Ten years ago today, my grandfather passed away. It was a major turning point in my life. He was the first person to die whom I was really close to. And aside from my dad, he was the greatest male role model in my life. I always fancied myself his favorite grandchild and I’m not sure why I felt that way. Perhaps he made us all feel like his favorite. That was simply his way.
As a child, he was larger than life to me. During his prime Emil Litvak was 6 feet tall and had wispy white hair. He had a perpetual tan whether or not he had just returned from Florida. (Must have been the Ukrainian olive skin.) Near the end of his life, people used to tell him how good he looked (and he did!), even the funeral director admired his skin tone. “Don’t they know I’m not well?” he used to ask. He did deteriorate quickly, but in my memory he remains virile and as vivid as if I saw him yesterday.
When my parents went away on vacation, he and my Gram would stay with us kids and I can still hear him singing in the bathroom while he shaved. I used to love to grab a seat and just watch him. He sang a lot. Every Easter, he used to strut from side to side and sing to us kids.
“The Easter time is the time to shine
And the time to shine is the Easter time.
The Easter time is the time for eggs
And the time for eggs is the Easter time.”
He loved old forties music and Spike Jones and Fred Waring and used to regale us kids with his music. But my favorite was a little ditty he (in his deep baritone) and my Gram (in her lilting soprano) would sing together.
Gram would sing:
“Mares eat oats
And does eat oats
and little lambs eat ivy.”
(only it sounds like mairzy dotes and dozy dotes)
And Grandpa would respond in his deep voice:
“A kid’ll eat ivy, too,
In their sprawling ranch on Engle Road, my grandparents would entertain constantly. It was a curious kid’s dream to be in that house with many wonderful places to hide and observe the many interesting people who came to celebrate anything and everything. Very early on, it was a place where I honed my observation skills just absorbing the atmosphere.
Grandpa had a friend named Kenny Bly, who looked as if he could be his brother. The two were out on the patio one evening with their caps and cigars and howling about something. I watched them from my little perch behind the bar in their great room. I smiled and thought they were two of the best friends I'd ever seen and I wanted to join in their fun (though I’m certain it wasn’t suitable for a 8-year-old little girl).
As I headed off to college freshman year, my grandparents were off on their own adventure—a Grand Tour of Europe. Grandpa always seemed so cultured and worldly to me. He served in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II and was in the Reserves for many years after that. He was a Brook Park City Councilman in the 1960s.
He read constantly and was interested in everything. He was fluent in French and used to converse with my sister, causing me to be envious that I couldn’t participate. At Lincoln High School on the near West Side, he starred in a play, performed in French.
Although he was a plant engineer for PPG Industries by trade, he also was very creative. He was fascinated with flying and wrote a lovely little story in 10th grade about flying that was magnificent and captured the romantic he was until the end. When I find a copy, I'll post it here. He was a Scripps-Howard Junior Aviator and earned his student pilot's license at age 17.
He adored my husband and got on with him famously. And perhaps he even saw a little of himself in Danny. At my younger brother's wedding in 1996, Danny had imbibed just a little too much. He was a happy drunk and my Gram pulled me aside laughing and said, "Your grandfather is smiling down on your husband right now." And that made me smile. I remember my senior year in college Danny bought me a leather bomber jacket for Christmas. (They were all the rage in the late 80s.) We were at my grandparents on Christmas Eve and Grandpa hammed it up for the camera by donning my new jacket and pulling his cap on backwards. He looked simply wonderful and vibrant at age 70.
I always had the sense that Grandpa appreciated my mind, my energy and my passion. How fortunate I was to share this with him as an adult. I lived with my grandparents for six months when I first moved back to Cleveland. While he and Gram sipped their nightly highball, he would ask all about my day as a cub reporter. He was interested in politics and arts and culture and education. He even put up with me when I was a tad moody. “You were rotten!” he would say. And I was sometimes. But he could be, too. Living with him I saw how he would sometimes antagonize my Gram. But she was one tough cookie and could hold her own. No matter what they argued about, they were always outwardly affectionate toward one another.
On August 10, 1991, my wedding day, he was every bit the dashing gentlemen having shown up for Mass looking for all the world as if he'd just stepped off a yacht—crisp white linen pants and navy double-breasted blazer were a nice contrast to his white hair and tanned complexion. I later learned that it was Gram who dressed him. He was colorblind. Actually, I think she shared that with me as we were laying out his clothes for burial. My favorite photo from my wedding was a picture taken before the ceremony from behind him in which he’s pretending not to look at me (the bride) seated inside the car. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more beautiful photo of myself and it’s because, in addition to being my wedding day, he made me smile all the way to my toes.
I was so oblivious in my wedding bliss that I didn’t realize that my wedding plans interfered with Gram and Grandpa’s 50th anniversary. I was still oblivious in October when they threw themselves a big party. Grandpa had the microphone and was introducing everyone table by table and sharing little stories about them. He came to our table last and said, “It’s because my granddaughter Wendy had to get married in August that we are having this party now.” I was so young and stupid, I didn’t even realize. But I danced with him that night and, as my mom later recalled, it was the last time he danced.
Grandpa’s health began a steady decline. He was diabetic and had high cholesterol. Eventually, his balance began to falter and he shuffled around hunched and unsteady on his feet. In January 1995, he was admitted to Fairview Hospital to have a stent put into his head to drain the excess fluid from his brain. I came to visit him one day and had Ryan who was 2 and Patrick, 5 months, with me in the waiting room. Gram told me he wanted to see the boys and me, so we went into his room. Ryan promptly climbed onto his bed.
“Grandpa, do you have a booboo?” Ryan asked, pointing to the band-aid on his head where the stent was inserted.
Grandpa laughed heartily. It was the last time I saw him alive. My dad called on a Friday morning while I was working at Sun Newspapers, telling me that in the early morning hours Grandpa’s heart gave out. I was stunned and yet not. Danny picked me up from work and the moment I saw him, I cried. He pulled into parking lot at Great Northern and just held me while I let out my grief. It was the only time I did so. Later I learned that Grandpa would likely have had to move to a nursing home. Gram couldn’t continue to care for him on her own. He wouldn’t have wanted to live like that. And so in the end, at age 76, his heart stopped.
At one point near the end of his life, he asked me to write his obituary. I joked with him at the time that it would be a long while before I’d have to think about that. When it was time I found it to be one of the most difficult and most rewarding things I’ve ever written. How do you condense an entire person’s life and impact into 250 words? Somehow, for him, I managed. Just as I somehow managed, as did my sister, a reading at his funeral Mass.
He’s with me still and I’m so delighted that he got to know two of his great-grandsons before he died. How he would marvel at them now. Mostly, I hope that the woman I was just beginning to become when he passed away would make him smile and make him proud.