It can happen long after college

Stephen Black
Human Parts
Published in
10 min readDec 10, 2013


“Cocktease!” The word emerged effortlessly from my eighty-one year-old grandfather’s mouth, despite his thick Polish accent. He sat in front of a cowgirl-themed slot machine at Bally’s Wild West Casino in Atlantic City, NJ, angrily mashing the buttons. “This machine,” he stated, “is a cocktease.”

It was only the second time I’d heard vulgarity from my grandfather, a lighthearted guy with an overwhelmingly positive view of life. The first time was when I was twelve, and he was trying to pull a bagel out of a broken toaster. “Shhhhhiiiiiit,” he whispered, as he burnt his hand. My grandmother frowned disapprovingly from the kitchen table. She was his calm and cultured better half, once a child prodigy who danced at the Vienna State Opera house. My grandfather, or Poppy as we call him, was raised on a farm in rural southern Poland with eight siblings and no running water. “Once a farmer, always a farmer,” my grandmother would say in German with a clever smirk.

When she died suddenly in her sleep of a pulmonary embolism in 2001, my entire family was tossed into a state of upheaval. We had lost our quiet matriarch, the person who held us all together, the only one who could rein in my grandfather’s untamed tendencies. A senior in high school at the time, I can still remember driving down to their house, finding Poppy red-faced and crying, repeating, “This isn’t happening. It’s only a nightmare and I’m going to wake up.”

On the subject of nightmares, let’s delve into his heavy history (this tragedy eventually turns into a comedy, I promise). Poppy will tell you that there’s not a night that goes by that he doesn’t dream about his eight brothers and sisters, mother and father, and two grandparents who were all victims of the Holocaust. Out of his entire family, my grandfather was the sole survivor. He made it through several work camps, eventually going on the Death March from Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland to Buchenwald in Germany, where he was eventually liberated in April of 1945. After two years in Switzerland, he came to the US in 1947 and soon met my grandmother. She became the calming force in his life, gently reassuring him each night when bad dreams would descend. For fifty-one years of marriage, he used to wake up sweating and screaming in the throes of a nightmare, and my grandmother would speak softly, caressing him until he calmed down.

Yet, an unexpected leg pain and silent clogged artery took her away from him on one of those nights. Soon after, Poppy came to live with my family for a few months. He didn’t know how to cook or dress himself, since my grandmother had always taken care of those things. Poppy would go to synagogue every night to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, and he swiftly embraced Judaism with full force, a means of comfort in a chaotic time. He started wrapping himself every morning with tefillin, the black leather armbands and boxes, and he still does to this day. With an immeasurable despair that bordered on asceticism, Poppy mourned the passing of my grandmother for three full years.

But then, as if suddenly realizing that he had more life to live, he rediscovered his social side. A gregarious and handsome man with an infectious smile and piercing blue eyes, Poppy had always been a flirt; his devotion to my grandmother kept him from straying. However, after she passed and he finished mourning, there was nothing to hold him back.

I can remember the first time that I realized he was dating. I was home visiting from college, and I met him for lunch at a Jersey diner, where I found him positively glowing. After dancing around the topic, I finally asked him point blank.

“I’m seeing women,” he announced.

I laughed, which he mistook as derision.

“What should I do?” he asked rhetorically, “Sit at home and stare at the wall? Margaret would have wanted me to be happy.” The mere mention of his dearly departed wife would cause him to well up, but he wiped away the tears, unashamed. Besides, I was glad that my grandfather was finding reasons to be happy. How many “reasons” was a fact that would later astonish me.

In 2006, Poppy brought my extended family to Poland to visit where he was during the war, and also to see his hometown, the pastoral land of his earliest years. He showed us the spot where his house once stood, and the miles of woods he would walk through just to get food for his family during the German occupation. In between the darkest moments of the trip, Poppy would find reasons to smile.

One day as we were driving towards his hometown, he was pointing out all the landmarks from his youth—the old school house, the fields where he picked wild berries, and the river that bordered Czechoslovakia. In our rented touring van, there was a small PA system complete with microphone, which Poppy was using to amplify his already booming voice.

