November 18, 2007

Kindness Has A Ring To It

Lisa McGlaun, who is the author of the inspirational blog,"LifePrints" has inspired me to write this post. After reading her article "New York Wedding Ring -Do It Yourself", I recalled what a bittersweet experience it was buying my wife her engagement ring so many years ago. In this week of Thanksgiving, I have a special story to tell. Ever since this happened to me, I've been inspired to be a better person.

In July of 1989 I was a raw recruit in the New York City Police Academy. It was then that I decided to propose to my girlfriend. New officers in the police department do not make a lot of money, especially back in the late 1980’s, so finding a decent engagement ring proved to be a bit of a challenge. The meager savings I had up to then went to paying upwards of $250 a month in train fare to commute back and forth every day from Long Island to Manhattan where the academy is located. By chance, I had a conversation with my brother in law Mark’s step-father at my sister’s home. We were seated at the dining room table for dessert.

“So, you are getting engaged?” he asked in a heavy, Polish accent. Ziggy was in his early seventies, and in ill health. I’d known him for many years up to that point, and he was a gentle, affectionate man who enjoyed family. My parents and my siblings all loved Ziggy and we were are close to Mark’s family, sharing our Catholic and Jewish heritages from one holiday season to the next.
“Yes, I’m excited. I’m shopping for a ring.” I said.
“Where did you go? You didn’t go to the mall, did you?” I noticed a look of alarm on his face.
“Uh, I was going to?” I said, almost as a question. Also, I think I gulped.
“No, no, Michael. You go see my friend. He’ll show you what to do, how to buy a diamond. Don’t even buy from him if you don’t want to. He’ll just make sure you don’t get taken advantage of.” He took a piece of paper and produced a pen from his shirt pocket.

In moments, I had a lead for a jeweler in Flushing, Queens who was described by Ziggy as “a man I play cards with every Tuesday.” After thanking him, I put the paper in my pocket.

The meeting with the jeweler took place that Saturday. I couldn’t wait to see what my options were, and though I had a modest amount of money to work with, I was still a bit cautious as I didn’t know how much of a favor this was going to be, and I did not want Ziggy to feel beholden to this man on my account.

“So, you know Ziggy? I better treat you right, then.” The man said as soon as I walked in. “Ziggy told me to look for a cop, a strong, young man with a crew cut. You must be Michael.” He shook my hand vigorously and welcomed me into his shop. We spoke for a minute or two about Ziggy and it was apparent that the jeweler had immense respect for him and that they did more than just play cards together. He repeated what Ziggy said about not having to buy from him, and that he just wanted to teach me about buying gems, diamonds in particular.

“You never buy a ring that’s already made. You buy the diamond first, and then have the ring made from the stone.” His voice was authoritative, and I listened to him because Ziggy trusted this man. I was given a lengthy tutorial on choosing the perfect stone, then I was told that I didn’t have to make a decision that day. So, I left his store, grateful for the knowledge I picked up from his lesson and returned to what was left of my brief weekend and another grueling week at the academy.

The next Saturday, I arrived early at the jeweler, cash in hand, to buy a stone. After at least two hours examining diamonds with a loop, and comparing them to the ones I already picked out, I found the perfect, one carat, white diamond, nearly flawless; and then I chose the setting and the smaller diamonds for the setting. The ring, which was made within the week, is gorgeous. To this day, my wife is complimented on the quality of the stone and other jewelers have said that I got “one hell of a deal” on the diamond.

I remember thanking Ziggy profusely and he waved me off as if he did nothing. But I also recall one scene which played out at my sister’s home, shortly before Ziggy passed away. It was Thanksgiving. The conversation was about family and what we should be thankful for, and I mentioned to Ziggy that I was grateful for the help he gave me in finding a reputable jeweler. His intervention was important in making our experience perfect. The ring, flawless and more valuable than what I paid for, is a cornerstone of our marriage in both symbolism and value.

Ziggy listened to me and challenged my assertion that anything he contributed was such a big deal. After a few more protests on his part, I saw him become soft in his composure, resting his arms on the table.

“That is why I tell people that whatever they do they have an effect on somebody. Who would have thought that this small thing, this little phone call I made to a friend would have this lasting effect and would have brought this much happiness? You’re welcome Mike, It was my pleasure.” It was then that he turned to the rest of the family and began to speak.

“I need to tell all of you this, because it is important. I have seen horrors, lost everything. And we all need to learn that just a little kindness…” he paused just to wipe his eyes.

You see, Ziggy survived the Holocaust. His family lived in Poland before WWII and he was a young man forced into hiding in the countryside with his family to escape the Nazis. His younger sister, who was sixteen years old at the time, was taken in by a Catholic family who hid her in their home. The townspeople informed on the family to the local authorities. When Ziggy learned of the betrayal, he watched helplessly from the woods as the family, his sister, and the family’s two year old daughter were executed in front of their home. When he, his parents and his brother were later cornered and arrested after a search by the locals looking to root out the “Jews” who were hiding in the forest, they were all deported to Auschwitz. Immediately, Ziggy was separated from his family and put to work only because he was a baker, and he was used as slave labor in the camps. The rest of his family all were murdered.

