I discovered last year that I have something of a knack for writing obituaries. I can weave together someone’s personality in a few vivid, honest sentences, skipping the big accomplishments and graduation dates in favor of something simpler. All people really want to read is this: What energy did they bring to conversations? What memory do you have of them that stands out? What’s the truth about them that we all know but are too polite to address?
The reality is, though the concept may seem unseemly, people want to read remembrances that smell like the sweat and familiar breath of the person they lost. They want to laugh knowingly at a loving portrait, even if it includes unflattering details: that he argued too much, that she always ordered another round no one really wanted. We feel guilty about the sterile whitewashing we do of the dead because we know it wasn’t that simple. We love people for who they are, not for their resume or the white lies we tell in death announcements. When someone passes away, they leave behind lush memories and uncomfortable ones, things left unsaid—or regrettable things said. We don’t forget any of it, even if we pretend to. Maybe it’s just me, but there is a beautiful, even respectful, relief in honoring people for who they really were.
I tried to avoid using the word “truth” here. The truth about an individual is personal and subjective. A man may be a hero to some—a first love or a role model or a fair-minded boss—but he may be a tormentor to others. Humans are complex; only a select few of us are exactly the same person in every room we occupy.
My grandfather passed away this week, just a few weeks shy of his 90th birthday. Here are the basics to get you situated: Hunter grew up in Brooklyn, attended NYU undergrad and then Harvard Business School. Then he became an ad man in the 60s, rising to the top of Grey Advertising and working on JIF peanut butter (“Choosy moms choose JIF.”) He was a talented craftsman, building two dollhouses and designing his dream mansion in Vermont. He also built rowboats, birdhouses, miniature trolley cars and airplanes that he hung from the ceiling.
Hunter retired in his 50s and spent the rest of his life traveling the world, reading voraciously, and teaching me Flatbush swearwords like “ratfuck.” He was cranky and critical, but he was brilliant and liked to make sure you knew it. At the end of his life, he enjoyed listening to stories about my life in Brooklyn. A few weeks before he passed away, I tracked down the apartment where he grew up on Cortelyou Avenue. He wasn’t able to make out the photographs I showed him on my iPhone, but he told me about the schoolhouse where he went as a kid.
He had a long, long life of ambition, adventure and playing devil’s advocate. He is remembered by his wife and his three children, including my mother. And me, his granddaughter who inherited his foul mouth.
That’s where I ended the “obituary” I posted on Facebook. The truth is—ah, there it is again—I wasn’t close to my grandfather. I didn’t spend enough time with him as an adult to break down the years between us, never quite sure how to ask him the questions I wanted the answers to: Who are you? What choices have you made in your life? What do you wish you knew about the world when you were my age? Instead I told him about the baby shark I saw at Brighton Beach and what I thought of the different neighborhoods in Brooklyn. I tried to scoop up the time we had left together but never was able to make the most of it, held back by awkwardness and the realization that it was just too late.
But there are pictures of us together when I was little—him holding a chocolate ice cream next to me in a big floral dress, him reading a book with me at the kitchen island—that show me how much he loved me. I was his first grandchild and the only girl, and for my 4th birthday he made me an ornate three-story Victorian dollhouse with a plaque to commemorate the occasion: “ELLA’S BLUEBERRY TOWER, created with love by Grandpa Hunter.” I look at it now, the imitation tile floor peeling up at the corners and the wallpaper having long-since yellowed, and I see how many hours it must have taken him to assemble. All of that toil alone in his workshop to make a little girl happy, wood shingle by wood shingle.
My grandfather was a complicated man. Brilliant, confident, argumentative, almost unfairly talented. He put together a cemetery for every dog in the family, including wood nameplates to designate each plot. He taught me how to play pool and thanked me for sitting quietly with him while my little cousins scampered and clattered around the house. By the end, he expressed his gratitude for each conversation I took the time to have with him. He told me how frustrating it was to lose his words, to feel his mind abandon him in the middle of a sentence. Whatever confusing feelings I had toward my grandfather, it was heartbreaking to watch such a smart man lose his mental agility. He asked me to call him to chat and I never did, too nervous to make conversation on the phone.
The last time I saw him, we had lunch at his hospice center. My mom and I brought one of our dogs with us and he scratched behind her ears. When we got ready to leave, he thanked me for visiting and said, “Ella, be well. Be happy.” I left with that numb, sick awareness that he was choosing his last words for me. The previous day he’d said, “Ella, keep laughing,” as I waved goodbye. Parting advice to make up for twenty-seven years of just missing each other.
I quit my job two weeks later, understanding that I wasn’t well and I wasn’t happy anymore. Hunter died a week and a half after I gave notice, fading away peacefully. My mom and I were still packing up the car, trying to drive up to be there to support my grandmother while she stayed at his bedside, but we weren’t fast enough. It was a fitting end: he always snapped at us when we were late to breakfast and let the pancakes get cold.
I don’t know my grandfather well, not as well as his wife or his three children. But the man I knew was smart and ambitious and unapologetic. He grew up in Flatbush and became a senior executive on Madison Avenue. We would feed the fish in his pond together, scattering the little brown pellets across the surface of the water. I could never mimic the specific flick of his wrist to get them to disperse in a dozen different directions.
I’m going to clean the dollhouse somehow. Its plastic windows are yellow and we lost all the people at some point. The only occupants are little dogs, some porcelain and some plastic. My grandfather built it for me. On his legacy, I’ll build my life again.