My grandfather died at my wedding

It was quite an event.

My grandfather was a great man. Abraham Jacob Viniar. Known as Yakov. He fled the czar, was educated for a while in Belgium, and ended up in NYC speaking Russian, Yiddish, Flemish, with a smattering of English. He went to Cooper Union, doing his work every night with a dictionary until he graduated. He served in the army, became a naturalized citizen, and worked for a diamond dealer. Rumor has it he smuggled diamonds from Antwerp. He was kind, he was gentle, he was giving and he was smart. And a little bit of a rascal.. He had an an old style hearing aid. It had the wire that when down his shirt to a pouch, where the power and the volume control was. He would reach inside his shirt and adjust his hearing aid depending on whether he wanted to hear what you were saying.

In January, 1976, I was finishing  law school, living with my fiancé, and  planning our June wedding. We were excited. We wondered about my grandfather, my father’s father, the oldest living male in our family tree. I was his first grandson.  I was special to him, and he was special to me. But he was not in good health. I asked my father if he would make it to the wedding. My dad told me that the doctors did not give him much of a chance living that long.

The doctors were wrong. May came and went, and arrangements were made for my uncle to drive my grandfather to the wedding. The ride down was pretty uneventful. My grandfather was quiet. The others in the car were not even sure that he knew where he was going. Then they passed a road sign. Next three exits, the Cherry Hill New Jersey. My Grandfather spoke his first words of the almost two hour trip. “See, I fooled you all. You thought I would be dead by now. But I wanted to see Carl get married. And here I am.”

He came into the synagogue, glowing. He saw my mother, and gave her a hug. It was the first time he had recognized her in 6 months. The ceremony was wonderful. My grandfather sat and smiled, watched us recite our words, and  called me over to tell me that I had a beautiful bride. He went into the social hall and was served his lunch. He called over his nephew Meyer, a lawyer, and asked him if any thing else needed to be done with his will. Meyer replied, “Uncle  Yankel, don’t worry, I took care of everything. Just enjoy this event.” And Meyer walked him over to the dessert table. He took several desserts. He was never one to turn down free food. He came back the the table, finished his desserts. And he put his head down on his shoulder, and died.

They lifted up my grandfather on a chair, and carried him out. I think some people thought they were dancing with him. Most people had no idea what had happened. There was even some conversation about whether the wedding should continue. But only my father and my grandmother left, and my grandmother made sure to take the check for our wedding gift out of his pocket before they took my grandfather away.

The funeral was the next day. Almost everyone at the funeral had been at the wedding. The comments were uniformly about how shocking and sad it was. Shocking, yes, in the sense that even when you are expecting it to happen, death seems to be a shocking event. Sad, I did not think so. My grandfather had gotten his last wish. He did not leave until he had completed his task of seeing his grandson married, and until he finished his dessert. On the other hand, as we say in my family, it wouldn’t have killed him to wait a few more hours!

There was a great episode of Rod Serling’s TV show Night Gallery, called the Messiah on Mott Street. Edward G Robinson captured the spirit of my grandfather. He played Abe, which happened to be my grandfathers name, an elderly, deathly ill Jewish man,  living in a little apartment with his 9 year old grandson. One night Abe was visited by a large black shadow, the Angel of Death, who beckoned him to come along. Abe, perhaps like my grandfather, refused to go, as he had to take care of his grandson. He tells the boy that he has to try to help him get well, and that if the Messiah comes, he will “lift us up to health, and wealth and heavenly contentment.”

The boy goes out into the snowy streets of New York to find the Messiah. He encounters a man dressed as Santa Claus and one like Jesus, who is foretelling doom and gloom. Finally he meets a large black man, a postman, who looks to him like that large black shadow his grandfather had mentioned, so he must be the Messiah. He brings the postman back to the apartment. The doctor is there, saying nothing further can be done, when a gust of wind blows open the door, and the boy runs into the room, where the shadow of death is near his grandfather. As postman leaves, and the doctor delivers the comic line of the show,”Anybody tell you that you make a lousy Messiah?” The wind suddenly stops, the door closes, and Abe was better. The postman soon comes back, with a special delivery letter from Abe’s brother, with a check for $10,000 repaying an old debt. The show ends with the doctor and the postman walking away, and the postman saying that every now and then, God remembers the tenements.

 Yiddish folklore tells of the Messiah, or the angels, guarding righteous people from the Angel of Death. I often remember those stories, and this tv show. I think about how  blessed we were that there were angels present in that room, with my friends and family, until my grandfather finished his business and sent them away. How many people can say that?

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