At Ziggy’s funeral many years later, a Rabbi told us all of the many acts of kindness and generosity Ziggy performed throughout his life. After immigrating to the United States after the war, he moved to the Bronx and worked for a baker and saved enough money to eventually open his own shop. If, as the Rabbi explained in his eulogy, Ziggy learned of someone who needed glasses and could not afford them, somehow they found the money for glasses through Ziggy. The same was for folks who could not afford heat, food, medicine, and even life saving surgery. He was a man who lived through Hell and still had the faith in mankind to help all those in need. We were told by the Rabbi that in the camps, Ziggy risked his own life to smuggle crusts of bread to the dying for sustenance. In the Bronx, with his own bakery, he continued to provide for those who needed help, giving from his own plate, if you will, to make sure others did not suffer or live in need. The man was a model of kindness which was born not of misery, but in spite of it.

I learned something after Ziggy told us his story that day, and I had my faith in humanity re-affirmed upon hearing the Rabbi offer his tribute to such a wonderful man. During this week of Thanksgiving here in the United States where Ziggy made his home, we all need to take a lesson from an unselfish man; a person who saw his small acts of kindness as inconsequential, but recognized that even a crust of bread can save a life.



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14 comments:

Lisa McGlaun said...

Mike,

I'm so moved by your story. I can't imagine what it was like to live through, survive, that time in our history. I have extreme respect for all of those who did. It always amazes me that people who survived the camps are not bitter but more kind and humane that others. I guess once you've seen such brutality you have to rail against it to stay sane.

What a lovely story about a wonderful man. You are lucky to have known him.

Best Wishes,
Lisa

josey said...

there is something in the air in the blogosphere this week! this is the second blog post i've read that's broken down my innermost cynical thoughts and brought me to tears.

the last several years i've found myself really dreading the holidays. i've just gotten sick of the shallow commercialism (to make a long story short). but your story is a beautiful reminder how one person's legacy can reaffirm our faith in humanity, as you put it, and remind me how selfish it is to not celebrate the holidays to the fullest--for the RIGHT reasons.

there's much to be done for so many, and the little things can change lives. and not just during the holidays, but EVERY day! thank you, michael, for this inspiration!

Kristyn said...

What a beautiful story!! Ziggy sounds like a wonderful man, the world is a better place for having known him and I got form your tale that you, too, were changed by his being in your life. It's a rare gift to have someone so wonderful as a friend or family member. If we could all be so blessed, the world would be a much happier place.

Best,
Kristyn

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Lisa,
Thanks for the inspiration. I too am baffled by those who survive such horror who gain more insight to what is good in human beings than by what ails us. After surviving that, how could one not be eternally biter? Ziggy inspired me to remember that even the small, kind gestures are important in life. You never know how it will affect someone. Thanks for reading this Lisa. I'll visit Lifeprints tomorrow. I see that you have a new story up. -Mike

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Josey,
I too can relate to your feelings concerning the shallow commercialism of the holidays. I am not immune to being jaded either. I am glad that you were able to gain something from the lesson that Ziggy taught me. His example is one which I need to remember every now and again. Thank you so much for your insightful words here. I appreciate you stopping by, and I wish you and your family a very Happy Thanksgiving. -Mike

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Kristyn,
Yes, Ziggy was a wonderful man and he had a dramatic effect on my life. I share in your belief that the world needs more folks like him.

BTW I've noticed you've been doing a lot of blogging lately. I've been reading your posts (nice typewriter!) and when I get back to leave a comment, you written even more. I am so happy for you. How is NaNoWriMo going? How is Texas? Tell me how you are doing?
I'll visit your blogs tomorrow for more reading material. Thanks for stopping by, Kristyn. Happy Thanksgiving! -Mike

Mighty Morgan said...

I like this post because it comes at a point in time where the essence of kindness and gratitude is in the forefront of peoples minds (those of us who celebrate Thanksgiving) Kindness is such an amazing source of power that has the capacity to change the course of peoples lives. I can say that for myself, my experiences in which I was shown kindness from others despite myself, has allowed me to want to be more kind to others.
thank you for this from the heart post that speaks volumes of the potential that exists within the hearts and minds of ALL people.

Kathy said...

What a beautiful story. I'm glad you had Ziggy in your life. The world needs more Ziggys. I shall leave the house today with this in mind, and remember to stop and show a little kindness as I travel through my day.

The Uneasy Supplicant said...

That's a wonderful story Mike. My own experiences in life have taught me that there are not too many people like Ziggy out there. You are fortunate to have graced his path. Again, a wonderful story.
~JD

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Mighty Morgan,
Thank you so much for stopping by and reading my blog. I agree with you thay kindness is indeed powerful and can change lives as his kindness to me, however insignificant he deemed it, changed the way I act and think. Ziggy lived through enormous horror and death and lost everything, yet still found a way to life as a generous human being. That's inspiration. Thank you for your insightful comments and have a Happy Thanksgiving! -Mike

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Kathy,
Yes, the world definitely needs more Ziggys. Thank you for being such a good blogging pal. Have a happy Thanksgiving! -Mike

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi JD,
I agree that there aren't too many folks with Ziggy's comapssion out there. I would like to think that I am a bit more generous and kind because of his deeds and examples. I try to be, and I make the effort, but I'll be judged by a higher authority one day. I appeciate the award JD. I will make my thanks known in a proper blog post. Meanwhile, during this Thanksgiving celebration here in the US, I am thankful for having made your acquaintance. -Mke

Kimchihead said...

Mike,

This is a great story about a great man! Thanks for sharing it.

Mr. Grudge said...

Hi Kimchihead,
I am glad you liked the story, and yes, Ziggy was a great man. Thanks again. -Mike.