I prepared the cake, gently pressing the nine and zero wax candles into the frosting. The candles were lit and we sang happy birthday. As we finished the song he turned around to grab milk out of the fridge. We look at each other confused and tell him to blow out the candles. He doesn't hear us. We shout together, blow out your candles! He understands and leans over the table to blow out his candles. A huge smile comes across his face, like a child's. After 90 years there is still a kid in there.
In 1925, the average life expectancy in America for men was 57.6 years, for women it was 60.6 years. Currently, the average life expectancy for men is 76.4 years and for women it is 81.2 years. 90 years ago today, you could expect to live 20 less years of life. 20 years. And that's just an average. What could you do with 20 more years? At 21-years-old, I have recognized that the most valuable thing I have in this world is time. And if you are like me, you do not like that time to be wasted. I am only on the precipice of my life, especially when I look at my Grandpa Joe. Now there is a man who has lived and breathed history. And here I am trying to fill my life and write my own history, and he wrote his without even trying.
Grandpa Joe was born in Poland in 1925. On January 15, we celebrated his 90th birthday. There is something about age and time that makes a person wise. When I look upon my grandfather I spend time reflecting on his life and what his stories mean to me. My grandfather has an incredible story and has led an incredible life. This is a man who survived a volatile war, my crazy father, and losing the love of his life. He reads every single day and can speak six languages. He is both well read and well traveled. At his birthday party I shared with him something I wrote on my blog. I pulled the website up on his iPad and he read it out loud through his faint accent. When he finished he told me I have a gift. This was the greatest compliment I have ever received, from a man who has read more books than I have ever touched.
Grandpa Joe was born in Poland before World War II. He told me once that all he wanted to do when he grew up was to farm the land his family had farmed for generations. When he was thirteen, the Russians invaded his village. Since they were trying to spread Communism, everything that was produced had to be shared evenly. They could no longer do what they wanted with their own crops. Then the Germans came and forced the Russians out. My grandfather thought they were coming to help them, but he couldn't have been more wrong. The Germans took everything and said everything belonged to the German Reich, or government. They were farmers without food. At 16, he was forced into a labor camp at Hartz Mountain in Poland. To this day, he says it is the most beautiful place he has ever seen. When the war ended and he was liberated from the camp he became a prison guard for German soldiers arrested for their terrible crimes during the war. Eventually he would board a ship and arrive in America on Thanksgiving Day.
This is only the beginning of his life, and I stop here because my grandfather was only five years older than I am now when he arrived in America. He was 26-years-old and had survived a war and starvation. This story is not just about him, because it is about me too. His story has taught me that life is unpredictable and ironic. Everything we think is going to happen can sometimes vanish and we are pushed off course. As I sit across the table from him eating the marble cake with chocolate frosting, I think, this man does not stop. He still shovels his driveway, cuts his bushes, and keeps up a garden. He is a hard worker and a stubborn man, which can be frustrating at times. Sometimes I want to tell him to slow down, you're 90! But I know that will never work because it would not work on me. We are one and the same. Being able to celebrate 90 years of life is extraordinary because it reminds you that time goes by fast. Before I left, Grandpa Joe grabbed my shoulders and squared me to him. He said, I want us to get together more, I'm 90-years-old and I don't know how much time I have left. He's right, all we have is time.