Yesterday my Grandpa Ritchie turned 90 years old. He’s always been a virile and strikingly handsome man. His vanity has been a source of laughter and inspiration for all of us. So much so, that he never allowed us to call him “Zaidy” (the Yiddish word for Grandpa) cause he thought it was entitled for old people, which he never considered himself to be. Which is why we all call him Papa, a much more youthful grandfather title indeed. People often ask me, what’s it like to have a 90 year-old Grandfather who looks like Brad Pitt?
It takes Pop forever to get dressed in the morning, and not because he’s old, but because he spends so much time primping.
He smells as good as he looks. He’s bought so much stock in Jinate’ over the years, they’re paying him to wear the bath splash.
Like Brad Pitt, he has many children whose foreign non-native names are impossible to pronounce. Can you say Menachem Mendel, Alta Shula, Yehudis Chana, Chava Tziporah Chaya Feige, or Yosef Yitzchak? That’s okay, neither can he, which is why he usually refers to us as “dahling.” There are 7 billion people in this world, 3 billion of them are Pitt-Jolie’s the other 4 billion are Shallmans. (I’m the eldest child of 7- all from the same mother and father. So far there are 8 grandkids and counting- 5 are from my one younger brother alone.) And much like the actor, my grandfather doesn’t make a move without getting permission from his director. Just ask my grandmother. He’s been married to my grandmother, also a beauty for over sixty years.
There are a lot of great stories that come from this man full of personality. He’s always had this Godfather persona but without the New York accent. He was born in Boyle Heights in 1920 to a very poor family and decided he would never be needy or destitute on his own. By the time he was 16 he was making so much money selling newspapers and hocking anything else he could get his hands on, he was making himself custom made suits. We’ve always had a lot of respect for the fact that he became a self made man and he always shared his wealth by giving charity to Israel and to Jewish education in a very gracious and generous way. But he expected us all to work hard and have serious careers. He expected us to go to college and figure out how we were going to support ourselves early on. So the day that I was 19 and brought home a poor Yeshiva boy in training to be a Rabbi who had yet to fulfill his path towards finding a lucrative career to marry, was a day that he didn’t particularly like very much.
As my husband says, “Dating Chava was the easy part, it was dating Grandpa Ritchie that was hard.” For the next 5 months, every time my husband to-be would see my grandfather, Pop would be holding his routine vodka on the rocks with a swig of tonic, stare Robbie down with a suspicious and intimidating glare and say, “So son what are you gonna DO?” And my husband would reply, “I’m not sure yet. But I’ll figure it out.” Not the right response for Papa Ritchie. I could tell my grandfather was holding it together for the sake of not rattling my very happy world. My grandmother kept herself close by his side each time Robbie was around practically pinning him down- keeping him in submission from leaping across the floor to beat my young Rabbi in-training into discovering a more lucrative path. (Or maybe to just beat him to a pulp just for being in the same vicinity as me.)
He even put my uncle on the job of sitting my fiancé down and grilling him for several hours on how he would support me. Robbie came through with flying colors of course, being that he was just as witty and smart and savvy as my grandfather the salesman. As my husband always says when asked how he got me to say yes to his marriage proposal, he replies, “What did you think I’m stupid? I got her at 19 before she knew any better- plus I’m a great salesman.”
My husband is a great salesman, but he is also the kindest person. He is loyal, loving, and is one of the greatest people I know in this world with the biggest heart. Who else would put up with raising almost all my teenage siblings over the last ten years?
So I was surprised to learn five years after we were married that my grandfather was more rattled over my marrying this sweet inexperienced Yeshiva boy more than I even realized. One night, years later, my husband finally confessed, realizing that time had been on his side the real story of how my grandfather “coped” with our marriage. The night before our wedding, my grandfather approached my husband with this proposition- “Robbie, you’re a great kid. I really like you. But let’s face it, you got nothing. You make nothing. And you are nothing- well that is yet to be determined of course, but I’d like my granddaughter to marry a somebody, maybe marry you even one day, but just not tomorrow. I’d like to see her get married when she’s older and when you have a small oh I don’t know, PAYCHECK. So here’s the deal, I’ll give you $10,000 bucks if you leave tonight and never come back. My granddaughter will get over it. I’m sure of it, you’re not that memorable.” Feeling proud like he just made the easiest deal of his life, my grandfather sat back sipped his vodka tonic and waited for the young lad to take his money and run. Little did he know my grandfather was dealing with just as smooth of an operator as he was, and my almost- husband replied, “Pop, how ‘bout we just consider the 10k my paycheck and go on with the wedding?”
My grandfather paused, he laughed and finally put his hand out to shake Robbie’s realizing he saw a little of himself in the young man for the first time. “You’re not too bad kid, welcome to the family. I’m keeping the 10k though.” Then my husband to-be did the smartest thing he could ever do upon sealing the deal with the hardest bargainer he’d ever have to face. He asked my grandfather to give him advice on getting older. All you have to do to get on my grandfather’s good side is make him feel like “Charlie potatoes” as he calls it, chum it up, compliment him on his youthful looks, and you got him in the palm of your hand. At this point Robbie was feeling pretty confident that he had won the old man over. To which, my grandfather looked squarely in the eye of the young groom and said “Rob, you know why I look this good at 75? Cause I don’t get heart attacks, I give ‘em. Let that be a warning.”
Congratulations Pop! Here’s to another 90 years! (Although he’s already informed me that after 100,he’ll be done. “No one belongs living that long. You gotta leave on a high note.”)
Here’s the link to the video he made on his birthday sharing his life advice with the world: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lv2CqKP5ajY