You’re Never Too Old For A Teddy Bear
by Lonnie Lane
My dad had a particularly difficult childhood. If it wasn’t for his Zaida (Yiddish for grandfather) whom Dad adored, life would have much been harder than it was. The times spent in his grandparent’s home or at the shull (Yiddish for synagogue) with Zaida were his most pleasant memories. The year my father became a believer in Yeshua, in honor of his grandfather, who had taught him to love God, Dad conducted our Passover Seder almost entirely in Yiddish. This must have pleased the Lord as I recall thinking that any moment Yeshua would become visible as His presence was so tenderly with us.
The scene fades to a day many years later before we get back to Zaida’s story. My dad and I are walking through a department store Hanukkah shopping. We walk past a display of cuddly looking Teddy Bears just begging to be hugged. I stop and pick one up the same way you have to pick up a puppy when you see one and you just gotta hold it for a moment. “Oh Dad, you have to feel this Teddy. He’s so soft,” I say and hand it to Dad whose eyes immediately cloud over as he hugs the Teddy Bear to his chest after the initial “feel” of it. Then he says softly, “I never had a Teddy Bear when I was a kid.”
The scene fades again, back to Russia, around 1910. Zaida is a Rabbi in a little town in Russia during the time of the Revolution. During that time all clergymen, Jewish or Christian, were commanded by the authorities to preach the communist party doctrine and to forget about God. He refused to do it. Jews in particular at that time were losing their jobs and among other forms of persecution, were forced into poverty. Zaida began collecting food and clothing for the poor people in his area, going door to door for what he could glean for those in need. Because he refused to stop preaching about God, it became very dangerous for him and his elders thought it best that he leave for the promised land, America. And so he did.
The details become fuzzy for me here as to how he got all his family eventually to America but my own grandfather, Dad’s father, whom I called “Daddy Sam,” once told me his part of the story. He was fourteen years old and whether he was alone or with someone else in his family, he left home and floated down a river on the bottom of a boat. But wait. I wrote a poem about his experience once. I’ll tell you the story that way. Here it is. It’ll read more like poetry if you read it aloud, paying attention to the commas. If you’re not into poetry, forget that part.
Daddy Sam’s Yiddisha mama sewed the kopecks into his ragged coat, and after she kissed him goodbye a thousands times, he stealthily stepped into the rocking boat, and before she could memorize his familiar face, though for all of his fourteen years she’d seen it every day, just like that, he was gone, as if he’d never lived there had never been there except for the few things he left behind, and the fact that the place he filled was filled no longer, so that an unrelenting ache took shape within her like the final missing puzzle piece, without which the entire picture makes no sense.
Was it courage or was it fear that made him go, he needed to know. It would make a difference in the kind of man he would become he told himself, as he pressed himself against the splintered paint-peeled no-longer-bluebottom of the boat, lest he be seen and the boat be caught, and all be for naught and he would be pressed into a destiny not of his choosing. Conscious of his breathing, he lay still and listened to the lapping of the water against the little boat as it bobbed and drifted on its way down the Dnipper River toward his destination of the city and its port, past villages where pillaging was becoming local sport, and mamas like his own feared for their families, especially on Saturdays, when Cossacks on horseback went out for a frolicking ‘pogrom,’ just for fun.
Finally coming close to the city he could tell by the sounds and the smells he abandoned his vessel and under cover of dark, he headed for the dock, slipping through the streets, and waiting for morning when he purchased portage on a ship bound for America and freedom from pogroms and persecution with the kopecks Mama sewed into his coat.
Today as I remember my grandfather’s story I wonder now if the reason he insisted that we call him not Grandfather or Zaida but “Daddy” Sam could be because of what was missing in his growing-up years, when he had come out of courage, or out of fear, making his way to safety with nothing to call his own, except for the soon-spent kopecks Mama sewed into his coat. Perhaps he never felt old enough to be a grandfather.
Somehow the family all got here, including Bubba (Yiddish for Grandmother) who brought a loving warmth into Dad’s life. Zaida continued to be a rabbi and Bubba taught the ladies. But as for his parents, though they both loved him, they did not appear to love each other and they divorced when he himself was fourteen, something Jewish families rarely if ever did. It was a shonda (Yiddish for something that carries shame with it) and very difficult for Dad. Perhaps Daddy Sam’s fear and the persecution, and leaving his mother in Russia and his home and the time in the little boat down the river, and the big boat on the seas for weeks till it got to America, and the big country with the strange language and the strange ways was deeply traumatic for him. But for whatever reason, his marriage was difficult and my dad never had a Teddy Bear.
My grandfather was quite dapper as I recall. His concept of himself was that he was fully Americanized and fancied himself as having overcome his old fashioned and foreign ways. He thought of himself as cultured and eloquent. It was he who put me on the path of being a writer. As soon as I could read and write, he became my pen pal so I could learn to be a “lettered lady” even though I was only seven. One day during the 1950s when tape recorders were new, my dad taped a conversation he was having with his father. When Dad played the tape back for him, Daddy Sam said somewhat indignantly, having heard the voice of a man with a distinctively Russian-Yiddish inflection, “Det men’s not me; Det men hes in accent!” And so it is, sometimes we reveal a great deal about ourselves with one statement.
