Next month would have been my father-in-law Seamen Peltz’s 88th birthday. It has been four years since we lost him to Alzheimer’s disease, and we miss him terribly. This column is a guest tribute to him, written by my daughter Jenna Cohen, in memory of a man who was argumentative, irascible and obstinate—and whom we loved very much.
Poppy’s hospital room seemed remarkably gentle for what it was. The twang of antiseptic waited at the door, but did not come in, out of respect for the space. Sober tubes hugged Poppy’s white-downed arms as though they wanted to comfort him with their embrace. He was dying, I knew he was. His soul had already begun to vacate his body, making the room feel impossibly light. It was so hard to look at my Poppy lying in a hospital bed, unable to remember his own name. Taking a deep breath I walked over to his bedside and carefully leaned over the curved railing. Fighting back tears, I kissed his forehead, just like he used to kiss mine. “I love you, pal,” I whispered, “You’ve always been my favorite.”
When I was a little girl, my mommy always told me I was lucky because I had five grandparents who loved me: two grandmas and three grandpas. But one grandpa was up in heaven, she said. I never met Grandpa Jay; his antique cameras were all I ever knew of him. He died when my daddy was ten—too young to lose a daddy, I always thought. My Grandma Devorah remarried when Dad was in college, turning his family into a collage and doubling the size of their household. It went from Grandma, Dad and his two sisters to Grandma, Dad, his two sisters, three teenage boys, and Seamen Peltz, who became my Poppy. He was a stubborn man whose opinion was always right (even when he was wrong) and a lot of people found him to be difficult to deal with at times, but he also had a heart of gold and beneath his gruff exterior lay marshmallow fluff.
Poppy had a smoker’s laugh, raspy and earnest, and the best place to hear it was on the little brick porch where he smoked his cigars. We always sat next to each other in the matching white garden chairs that stood guard in front of the door. Seated, Poppy’s khaki-trousered legs reached all the way to the ground but my little legs were too short to reach. I saw this as an advantage rather than an annoyance, because it meant that I could swing them off the side of the chair. The breeze would ruffle my blonde curls and sweep the sweet musk of Poppy’s cigar past my nose and I was grateful for that; it was such a peaceful smell.
Sometimes, he would look out onto the lazy street and sing fragments of his favorite childhood songs. The two he sang most regularly came from old American folk songs, but instead of using the traditional lyrics he catered them to fit my name. With his gentle rasp, he would croon: “Jen-na, Je-nna, does your mother know you’re out? / With your hands in your pockets and your shirttail stickin’ out!” Though I didn’t really know what a “shirttail” was, I liked the way my name sounded when he sang it. His other favorite was “I went to the animal fair,” which began: “I went to the animal fair, / The birds and the beasts were there, / The big baboon by the light of the moon was combing his auburn hair.” I used to pretend that Poppy was the baboon combing his hair (even though, at this point, Poppy didn’t really have much hair to comb). I was sure that there were more lyrics to the song, but Poppy and I didn’t know what they were and the song was good enough for the two of us without them.
One day, while we were sitting on the porch, Poppy said, “Hey, pal? Do you like pears?” The answer was “no,” but the sparkle in his eyes told me that “yes” would be a much more rewarding answer. A week or two later, he walked in the front door with a great big pear-picker, and Grandma was not pleased. With wide eyes, Grandma said to him, “Seamen Peltz? What on earth are we going to do with that thing?” I could see why she asked. It was really scary looking; like a miniature, green flag pole with a pronged basket on top. The prongs looked like wire fingers to me. He explained that it was a tool for picking fruit off of trees like the pear tree in their backyard. As I listened, I thought of the pear tree in my own backyard and decided that one day, I would buy a pear-picker too.
The first time Poppy and I tried our hand at picking pears, we were both surprised by how complicated it was. Even with our two sets of hands to stabilize the pole, the whole experience started out as an awkward balancing act. The basket made for detaching and catching pears was unwieldy, and the whole apparatus would wobble whenever Poppy and I tried to lift it, and when it filled with pears, it just got heavier. But after about half an hour we got into a rhythm: Position prongs on either side of pear stem. Pull down. Catch pear in basket. Repeat until full, then empty basket into Grandma’s beige fruit bowl. Repeat. As we picked the ashy-green pears, Poppy and I told each other knock-knock jokes. We contented ourselves for hours. As we filled our final basket and presented the overflowing bowl to Grandma, we sang together: “I went to the animal fair, / The birds and the beasts were there, / The big baboon by the light of the moon was combing his auburn hair.” Their neighbors soon became the recipients of fresh and baked pears that Poppy and I picked and Grandma and I prepared. As we did I liked to imagine that all of North Lawndale smelled like cooking pears.
When I was ten, Grandma and Poppy moved out of their house and into a condominium. I hated it so much, at first, because it possessed neither a cigar porch nor a pear tree. But my dislike of their new home didn’t last very long (getting to push the buttons in the elevator quickly warmed me up to the place). The condo overlooked the Chicago skyline, and I had to admit it was beautiful. I liked that their new balcony had enough room so that Grandma, Poppy, and I could sit out on it and watch families play at the neighboring park. And when I spent the night in their guest room, Poppy and I would wake up before dawn to watch the sunrise out on the balcony.
One day, as we sat out on the balcony in our white garden chairs, Poppy turned to me and said that I should have the pear-picker now because he was both too old to use it and without a pear tree. Surprised by this proposition, I looked down at my feet and wondered when they had gotten long enough to reach the floor. Truthfully, I didn’t want to take the pear-picker. Using it was something that Poppy and I did together, and taking it home would mark the end of an era. But when I raised my face again, he smiled at me, and I agreed to take it.
It turned out that using the pear-picker in my own backyard was therapeutic in a different way than it had been in Poppy’s yard. The pear picker became my way of coping with change; both the good and the bad. I brought him pears the summer after his knees were replaced and he had to learn to walk again. But I also used it the year he stood beside me as I became a Bat Mitzvah, and he smiled brighter than the sun. I used it the summers of Junior High, and High School when puberty wreaked havoc on my face. And I used it the summer after he started to repeat himself a lot and the doctor told us dementia had taken hold. I used it the summer after he moved into the nursing home and Grandma cried and I realized she had never lived alone before. That summer, he forgot my name, but not who I was. Just four months later, he died; pneumonia saved him from Alzheimer’s. I was glad that he wasn’t sick anymore, but it was still hard to lose my Poppy.
It was February the night he died, and the pear tree was covered with snow. So, instead of losing myself in the rhythm of pear-picking, I snuck into the garage and removed the pear-picker from its corner. I cried as I held it, and tried to imagine my Poppy there with me, as I did, I could hear his voice in my mind singing “I went to the animal fair, / The birds and the beasts were there, / The big baboon by the light of the moon was combing his auburn hair!” And I knew everything would be alright.