Sarah Mervosh thought she knew her grandfather. After he died, she learned so much more.
January 25, 2014 10:35 PM
A young Sarah Mervosh and her grandfather, Michael Mervosh, at Herrington Manor State Park in Maryland, about 1994.
Mary Ann and Michael Mervosh on their wedding day in 1957.
Together at her 2012 commencement at the University of Notre Dame.
By Sarah Mervosh
I was always my grandfather's "Poopsie."
It was a term of endearment that my grandpa told me meant "beautiful" in German. Of course, Pap Pap wasn't German. And I now know that "Poopsie" isn't, either.
Nevertheless, it was always "Hey, Poopsie!" that he shouted when he reached from his cranberry-colored recliner to answer my phone calls. From 1,200 miles away in Dallas, I could picture him there in his Baldwin Borough home: his cotton-ball white hair fluffy from a recent shower, a pen and a Kleenex tucked into the pocket of his plaid shirt, his neat, angular handwriting filling the daily crossword in his lap.
"What did you have for dinner today?" I'd often ask him, after we'd exchanged the usual pleasantries.
"What did we have for dinner today?" he'd repeat to my grandma in a rickety voice that tended to teeter between a cough and a chuckle.
I could hear her respond in the background, but I let him tell me anyway, because his answers always came with a review: "Your grandmother's chicken noodle soup, and boy, was it delicious." And because in his final months, when his ailing lungs confined him to the house, this was one of the few conversations he had something to contribute to, I didn't want to deny him that dignity.
We didn't talk about anything important. Sometimes, we didn't talk about anything at all. Once, when I was snuggled in bed with my cat video-chatting with him, he told me: "I don't have much to say. I'm like your kitty cat -- I just like to sit and be with you. OK, Poopsie?"
OK, Pap Pap.
These days, I yearn to be called that strange nickname -- to be somebody's Poopsie. It's funny how when somebody you love dies, a part of your identity does as well.
Pap Pap passed away last year at the age of 90, but he never stopped pitting his indomitable will against his inevitable mortality. He died midstride, trying to get from his chair to the love seat across the living room.
A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette feature obituary on him hit all the highlights: his military service in World War II and Korea, his long career in the town's steel mills, his 55-year marriage and the life he made in Baldwin. It even quoted me as saying he was a dedicated grandpa who came to all of my high school softball games.
That's the Michael Mervosh I knew for 22 years, and that's the man I would have described to you if you'd asked me about him on the day he died. Now, though, I'd tell you something more.
In the months since his death, I've gained an enriched understanding of the man I knew simply as my grandpa. It was only through the lens his death provided that I saw the legacy he left -- not just in my family, but sprinkled in the lives of so many people he met along the way.
It all started at the funeral home.
Nearly 500 people poured in throughout the day -- an incredible turnout for an everyday man who essentially died of old age. During the after-work rush, people packed in next to one another like parked cars. I was secretly grateful no other families were using the funeral home that day so they wouldn't feel bad in comparison.
But who were all these people? Why were they there? What had my grandpa done for them?
Little by little, I started to learn their stories.
On the morning he was buried, a few of us stayed at the funeral home to say a final goodbye. We stood in a circle and offered up our thanks to Pap Pap.
After everyone in my family went, there was a lull. Then, I heard a voice from the back that I didn't recognize.
It was Claudia Wagner, a nurse in her 50s who owns the big red barn where my dad and aunt play in a band on Friday nights. She and my grandpa got along well, but their friendship generally didn't extend beyond seasonal get-togethers at the barn.
She told the story of one New Year's Day when Pap Pap called her on the phone. She hadn't expected to hear from him, but he cut to the chase: "I just wanted to let you know that I really love you and Jim [her husband]. I just wanted to let you know that, and I want you to have a happy New Year."
Claudia was nearly speechless. "Man, this just made my year," she recalled saying.
Later that day, when everyone came to my grandparents' house to eat and tell stories, I found myself in the little back bedroom where Pap Pap kept his things. It had the eerie feeling of recent death -- cards I sent him were still propped up on the dark wooden dresser, his handkerchiefs and rosaries still sat in the top drawer.
I was looking through black-and-white photographs from his war days when my second cousin popped her head in. She told me what her son, Justin Lanetz, had wanted to say at the prayer service but had been too shy to share.
In 2005, Justin's South Park High School football team made the playoffs and eventually won the state championship. Though this was Pap Pap's great-nephew, a relative on his wife's side that he saw maybe once a year, Pap Pap made a point to call before the big games to wish him good luck and often afterward to congratulate him.
