The first thing dad would have wanted us to do is offer sympathy and love to Deborah, Robert’s wife, and her brother David, who lost their mother Wendy on Friday- the same day that Dad died. We wish you both a long life and happy memories.
Although it is a coincidence that Wendy and Dad died on the same day, they were the last of their generation, and so this was something of an end of an era. The handing over of a sense of duty and responsibility is appropriate to Dad. It is how he led his life.
Dad’s last few years were not easy. He lost his mojo after Mum was moved into a Jewish Care home 6 years ago, and since himself moving into Princess Alexandra Home he lost his appetite for life and began to fade away. This was despite the great care and attention he received at the Home to whom the whole family owe an enormous debt of gratitude. All the more so after Mum died in February, Dad would say to us ‘his time had come’ and ‘he didn’t want to be here anymore’. In fact when I saw him the evening before he died he was talking about how the next day would have been his 70th wedding anniversary and how ‘he was done, finished’.
Watching your father who you love and admire and who has cared for you all his life lose his desire to live is not easy. You feel confused, helpless, even angry, and for a short period it changes your relationship with him. But it is important for us to realise that those final years of his life didn’t represent the man, husband, or father he was for the first 90.
Hyman Henry Grabiner was born on the 5th August 1921 at 116 King Edward Road, South Hackney. The eldest son to Israel, a master tailor, and Rose, who sold chickens in other people’s butcher’s shops. They were as poor as church
he returned home from India in late 1946 via Jerusalem, where he had gone in search of a glimpse of the Wailing Wall
mice. Three years after Hyman was born, little brother Raymond arrived. I remember Dad telling stories about how Ray would tag along with him when they were teenagers as ‘the annoying younger brother’. They talked each day and despite very different personalities, they were probably each other’s best friend.
Dad claimed to me that his parents had no assumptions about how he would do at school. Rather, they expected him to look after Raymond, clean the kitchen floor, and help prepare the dinner. Maybe that is why he was so insistent that all of us received a good education.
In his first job at Harrods he worked in the now long-gone department that would seek out and acquire whatever the customer wanted, from a feather to an elephant. Dad ran around town sourcing odd and unusual goods. He was soon promoted to a ‘display man’, a window dresser, in the main Knightsbridge store. Around this time, the family was able to move from the East End to St Albans, someone knew someone who had a house to rent.
A few weeks before his 18th birthday Dad signed up for the RAF. Wanting to be a pilot, but not having the academic qualifications, he trained as a radio operator instead, learning morse code, that he remembered all his life. He served in India and Burma, at the Battle of Imphal, and was caught up at the siege of Kohima where they were surrounded by the Japanese for many months. Last year he told Joe and I that he returned home from India in late 1946 via Jerusalem, where he had gone in search of a glimpse of the Wailing War. Dad was awarded the Star of Burma for his service, but never claimed it, in fact he spoke very little about this time but it did change him. He went into the army Hyman Grabiner, a young Jewish lad from the East End, and came out six years later Henry, a dashing young ex-serviceman.
Dissatisfied by the offer to return to his previous role at Harrods, he looked to start up in business. He formed a partnership with a local St Albans retailer, a friend of the family, David Geller. But Dad got more than a business partner as he soon got to know David’s younger daughter Renee. While it took Henry a couple of years to marry this beautiful woman, my sense is she had decided much earlier what was going to happen and just needed the time to talk Dad round, which in some ways is the story of their life together.
Dad and Mum were partners in business, and as in life they were a great team. Mum- energetic,full of humour, and a thirst for life. Dad- more thoughtful (some might say stubborn- but I don’t think that is a trait in the Grabiner family), a very kind man, with an immense care for others. The young couple started a family, Mike came along, followed by Sue, then their lives were completed when I and of course Rob arrived- a somewhat unexpected buy-one-get-one-free package.
Despite their business success Dad wasn’t a natural entrepreneur but he always made sure his staff were well treated. In fact, he was too helpful and too generous to his customers. On many occasions one of my siblings or I were sent out late at night to deliver clothes to someone’s house when Dad had offered to do the impossible. He wanted to do the right thing by all those who relied upon him.
Dad was a great supporter of the local Jewish community of St Albans United Shul. Over the years he did everything from repairing the building, and managing the finances, to wardening and leading services. Having held practically every role he was made Honorary Life President. Similarly he imbued his children and in turn his grandchildren, and great-grandchildren with a strong sense of Jewish identity. The older grandchildren still have memories of Grandpa Henry leading our large seders in Jennings Road, and everyone recalls him, as the Patriarch of the Grabiner Tribe negotiating over the afikomen.
