I still have them, set amidst the forgotten stuffed animals and obligatory yearbooks. His stamp collection that he passed along one evening when I was 12. He set the fabric tote bag on the kitchen table, and let me rustle through the collectors books and envelopes saved for the squares affixed on their corners. They were originally from his father, my great-grandfather Zaidy Bernard, until he took over and continued the tradition. He thought I might like collecting, appropriately guessing that my obsessive attention to detail and love for the neat rows of stamps would lend itself to the challenge. It was a casual gift, nothing more than an aside before we dealt another hand of cards and vowed not to tell mom and dad when I stayed up too late at our weekly sleepover.
I tried to love stamps. I tried to be passionate about searching for the newly minted sheets and steaming the envelopes so that I could remove its stamp unblemished. I tried going to collectors shops and mustering up excitement about the post office’s upcoming printings. I tried to love stamps, because I wanted to carry on the tradition, wanted to make my Zaidy Charlie proud, wanted to be worthy of this legacy he had bestowed upon me. But really, they lacked magic for me, remaining the necessary postage to get my letter to its destination. I didn’t love new stamps or ones I could buy at a specialty store, but I loved his stamps.
I loved the history and his patience that oozed out of the collectors books. I loved pouring over the pages and knowing that he had done the same. I loved guessing at how he had gotten each one and the story behind it. But most of all, I loved the envelopes stuffed at the bottom of the tote bag; the envelopes with stamps that had never been removed, but rather simply saved and filed away for one day. Because amidst the envelopes and valuable sticky squares lingered Zaidy Charlie’s quiet heroics. His love of family, his faith in Israel, his willingness to fight for what he believed in, for who he loved, for freedom and equality. I treasured the forgotten letters left inside that came from Romania, Israel, Russia, and Canada. The letters that couldn’t say thank you enough, that credited my Zaidy with their lives after he managed to secure escape for his relatives trapped in Romania. There were letters that spoke of their eternal gratitude and love. Letters thanking him for his donations and work in the Jewish community, envelopes bearing return labels from friends made across the world. Quietly, patiently, and with fierce persistence, he was a hero.
I didn’t need to read the letters to know he was a hero. They were nice documentation, but the book cataloguing his love, kindnesses, mitzvot, small miracles, and courage overflows. I didn’t love stamps, but I collected his merits like a zealot.
I lined up the patience of an only son humoring his crotchety mother next to the patience he exemplified fighting cancer. I incorporated this intelligence spun with humor as he finished his crossword puzzle, even if it meant using nonsense words to fit the empty spaces. I pealed off the determination to succeed, to provide for his family, even when it meant changing his name because Katz was ‘too Jewish’ for their neighborhood and ‘Kent Drugs’ had more consumer appeal. I collected his volunteer positions, fighting for the establishment of Israel, for the security of the Jewish people, toiling away to ensure a better life for those who struggled.
I noted his artistic hands that carved sculptures we all still prominently display, his hands that created beauty from marble, and his hands that could make you feel safe forever as long as you had one to hold. I catalogued his softness, his kindness, and his generosity. I filled pages with his easy laughter and pride in his children and grandchildren. I collected his love of learning, the Yiddish classes, computer classes, and art classes he enrolled in upon retirement. I made sure not to bend the corners of his marriage and all of the examples he left behind about how to treat your wife like a queen, how to fight fair, how to cherish the ones you love.
And the last book of my Zaidy Charlie collection is saved for his acts of loving kindness. This is the book containing the snuggles and slurpy kisses, the “I love you’s” and the nicknames he assigned as tokens of his adoration. I crammed in the sweet sleepovers and gifts of time he profusely offered. All of the letters I received at camp and upon loosing a tooth are recorded within my collection, along side the moments holding hands and times he brushed away tears. All of the ways he set the bar, teaching me how to be a good citizen, a good Jew, a good relative, a good father, and a good soul. All of the ways he taught me how to do what you love and never stop looking for joy, the examples of how to live a life you can be proud of when its over.
And on the last page I save my most prized limited edition. I log his final words to me: “Lauren, it’s been like a love affair” as we said our goodbyes and I kissed his soft check before leaving his hospital room.
I never learned to love stamps. But I am a collector. And I love Zaidy Charlie with a collector’s fervor. I didn’t continue the legacy of saving stamps, but perhaps I still have an anthology to pass down. So I keep the fabric tote bag filled with envelopes and stamps, knowing that the truly worthwhile items are laminated in my memory.
And I hope to one day live a life with enough merit to fill the next collector’s book.