That’s how I saw my own dad that day as he stood in the department store aisle looking melancholy for a moment hugging the Teddy Bear to his chest while saying, “I never had a Teddy Bear when I was a kid.” It was then I decided to buy him the Teddy Bear. He objected at first. Surely he could have bought it for himself. But he wouldn’t have. So when Dad went off to somewhere else in the store while I, with the pretense of buying something only ladies buy, bought him the Teddy Bear. No bag for this Teddy. I took him to Dad and handed it to him. He chuckled that cute little chuckle of his and held it away from him at arms length to look into its cute little face. The Teddy looked back the way Teddy Bears do, right into your heart and Teddy became a part of our family.
Not too long after that, Dad had to have open heart surgery. He was remodeling our new Messianic synagogue at that time turning the building from a restaurant to a shull (Yiddish for synagogue). He never saw it as doing it for the congregation. He repeatedly said how much he loved “building a Temple for the Lord.” Dad had come to the Lord several years before, in his sixties. (That’s a whole other story of its own and one I wrote in my book, Because They Never Asked, if you have any interest in reading it.*) When asked by the doctor if he preferred titanium or pig gut which is the closest to human tissue for his new heart valves, he replied, “Pig? A pig you would put in me? Feh. God promised me a new heart, (See Jer 31:31) but not an unkosher heart.”
And so titanium it was. Which meant that when all was quiet you could hear him tick, not unlike Peter Pan’s alligator. And since he’d had an irregular heart beat all his life from when he had Rheumatic Fever at age seven, you could hear the irregularity of his heart beating tick, tick…tick-tick…tick,t’tick-tick… tickity-tick, tick…. After his heart surgery my Mom would lie in bed next to him and listen and wait for his heart to stop altogether. It was too nerve wracking for her and kept her awake at night worrying. So Dad was banished to the other bedroom.
But Dad wasn’t really alone because Teddy moved with him. Teddy sat on his bed near Dad next to his pillow during his recuperation and stayed after he was well. Sometimes I would find Teddy on the sofa quietly listening to Dad play his cello. We’d come in the house and if Teddy was downstairs, we might greet him, “Hi Ted,” or even pick him up and hug him. He might even be held for a while if someone was feeling the need for a Teddy hug. But Teddy remained Dad’s bear. That is, until my son Rick was moving to California. Having finished his college years he felt the ‘call’ to move west. He had a little shiny black truck he loaded up with all his stuff and came to say goodbye to us before he left. One last dinner at Gra (which is what the kids call my Mom, short for Gramom) and PopPop’s. We were all there.
As Rick was preparing to leave and we were standing outside by the truck, Dad said, “Rick, I have one more thing for you.” He ran back into the house and emerged with Teddy. “Here, he should go with you, so you won’t be alone. He’ll keep you company when you miss us. He’ll watch over you” and with that he handed Rick the Teddy Bear, a symbol of a piece of his heart going with Rick. Has a man ever made such a sacrifice even for a deeply loved one? Well yes, but this moment was of paramount proportions between a grandfather and his first born grandson whom he adored. Though Rick was much older than the traditional age one generally gives their grandson a cuddly bear as a gift, Teddy would go to California with Rick.
And so, after all the hugs and tears and all the words were said, Teddy was belted into the passenger seat next to Rick like any other member of the family would have been if they were going too and off they went, the two of them into Rick’s future. As I understand it, Teddy stayed with Rick for years, though after he was married and had his own son, I’m not sure what became of Ted.
Messiah Yeshua is like Teddy. Not in any way to belittle the Lord or trivialize Him. That would be a shonda. God forbid that. He is Lord Almighty, Omnipotent and Holy. But He is also with you so that you’ll never be alone. He goes with us wherever we may go leaving home or staying, He will be with us. He “keeps us company” and listens to us at all times whether we are playing our cello or just telling him what’s on our hearts, or just being quiet. He stays near us whenever we want Him to be, and even when we don’t. He watches over us beyond what we can imagine, protecting us, saving us from dangers we never become aware of, and ones we do. If you take the time to sit quietly and look into His eyes, you’ll find that He looks back into the eyes of your very soul and loves you into wholeness. And yes, He did make the greatest sacrifice for those He loves. In fact, He was the kapora, the sacrifice, the final and complete, once-and-for-all-people sacrifice so that our sins are paid for and we are free to love God without having to work for His acceptance or favor, and we can enjoy His ever-present tender and loving attention to us personally and intimately.
My grandparents may have divorced, but their marriage wasn’t a mistake. I know God wanted me, that He planned for me to be His before the foundation of the world, and Dad and the rest of my Jewish family for which I am grateful beyond measure. (See Eph 1:4 & Rev 13:8.) He may have been with Daddy Sam on the boats, though he didn’t know it, bringing him to safety so we could be alive in this wonderful country of America. Daddy Sam never knew the comfort of God even though his father was a Rabbi, at least that I was ever aware of. And though Dad had holes in his heart from his own growing up years, the Lord filled them in so many ways. Not the least of them was the adoption of Teddy in his sixties. You’re never too old to have a Teddy Bear.