Lessons From A Decent Man
Around the Holidays, he and I would embark on our 'secret mission.' We would take the bus (streetcar' as he would say) to the East End, where our plans were to be executed.
He carried with him a list, pulled from his breast pocket, behind his handkerchief. On that carefully folded piece of paper, were names and addresses. We would go to the corner where he would wait, 'under the lamp, because that's where senior agents wait,' as I went off to the address he would write on a small, manila coin envelope. I was to ring the bell and give the envelope to the lady of the house and then walk away. For each envelope I delivered, I was given 25 cents, a princely sum, indeed.
After a year or two, I understood what was in the envelope. My grandfather, a wealthy man, made sure that his factory workers had enough money for the holidays. Our 'mission,' was always in the middle of the day, while the workers were at their machines. He wanted to make sure that the wives and mothers knew they were not forgotten. We both knew the truth of course, as to what was is those envelopes, but I dutifully delivered them as he stood under those street lamps. I returned after delivering that small manila coin envelope and upon my return, my grandfather would pay me. After a few years, he gave me a dollar for each one. On the day he told me that is was time he take one of the younger grandchildren in my place, it was if a knife was thrust into my heart. That was the first time in my young life I was to know the confluence of pride, pain and gratitude. On that ride home, he put his arm around me. I can still feel that warmth, not to be duplicated until the day I held my daughter for the first time and then again, when I held her as she cried when she didn't get the part in the play she had worked so hard for.
Our time together was not over. As I passed from my teens into my twenties, I was to know and participate in other 'missions,' and learn other lessons
Whenever someone from our community passed away, my grandfather would call me. I would pick him up in my old beat up car (he would always tell me I drove like the best chauffeur in all the land) and we would head to the house of the bereaved. He would pay his respects for a few moments and then, open a closet door and pick out the nicest looking shoes. He would repeat that for everyone who lived in the house and on more than one occasion, was looked at as if he were 'daft' as he used to say. I would be waiting for him, on the back stairs, with a large well worn, brown grocery bag. Inside, was his shoe shining kit.
We would polish the shoes of the bereaved, taking as long as we needed to, because, as he said, 'They never remember to polish their shoes. The family needs to look 'proper.' He would tell me to take care to polish the children's shoes especially well- though children, they were equal in their loss. He would remind me that some might look at the children with a critical eye- he wanted to make sure the parents would be looked at in the best possible light.
I wanted to write this to remind people that in the end, in the very end, it is only decency that counts.
At my grandfather's funeral, many- many- people came up to my father and handed him envelopes- payments on loans my grandfather had made, without telling anyone. Many of those payments were enclosed in brown manila coin envelopes, handed respectfully to my father. They stayed for the whole service and then followed along to the cemetery, for the interment. They were among the last to leave. They wanted my father to know they would keep making their payments. My father was stunned.
The night before the funeral, about half a dozen people showed up at my home, to shine my shoes. I knew my grandfather was a decent man. It was on that evening, before the funeral, I understood that he was a great man. As I watched a few men polish my shoes, I saw dignity.