Saturday, June 27, 2009


I've been wanting to write about my Grandpa Leo, who was honestly the best person I've ever known. Turns out, my little brother Sam beat me to it, and wonderfully so. This was first posted on his terrific blog.

While my experiences with my grandfather were not identical to Sam's -- I never had to live with my grandparents because I was evacuated from a Salvadoran civil war, for example -- he absolutely captures the essense that was my grandpa. I've just added a couple of pictures from the archives...

Grandpa Leo trying on the Akubra hat that Jason and I got him for his 90th birthday. He loved to greet Jason by saying, "Hi, mate!" in a quasi-Aussie accent. It was hilarious and charming.

Dancing with my grandpa at my wedding. He loved to dance.

Grandpa gazes adoringly at his great-grandson Zeke, 6 months old in this picture. He was crazy about his grandchildren.

I have changed nothing, so the voice is Sam's, today's guest blogger.
On June 12, my grandfather, Isadore Leo Seligson, died suddenly of a heart attack, while sitting in his car after an afternoon at the pool reading his paperback and, presumably, staring at a few nice looking ladies in their bathing suits. He was 93. 
I have been thinking about whether or not to write about him. On the one hand, some part of it feels exploitative (or something). I don’t know. But on the other, he was my friend. He was a wonderful man. Truly. He was different than you or me. I don’t mean some rags to riches story or his incessant drive for fame or power. I mean that a light shone within him and anyone who met him knew it immediately and he showed people and me how to love and how to be something good in this world. So you should know about him. You should remember him and you should know that even in a world full of pain and misery and corrupt institutions and tyranny and quests for power and fame and mindlessness, even in that world, there are people who are good. Simply good. Honest. Giving. Open minded. Loving. 
I am not a geneologist and this is not a formal obituary. So I’ll just share some recollections and thoughts and if it means something that’s fine and if not that’s fine too. But he was here. 
My grandfather’s dad, Julius, lived till 101 and was lucid all the way through. And in many ways he taught my grandpa the things that my grandpa then taught my mom who taught me. Things really about love and family and the power of those bonds and their importance. 
Here are some additional things about my grandfather. He loved people. He loved his children and he loved his grandchildren and he derived real and genuine joy from human connection. He loved to sit and tell stories with us. He repeated himself a little bit but less than you’d expect. So it really was always worth it to sit and listen, because you’d learn something new. Something funny. And you’d see the joy that he got in looking back over the life he lived richly. And being with us. 
Grandpa fought in World War II. He was a communications officer in the South Pacific. He would talk about the Japanese on the other side of the island. Manning the radar station. He would talk about the few times he got shot at. I remember he told us about being in Japan after the war was over and hiring this guy whose name I think was Mr. Ito to be his translator. And he’d syphon off food and supplies for Mr. Ito’s family at a time when the Japanese were very poor and when everyone needed everything all they could get. I doubt it even occurred to him to even attempt to harbor any kind of ill-wish towards the Japanese. 
That’s the kind of person he was. 
The defining relationship of his life was his marriage to my grandmother, Ruth. They were married for 66 years. His loyalty and his love for my grandmother was the model for marriage that I would like to follow. His patience. His devotion. She wasn’t always an easy woman to live with, as none of us are I suppose, and yet his commitment never seemed to waiver. They had some tough times. I don’t think he was a particularly good business person and, as a result, there were some difficult financial situations. But through every moment of their time together, at least those moments that I saw, he was her unwavering partner and companion and her lover and her friend. Her last few years were very difficult. She was suffering from dementia, she was becoming less mobile and, in some ways, reverting to childhood. He was a man in his late 80s and early 90s, old in his own right, but he took care of her every day. Cooking for her. Cleaning for her. Loving her. 
That’s the kind of person he was. 
He was my friend. In 1990, I lived in El Salvador. It was the tail end of the civil war down there. The FMLN, the communist guerillas, mounted a last ditch offensive to overthrow the government and they stormed San Salvador where I was living with my mom and dad who were both Foreign Service Officers. The first night my dad and I stood in our yard and listened to the gunfire and the explosions and it was kind of a novelty. Then a few bullets whizzed by over our heads, glowing red in the night, and we realized it was more than just a curiosity. So we went back inside and huddled in my parents bedroom. They evacuated the dependents (the proverbial women and children (not my mom who was part of the embassy)). I went to stay with my grandparents in Detroit (well Farmington Hills really) while my parents stayed behind to help develop the US response and strategy in that critical time. 
I was 12. I was a pain in the ass and a brat and at first it was painful and difficult to adjust to a new life with my grandparents as my parents. And they must have thought it strange to have this little shit in their midst years after they thought they were done raising kids. But there it was. I would get in fights with my grandmother, try to tell her not to come into my room, I even put a note on the door one time outlining the rules of engagement viz. my room which, of course, was their room. I think it was funny more than anything else. 
Over time though I adjusted to this new life. Even enrolled in a wonderful school in the Detroit area, the Roeper School. And my relationship with my grandparents evolved and became something more than it had been. My grandmother would knock on my door every morning and tell me it was the 5 minute warning before I had to really get up. Then I’d come down and she’d make me breakfast. And then my grandfather would drive me to school every morning. We’d talk and laugh and joke around and laugh at my grandmother. Schlepping me all over the place. Never complaining. Never begrudging me anything. He was my friend. 
