The thing that made Grandpa happiest was being around his grandchildren, the little "shavers" as he called them. He had lots of funny ways of talking. My nephew Dan, a few months younger than my son, became "Choppers." I'm not really sure why. I always associated it with Dan's constant movement; he was everywhere at once, as if flying. That may not have been Grandpa's intent, but neither was passing on his gift for silly sounds. "Moo-jee" was my sister-in-law, Mary. My brother-in-law, Jim, was "Gig-gee." "Gig-gee" is now a patent attorney and judge in DC.. But that lofty position hasn't prevented Jim from taking a page out of Grandpa's book, dubbing his oldest brother, John, "Dar Dar."
I can't help but smile, and laugh just a little, as I remember Christmas's past. Grandpa would rile up Jim, who would in turn rile up the kids--up to five of whom would be riding on "horsey" Uncle Bob--and it wouldn't take long before the volume in the house would multiple ten-fold. Grandpa would call out "Baat baat baat" and it would echo from mouths big and small for the rest of the day.
All in all, Grandpa had 17 grandchildren, including a great granddaughter born in December. He also had six children, six daughter-in-laws, and a son-in-law. He treated all of us like family. He used to sit in a rocking chair in the kitchen, rocking away, a big smile on his face as he watched the veritable tribe that came from him fill the house time and time again. Like me, Grandpa had a lot of #light. He was beloved by the #Universe and as a result, could create realities as easily as he doodled extraordinary art in the margins of books.
Grandpa was an alum of Niagara University as well as Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT). It was a fellow student of Grandpa's from elementary school, Sister Mary Sullivan, who hired me years later at RIT, where I spent a decade of my teaching career. She recognized my last name, and with a smile that lit up her eyes, asked, "Are you related to Johnny Housel? I went to school with him." There were many such moments, where someone in the community would tell me with a happy face and bright smile about my beloved father-in-law. Grandpa's joie de vivre was known far and wide. As was his energy level. In his 60's and 70's, Grandpa would volunteer at Monroe Community Hospital and the Jewish Home. His physicality marked by that incredible pep in his step, friendly smile and easy laugh made him one of the most likable men I've ever met. Or anyone ever met, for that matter.
He loved his wife, Carolyn. Used to say how lucky he was that a woman as beautiful as her agreed to marry him. Carolyn said it wasn't luck...it was because he made her laugh. He made all of us laugh. He loved life. He loved family, He took joy in everything he did. Grandpa was very easy to not only like, but to love.
My son was born before I married Grandpa's son, Bob, who Grandpa saw as a taller version of his own father. Grandpa would be rocking away in his chair and look off, as if deep in memory, and say with great pride, "Bobby is so much like my father...he's better at the business than I am."
"The business" is our small, home-grown real estate company. What Grandpa always seemed to forget was that, even if Bob looked like Grandpa's dad, it was Grandpa who taught Bob the skills that support our entire family, wherever we end up. That's quite a legacy. One I hope Bob can pass along to our son as well. Four generations of Housels who help people find the homes where they will raise their children, hold their grandchildren for the first time, and make milestone memories to treasure for a lifetime.
One such milestone moment included the first time Gary and I came home to New York after leaving the city of our birth, Boston, Grandpa welcomed us with open arms. We never felt like strangers in a strange land; we always felt like we belonged. Recently, I was watching a video of Grandpa and a three-year old Gary, walking in Grandpa's backyard, talking about the trees and flowers that Grandma so carefully cultivated over years of Mother's Day gardening gifts. My son had to deal with tremendous difficulties from the moment he entered the world. As a result, he was a very discerning child (and now, a very discerning adult...good luck to anyone who gets on the wrong side of that 6'5" frame). Gary did not trust anyone, besides me. For him to have been walking alone in the backyard with Grandpa at that age was quite a feat. The relationship Gary and Grandpa had was very special. Even though Gary did not share any of Grandpa's DNA, when Grandpa saw Gary, his entire face lit up with pride. Grandpa would beam over Gary. In Yiddish, the word is "kvell." Grandpa would even come to the point of tears when he spoke about Gary. But he loved all of his many grandchildren. And you could see just how much during family gatherings. In the picture insert from December 2012, Grandpa's face has registered bliss as he holds his youngest grandchild at the time, JP. It was a party I hosted for my very handsome, very determined, and very talented nephew, Chris, who had just graduated as a Marine.
Grandpa served his country, too. The family would often roll their collective eyes as Grandpa regaled us with tales about combat and subsequent injuries, like a modern-day William Faulkner. Though he served proudly, he never saw any action. The scar he often pointed to was actually a childhood injury.
Grandpa was just an awesome man. He wasn't even 5'10", yet he was larger than life. He loved the Sun, like me. And like Gary, was a huge fan of Florida and the beautiful beaches its known for. Grandpa would go to Florida every year with Grandma reluctantly in tow. If it were possible, I think he'd have camped out on the beach. Gary and I agree. It just goes to show how we aren't so much born into a family...we choose them.
Sometime last spring, Grandpa and I were sitting at the kitchen table again, discussing all sorts of interesting things, when he stopped rocking in his chair and looked at me thoughtfully: "Rebecca," he said, with his usual emphasis on the first syllable, "You look like the Virgin Mary...." It was probably the nicest thing he could think to say, a sign of his love for me. Grandpa was a man of faith, you see. He believed in something greater than himself. He believed we all had a purpose, that there was a plan. He never waivered in his belief, even when darkness closed in around him.
Making Grandpa an 80th birthday party was something I knew he'd love. It was a surprise party, a beer-themed surprise party. Grandpa was a connoisseur; he called it having a "tasty." I'm smiling big as I write that. Because Grandpa was more than surprised when he arrived at my New York house, expecting to have a small family barbeque on that beautiful September day. When he walked out into the backyard, he was greeted by a lifetime of friends and family. As we sang happy birthday to him, Grandpa dropped to his knees and thanked God for all the people he loved, for the beauty all around him. It was spontaneous and with a genuine sense of love and joy.
When I left New York for Atlanta last July, Grandpa actually cried. He truly loved me. And I loved him. He didn't want me to leave. He was proud to have me in his family. Proud of my accomplishments. Proud of all I'd survived. Grandpa's deep care for me meant a great deal; he was like a father. Always supportive, never critical. He believed in me, even when others didn't. And his faith never waivered.
Grandpa and I had breakfast before I returned to Atlanta in January, not even two weeks before he fell ill. Grandma and Bob were there, too. Grandpa and I always sat so we could talk to each other. We had a great conversation about family, how proud he was of his grandchildren, of Gary, of me, of Bob. How impressed he was with his daughter, Mary, and her three sons--the beloved nephews who often appear with me in photos. He spoke of his youngest son, Joe, and what an amazing doctor and father he is, how beautiful his wife Kim is, and their four children--"the girls and JP." He mentioned "Eddie", his second son, and my niece Katrina as well as her new daughter, Jireh. He reviewed all of my older nephews and their goings-on: Nate, Dan, Jonathan, Joe, Chris, EJ, and Matt. He spoke of "Johnny," his oldest boy, now almost 60 himself. And did I know "Jimmy" was thinking of moving back to New York? It was almost as though he knew we may not see each other again; he also knew I'd write this piece. He was an avid reader of my work and followed this very blog. He knew his words would one day be conveyed to his family, even if he wasn't here to say them himself.
Grandpa passed away three weeks later. And I am 100% confident that when he arrived in Heaven, Jesus greeted him at the pearly gates with a tasty in hand. A tall, cold one.