Jewish Journal

For My Grandfather

by Tamara Shayne Kagel

October 21, 2011 | 11:26 am

I’ve been debating whether or not to post this, but since I don’t feel quite right posting about my usual quasi-snarky dating observations just yet, by default it’s going up.  I spoke at my Grandfather’s funeral on Wednesday and below is what is I said.

Whenever I would see Grandpa Joel, he would always say that I was his first.  His first grandchild.  Not better, he’d remind me.  But first, and with that to him, there seemed to be some implied responsibility.  He seemed to expect something more from me.

When I was ten years old, my mom took my sister and me to dinner once at Grandpa house.  I remember it was 1992 because there was a big presidential election coming up and I was as big a political junkie as a ten year old could be.  As soon as the dinner conversation turned to politics, I jumped in and told Grandpa he should be voting for Bill Clinton.  Grandpa asked me why I liked Bill Clinton.  Because I’m a Democrat.  Grandpa stared back at me, why are you a Democrat?  I fell silent.  I was racking my brain trying to remember any reason in the world one might be a Democrat but was coming up with nothing.  I was silent for a long time as Grandpa waited for me to answer.  I stared back at him but refused to say I don’t know.  I looked towards my mother then back at him.  I was furious he was interrogating me like this.  Up till then, when I had told an adult about my political affiliation, they responded either by telling me how impressed they were with my early interest in politics and command of big words or they would comment on what a precocious little girl I was.  So not only was I shocked that Grandpa wasn’t impressed when I tried to show off to him, but I couldn’t believe he was giving me a hard time about it. But really, he was the first grown up who actually took me seriously enough to treat me like an adult.  Finally, he broke the silence and told me If you’re just a Democrat because your parents are Democrats, than you aren’t really anything at all.  I was so mad.  I stared at him angry and frustrated.  I was really furious with him for embarrassing me.  But soon after I left their house that evening I forced every adult around me to have what were probably some very awkward conversations about Dr. Kevorkian, late-term abortion and even the tax code.  But I knew I would never be caught silent like that again.  I knew that if I was going to say I believed in something, I was going to be able to tell you why.

Ten years later, when I was at college, Grandpa came to visit me at Northwestern.  I had recently begun my second term as the vice-president of student government but this second term was sort of a consolation prize because I had ran for President and lost.  Now most people had said things like you tried your best or you should still be proud, you only lost by ten votes.  But Grandpa asked me flat out, why did I lose the election.  Once again, I stared back at him, angry at him for asking me this question.  I was indignant that he didn’t understand what I had been through.  But I had to say something.  So I stopped to ask myself, why did I lose that election.  I made a mistake Grandpa.  Until, I said it out loud to him, I didn’t even realize that it was true.  That was the moment when I finally admitted the truth to myself.  I had let something personal affect me in the last days of the campaign and I told him about it.  It’s alright to make mistakes he told me.  I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but the important thing is not to repeat them.  I knew I would never make that same mistake again.

Years later, when I was pursuing a career in dance, he again asked me an uncomfortable question.  What are you going to do next Tamara?  Once again, the same feelings of anger and frustration rose inside of me.  I didn’t want to think about what was next.  I wanted everyone to focus on the cool stuff I was doing now.  But Grandpa was just pointing out what I knew was true but again didn’t want to deal with.  When my mother would ask me the same question I could say Mom! Leave me alone!  But when Grandpa asked me, I couldn’t say that.  So once again, I had to search inside myself for an answer.  I had to ask myself, what will I do next?  Deep down, I had always known what I wanted to do, but for whatever reason, I hadn’t been ready to face it.  I told him I was going to go to law school and a few years later I did.

In the years leading up to when I actually started school, Grandpa had a running joke with me.  He would tell me that if I would vote Republican he would pay for me to go to law school.  Now, this wasn’t really meant as a bribe to try to get me to vote Republican. And not just because he knew I would never vote Republican.  But rather, it was a reminder to me.  A reminder and perhaps a test.  A test to find out if I had become someone who truly believed in what I said I stood for.  Or if I could be swayed by easy money.  But Grandpa had taught me well and perhaps he only made the offer because he knew that I had become the type of person that truly acted based on what I believed in even if it did mean racking up large amounts of student loan debt.

And now today, law school is over and Grandpa is gone.  And he’s not here, to ask me the tough questions I need to hear.  He’s not here to let me get angry and frustrated at him.  He’s not here to ask me what I’m doing with my life right now. And though I miss him very much, I am so grateful to God and to him that he was a part of my life in this way and for helping push me forward to become a better human being.  And though he won’t be able ask me these questions in the future, I will continue to ask them of myself.  I will honor and respect him by forcing myself to search deep within myself and emerge the better person he expected of me.  And so for the rest of my life, I will ask myself these questions for him and I will miss him every time I do.

Tamara Shayne Kagel is a writer living in Santa Monica, CA. To find out more about her, visit www.tamarashaynekagel.com and follow her on twitter @tamaraskagel. © Copyright 2011.


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Tamara Shayne Kagel is a twenty-something fixture on the Los Angeles scene currently living in Santa Monica.  Currently, Tamara is a successful freelance writer (just ask her...

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