"I felt like he was interested," Justin told me later. "He treated me like one of his own grandkids."
I hadn't known about these phone calls, or about what Pap Pap meant to people like Justin and Claudia. It made me wonder: What else did I not know about my grandpa? Had he done similar things for other people?
So later, after the 21-gun salute was fired and the lasagnas were eaten, I did what comes naturally to me as a journalist -- I started reporting and writing.
I spoke with his old co-workers and relatives I'd never met. I called the veterans' organization where Pap Pap volunteered much of his time. I learned that he had been known as "Mr. Mike" in the neighborhood, and that he often gave little trinkets -- purses and pins -- to a friend's child with Down syndrome.
I was still getting to know him after his death. These conversations soon became more than that, though. They served as a retrospective lesson on how one man had managed to make a difference over the course of his lifetime.
One day on my lunch break, I called the Baldwin Borough building, where Pap Pap had worked part time as a custodian until the year before his death. I chose the most general option -- extension 250 for administration -- fully expecting to be sent on a merry-go-round until I found someone who knew him.
A woman in payroll named Judy Assad answered. I explained who I was and what I was looking for. "Oh," she said. "Well, I loved Mike."
Judy, like so many others I spoke with, told me it was the little, everyday things that made Pap Pap remarkable.
He was kind and engaging each time he brought in his time sheet. He once brought my uncle's dog in to see her. And he made it a point to include her dad on an annual veterans' boat ride that he helped organize.
"He still has a special place in my heart. I include him in my prayers when I go to bed at night," she said before tearing up and changing the subject.
I found this fascinating. I've never even met the person who handles my payroll, and here she was almost crying.
Claudia Wagner, who owns the barn, chalked it up to Pap Pap's intuition.
"He could just see who needed what he had to give," she said. "He saw people who really needed his love -- and those people who deserved it, he gave it."
But there might be another reason it was so touching.
"It's way out of the expected role that he was in," said Will Meek, a Washington state counseling psychologist who specializes in relationships. "It makes it a very memorable thing to the other person because it's so unusual."
It's easy to be invested in your family and friends, to make a difference in their lives just as Pap Pap did in mine. It's these people on our periphery -- the ones we're too self-absorbed to notice or are too scared to reach out to -- that hold untapped potential in our quest to find meaning.
"What it all boils down to is just being nice to the people around you at the level of the resources that you have," said Raj Raghunathan, who teaches a course on happiness at the University of Texas at Austin.
My grandpa had a knack for that, and I found myself wondering if there was some way I could keep his spirit alive in the world. Was there a way I could emulate him? A way we could all make life better for the people around us?
Experts say the answer is yes, but like most things, it takes practice:
Practice gratitude. Practice compassion. Take 10 minutes a day to write down everything you're grateful for, and then put yourselves in other people's shoes.
If that resonates with you, go for it. For most of us, though, the last thing we need is another list to make or another task to worry about completing. So what I've tried to do instead is just listen to my instincts.
Do I want to say hello to the acquaintance across the restaurant? Then I force myself out of my chair and ignore the voice in my head saying it will be awkward. Do I appreciate the security guard's friendly wave each night? Then, once in a while, I should stop to say so.
Maybe it's just about being human, in whatever way you know how, and not letting fears or social anxieties get in the way. After all, my grandpa did make a habit of calling the local weatherman to ask the forecast before weekend trips. And guess what? The meteorologist took his calls.
Soon enough, experts say, having the courage to reach out will start to feel natural for us, too. We'll find ourselves -- whether we know it or not -- making a difference in small, quiet ways, just as my grandpa did. If it sounds amazingly straightforward, that's because it is.
If I've learned anything from my grandpa, it's that living a meaningful life doesn't seem to be about extravagance so much as simplicity. It doesn't seem to be about obtaining prominence or wealth so much as remembering good old-fashioned kindness and respect. It doesn't seem to be about changing the world so much as bettering the world.
"I'm not remembering him for his money or where he lived or the kind of car he drove," said Shelly Mehrenberg, a former co-worker who keeps a framed photo of Pap Pap in her living room. "It was for his goodness and kindness. That's why all these years, I still care about him and I still remember him."
My grandfather wasn't a rich man. He wasn't a famous man, or even a particularly powerful man. But he understood that you don't have to be any of those things to make a difference; you can leave the earth a better place with even the smallest, most ordinary acts of love.
Mt. Lebanon native Sarah Mervosh (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a staff writer at the Dallas Morning News, where this story first appeared.
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