He began to talk about a girl he liked when he was a child, and this somehow led to a discussion of his current dating life. As my mom and aunt egged him on, enjoying his animated tales of female conquests, my other aunt plugged her ears and begged him to stop. Still speaking into the microphone, he continued, “What should I do? Lock myself in the closet and cry every night? Your father enjoys himself and makes whoopee! So what?” Everyone except my aunt roared with laughter. When we got back to the hotel, she quickly went to her room, vomited, and was stricken by a migraine. My grandfather apologized for getting her upset, but not for being eighty years old and still making whoopee.

The following summer, I was living at home after college graduation, and I enjoyed being able to see Poppy more. One day, I met him at his doctor’s office on the way to lunch. He emerged from the examination room into the crowded waiting area and greeted me with a big hug. Coming to a sudden realization, he spun around and yelled back to the doctor, “Hey, Doc! You forgot my prescription for Viagra!” I glanced around at the surprised faces. Ignoring them, Poppy marched back and claimed his prescription for the little blue pill.

On Thanksgiving of the same year, family and friends gathered to celebrate with Poppy, always the center of any occasion. During dessert, Poppy yelled across the table of twenty-five people, wanting to ask a “very important question” to a family-friend who’s an OB-GYN.

“Hey Sharon!” he said, getting her attention. “I’m curious. Is it possible for a man my age to get a woman pregnant?” While everyone looked on in horror, Dr. Sharon fielded the question with professionalism and grace.

“Murray,” she said patiently, “there’s less of a chance as you get older, but yes, it’s still possible.”

“How about that!” he declared loudly, then continued in a whisper, almost to himself, “I guess I better start wearing rubbers.” His dating life, which was more active than the starting center on an NBA team, was becoming common knowledge. Soon enough, I’d experience his sexual conquests firsthand.

Starting the summer when I turned twenty-one, Poppy would take me on overnight trips to Atlantic City. We both looked at the trips opportunistically, as twenty-four hours to cut loose. For me, that meant guzzling free casino drinks, making $200 last eight hours at the craps table, and chain-smoking cigars. For Poppy, it meant lining his pockets (literally) with peel-n-eat shrimp from the buffet, flirting with all women aged twenty to eighty, and gambling in between. We’d both stumble back to the hotel room at 4 AM, sleep for a few hours, and start again in the morning. Over breakfast, he’d tell me about all the interesting people he met, mostly “gorgeous girls,” but on one trip, he was quieter than usual.

“How was your night?” he asked, innocently pushing his eggs around the plate.

“Not great,” I said with bloodshot eyes. After being up $300, I lost my winnings plus $300 more on a bad beat at the poker tables at Caesars Palace. Then, I burned through another $150 in anger before cutting myself off. For a twenty-three year-old kid, a $750 swing can be a crushing blow. I can remember stumbling out on the boardwalk, drunk on cheap gin, trying to steady myself in the salt air.

At breakfast, I was still a bit drunk, and all I wanted to do was crawl back into the over-starched hotel sheets and go back to sleep. But Poppy had other plans.

“Listen,” he said, lowering his voice. “I want you to go to the casino from 11:30 AM to 12:30 PM.” Normally, he wouldn’t need to make this demand, since we’d both be in the casino anyway, but there was urgency in his tone.

“Why?” I replied, confused. “I’m going to go back to sleep for a few hours.”

“No!” he interjected, “You’ve got to be out of the room from 11:30 to 12:30. Go play the slots for an hour.” He passed a $100 bill across the table. He normally gave me a bit of money to gamble with, but only at the start of the trip. I quickly realized that these were extenuating circumstances.

“Just don’t come back to the room,” he said. “I’ll call you when I’m ready to get lunch.” As I accepted the money, he smiled. I recognized it as the grin of a man who’s about to get laid. In college, the same grin from a roommate meant I was in for a night on the couch. I’d been sexiled before, just never by my grandfather.

