In June of each year, we celebrate Father's Day, a wonderful, befitting thank you to our fathers. But rarely do we think back about and celebrate our grand- fathers or great-grandfathers - - our more ancient predecessors without whom we would not be here today.
So, on this Father's Day, with all due love and respect for my father, I'd like to reflect upon his father, Sam, whom I called "Poppop", not only as a tribute to him, but to pass on my memories of him to my own children, Poppop's great- grandchildren.
Coming to America
My knowledge of Poppop's early years is likely part fable and part fact, but here's what I was told (and probably sounds better in its embellished form).
The story of Poppop's family coming to America rings similar to that of the Broadway show, "Fiddler on the Roof". His family lived in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, under the tyrannical, repressive and, at times, murder- our rule of the Czar. When the Czar's "cossacks" (long-sword soldiers on horseback) came galloping unexpectedly through the small town, slaughtering Jews, Poppop's family loaded all of their worldly possessions onto a mule- drawn cart and, by foot, set Westward to the nearest port, to find a ship's pas- sage to America. Poppop was only about 5 years old. On their months' long journey, they sold off nearly all they had for the bare necessities of shelter and food. They finally made it onto a boat, and endured yet another perilous trip across the stormy Atlantic Ocean, arriving in America nearly penniless.
Apparently, Poppop's family were farmers and knew some other Russians who had immigrated to rural New Hampshire. So off they went to settle on a farm in the small town of Manchester, far away from any major city. Poppop told me that one of his first recollections was how strange it was trying to communicate with the townspeople. His family only spoke Russian and most of the other local inhabitants were French-speaking Canadians and neither group spoke English. Poppop said they had to communicate using sign language!
A little side story for a moment - - a nice "coincidence" about Manchester, New Hampshire. As I shared in a previous article, I and my son are huge fans of the LA ice hockey team, the Kings. As it later turned out, the Kings' highest level minor league team became based in Manchester and won the league championship (about the same time we also learned that Poppop was quite a hockey player in his youth, on the frozen ponds surrounding Manchester!).
From Small Town to Big City
According to family lore, Poppop was quite the rebel of his family, neither dedicated to school nor farming, and literally ran away from home to "seek his own fortune". He managed to get to New York City and when he arrived, the culture shock was much greater than landing in a small town's Russian community. Believe it or not, it was the first time, after years in America, that he heard everyone around him speaking English!
However, suddenly finding himself in an alien, crowded, bustling city - - with motorcars and electric trains he had never seen before! - - didn't deter Poppop. He was determined to "make it" and, even though he had little formal education, he had a street-smart mind that looked for opportunity and seized it! (His charming personality also seemed to attract opportunity to him, including his bride-to-be!)
Mommom and Poppop at the renewal of their vows on their 50th wedding anniversary!
From Macy's Window Dresser to Home Builder
After a few odd jobs, and repeatedly walking past Macy's huge flagship store and its remarkable, imaginatively designed window displays, Poppop said to himself, "I can do that!" Se he applied for and got work as a Macy's "window dresser". Apparently, he had some latent artistic talent because, before long, he became the chief window dresser for the largest, most famous retail store in America's biggest city!
But that only got Poppop thinking, "Instead of dressing the windows, why don't I sell the dresses in the windows instead?" So, he found out how Macy's purchased its inventory, ingratiated himself with the manager of Macy's clothing warehouse and made a "deal" to acquire certain merchandise to open his own store. Of course, he couldn't afford a store in Manhattan (or risk competing with Macy's!), so he traveled a few hours south to the small town of Vineland, New Jersey, where a cute, little storefront on the main street of downtown was available for a small down payment, and he opened a "Millinery" shop (few people today would know what that is, a ladies' hat and dress store!).
Poppop's millinery store became quickly successful in this rural farm town where women wanted to wear the styles of the big city, but couldn't afford them. Thanks to his shrewd negotiations with the Macy's warehouse manager, he was able to secure "shmata" (literally rags or, more loosely clothes in Yiddish) at a fraction of their regular retail price. However, the trade-off was he would often obtain large quantities of only a single style or color dress, depending on what then was Macy's "excess inventory". The great fable of Poppop's success in the dress business is that, through his smart purchasing, fabulous window displays, and natural charm, he sold so many navy dresses with white polka dots that nearly every lady in the town wound up wearing one!
But Poppop always had his eyes and ears open for greater opportunities. He regularly got up and left his home at the crack of dawn to join all of the "big wigs" of the town for breakfast at their favorite diner. He really believed and acted upon the adage, "the early bird gets the worm!"
Poppop's next big business opportunity came in a strange, unexpected way. His only child, his son (my Dad), was about to be married and Poppop decided to get him a house so he could live nearby. Well, after seeing the prices of new homes and after his inquisitive discussions with various builders whom he had befriended at the diner, Poppop decided to buy a vacant lot, hire a contractor and build Dad's house on his own. After going to the job site every day and watching how the project went from blueprint to finished product, Poppop realized, "why can't I just go ahead, become a general contractor, hire and supervise the subs and build homes for sale?"
So he bought another lot just down the street from Dad's house, built a new home under the business name "Kay Construction", and immediately sold it at a nice profit! I remember that house well because my closest childhood friend lived there and his parents would often, half-joking, remark to me what a trouble-filled structure my grandfather had built as his first one!
Fortunately, Poppop learned the building business quickly, worked out all the construction "bugs" and, thanks to his keen sense of what people wanted, coupled with his unique marketing and sales abilities, became one of the largest builders in
Vineland. In fact, he developed entire neighbor- hoods, complete with new streets. Ten of those streets bore either the first name or the middle name of each of his five grand- children. (Yes, there actually is a "Philip Street" and "Joel Street" named for me in Vineland, New Jersey - - check this out!).
