Every Tuesday for years, Sales Caffeine has sought to help the salesperson and entrepreneur find a better way to sell and serve the customer. This column is a bit different, kind of personal, but with a big message. Thank you for your kind words and support over the years. Jeffrey Gitomer
Parents: the older you get, the smarter they become.
I remember the only time I saw my father cry. It was April of 1958, we were living at 421 Redman Avenue, in Haddonfield, New Jersey. He came into my bedroom, sat on the edge of my bed, and said “Grandpop Harry died last night.” A moment of silence passed like an eternity. As I sat up in bed, a mental flash pictured a stout, Russianesque, proud father of four sons, first generation immigrant with a slight accent. Grandpop Harry had been ever-present in my childhood, giving away dollar bills to all the grandchildren at the admonishment of my parents, and assorted aunts and uncles. He didn’t care. Then I remembered I had just received a letter from Grandpop. I made a mental note to save it forever.
“He was my friend,” my dad said, as he simultaneously put his face in his hands and wept out loud. I’ve never felt more helpless in my life. I tried to cry, too but I couldn’t. I think I was too shocked and afraid by the witness of my dad’s vulnerability.
My dad’s next out loud thought was that Grandpop would not be present at my BarMitzvah. An important family event and celebration. Jewish parental pride at its highest. The emergence of a 13-year old son as a man in the synagogue. Going from “master” to “mister.”
The funeral hall was packed. At 13, it was the first funeral I had ever attended. I didn’t know what to expect. When our family arrived, we walked to the front of the room. Everyone in black. Men in suits. Women in veils.
The casket was “open.” There was Grandpop looking somewhat pale. I remember thinking that’s the way he’s supposed to look, he’s dead. I just stared at him to see if he would move. He didn’t. Every adult family member was crying except my dad. He just stared forward with resolve and remembrance. I had the presence of mind to project my mind forward to think that one day I would be in the same situation but could not picture it.
The funeral ceremony was long. A rabbi presided and said nice things, but my brother Josh and I (and six other first cousins) were fidgety children, waiting for the event to end.
There was a funeral procession to the family cemetery in Carmel, where my Great Grandfather Hennach Zhitomersky (Henry Gitomer) and the rest of the Gitomer’s were buried. It was an old Jewish cemetery that had graves from the turn of the century. It was eerie there and had a section where every tombstone said “Gitomer” in one form or another. I looked at every one. I think it was a combination of childhood curiosity, and the desire to know how long I would live, by seeing how long they lived. I came to a small grave of Sarah Gitomer, the tombstone said “died at birth.” She laid between her parents.
Then we gathered at the place Grandpop Harry would be put in the ground. The four sons (Sol, Max (my dad), Marty, and David) and two other people I can’t remember (It might have been Uncle Aaron and Uncle Pep, two of Grandpop’s four surviving brothers), carried the casket from the hearse to its place on some device that would lower it into the ground. The casket seemed as heavy as they could stand. I wondered if anyone had ever dropped one.
As Grandpop Harry was lowered, prayers were said, shovels of dirt were thrown by men of immediate next of kin, and everyone cried except my dad.
Sitting shiva, a traditional Jewish 8-day period of mourning, was centered at our home. Mirrors were covered. And there was some religious question raised because the shiva, fell over the Passover Holiday. I don’t remember the resolve but I vividly remember the event. Hundreds of people came from all over the country to pay their respects. Fruit, candy and food of every description was on our extended dining room table at all times for all visitors to partake. Big food and Judaism seem to go hand-in-hand.
People came to mourn and comfort the bereaved. Yurtzite (special mourning) candles were lit each day, and the Mourners Kaddish (prayer) was said by a minyon of ten men twice a day. Many people cried at the service, except my dad.
Grandpop Harry Gitomer was born on April 1. It’s easy to remember a birthday that falls on a holiday or special day. I always remember Grandpop on that day. And over the years would call my dad on that day because I knew he was thinking of his dad.
I remember all the times we would go to visit Grandpop Harry at one residence or another in Atlantic City and my dad and Grandpop disappearing into a door shut room and talking for hours. My dad looking to receive worldly advice in his drive for the elusive brass “success” ring. They talked often.
My dad often told the story of Grandpop Harry visiting his new machine shop business in Wenonah. Max and Marty had formed a partnership they called MarMac Industries. Jews did that sort of thing in those days.
They had a big order to produce, and my dad and Uncle Marty were machining the parts to meet the deadline. My Grandfather walked in unannounced and motioned for my dad to come over. My dad in coveralls covered in machine oil, obliged. “What are you doing, son?” asked Grandpop. “Making parts for this order,” answered my dad with entrepreneurial eagerness. “Go hire someone today for $2.25 an hour to do your job, and tomorrow morning you put on a suit and go out and sell.”
My dad obeyed. The next day my dad went to the Frankfort Arsenal, a military base in Philadelphia. He called on the only person he knew. That guy referred him to another guy. My dad called on him and left with an order for $100,000. In 1954, it was the dollar equivalent of 2+ million by today’s standards. It put my dad on the road to business success. I’m sure my dad reflected on that day more often that he’ll admit.
The lesson I learned is that (good) parental advice is useless unless you follow it. It makes me think of my dad’s simple wisdom offered to me as I seek my brass ring.
I will never know if my dad cried again. I will never ask him. Somehow, I don’t need to know.