Featured Post, Hard Stuff

Lessons From a Legend

August 27, 2015

Last Tuesday, on August 18th, the world lost a true legend: my hero, my grandfather, Irwin Lazar. He left this earth to join his wife of 63 years, Shirley Lazar, who departed just 13 days earlier. His passing marks the end of an era, the beginning of a new family structure, and undoubtedly means that I have lost a source of strength and encouragement in my life. My grandpa was the best man I ever knew, a man who helped me to realize my own potential, and understand that I was more than my perceived weaknesses. He taught me that I didn’t have to do anything in particular to earn basic kindness, to be beautiful, or to be a person worth talking to, and nor did anyone else. My grandpa treated everyone as important. He was kind, always stood up for what he believed in (especially his family), had a great sense of dignity, commanded respect, and respected the lives and opinions of others. My grandpa knew that everyone had something to offer this world, that everyone had something to teach, that everyone had great potential. He taught me to know as much, to recognize my own worth, to work hard, to be kind, to be courageous, to listen to my own head and my own heart, and a host of other important lessons I will never forget.

I’d like to share with you six of those lessons he taught me, lessons that have seen me through some of my hardest days, lessons which I know will carry me through the long and dark journey that lies ahead. Maybe all you’ll learn is a little bit about a man who had a great impact on my life, or maybe you’ll learn something that you, too, can take with you on your own journey.

Lesson 1: Never turn your back on the ocean
I was playing near the breaking surf on the shores of NJ with my cousins, digging my feet into the wet sand until I was sunken in past my ankles. I liked the way the water rushed in quickly, surrounding me in a cold, white foam,and the way it tugged against my legs as it quickly receded from the shore. It was disorienting — looking down at my feet, stationary, as the water violently ebbed outward, giving me the distinct impression that I was moving with it. When the waves began to crash more violently and more frequently, that impression became reality. Unable to dislodge myself from the sand, and scared now, I was knocked off balance with each surge of the water. I let out a scream as my feet came free from the packed, wet sand, and I began to fall into a crashing wave. My grandpa, the only person who noticed my struggling, scooped me up in one arm, and set me down on the hot yellow sand near the dunes. “Never turn your back on a wave!” he exclaimed. Then, more gently, said, “Never turn your back on the ocean.”

In that moment, he taught me something incredibly valuable, maybe the most valuable lesson I have ever learned: to give every force in this world — a loved one, a mountain peak, a teacher, a vehicle, a child, the ocean — its due respect or be prepared to face the consequences for failing to do so. (And there is always a consequence.)

Lesson 2: You’re as good as the best 
As a child I internalized many narratives about myself that conveyed one particular message: no matter what I did, no matter how hard I tried, that I was not good enough, or smart enough, or anything enough. I was, to myself, a bonafide failure, and a person able to be described by any negative word ever uttered. It was quite a sad feeling, and as such, I behaved like quite a sad little girl. My grandpa seemed to recognize this more than anyone, and went to great lengths to reverse these negative ideas I had about myself and cheer me up. Aside from complimenting my strengths and drawing attention to the many ways in which I was important to the world, to my family, and to him, he took to reminding me over and over that my abilities, and every quality I possessed within me was “as good as the best, and better than the rest.” He said this so often that he replaced all the negative thoughts I had about myself with a completely new concept: that I was good enough, thank you very much, and in fact, I ranked right up there with the best of all who were. Whenever I became paralyzed by fears of failure or by fears that I was inadequate — whether it was during a college final, or doing something as simple as a pull-up — my grandpa’s voice rang through my head telling me what he always knew was true, that I was “as good as the best,” and it gave me the strength I needed to make it so. It still does.

Lesson 3: Eff beauty standards
When, as a fourteen year old girl, I dared to mention to my cousin that I was fat while sitting mere inches away from my grandpa in the back seat of his car, he immediately whirled around and declared, “I’m tired of this fat bullshit!” He spoke at length about how this opinion I held of myself was ridiculous, and how I said such self-defeating things about myself with such frequency that he worried about me. Eff anyone who dared to comment on my weight, eff the media that I consumed, and the society that I participated in which made me question my looks and my worth. I was Deena Lazar, untouchable, “better than all that horseshit,” he said. I ate a hamburger and fries for dinner that day, and finished the whole damn plate sans shame, my grandpa beaming at me, his granddaughter — still beautiful, still not fat, just a lot happier. When my teen society’s need for thinness was replaced with a greater need to conceal the fact that you were either OMGPALE or imperfect in some way, my grandpa caught me fussing over my appearance in the full-length door mirror in the guest bedroom of his Florida residence, and promptly put a stop to it. I was putting orange-looking crap all over my fair, sun damage-less face, and thankfully he caught me in time to remind me again that I was being truly ridiculous. He told me my fair skin was just fine, that orange wasn’t a good look on anyone, and that no one needed products to make them more beautiful. “I never wore any face coloring,” he said as he touched his cheek. “I never needed to wear any face coloring to look different, and you don’t need it either.” He left the room after he said this, and I immediately went to the bathroom to fix my face by taking off the orange and going without.

