(Last Thursday, my stepfather, Michael Hirsch, died at eight-three years of age. My mother, who writes a food blog, lightsonbrightnobrakes, asked me to write an essay for her site in tribute to Michael. I am reposting that essay below.)
I first met Michael Hirsch when he was courting my mother. I was a sophomore in college and back in Des Moines for a winter break. Just after I’d awakened my first morning home, Michael pulled into my mom’s driveway. He was on his way to his OB/GYN practice, and was looking dapper in his suit and bow tie (few men can pull off that combo). He rolled down his window and handed my mother a heavy crystal glass full of fresh-squeezed orange juice. My mother explained to me with a blush that this was their morning routine since meeting several months previously. It was enough to gross out the nineteen-year-old I was back then, but still, I couldn’t ignore the obvious: Michael was crazy about my mother and she was pretty smitten with him.
Several months later, my mother married her handsome doctor. Since I had pretty much left the nest and already had a close relationship with my biological father, Michael wisely suggested that we just be friends. Soon after, we settled into an easy and comfortable relationship.
(Mary and Michael Hirsch)
Since my mother’s call last Thursday morning to tell me that Michael died peacefully in his sleep after his decade-long struggle with Alzheimer’s, I have been thinking about our twenty-six year friendship and the memories he and I made together. As I have, it occurred to me that many of our shared experiences revolved around food. In no way, shape, or form was Michael a gourmet, but he had specific food preferences that tickled us and irked us, occasionally at the same time.
As I learned that first day in my mother’s driveway, he insisted on fresh-squeezed orange juice each and every morning. He was borderline rude to any wait staff who tried to serve him “that fake stuff from a concentrate.” Each winter, Michael had cases of Honeybell oranges shipped to Aspen, Colorado, where he and my mother relocated after his retirement from medicine. Honeybells, which are called the “diamond of the citrus world,” are only grown in Florida and their availability is limited to the month of January. The other months of the year, Michael had to make do with ordinary oranges, but nevertheless, morning juice was always fresh-squeezed and always served in a crystal glass.
Other than juicing oranges, Michael didn’t do much in the kitchen, but he was a master when standing out on the deck beside his Weber. He even used his grilling savvy to bolster my love life. When I brought home my new boyfriend midway through my senior year of college, Michael, with his typical generosity, packed us into his Jeep Cherokee, stuffed my wallet with money, gave us a key to his condo in Aspen, and sent us on our way. Before we pulled out of the driveway, he handed us a huge tupperware container of barbequed chicken that he’d spent the afternoon grilling (after clearing the deck of snow: it was January in Iowa). My boyfriend ate that chicken as we drove through the night towards Colorado. The white shirt he was wearing was never the same again, but he loved every bite. And I loved Michael for his matchmaking efforts. That boyfriend and I have been married for twenty-three years now.
(“The Boyfriend,” Me, Mary, and Michael)
But where Michael really shone was as a grandfather. He came to grandparenthood late, at seventy-two, but he enjoyed every moment of the the years he had with my children before the disease took too much of his mind. He would watch their every move as newborns, toddlers, and then preschoolers, his eyes shining with pride. Grinning from ear to ear, he’d say, “Aren’t they wonderful? They’re just wonderful. Aren’t they wonderful?”
(Grandpa Hirsch with his youngest granddaughter Clara)
“Yes, Michael,” we’d all groan, teasing him for sounding like a broken record, but his appreciation and adoration of his grandchildren was wonderfully endearing. And I learned early on that when it came to my girls, there was nothing he wouldn’t do. Even if it meant driving twenty-six hours round trip to pick up me and my newborn who was wearing me out from her constant crying.
“I’m so tired,” I sobbed during a call to my mom and Michael six weeks after my oldest daughter was born. “I need help. She cries all the time and I don’t know why.”
(Michael and Mary as proud new grandparents with Emma.)
My mom and Michael were at my doorstep in Bishop, California the very next day. Without a single complaint, Michael settled my new baby and myself in the backseat and we headed back to Aspen. It was a long, long drive with a nursing newborn, but as always, Michael was a good sport. And he needed to be because my mom and I together are a force to be reckoned with. We are quick-witted and quick-tongued, a tad bossy, and uproariously funny (or so we think). Often, especially during that visit, our humor was at Michael’s expense.
As we made our way home, Michael, despite our protests, made a stop at a melon stand in Green River, Utah to buy several (FIVE!) huge melons. This stand was known for its casaba melons and Michael loved melons almost as much as he loved fresh-squeezed orange juice. But my mom, my newborn, and I were tired and cranky, and we did not appreciate the delay. We were impatient and annoyed as he squeezed the melons into the already full trunk, and kept talking on and on about how these were the best melons in the whole world and how we were going to love them.
Shortly after leaving Utah, Michael, as usual, was driving too fast. (Michael was skilled at many things, but driving was not one of them.) He was unable to slow in time to avoid a construction bump in the road, and he hit it hard, jarring us all. Both my mom and I started upbraiding him about the newborn in the backseat and demanded that he slow down and pay more careful attention.
In the midst of our verbal tirade, I noticed that the whole car started to smell like melons. My exhaustion got the best of me, and I started to laugh. “It smells like melons,” I shrieked with near hysteria. “I think the melons broke.” Soon my mom was helpless with laughter as well. Michael was not amused. He didn’t talk to us the rest of the way home even though we would sporadically break into uncontrollable giggles and the scent of melon lingered in the air.
Whether or not any melons actually broke in the trunk, I don’t know. He never told us. And with uncharacteristic selfishness, he ate every bit of those melons without offering us a single slice. My mom and I brought up “the melon incident” at every family gathering, and each time Michael looked at us as if he’d just tasted something sour, never cracking a smile, which, of course, made us laugh even harder.
He was a good guy like that. He let us laugh and be who we were, and secretly he relished every moment of it. The last joyful memory I have of Michael, before the light went out in his eyes and he became someone I couldn’t recognize, was during his final visit to Bishop. The night before he and my mother were scheduled to leave, he lay down on the floor where my girls were playing. He was exhausted from the busy weekend (he was probably seventy-seven years old at the time and we’d kept him hopping.) As he lay there on his back, my daughters setup a tea party on his belly–little cups filled with water that inevitably spilled on his shirt and bits of cookies that he’d periodically snitch from their plates. “GRANDPA HIRSCH!” the girls would shout. “No stealing the cookies!” He’d feign innocence and chuckle at their outrage.
At one point, as they played, he turned his head towards where I was sitting, careful not to disturb the set up on his belly, and said, “This is the happiest moment of my life. Aren’t they wonderful?”
Yes, Michael. They are wonderful and so were you in many, many ways.
(Grandpa Hirsch with Emma and Clara)
No one knows what happens in the afterlife, but I hope with all my heart, that Michael, my friend for over half of my life, is somehow reliving the memory of that happy tea party with his grandchildren. And that he is being served fresh-squeezed orange juice and slightly damaged melons.