At 11:30 AM, I was staring blankly at a slot machine. My eyes were heavy with sleep, and I knew I wasn’t going to win any cash from the rigged contraption. That machine, like all others, was a cocktease.

So I took the car keys, went to the parking garage, and fell into a deep sleep in the backseat of my grandfather’s Lincoln. A few hours later, I awoke to my cell phone ringing with fifteen missed calls from Poppy. I answered, and he was in a panic. It was 1:45 PM, and he thought something terrible had happened to me. I reassured him and said I’d meet him at the Wild West Buffet for lunch.

When I got there, he hugged me tightly, thankful I was okay. I handed him the $100 bill, saying I didn’t feel like playing the slots. As we sat down to a few massive plates of peel-n-eat shrimp, his mood improved. He was invigorated, in fact, and I was ultimately glad. I was also rejuvenated from my nap, which led me to a bold line of questioning.

“Who was she?” I asked. My grandfather paused mid-peel, turning crimson.

“What are you talking about?”

“Come on. Who was your… visitor?” Part of me felt like I was finally old enough to bust my grandfather’s chops, as he had done to me for years, but another part of me just wanted to make sure it wasn’t a paid date.

He stared at me for a long moment, then finally smiled, relaxing.

“She’s a pit boss over at Caesars. I’ve known her for a year or two. I played Let It Ride in her section for a while last night.” While I was losing my shirt at poker, Poppy was nearby making literal plans to shed his.

“How old is she?” I asked, getting particularly bold.

He didn’t mind. “Fifty?” he said, unsure. “Maybe in her forties.” I chuckled, glad that my grandfather had found another reason amongst many to be happy.

While this may seem like an unlikely tale, it wasn’t the last time I’d find myself unwittingly entwined in my grandfather’s love life. On another trip to Atlantic City, my grandfather had received twenty-four hours of incessant phone calls from a mystery woman. When I asked who she was, he swiftly described her in greater detail than I could handle: “She’s thirty-five. Blonde hair. Czechoslovakian. Tall. Built like the Rock of Gibraltar. Not thick, but strong. And ‘bazooms’ like…” He held his hands out, signaling a generous female anatomy. There are a half-dozen more tales like this, including the time I drove him forty-five minutes out of the way to visit a new girlfriend, a Polish immigrant who was caring for a ninety-nine year-old lady. But the storylines are mostly the same, despite the women always being different.

What has remained constant, however, is my grandfather’s love for my grandmother. This may be hard to believe, especially after reading the above account of an octogenarian Casanova who frequently beds women less than half his age. But if you followed Poppy around for a day, you’d completely understand.

The first thing he does in the morning when he climbs out of bed is kisses a framed photo of my grandmother. He speaks to it softly in German and kisses it again. In his kitchen and living room, my grandmother’s picture is featured just as prominently as portraits of his five grandkids. He also keeps pictures of her in his wallet, his car, and on his keychain. At night before he goes to sleep, he returns to the framed photo by his bed and kisses it once more, saying goodnight and always telling my grandmother how much he loves her.

Since her passing in 2001, my grandfather has spent twelve years without his wife, though I know the absence is only a physical one. And that is certainly the only void he seeks to fill, since he will assuredly tell you that while he may like his girlfriends, he can never truly love them. He’s eighty-seven years-old now, newly a great-grandfather, and thankfully, he’s as vibrant as ever.

A few months ago, he told me something interesting. “Every night when I sleep,” he said, “I dream about your grandmother. I dream we’re in New York City, or the Catskills, or working in my butcher shop, or out dancing. Every single night I dream of her.” Since she passed, his dreamscapes have been less populated by nightmares, horrific visions of a wartime youth, and they are mostly filled with remembered and imaginary scenarios of time spent with my grandmother. His subconscious becomes a reunion of lovers, if only for a few fleeting hours.

At that moment, I understood that no matter who my grandfather sees during his waking hours, he still spends each night with the love of his life.