That’s the kind of person he was. 
I eventually moved back to Salvador and finished 7th grade and then moved back to the States after that. But I think that time changed my fundamental relationship with them and it created a bond that lasted, I suppose, forever, in whatever way or however the word forever can mean anything. 
Over the years, I got in the habit of calling him every week. I’d miss a few weeks here and there but we spoke a couple times a month for as long as I can remember. I got in the habit of answering the phone, “Sam Jacobs here”. And for whatever reason, he got the biggest kick out of it and he’d laugh uproariously and he’d respond “Leo Seligson here” and, you know how it was, it was love. That’s all. And then we’d talk and trade stories and laugh together and he’d tell me how proud he was of me and he’d encourage me and teach me, in ways that are hard to explain but that you can see, how to be a good man. Even if I wasn’t always. 
He was faithful to my grandmother but he loved women and he loved hugging and he took a liking to my wife from the first moment they met at my cousin’s wedding in Denver years ago. There was this magical little day when the four of us, my grandmother and my grandfather and me and Erica, all had breakfast at the Brown Palace Hotel and we listened as they talked about living in New Orleans and how my grandmother was one of the first female DJs in the country and had a jazz show called “Buzzin With Cousins”. And how they started their bridal salon and how they’d take buying trips to New York to check out the latest styles. And they fell in love with my wife and she with them. 
My grandmother passed away last year and, I think, after years of taking care of her, grandpa went through a dark period and I think he was bored and I think he was lonely. He moved into a new apartment and he was volunteering at the Radiology Department of Henry Ford Hospital and he was driving old ladies to their hair appointments and picking up people from the airport and he was going to the Jewish Community Center for a schvitz and he was reading and listening to his Patsy Cline and Billie Holiday records. 
That’s the kind of person he was. 
In March, my mom and I flew to Detroit to celebrate his 93rd birthday with him. He seemed good. We had a wonderful time. Honestly, being with him was just being with a friend. Maybe a funny one. Maybe one with really bad breath who hugged really hard. Maybe one who didn’t want to use his hearing aid all the time out of pride. But my point is that it wasn’t trouble. It wasn’t hard. We went to dinner and drove around and we went to brunch with Melba at the Stage Deli and we laughed and he’d sit in the back of the car sometimes and listen to me and my mom tease each other and he’d get the biggest kick out of watching these people that he loved tease each other and I know that it brought him a lot of joy and I’m glad to have been a part of that. 
His passing has been very hard. You see, it was unexpected. His dad lived for a long time and Leo was healthy, and lucid, and thin, and gainfully employed even, and he was going to go to the beach with my family in a few weeks and I really was not ready to lose my friend like this. It’s just selfishness, I guess. I know he was ready to go and join my grandmother. Or just be gone from this plane. But I didn’t want him to leave. I don’t have that many friends. Not like him. I will miss him. Very plain and simple, I will miss him. 
It’s hard to explain in words, what kind of person he was. But it’s something you feel when you meet him. It is a grace. And a godliness. You see, he wasn’t innocent. He wasn’t naive. He’d been in a war. He’d seen things. The fucking Great Depression for one thing. He’d been married to a complicated woman for a long time. So my point is that his grace and beauty did not come from an innocence. They came from a worldiness. He believed in people and in love despite everything he’d experienced, or maybe because of it ,or however you want to frame it. He was a humanist. He was open-minded. In an era when many weren’t and when many aren’t. He didn’t care who you were or what you were. Gender, race, orientation, lifestyle. He was ready to accept you. As long as you were nice to his kids and his grandkids, he was ready to accept you. 
I have no regrets. I was lucky. My wife never knew her grandparents. I got to know mine. I lived with them. They were my friends. I called them and visited them and we spent time together. And I know that he passed from this earth in the way he would have wanted. Not in a nursing home. Not bed ridden. Quickly, suddenly, and with his characteristic humility and grace. And he was old and lived a long life and loved his children and his grandchildren and his great grandchildren and he showed me and us what it means to be something good. 
It was an honor to share this earth with him. An honor. And maybe there’s an after life that retains him in the way that he was. But I suspect it’s probably something where his energy, his soul or whatever you call it, has merged back into the mainline of the universe, the force. And that part of what makes this world so special is that these forms are so temporal and so unique and distinctive. So while I hope I may find him as he was at some time or in some place here or then, in this life or in a different state, I can’t be sure. But I do know that the way he was on this planet - the form that that energy had taken- it was special and true and full of light and love and effervescence. And if you knew him you knew you were lucky to have known him. And if you didn’t, well, maybe you have a sense for him now. 
He was a good man. RIP Isadore Leo Seligson. 1916-2009. 
PS Here’s the information from the funeral home.
PPS My sister wrote this wonderful piece about the feeling we have now that there’s no real reason to ever go back to Detroit after we’d been visiting there and using it as a gathering place for so long. I found it very haunting but that’s me. Take a look.


  1. Carolyn9:07 AM

    What a good looking man. You can see the kindness in his face.

  2. RIP I'm so sorry for your loss

  3. What an absolutely beautiful tribute... thanks for sharing.

  4. Beautiful-I see where your mom got her traits from