In both of these instances he helped me to realize that I didn’t have to play society’s game, that I didn’t need to change myself or feel bad for being who I was even if something else was trendier. He taught me to be unashamed, to be unintimidated, and to rise above it all. He taught me to be proud of myself, and to walk to the beat of my own drum: the only drum that matters. Eff everyone else.

Lesson 4:  Make an effort, give many craps
He taught me that formal language is just as easy to use as informal language. “Hay is for horses, not for men,” he said. It’s just as easy to say “hello” as it is to say “hey,” and it’s just as easy to say “thank you” as it is to say “thanks.” He taught me to speak in such a way that will be received well when it matters the most, like at a job interview, or giving a presentation. He taught me to look people in the eye when they speak to you to give them the respect they deserve (this action also conveys confidence, an added bonus). He taught me that it was important to stay up-to-date on politics and current events, and insisted on at least some knowledge about the stock market and its current state, and to have something to say about it or add to a conversation. He taught me to exceed minimum standards in all things: if being on time was good, then being early was my goal; if a paper requires that you use 3 sources, then my goal was to us 10. He taught me that I needed to really make an effort and give 110% in everything I do, because nothing good happens to people who don’t try, to people who don’t give a crap.

Lesson 5: Be kind, be generous, be thoughtful.
My grandpa was about equity over equality. He knew that to have the best impact on people, that we should meet them where they need to be met to get the biggest boost, and to him, this was basic kindness. He went to great lengths to make everyone around him feel important and included, and this wasn’t lost on me: from the way he would tailor his speech so that he didn’t bend or break his fragile granddaughter’s spirit, the way he had a pet name just for me (sweet girl), the way he gave every single one of his grandkids a crisp $100 bill when one of us found the year’s afikomen, and even the way he offered Alex a beer within a minute of meeting him while everyone else was busy sizing him up. He was quick to do a good deed, quick to give a person the shirt off his back or the hat off his head or the shoes off his feet (literally!), and quick to do anything to elicit a smile from his loved ones, which, when observed consistently, taught me was the correct way to conduct oneself. He was never stingy with thoughtful comments — whether it was to say I was beautiful, or that I had interesting things to talk about, or that he respected my opinions, or about how proud he was of me. I know he knew that I, specifically, needed those things to help me along my way, but he also knew that everyone else did, too: everyone flourishes when treated well.

Lesson 6:  You are loved (despite the voice in your head the constantly tells you otherwise)
The greatest lesson my grandpa ever taught me was that I am loved, even when my mind only seeks to find evidence to the contrary. When my brain told me I no longer had a family when my parents divorced, my grandpa cried with me as he told me that he, too, felt that way when his parents divorced but that no one can divorce their kids, or grandkids, or cousins, and I would not be alone. When my brain told me that I had to meet special criteria to earn his love, like having a bat mitzvah, for example, my grandpa told me that the only thing I ever had to do to be loved by him was to just exist. When my brain told me that the person who treated me badly must have had a good reason to do so and that I deserved it, my grandpa told me that person was just an asshole, and I deserved respect. When my brain told me that I was dumb, or unimportant, or unlovable, or hated, or forgotten, or a bad person, my grandpa was always there to hug me, to remind me of all the evidence that said differently. His love for me was the only evidence that really mattered.

I am who I am today in large part because of my grandpa. He taught me more than I could possibly write in a blog post, and meant more to me than all of my words or tears can convey. I don’t, at this point, really know how I am going to live the rest of my life when it has been so irrevocably changed and rendered unrecognizable. Absolutely nothing is the same, and nothing will ever be the same. I lost one of the only people who ever loved me and showed it, and a person I loved and respected so very much.

He was my last remaining grandparent, a true hero in my life, a person whose name I will utter whenever I am asked about who I aspire to be like. I am going to work as hard as I can to be half the person that my grandpa was.

I love you, grandpa. To be your granddaughter was an honor, and I will try to live in such a way that would make you proud.


You may click here to view his obituary.

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