When I was a kid, nothing was more exciting than a weekend at my grandpa's house.
He'd pick me and my younger brother, Alex, up in his boat-sized Jeep Grand Wagoneer, the kind with a bench seat across the front and lined with plush maroon fabric. Alex and I would cram into the front seat and he would puff on his pipe with an elbow out the window, a mischievous grin stretched across his bearded face, delighting and horrifying us with ditties he wrote himself: "Zippity bippity boppity boo / There's nothing bigger than elephant poo!"
"Sheppy, no!" we'd squeal, which would only make him sing louder as we shrieked and hollered and eventually joined in. (Most people in his life affectionately call him Sheppy, a nickname for Shepard. As much as he insisted my brother and I address him as "Zaide" while we were growing up, that never quite caught on.)
When we arrived at his sprawling Connecticut colonial, we'd be greeted with 48 hours of games, satellite TV on the big screen and all the I.B.C. root beer floats we could drink. Sheppy's house was the kind of magical childhood wonderland you fantasized about during long weeks at elementary school, and I always felt a pit in my stomach when he piled us back into the Wagoneer and drove us back home Sunday night. One time, I was so excited to see him that I jumped up and down, fell on the kitchen floor, pierced my lower lip with my teeth and wound up in the emergency room with three stitches.
My grandfather has accomplished enough in his 86 years for 86 more lifetimes, and he's done it all with a relentless sense of humor and a fierce loyalty to our family. So my relatives and I decided to put together a book about his legacy and our experiences being a part of it.
As I began to conjure up mental images of car rides and trips to the candy store with my own Jewish Santa Claus, I realized that they were more than just memories. This man -- who raised three kids and then adopted three more, built a company of more than 100 employees from scratch, who thought planes were cool so decided first to learn to fly and then to buy a small flying school, who opened a restaurant on Cape Cod and knows every oyster farmer from Hyannis to Wellfleet, who needled 10 other grandchildren with songs about elephants' digestive tracks -- also taught me a thing or two.
If I'm going to share these nuggets of wisdom with my family, I may as well share them with the rest of the world. Below, seven things I learned from Sheppy that I might be lucky enough to pass along to my own grandchildren one day.
Your family is made up of your family, your step-family, your best friends, and your acquaintances. I have a lot of family members. Many of them are related to me, and many of them are not. My grandpa treats his second wife's children as his own, and his second wife has never been anything less than a grandmother to me. They have friends all over the world who spend holidays with us. When he runs errands near our beach house, passersby call out to him by name. While you can't choose your family, you can choose to make your family bigger, and the more love you give away, the more you receive in return.
Life is much more fun with lyrics. Sheppy doesn't only sing about elephants. There's the jingle for the candy store (If you've got an itch / if you've got a scratch / you'll get it cured at the Penney Patch). There's the performance piece for my younger cousins (Who loves the tiny little girls? The zaide man! The zaide man!). Pretty much every occasion is an occasion to break into song. And you can be sure we're smiling during those occasions.
You're never too old to shuck an oyster or open a clam. Now that he's in his 80s, my grandfather's hands shake, and he's losing some of his motor skills. But that doesn't stop him from making my favorite Schwartz family recipe -- clams casino -- every time I see him. He will perch in front of the sink on a bar stool and slowly, methodically open dozens upon dozens of clams and oysters, even though he has a hard time doing things like writing with a pen and paper and changing the channel with a remote control. Doing what makes you happy doesn't have an expiration date.
Learn how to fly if the woman of your dreams lives far away. Technically, Sheppy learned to fly long before he met Heather, his second wife. But he'd recently taken it up again as a hobby and had purchased his own tiny, five-seat plane when his nephew Bobby offered to set him up with his neighbor. Bobby lived in Fort Lauderdale; my grandfather lived in Hartford. As Heather tells it, one day, Sheppy told her he was in Florida on business and asked if he could take her to lunch. She later found out he'd flown all the way to the bottom of America and back just for that meal. When you want something, use every means in your power to go after it.
There's no space more sacred than a space by the water. The closest I've ever come to finding my own religion has been on the deck of our beach house in Provincetown, Cape Cod. Sheppy bought the place, along with a small boat to take his kids fishing on, in the early 1970s. For nearly half a century, that house has been a source of joy, connection and self-discovery for every one of my family members. So much has changed, but that house has stayed the same. Our annual Thanksgiving celebrations, the view of Pilgrim Tower from the picture window, the gentle cycle of the tide. Find a place that makes you feel centered and calm, and share that place with your loved ones.
Start a restaurant if you have a friend who loves to cook. One of Sheppy's closest friends was a gifted chef. So gifted, in fact, that Sheppy convinced him to start his own restaurant. The two of them, along with a few others, opened P-town's Front Street in the 70s. Although Sheppy's chef friend passed away years ago, and the eatery has since been sold, it's still a fixture in the town's center. And they had an amazing time getting it off the ground. The people you love are worth taking risks for.
It's possible to make something of yourself even if you've come from nothing. My grandfather was raised by blue collar immigrants and joined the army when he was 17 years old. In his early 20s, he began dealing scrap steel out of a small building in East Hartford. A couple decades later, he was the CEO of one of the biggest steel fabricators in New England. He used that success to buoy himself into a life that focused on his most cherished people and interests. If you're lucky enough to forge a fruitful career, channel it toward your loved ones.