Baruch Meilik was my grandfather, my only grandparent for 20 years. We called him Aba (Hebrew for “father”), partly because we grew up in the bakery and that’s what everyone called him, but it was also a title he had earned. He was our leader, our guidance, our comfort. He was strong, he was wise, he was gentle and kind. He was father to my mother, aunt, and uncle by blood, and over the many years become father to my dad, uncle and aunt.
Aba passed away early Saturday morning. To celebrate his life and to help me through this difficult time, I wanted to share with all of you a few lessons he taught me and a few words about who he was. There was still so much I could learn from him, so many questions I wanted to ask, but I suppose this will always be true. I am grateful for the times we had, and for his guidance that helped define me as a man.
A Man Must Be Able to Support His Family
My grandfather was a baker, and ahead of holidays people would flock to his bakery for his bread, cookies and cakes. The line would extend out the door, down the block, and even around the street corner. A few years after my grandmother – his equal partner, passed away, my grandfather closed the bakery. Even years after he retired, my grandfather helped my parents defray the costs of me and my twin sister’s college costs.
Education and Hard Work Are Paramount to Success
My grandfather grew up in Romania where Jews were forbidden access to higher education. Despite this, he had incredible wits and his words imparted an unparalleled wisdom. Even at 90 years old, he spoke with unwavering clarity, and always taught me a thing or two with each conversation.
He taught me that education will open up doors, and that hard work would help me walk through them. With the opportunities these opened doors presented, I would be able to support my wife and future family.
Respect and Kindness
My grandfather always emphasized that I should respect my parents and show respect for others. Through his actions I learned about kindness. When someone down on their luck came to his bakery, my grandfather would send them off with food for their family. I remember my mother telling me that he would often slip a few dollars into their hands as well. As a child I did not notice this, but my sister did. My mother, aunt, and uncle at the front counter were so discrete, always careful to offer help without letting anyone suffer even an ounce of shame.
The bakery was closed on Saturdays, but I remember being there once and watching a truck pull up. I later learned that my grandfather regularly sent still-fresh breads, cookies, and other baked goods to places that served the less fortunate.
My grandfather didn’t have to give away so much, but he did so anyways. He worked many more hours in a day than I ever could, and shedding blood, sweat and tears he worked to provide for his family. That would have been enough, but was compelled to help others.
Tools Are Nothing Without Elbow Grease
Every now and then in recent years we would of course talk about tools. My grandfather of course used various tools to maintain equipment at his bakery over the years, and their condition reflects this.
Not as often as I could or should have, I enjoyed visiting him by myself. My family would get together almost every Sunday at his home, and when I was able to I drove in and joined them. But there was a different setting when everyone was together. When we were alone one on one, we could truly talk about anything and everything.
With a screwdriver on the table here, pliers in a basket over there, we would talk about tools and machines between talking about every-day things and the progress of my education. We would talk about how he carried a water boiler home on his back one day and installed it to give his children hot water. How he made parts for his first car himself because that was the only option he had. How he used to be able to look at the inner workings of a refrigerator or device and know exactly how to fix it.
He would then go on to recommend I consider working as a plumber or mechanic. I would of course then argue that my heart was set for a different type of hands-on work.
My grandfather didn’t care about brands or where something was made, as long as it worked. It’s almost a guarantee that his tools were all USA-made, but that’s not the point. Tools were nothing in one’s hands if they didn’t know how to use them. This goes back to his ideas of education and value for hard work. You must first know how to do something but must then follow through with hard work to get the job done.
Perhaps not directly, he taught me that a tool is just a piece of metal and plastic if one lacks the knowledge or drive needed to use it for repairs or to build something. Only with hard work does that piece of metal become a tool. Analogously, only with hard work and education and the ability to support his family does a boy become a man.
A Few More Words
One thing about my grandfather – he never showed an ounce of frustration over my tendency to argue. Except of course when I argued with my mother when everyone was together for a Sunday visit or holiday occasion. I am told that when I argue I tend to raise my voice. I certainly mean well, but my passion and stubbornness can sometimes be misconstrued as being disrespectful. My grandfather would then say something calmly to my mother in Romanian about going home or going shopping, and I would get the hint. I am glad to say that as an adult I learned to control my tongue a bit better in recent years.
When I got married three years ago, my schedule changed. I was accustomed to staying up late and waking up mid-morning, but began waking up at 7am to drive my wife to the train station. The first day I dropped her off, I got home at 7:30 and called my grandfather. Used to my “vampire-like” sleeping and work habits, he started cracking up. So then I called the next day as well. And again he laughed and laughed about it. So I called the next day, and again he laughed. And so I called every weekday morning since then. Every now and then he would laugh again, asking if I was going to go back to bed for a nap. What started off as a joke became a very pleasant routine.
Each morning’s phone call would only last 30-50 seconds or so on average, but they helped me start my day. My grandfather spoke quite a few languages, with the last learned being English, but his accent was subtle and unobtrusive. I was not always wide awake when I called him, so I feel that I heard his voice on both conscious and subconscious levels. Some people drink coffee to start their day, others have breakfast. I had half-minute phone calls with my grandfather.
For the first time in over three years I know that if I call he is not there to answer. I began this morning with a quick phone call to my aunt, waiting a few minutes after 7:30 so that I wouldn’t scare her. She lived in the apartment above my grandfather’s in their two-family house, and spent a great deal of time with him. Calling her brought a little comfort to me, but hearing the great pain and sadness in her voice I am afraid that not I or anyone else can help her through this.
I could not go on with the rest of my day as if nothing has happened, as if we had not buried Aba only two days ago. Not knowing what more to do, I started writing about some of the things he taught me, some of the things he did that made him the man he was. He was proud that I enjoyed writing about something I was passionate about, and so I decided it would be fit to share with you all a little about him.
My grandfather lived for 63 years before I was even born. In those years and the 27 since, he accomplished a lot – more than I could ever comprehend. He was a hero, saving the lives of his family as he brought them to safety. He was a soldier, fighting for the survival of his family and countless innocents. For most of his life, he was a baker, and with little to start with in America he touched many lives and gave joy to all that knew him.
Aba was my inspiration, my teacher, my friend. He had answers to life’s most difficult questions, provided guidance at the most difficult of times. If he could hear me now, I would ask Aba, where are you? He would raise his hand to his heart and then to mine and answer I am here, here, and here. I am among the goodness in your heart. I am with Ema and with Suzy, and I am okay.