant, only one of their names was on the list of the dead the next day.
“I guess there’s no right way to dig a foxhole.”
Was it worth it, do you think, to kill so many, to watch so many die, for peace?
During my brief emo phase in high school I listened to a fair amount of Death Cab for Cutie. There’s a line in one of their songs that always stuck out to me: Love is watching someone die. I was never quite sure how I felt about it. I wouldn’t want someone I loved to suffer by watching me die. The comfort, though, would be nice.
We didn’t watch the last moment of my grandpa’s life. We wouldn’t have been able to—there were specific visiting hours. We said goodbye, a long goodbye, our last farewell. We left him with Joe the Clementine Thief and his capable nurses. Joe was asleep when the screams quieted. The nurses were with other patients. He died alone, but everyone does. It didn’t matter who was there; it was time.
My mom and I walked back to the car shrouded in dark clouds. The smell of aging stuck to our skin. The sun felt heavy and unauthentic, too cheery for the pain we carried.
“I hope it’s over soon,” she said. “I hope he dies tonight. Soon. I hope he finds peace.”
That is what love is.
Lester’s unit was being sent to Japan. He knew he would die there. He just did. Sometimes you do, I guess. Maybe being around death all the time helps you learn to predict your own.
But then Nagasaki and Hiroshima were decimated by the Atomic Bombs, and Lester’s ship turned around and sailed for Boston. One beat, two drops, and the war was over. They were going home.
As others burned, Lester lived. The Atomic Bomb saved him. And he made damn good use of his time.
We got the call before 8 a.m. The phone woke me up, I guess, or maybe the universe shook me a bit. Ellie, it’s time.
I walked across the hall and sat on my mom’s bed. My dad was downstairs. She said the right words, held back the tears. We looked at each other and knew. She handed me the phone.
I called the funeral home, I think. She might have dialed, but I definitely spoke to someone. Or maybe it was the nurse at Bay Lea. She had a kind voice, a professional one. She received these calls every day, and spoke of death in a different way. It was her life to do so.
“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you.” I could usually never say that. I would normally respond with an “it’s okay,” but sometimes it’s just not.
“Gosh, and such awful timing. Christmas morning.”
“It’s okay,” I said, repeating something my mom had said earlier, “we’re Jewish.”
If it had to happen to anyone, it should have been us.
My mom wrote a really beautiful eulogy. She included plenty of stories, the great things my grandpa said, funny things he did. One was about a time when she’d bought me a winter coat I didn’t like. I’ve never particularly liked winter coats—they felt oppressive—but at eight I was particularly insufferable. She called her dad to vent about the obnoxious brat that I was. He countered with his own story.
When he was young, Lester’s family was poor. So poor that they had to rely on Salvation Army donations for clothes. One time, the only thing that was his size was a disgusting pair of bright orange pants. Having no other options, he had to wear them, and all the kids at school made fun of him. Lester offered my mom a check to get me a new coat, one that I liked more.
“Life’s too short for orange pants.”
I’ve never been good at remembering things. I don’t know why I forget, and I doubt I ever truly will, but I’ve lost a lot of my memories. I can’t pinpoint my best day with my grandpa. I can’t quite be sure that the voice I hear in my head saying, “Hiya, dollface,” is really his rather than the voice my brain has manipulated and stored in the box of things that my grandpa was.
Looking back, rereading things I’d written about him and noticing the things I didn’t pick up on when I was younger, makes me wish I’d been old enough to appreciate him when I had the chance. When I was in eighth-grade I wasn’t mature enough to fully understand the things he carried and finally shared. He was a cool guy, funny. A good man.
There are snapshots in my head, stories constantly retold, but they aren’t solid and coherent like they should be. Instead of solid days, I remember the refrigerator in his house, covered with all of Janet’s butterfly magnets; the outings to his favorite restaurant, the Blue Fountain, which was always filled with old people; and the Hess trucks he bought me for Hanukah when I was a kid. I regret all of the times when I didn’t feel like talking, when I didn’t ask the right questions. There was so much more I could have learned from him, if only I’d had the forethought to do so.
I don’t want to look back in forty years and realize that I wore orange pants too often. I’m just not quite sure how to go about updating my wardrobe.
I finally pulled up the courage to voice these thoughts to my mom once. “That’s not how he saw it, El. Besides, he wasn’t really big on little kids anyway. He loved you. He liked watching you grow up, seeing you become independent. He would have been proud of what you’ve done.” So I’ll take my CoQ10 and hold onto the moments I have for as long as possible, until, against all warning, I get old.
Eliana Zimet is a senior English and Peace Studies double major at Goucher College in Baltimore, MD. She works at a bookstore and does some freelance writing to feed her coffee habit. After graduation, she plans to write and work for a nonprofit. This is her first published essay.