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Coming Up, Coming Up

Lawrence Bush
April 27, 2010

by Lawrence Bush

A Eulogy for My Father-in-Law, Seymour Griss, 1918-2010

I’m not going to begin with comforting words about death; Seymour would often groan out loud when he heard words about God or the immortal soul or other profundities in which he did not believe. Instead, I simply want to give death its due: It’s here among us, we sit in its presence and we don’t like it, and we’re very afraid of it — but it is the force by which life is renewed, it is the force of change, mixing, and evolution, it is a force that points us towards the social reality beyond our individual reality — towards the fact that we belong to a greater enterprise called humanity, with its many dreams of enduring love. Those dreams may be small comfort on days like today. Still, for humanists such as Seymour, death helps to keep us honest and present and seeking to make something worthwhile of ourselves. Death and love are the great partners in our lives — and today we’re holding hands with both of them as we celebrate the life of our man Seymour.
My father-in-law was the slowest man alive, anywhere but the tennis court. Even when he was suffering from prostate cancer and felt his life truly threatened a couple of decades ago, I figured that Seymour was going to survive and live to quite an old age, because when you take fifteen minutes to put on your shoes — fifteen minutes, in fact, to put on each shoe — and you insist on putting on your shoes just to get out of bed — you’re going to need a long, long life to get everything accomplished. And with the fastest woman in the world running circles around him for 70 years — all the while asking “Where’s Seymour? Where’s Seymour?” — I figured he would need an eternity to catch up.
Seymour never quite caught up — who does? — but he certainly did get everything accomplished, everything of importance. He never finished sorting through the stacks of papers on his desk, and he never finished taking notes on those little yellow cards of his, and he never finished perfecting his ambidextrous tennis swing — but Seymour took care of business in the most fundamental and meaningful ways, which enabled the people he loved most, his family, to seek and find genuine fulfillment in our lives.
Seymour Griss was an alchemist. His life work consisted of transforming base elements into precious elements. First and foremost, he transformed the humiliations and the fears of his own childhood into utmost gentleness and gentlemanliness. I cannot think of a time in the 36 years that I knew him that Seymour embarrassed me with a word or a gesture, for all of my bombast. The Talmud has several passages in which long-lived rabbis are asked about the secret of their longevity, and among their varied replies there is always one consistent theme: that they never deliberately humiliated or disregarded the feelings of another human being. Seymour was a master among the masters at that, at not having to reenact his own traumas, at not having to pull rank, at not having to be harsh, at not having to have his opinions prevail. Instead, he largely subdued those urges and harnessed himself in service of love and problem-solving and simple pleasure.
Seymour wrought other transformations too. He was a man who was color-blind and nearly blind in one eye from a handball accident, yet he sang “O what a beautiful morning” each morning as if he could see every color and every sparkle in the air. He turned his fears about losing his livelihood into innovativeness, a fantastic work ethic, and a substantial living. He transformed his fear of germs and the unsanitary reality of life into a very handsome and well-groomed dignity and athleticism. He transformed his propensity for habit into safe but deliberate experimentation and inventive-ness: new ways to tie a shoelace, to hit a tennis ball, to turn the small routines of life into moments of awareness and even wonder. Who is brave? we might ask. The answer I learned from Seymour is that the adventurous soul who climbs Mount Everest is perhaps not nearly as brave as the man or woman who finds in habits a security and peace and relief from anxiety, but manages, nevertheless, to stray from the path of safety in order to experiment or in order to serve.
There will be no Judgment Day for my atheist father-in-law — but I do regret the judgment days to which he was sometimes subjected. We all know, for example, that Seymour was a sleepy man who could shrug off the effects of amphetamines and still nod off at any given moment. Now I regret judging him for that instead of asking him what he liked to dream about.
We know that he was a literal man who was annoyed by metaphor, ambiguity, hidden messages. I sometimes judged him for that, too, instead of allowing him to inspire greater clarity and simplicity in my own communications.
We know that he was an efficiency expert who preferred to hear “forty great moments in classical music” instead of the entire, unedited symphony. I sometimes judged him for that, too, instead of allowing myself to wallow with him in inspired sentiment.
But none of that matters now: I can put my judgments and my regrets to the side, because I wholeheartedly believe that Seymour knew himself to be loved — and that knowledge is all that really counted to him. The judgments and advice hardly had impact; the love went deep. Dottie poured it into him like medicine during the past few difficult years, and we owe her our gratitude and utmost admiration for her devotion, her sacrifice, her love. She squeezed into him every drop of nourishment from their life-long partnership; nothing went to waste. Susan and Robert were there, too, with full heart and soul. I have been deeply moved and instructed by their love, and I am grateful to them for it.
I’m going to end with a quote from the Bible — and if we listen, we may hear Seymour groaning. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses sums up his life by telling the people whom he has liberated and led, “I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life,” he says. That is a bit of advice that Seymour certainly followed: He chose the blessings and put aside the curses. My children both recall their grandfather on the staircase, coming upstairs to see them when they stayed at grandma and grandpa’s. He would be chanting, “Coming up, coming up, coming up,” as he made aliyah to them. That was Seymour: he spent his 92 years coming up, coming up, coming up, and praising the beautiful morning.
May his memory be a blessing for us all.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.