Gefilte Fish and Guilt

A relative's death leads to a lesson about self-control

Here’s a fact I know about my Jewish grandpa: he died the day before I went to Auschwitz.
I got the news at an internet café in Krakow, a few hours after taking a group tour of the former concentration camp. My mom’s e-mail subject line was “Sad News.” After the initial surprise, I was a little upset that my family had only sent an e-mail. Of course, I didn’t expect my mom to call, but what about my dad or my sister?
So I searched for a phone booth. I called the house, my dad’s office, my sister’s cell phone. No one answered. My messages were curt, even hostile.
I would find out later that while I was leaving passive-aggressive voicemails, my grandpa was being eulogized.
I didn’t have a meaningful relationship with my grandpa. Family Bar Mitzvahs were the only times I saw him—a fact that I regret. But here are some things I did know about him: he had back problems; he could hardly walk; he was a doctor who served in the Second World War; he was something of a philanderer.
He raised my mother and her sister as Reform Jews in Squirrel Hill, sort of like the Boca Raton of Pittsburgh. They belonged to a Jewish country club where they celebrated the holidays. Mom and Dad decided to raise my sister and me as Jews, saddling us with a rich tradition of good jokes and gefilte fish and guilt.
Another thing I know about him: he had a Masonic funeral. My sister told me that the non-conventional service only lasted 15 minutes. Turns out that I had made my dad’s Blackberry ring during it. So besides the fact that I missed a funeral that I couldn’t even picture, I also embarrassed my dad.
Another thing: when my mom was in college, Grandpa left my grandma. He also left my mom feeling guilty, that maybe she could’ve made things right but didn’t. He remarried twice—both times to Catholic women. I hardly remember the first, Carol. She died when I was little. Fran was the second. She and most of her Polish Catholic family came to Grandpa’s funeral.
Here’s one thing I know about me: along with the gefilte fish, I inherited a longing for self-control. In difficult situations, I can usually rein in my emotions. It’s not that I don’t feel anger or sorrow or frustration, but I’ve gotten pretty good at keeping them in check.
But when my dad called the night I heard about Grandpa’s death, my ability to remain in control dropped out from beneath me. As the sun set on a quiet residential street in the Jewish district of Krakow, I yelled at my dad and my sister. I fought tears, and yet they came anyway. I still don’t know if I was angry or just sad that I had missed saying goodbye.
For the first time in a long time, my self-control just evaporated, and suddenly, I was left with a bunch of emotions I couldn’t just catalogue in a tidy, logical way.
This was an instance when I couldn’t really blame myself for losing control. I mean, I was in an emotionally tough situation—especially after spending an entire summer in a country that lost 3 million Jews in the span of a few years. I couldn’t really feel guilty for being so upset, right?
But I am still ashamed for being cruel to my dad and my sister, and I am still embarrassed for allowing myself to cry. I’m having trouble kicking the old Jewish guilt.
Maybe there’s hope yet. My mom struggled for years with her father’s infidelity, perhaps blaming herself for things that were also out of her control. When she visited my grandpa a few weeks before his death, though, I’d like to think that she was able to put all those lingering feelings behind her.
Maybe—like an old Bar Mitzvah suit—that guilt is something I’ll grow out of.

Stephen M. Fee ’07, a Social Studies concentrator in Eliot House, is an Associate FM Editor. His grandfather is also sad he never got to say goodbye.