I have never been able to forgive my dad. Perhaps it’s more about forgiving myself. I still haven’t been able to do that either. But the worst thing you can do is pass on these feelings of bitterness on to your children. Although that’s difficult when you’re with them every day, the least you can hope to achieve is that they are able to recognize that it’s wrong and not emulate it.

My daughter wrote her thoughts about what her grandfathers meant to her in a college entrance essay. I think my children get it if you read what she wrote:

A Portrait of Contrasts

My grandfather was a sign painter all his life. He was proud of his trade for he wasn’t an ordinary sign painter. He was of the dying breed who painted gold leaf on wood and glass. Back in the days when doctors and lawyers and businessmen would stay put for years, he would be called in to painstakingly brush their names and titles in 24 karat gold. He would carry his black, weathered suitcase full of brushes and colors and his short stool across the city to make Chicago’s professionals feel a little bit more important.

He had dreams himself of being a doctor, but in the early 1900s, the oldest son of nine children didn’t have the luxury of going to school for years. Instead, he learned a trade and used his earnings to put his youngest brother through medical school who would go on to be one of the city’s most respected surgeons.

Even after he officially retired at age 65, the company would call my grandfather in a day or two a week for his steady hand, his skill and reliability. But as years passed, companies started finding cheaper alternatives to list their names – prefabricated lettering that could be more easily transported and reused after an office move.

I recall when Grandpa would come over for dinner nearly every Friday, it was like a scene out of a sitcom. He was fussy about what he ate, having been spoiled by the home cooking of his wife of 65 years. We would all sit poised over our food, silverware in hand, waiting for Grandpa to give his approval. He would taste the soup that was always too cold or the mashed potatoes that inevitably had too little garlic. With a grump of approval and a glare around the table, we would proceed with the meal. But beneath that blustery exterior, was a man who would literally never kill a flea. He would catch them in the palm of his hand and let them go free. He would give back change to a cashier if she inadvertently erred in his favor. He would watch television every night until his head would fall back on the couch with a loud snore and Grandma would help him to bed.

My other grandpa was a celebrity of sorts. In the heyday or radio, he had a talk show, interviewing famous entertainers who would come through Chicago. He would wiggle his way backstage at the Oscars every year. He claimed to know everyone from Wayne Newton to Bing Crosby, from Lucille Ball to John Wayne. But a bitter divorce broke up the family, and he remarried and escaped to Las Vegas to shut out his five “burdensome” children and a “pestering” ex-wife. He continued his craft there – interviewing personalities who entertained “on the strip,” being a big shot in a relatively small town. I never met him, and it wasn’t until my mother contacted him again late in his life that he began to speak to his children, children he really didn’t even know. He would ask their ages and if he had any grandchildren.

The contrast in these two men’s lives are as evident in their deaths as when they were alive.   Grandpa died at 93, peacefully in his sleep with Grandma at his side. He had advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and did not recognize her, but she held his hand and spoke to him as if he were still complaining about her salty chicken soup. The tears were so great that my younger brother, then eight, was afraid to sit through the funeral – his first encounter with death. There also was laughter as his three sons recalled moments of joy they had spent with their dad during his long life.

My other grandfather died last year. It was a slow, agonizing, lonely death. His new wife had died a few years earlier and he tried to maintain his status as a radio and television personality even when he couldn’t afford dentures to fix his missing front teeth. Over the years, he never really earned much and anything he had obtained from his new wealthy wife’s hefty divorce settlement was spent on promoting himself. At age 78, he still thought he would “hit it big” with a syndicated show that millions would watch and know his name. Instead, he fell and broke his hip, landing in a nursing home, penniless and without family. When he died, out of sympathy, his children had his body flown back to Chicago so he could be buried in his family’s plot, otherwise a pauper’s burial was awaiting him in Las Vegas. At the funeral, there were no tears, no memories.

At least, on his deathbed he called each of his children, one by one, weakly whispering how sorry he was in his final moments. Through his tears, he said how he shouldn’t have left all of their phone calls and pleas for attention go unanswered over the years. As the morphine intravenous dripped, he said how he wished he would have spent more time with them, watching them grow into successful adults and being satisfied with the pride of watching their success, instead of constantly hoping for his own. He prayed for God’s forgiveness for his being so selfish, for not realizing that his real treasures were right before him his whole life. He had been reaching for the wrong stars.

It is a lesson I will long remember: to cherish the gifts we are given in life, to make choices that touch those closest to you. The love will flow from there to countless others without even knowing.