The only other thing Dad did outside the house was The Lodge- The Masons, ‘not a secret society, but a society with secrets’ as he called it. Dad enjoyed the comradery and the good work they did. I think the only thing that disappointed him was that none of his sons chose to follow in his footsteps in this regard.
To Dad, family was the most important thing. He built an unbreakable bond with Renee and together they raised, supported, worried about, and then released into an unsuspecting world, the four of us. As an old-school, traditional father, Dad began as the disciplinarian in the ‘just wait until your father comes home’ model. I think Michael and Sue got the worst of it. Dad was either more lenient when Rob and I arrived, or we were just better behaved children. Dad was a worrier, particularly in circumstances outside his personal natural area of comfort, for example, when Mike, as a student at Cambridge, found himself in a controversy that got him in the paper (but in truth Dad was more concerned about the Mickey Mouse T-shirt Mike was sporting in the pictures). In more recent years, Dad brought himself over to our new house to make sure we knew what we were doing in taking on such a large mortgage.
He always felt that nagging need to do the right thing.
Most of all, Dad was the carer, the carer for the whole family. He looked after us when we were unwell, later he took on responsibility for looking after his mother, mother-in-law, aunts, and very sadly he dedicated ten years of his life to looking after our Mum until he could no longer cope.
That I guess brings us back to where we started. We love, and are enormously proud of Dad. He lived his whole life with a sense of duty, care, respect, and love. He found his true soul mate and they shared almost 70 years together. They built a strong and vibrant family.
Dad lived his life as a mensch, I reckon he did ok.
Those of you who have been with us over the last few days will have heard Stephen and Robert talk about Grandpa’s life and give an insight into what made him the husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather that he was.
On the one hand, a staunchly principled man, who always knew the right thing to do and was determined to do it. Always immaculately turned out (clearly not a dominant gene in some of the later generations of our family!). At times, a strict disciplinarian. The patriarch of an ever-expanding Grabiner tribe. In many ways, a typical product of his generation. And yet…
Grandpa was also a carer, a nurturer, cautious, observant and considered. A sort of unlikely modern man before his time.
Stephen said that Grandpa had mellowed by the time the terrible twins came along in the late 50s, and I think perhaps that was symptomatic of his adaptability. He remained ever-dominant at the head of the seder table,
he knew he had taught his children well
surrounded by his family, but was more reserved in wider company. And then, when chatting with Mum’s mother, our late Grandma Rosa whom he knew growing up, he was instantly the boy from the East End again.
Looking back, I think he saw his role as a grandfather as one of guidance but not interference, ready with advice and a wealth of knowledge when asked but not imposing it. Assured presumably by the fact that he knew he had taught his children well. But always watching nonetheless, to make sure that everyone was ok.
When I was diagnosed at 8 years old with a problem with my hip, it was Grandpa who noticed my almost imperceptible limp and supported Mum and Dad in finding the right treatment. I also received regular reminders of Grandpa’s concerns for my health. Every time a pair of school trousers needed altering, he would take the tape measure from round his neck, wrap it round my waist and proceed to warn me that I should watch what I was eating. “You should be careful, you know…”
As most of you know, Grandpa did not generally enjoy the last few years. And yet perversely, it was during that period that I will remember him at his happiest, simply because it coincided with the arrival of his great-grandchildren. Whenever Grandpa saw Dylan, Georgia or Amelia, his eyes lit up in a way that I had never seen before. And the fascination was entirely mutual. Dylan was fond of recounting hysterically to anyone who would listen about the time that zaider “banged his head on the light”, and Grandpa, for his part, even pretended not to notice when Dylan’s first attempt at the Mah Nishtanah consisted of standing up on his chair and shouting “PIG” at the top of his voice.
Another common theme of the last few days has been the strength of Grandpa’s Jewish identity and its importance to him. It forms such a large part of our family’s memories of him, be it as a Hebrew teacher, community leader or seder conductor. It seemed to me that his traditional beliefs led him to struggle with the more progressive Jewish path trodden by his children and grandchildren – he was quite dismissive of it early on – but I think he also grew to view it as a positive that the family found a way to really engage with their religion and culture in a way that worked for them, and he was ultimately supportive of that.
And for me, that is actually the key to Grandpa’s legacy. A clear set of morals and principles by which life should be lived, an unerring sense of right and wrong. Coupled with the knowledge that you will be loved, cared for and supported, irrespective of the choices you make, pointed in the right direction when necessary but ultimately allowed to make your own mistakes. Although I’m describing Grandpa, I could equally be talking about my Dad, or his brothers and sister and, please g-d, my kids will one day think of me in similar terms. Because I think those foundations are the greatest gift that you can give to children and, if my siblings, my cousins and I do a good job with our children, they will definitely owe their zaider one.