(By the way, Philip is misspelled and Marshall and David streets are named for two of my brothers.)
A Tough Negotiator, But a Softy Too!
One of my Dad's favorite stories about Poppop - - and his toughness as a business- man - - came about when the two of them were walking toward the diner one morning and a building subcontractor ran out to them, and nearly falling onto his hands and knees feverishly implored Poppop to "please take my bid on your project, I really need the work!" Poppop immediately responded, "Your bid is too high. You need to cut it by 20%!". As the rejected sub walked away deflated, my Dad asked, "Who was that?", to which Poppop merely shrugged and said, "I have no idea!"
But, Poppop loved his family, was a fantastic, generous, caring grandfather and treated many others who he knew and sold homes to as part of his family as well.
Every Saturday he took us grandchildren to the diner for breakfast, proudly showing us off, then to the movies (Vineland was so small it had only one theatre, almost always playing a Disney movie!). Poppop was never much of a movie fan himself but he delighted in treating his grandchildren. I used to laugh inside about how Poppop would fall asleep immediately after the theater lights went down and the movie started, then wake up as soon as the lights came on and blurt out, "Wasn't that a terrific movie!". Our fun day with Poppop wasn't over. After the show, Poppop would take us to "John's Bargain Store", what was referred to then as a "Five and Dime" with super cheap discount merchandise, where he gave each of us fifty cents to buy the toy of our choice (way back in the early 60's, we felt like millionaires with fifty cents to spend!). We usually ended our day with Poppop stopping at a custard stand on the way home. Poppop always knew how to have a good time!
Whenever we went around the town with Poppop, we noticed how people appeared to love him and went out of their way to say hello to him. He always had a big smile and usually a good joke for them in return! I had no idea of how many town folk knew him and cared about him until later at his funeral, which reputedly drew one of the biggest groups of mourners of any other such procession in Vineland history!
After Poppop's passing, I learned so much more about how he had positively impacted peoples' lives through the communities he built and his great generosity. I'll never for- get, one time I was at a local car dealership and a salesman came running up to me and said, "I want to tell you something about your grandfather. He saved my life!" The man then became teary-eyed as he continued on in a broken voice to explain how he had been sick and out of work for over two years, couldn't pay the mortgage on the home he had bought from Poppop, and Poppop never said a word to him asking him for the money or tried to evict him, along with his wife and kids, and instead Poppop periodically stopped by to see if he was okay - - and that he was able to eventually find work and pay Poppop back, and still lives in the same house today!
Poppop Did Have His Faults Too
Well, we all do, and I need not detail them here. But I do recall one fault I have to mention. Poppop was a terrible driver!
Poppop often drove without his hands on the steering wheel, which he preferred to cradle in his lap (remember those old, giant, "boat" wheels in early 60's cars?). His hands were instead engaged in clapping to the music he often blared too loudly from his dashboard radio. Speaking of his dashboard, before the days of "Post-Its", he taped different sized pieces of paper on it (and even on the wheel and rear view mirror) to remind him of tasks to be done, peoples' names, phone numbers and addresses - - so many of them that I, as a kid, could barely see out the front windshield!
And Poppop was always getting tickets for driving infractions. I recall once an officer stopping him, coming to his window, and explaining he had perpetrated a moving violation by not obeying the one-way street sign. Poppop immediately retorted, with a smile on his face and in his voice, "but officer, I was only going one way!" Fortunately for Poppop, my Dad was a local attorney, well-liked by the city judge, who always managed to get Poppop's tickets dismissed.
When I once asked Poppop why he was such a poor driver, he blamed it all on the driver's license test that hadn't properly prepared him to drive. "When I took the driver's test, I just had to drive the car across an open country field, go around a tree and come back without hitting the tree!". I suspect that in rural Vineland, New Jersey of the early 1950's, there's probably equal story- telling and truth in that!
Fisherman and Philosopher
Besides his fun-loving and joking side, his family man side, and his tough businessman side, Poppop was often deeply reflective, seeking to under- stand our greater existence.
He often did that while enjoying his favorite hobby, fishing. Poppop always carried in his car trunk a tackle box with lines, lures, hooks, weights, and "bobbers", along with poles and reels, a net meant to catch minnows for bait and a folding chair. Whenever we traveled about the countryside near a lake or stream, he would stop for a few minutes (seemingly unconcerned about where he was headed) and would start fishing. He was quite meticulous about it, so much so, that he actually won awards in fishing contests (I re- member him proudly displaying the pin he was awarded as champion of the Rainbow Lake Contest of 1961!). When I asked him why he loved fishing so much, he said there was a part of him that relished taking a chance, not knowing whether he would "hit the lottery with a big fish" and he equally en- joyed the quiet time to just observe the water and scenery and "think about the world".
Which leads me to my last memory of my beloved Poppop. The final time I spent with him was at his condo in South Florida, where he and my "Mommom" retired in their later years. Behind his condo property, there was a large inner coastal waterway where ships of all sizes passed throughout the day and night. Because of all this boat traffic, and churned up water, no one thought to fish there - - except, of course, my Poppop, who somehow actually caught fish there! I stood next to him, watching him cast his line and slowly, with deep deliberation, reel it back in. I asked, "Poppop, after all your years, if you learned one lesson, one understanding of the meaning of life, what would that be?" He looked to me, surprised that I had asked, and sounding as though he had been thinking about that very same thing said, "Everything you do in life, the good and the bad, comes back to you some- day."
I'll close with that profound observation, which I've also found to be true and a very helpful compass in leading my own life, along with one last thought. On this Father's Day, take the time to recount the stories of not only your dad but your other male ancestors, so those stories (and not just your estate's assets) can be a legacy that's passed down as a legacy and enjoyed by your loved ones, too.